Sunday, February 24, 2008

Top Ten personal development classics

Whilst there are plenty of flakey self-help books out there, the very best personal development books contain wisdom delivered in language we can all understand. They can both be inspiring and insightful.

What is needed is a way to sort the wheat from the chaff. I've been a fan of the genre and been using them as part of my therapy and coaching work for quite some time. So which books have I and my clients found most helpful? Each year I update my personal top ten self-books - which books have I found most helpful in the last year.

The best self-help/personal development classics

My annual personal top ten (in brackets is position last year)

1. The Seven Habits of Highly effective People Stephen Covey (1)

2. Man's Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl (2)

3. The Feeling Good Handbook David Burns (8)

4. Overcoming Low Self-Esteem Melanie Fennell (5)

5. The Conquest of Happiness Bertrand Russell (4)

6. Don't Sweat the Small Stuff -and it's all small stuff Richard Carlson (3)

7. Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman (7)

8. The Art of Happiness Howard Cutler and the Dalai Lama (-)

9. How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie (6)

10. The Consolations of Philosophy Alain de Botton (9)

What are your favourite self-help books?

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Bertrand Russell's Conquest of Happiness - a personal development classic

Bertrand Russell’s Conquest of Happiness

Bertrand Russell’s books were described by Time magazine as a modern substitute for the Bible. If this is so, the The Conquest of Happiness must be at the very centre of his works.

Make no mistake, this is no abstract philosophical treatise – it is a recipe for good living, written for the likes of you and me. Russell’s work is based on two assumptions. First, happiness needs to be conquered. You can’t expect to waltz through life reaping happiness without putting in some thought and effort. But – and this is why The Conquest of Happiness is essentially an optimistic book– if you do make this effort, you can, given average fortune, attain happiness.

The conquest of happiness comes in three stages: first you need to learn about the principles that lead to happiness, next internalise them and, finally, put them into practice. Unless you had unusually wise parents, you must forget what you learnt on your parents’ knee; you must also put aside what teachers, friends and, especially, priests have told us. You must replace these ideas with ones that really will make you happy. One way to do this is to read The Conquest of Happiness, for what Russell has done here is describe fourteen characteristics of happy and unhappy people. This is the essential first stage, but it’s important to realise that Russell does not think that it is sufficient. Next, you have to really internalise these principles – it’s not enough to repeat them parrot fashion, you have to really feel them as you do your feeling of wanting to protect your own children. A superficial reading of the book might not pick up the point, yet Russell emphasises it several times.

“Let your conscious beliefs be so vivid and emphatic that they make an impression upon your unconscious and be strong enough to cope with the impressions made by your nurse or your mother when you were an infant.”.

The third stage – the transformation of your life - will happen automatically if the first two steps are carried out. For example, take a theme close to Russell’s heart – that you shouldn’t feel shameful about sex. The first step involves realising at a conscious level that, whatever the priest said, consensual sex is part of a happy life, not a sin. The second step is to fully internalise this belief, to feel it, not just to recite it; if you’ve really done this, then the pay-off will be that a sense of shame will no longer stop you leading a sexually fulfilling life.

If you can follow these three steps for each of the fourteen characteristics described by Russell you will give yourself the best chance of achieving not just happiness but also freedom from what the Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza called ‘human bondage’. You will no longer be flotsam and jetsam, acted on by the forces of society and the commands of your parents, but a self-determining human being. You will be happy and free.

This framework is given flesh by Russell’s analysis of the fourteen characteristics of happy and unhappy people. Each chapter consists of a justification of why the chosen characteristic is good or bad, nice distinctions between its various senses and a discussion of other writers’ views and Russell’s practical advice for attaining happiness. Sometimes Russell digresses to make some rather tangential remarks about society and education and other personal concerns. Since our concern is with how to be happy, rather than Russell’s other preoccupations – such as the difficulty of obtaining good housemaids in the 1920s – this will be our focus.

The Conquest of Happiness in a page


1. Don’t be taken in by melancholy

Melancholy is only a passing mood; don’t mistake it for wisdom.

2. Don’t get caught in the competitive treadmill

Feeling happy is the only true success.

