Are You a Self-Help Tragic?

Kate calls me, drunk, from the back of a taxi. “I’m 30-something and over it,’’ she announces. It’s Monday. It’s 4.30pm. With yet another boozy business lunch under her belt, Kate was in a philosophical mood.

Kate: “I’ve been reading a book that really speaks to me about where my life is right now.’’

Barefoot: “What, slumped in the backseat of a smelly Ford Falcon?’’

Kate, God love her, is a perpetual dreamer. There isn’t a self-help book she hasn’t loved, a tarot card she hasn’t believed – hell, she’s even crossed burning coals with Anthony Robbins as part of his “Awaken the Giant Wallet’’ seminar.

A few years ago she was banging on at me to read Quarterlife Crisis, which apparently spoke to her as well.

At the time I dismissed her ramblings. Really, who has time to have a crisis at 25? You’re too busy partying, picking up and (perhaps) still sponging off your parents!

Not Kate. In fact, Her quarterlife crisis has now stretched a full five years, which has allowed her to graduate to her new bible, Kasey Edwards’ Something and Over It.

I’ve warned Kate that, at the rate she’s going, it’s only 10 unhappy years before she can pick up the bestseller Fat, Forty, and Fired.

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Self-help

Self-help books sell truckloads of copies. These three “crisis’’ books have collectively sold hundreds of thousands of copies to stressed-out cubicle-dwellers trying to peer past their next performance review.

Maybe these authors were on to something? So this week I stuck my head in the self-help section of the bookstore and began reading.

Something and Over It poses the question: “What happens when you wake up and don’t want to go to work?’’ Ever again.

I quickly worked out that I am not the target market. My response would have been: “Simple. Suck it up princess, apply some lippy, and high-tail your backside into work before your boss decides to give your job to someone who doesn’t expect `personal growth and fulfilment’ to be one of your KPIs.’’

It turns out the book wasn’t all that bad. OK, so it had all the depth of a New Idea feature, but it generally espoused the same stuff that’s in every self-help book – look after yourself, work on a project that you find inspiring, but don’t look to work for total fulfilment.

Which are all obvious things. And which few of us follow in this consumerist culture.

We buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like (and sometimes don’t even know).

Living the dream

Kate’s a classic example of this. I often tell her she’s a women’s magazine’s marketing dream. And I’m telling the truth.

She thinks it’s because (outwardly at least) she’s got the dream – fashionable car, fashionable apartment, fashionable clothes, fashionable career.

Yet I think what makes her a magnet for marketers is that, despite earning a decent whack (about $100,000) she struggles to pay off her credit card debt. And, despite taking self-development seriously, she still gets sucked into the marketer’s idealised images. Hence the credit card debt.

All this self-help reading was starting to do my head in. Perhaps it’s because I’m a pragmatist at heart, but the only person I know who can possibly live continually in a state of bliss is Hugh Jackman – and I reckon even the world’s sexiest man would have his off days.

The rest of us are forced to deal with other humans on a day-to-day basis – most of whom don’t give a bliss about us.

In the five years or so since I’ve been writing this column, I’ve run up against – and over – various spruikers and swindlers who claim to be on a mission to help people from their problems – and their pennies.

But then it happened.

Happy thoughts

As I surveyed the self-help section of the bookstore I came across 100 Ways to Happiness: A Guide for Busy People, by Dr Timothy Sharp.

I was sceptical at first – after all, this is a man who calls himself Dr Happy.

Intrigued, I rang him up, and later met him, and had him on my TV show.

Sharp is an adjunct professor at UTS in Sydney, has one of the biggest psychotherapy practices in the country and – other than his puzzling decision to sport a beard – he genuinely lives up to his nickname.

The over-riding theme of our discussion was what I call the “economics of enough’’, which simply states that once you earn above a certain amount of money every dollar you earn thereafter has a diminishing rate of return.

It’s lower than you think. $50,000 is enough to keep a roof over your head, KFC in your tummy, and Dunlop Volleys on your feet.

Sure, earning $150,000 will allow you to have a better home, nice clothes, and better holidays – but it won’t push your happiness needle as much as the marketers would make you believe.

To achieve authentic, even semi-sustainable happiness, Sharp suggests you’ll need to look elsewhere. And that’s where his book is a corker – its focus is on personal responsibility, and gives you 100 different, practical tools that busy people can do to lift their spirits.

The most beneficial for me – and now Kate (I told her it was a book that “spoke to me’’) – were Sharp’s exercises on being grateful for the good things that already exist in our lives – something that goes against the grain of the marketing machine.

And this year – with people around us having been ravaged by fire, flood and illness – we all have a lot to be grateful for. As do I.

Thanks to all the Barefooters who support me each and every week. I read all your letters and emails, and over the years you have continually inspired me to keep treading my own path.

Merry Christmas, stay safe.

Tread your own path!

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oneeighteen/2261717401/