Review of Michael Mary 'Die Glücklüge; vom Glaube an die Machbarkeit des Lebens' Gustav Lübbe Verlag, Bergisch Gladbach, Germany, 2003, ISBN 3-7857-2141-2
Journal of Happiness Studies, 2009, 10: 385, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10902-008-9101-x
The title of this German language book can be translated as: 'The happiness lie; about the belief that life can be improved'. The book is about popular advice for improving the quality of one's life, in particular about self-help books. Michael Mary is a professional trainer and his main message is that we can do little to change our life by will alone, therefore advisory books are unlikely to have any effect, even if the reader believes every word, and follows all the rules. Mary is also skeptical about various forms of training such as NLP, in his view, this all such training does is create false illusions.
The book starts with a review of the ideas that underlie the self-help literature and related training practices. This body of ideas is depicted as a 'religion', the three main tenets of which are: 1) that happiness can be found in this life, 2) that we hold our lives in our own hands, and 3) that we can be happy if we really want to. The writers of self-help books are described as 'modern priests' and their readers as 'modern believers'. The former are seen to exploit the latter commercially.
Mary goes on to expose several of these illusionary ideas in more detail. This part of the book begins with the three 'stupid lies' (dumme Machbarkeitslügen). The first of these is the claim that one can hold on to ones youth by means of diets, physical exercise and mental training. The second lie is that success in life can be planned and that failure is mostly a matter of weak heartedness. The third lie is a variation on the second, the idea that you can get rich if you are really determined to achieve that goal.
Mary goes on to discuss three less evident untruths, called 'smart lies' (intelligente Machbarkeitslügen). The first smart lie mentioned is that everybody creates his or her own reality, i.e. that we 'construct' our perception of the world, and that this is stretched to the cover claim that we construct life itself. The second smart lie is that we are free to choose, because we are rational autonomous beings and, as such can even choose to change ourselves. The final smart lie is that we hold the means to control our happiness in our own hands.
Having exposed these false promises, Mary then looks in more detail at why self-help books cannot work. He argues that most of our behavior is guided by unconscious forces over which we have very little control. In Mary’s view, what little 'reprogramming' of the mind comes about only when we go though a mayor crisis, and such events are typically not expected. Not surprisingly, Mary ends with an 'appeal to acquiesce' (Aufruf zur Gelassenheit).
This book, which is well written, has much in common with the self-help books the author condemns. There is a clear theme. Mary’s thesis is: self-help books, however faithfully their advice is followed, do little to help those wishing to improve their lives. As in self-help books, Mary repeats his message continuously though out the book in thinly disguised variations and pays little or no attention to possible counterarguments to his thesis. Mary makes no use of results of empirical studies on happiness. He makes his case on the basis of theories about mental processes that presumably affect happiness.
This is not to say that Mary does not refer to happiness research. There is a short section on 'Dubious happiness research' (pp. 177-1840), but this part is largely based on what the author has read in newspapers and the popular press. The author is apparently unacquainted with the research literature on the relation between happiness and trainable skills such as assertiveness and impulse control. Nor does Mary appear to be aware of the evidence against his theories of happiness. For instance, in characterizing happiness as the result of comparison (pp. 249 "Glück ist ein Kontrastphänomen") he ignores my criticism of this cognitive theory (Veenhoven 1991). Likewise, Mary’s argumentation that behavioral change occurs only when we become deeply unhappy disregards the well-documented 'broaden and build' function of positive affect (Frederickson, 2000).
The book fizzles out when it comes to suggesting an alternative to self-help books. Mary states that we can become happier by focusing on 'development' rather than on 'solutions' and that we can profit from professional guidance when going through a life crisis. To contrast his approach with the advice tradition he has just dismissed; the author depicts it as providing mere 'easy solutions'. And while this may apply to some of the literature he has reviewed, it is clearly not true for all of the advisory literature on happiness, and in particular not for the books of Csikszentmihalyi (1999) and Seligman (2000), of which he is dismissive.
Csikszentmihalyi, M (1999)
Finding flow: the psychology of engagement in everyday life.
Basic Books, New York, USA
Frederickson, B.L. (2000)
Cultivating positive emotions to optimize health and wellbeing.
Prevention and Treatment, 2000, Vol. 3
Seligman, M. (2002)
Authentic happiness, using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment
Veenhoven, R. (1991)
Is happiness relative?
Social Indicators Research, Vol. 24, 1 - 34