3. Develop the right attitude to boredom and excitement

Excitement is best sought in small doses and in the right places.

A certain amount of boredom is to be expected.

4. Make your worries concrete, don’t suppress them

Get a sense of perspective; Ask yourself ‘what is the worst thing that could possibly happen?’

5. Don’t envy, admire!

Enjoy what you have for its own sake, don’t compare yourself with others

6. Fight back against guilt & shame

Look out for the superstitious voice of your early influences; reason with it and defeat it.

7. Don’t suffer from an exaggerated sense of injustice

Exaggerate neither your own good nor others’ interest in you!

8. Don’t care too much what others think

Respect public opinion only to avoid starvation and stay out of jail.


1. Cultivate zest

Get into the habit of taking a lively and friendly interest in everything

2. Be affectionate

Reach out to other people and give affection; accept, but never demand it, in return.

3. Be a good parent

Give your child time & user your parental your child’s good

4. Do interesting, varied and constructive work

Find work that is varied, builds on a skill and creates something.

5. Cultivate plenty of relaxing minor interests

Enjoy as many diversifying hobbies and pursuits as you can; make sure these provide variety from your day job.

6. Find the right balance between effort and resignation

Do your best and when you have done all you can leave the issue to fate

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

BBC Programme on Self-Help Books

He came to mock, but ended up producing one of the best and balanced programmes on self-help books I've seen in a long time.

Alan Yentob, former Controller of BBC 1, gave us a glimpse of many of the self-help greats in The Secrets of Life, the latest programme in his Imagine series.

The programme begun with The Secret, a massive commercial success but an easy target for the sceptic. The "Law of Attraction" which underpins the book goes back a long way but is sufficiently New-Agey to get the "Are you Serious?" treatment from Yentob. "I can't help thinking that the easiest way to make money from self-help books seems to be to write one", he sneered.

Fortunately, though, Yentob wasn't the only voice we heard, and This Life writer Amy Jenkins
provided a balancing and very sane perspective in praise of self-help books. Just as some people like to go for a run in the morning, and others go down the gym, Jenkins likes to read a chapter of a self-help book to get her in the right frame of mind to face the coming day. And why not?
She agreed that The Secret was a bit OTT, but pointed out that it nevertheless contained some useful insights.

Yentob did not seem persuaded, and unsurprisingly neither Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People nor firewalking motivator Anthony Robbins, did anything to improve matters.

A turning point seemed to come when he interviewed Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway author Susan Jeffers. Her catch-phrases -"Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway" and "Whatever happens, I can deal with it" at first sight seem to exemplify the worst sort of trite positive thinking. Yentob wondered out loud whether some situations were too complex and too awful to benefit from such simple advice. "That's when you need it make", Jeffers replied, "for example, when I had breast cancer over 20 years ago." Yentob's expression became noticibly more respectful, and turned positively deferntial when he introduced us to holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. (A special treat was seeing rare footage of Frankl).

Things got even better when Yentob spoke to David Burns - apparently still wearing the same golfing jumper that features on the cover of The Feeling Good Handbook. Burns is one of the leading writers of self-help books helping people to practice CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). CBT is one of the most evidence-based therapies, and reading self-help books a crucial component. Burns told Yentob about a suicidal Latvian lady he counselled in his early days as a therapist. Rather than ask her to talk about her childhood, as a psychoanalyst might, he asked her think about some of the positive things that had happened in her life. In effect, he asked her to challenge her idea that she was a worthless person - and sure enough it turned out out that there was plenty of evidence to the contrary. Changing the way you think really can change the way you feel.

Yentob concluded his travels in France, going on a Buddhist meditation retreat led by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh , author of The Miracle of Mindfulness. The integrity and inner peace of the Buddhist monk contrasted starkly with the salesmanship and mania of some of the Californian-style gurus we had seen earlier. It was clear which impressed Yentob more.

Yentob seemed to have learnt something from giving self-help books a chance. Maybe we all can. To help, I've produced a list of my current top ten personal development books, and also a guide to one of my favourites not mentioned by Yentob, Bertrand Russell's Conquest of Happiness.

If you can access the BBC's I Player, there is at the time of writing still 3 days left to view the programme, and I thoroughly recommend doing so.

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