According to the Los Angeles Times, people may have ‘a basic setting on their happiness thermostat’. So don’t blame your current depression on your ex-wife, your sullen children, your forgetful old father, poor exam results, a bad hair day or a piss-poor speech by the pope. Depressing real-life events come and go, but your general capacity to feel gladness is fixed. This is good news for the pharmaceutical industry, but it won’t do much for publishers, who continue to believe that feelings of crapness might be shooed away for ever by reading the right book. I’m talking self-help, auto-improvement, personal growth: the corner of the bookshop where sad-eyed people, credit card at the ready, are to be seen lifting down copies of Only One Shot: Aligning the Inner Soul with Action: How to Re-engineer Your Existence, Design a Lifelong Personal Strategy, and Rediscover the Joy of Living. The hardcore books always have two colons in the title.

I don’t know if people had ‘personal goals’ in previous centuries. People certainly had ambitions, perhaps even, though I doubt it, the ambition to live a happy life. But since the 1990s it’s the idea of having ‘one shot’ at happiness that has taken hold. Only One Shot makes it plain that a failure to grab that chance is nobody’s fault but one’s own. ‘According to the World Health Organisation,’ the book’s author, Randall Scott Rogers, reports, every year in the US ‘33,000+ people commit suicide, 400,000+ people attempt suicide, 17 million suffer depression, 27 million suffer alcohol and drug addiction, 60 million suffer some form of mental illness, and $11 billion is spent on self-improvement books, CDs, seminars, coaching and stress-management programmes.’

‘A profound sadness exists today,’ Rogers writes.

‘What kind of sadness?’ you ask. It is the kind that comes when a species has lost its way; forgotten how to operate, what to stand for on the surface of life, and we are suffering. The standard life design has failed us, or, more precisely, mankind has failed us. Mankind has broken the covenant with all that is sacred.

It is usually just a hop, skip and a jump from this kind of blather to a superabundance of charts, maps, Venn diagrams, and tables so complex they make the sums that underpinned the Manhattan Project look like the markings on an Etch a Sketch. But Rogers is down with the youth of today: his title borrows a line from a song by the white rapper Eminem, which seems about right, given that Eminem got over his own self-esteem problems with the help of the painkiller Vicodin, serial marital combat, and the kind of verbal abuse that would bring a blush to the faces of the entire US Marine Corps.

Eleven billion dollars is not a small number, and the self-help chart in the New York Times is a zone of misrule to compare with many a theatre of war. At the moment, the ‘Advice’ bestseller list is heavy with books by people who don’t want you to be heavy.

1. Now Eat This! by Rocco DiSpirito

2. Food Rules by Michael Pollan

3. Bank on Yourself by Pamela Yellen

4. What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel

5. The Belly Fat Cure by Jorge Cruise

Yet the watered-down-Atkins-like-don’t-eat-anything-except-a-steak-and-lettuce-diet-accompanied-by-Psyllium-Husks is not my concern when the big money is still to be made by happiness hacks, small game theorists, soul sisters and people who want you to strategise for success as opposed to learning from your mistakes. Pseudo-science, like pseudo-religion, has more partisan adherents than the real thing, and these laymen/gurus love looking up to others as a way of learning to look up to themselves. A lot of them look up to Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff, whose Thinking Strategically sold 250,000 copies, and that’s not counting the editions in Japanese and Hebrew. Their new book, The Art of Strategy, is a rewrite of the old one but with more stuff about co-operation. They sell the idea that people should think like businessmen, warriors or chess players, driven by a deeper understanding of brinksmanship.

Life is tactical to them, not ironic, and happiness is something you access by being a clearer thinker than other people. Okay. But some clear thinking, such as the clear thinking of the man who used to run the Royal Bank of Scotland, is clear without being moral or fair; clear without shame, or decency; and clear, in the end, to the point where no one could stand him. Sir Fred Goodwin might gain the applause of the game theorists – he walked off with a pension worth £17 million – but can he be said to have succeeded in his life?

Then again, I’m not in management. I’m not even in the habit of self-management, which means, according to these books, that my happiness is totally stuffed along with my chances of success. The point of life, as Emerson saw it in Nature, was for one to have ‘an original relation to the universe’. (He was the first American helponaut.) But these guys – forceful, brilliant, well-read and cynical – must believe that happiness today relies on one’s having an original relation to something else:

To borrow and twist a line from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, you must constantly ‘prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’. If you do not recognise that your ‘face’, or more generally your actions, are being interpreted in this way, you are likely to behave in a way that works to your own disadvantage, often quite seriously so.

Carelessness, neurosis: some of the things that make people likeable – the authors appear not to believe in them. But they do believe in espionage. ‘Espionage in wartime provides particularly good examples of strategies to confuse the signals of the other side. As Churchill famously said (to Stalin), “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”’

Bravo. Or shame on you. I’m not sure which. But one thing is clear: the helponauts will never be out of work so long as the Vatican is in business. Happiness needs its soldiers nowadays, and the helponauts would surely be much more useful to Ratzinger than a thousand legions of the Swiss Guard. The Happiness Project runs an eight-week Be Happy programme (£499), which involves workshops and suchlike to give you tools ‘for changing negative thoughts into positive ones’. The pope, and lesser immortals, should visit for logistical guidance.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences