Top positive review
Highly lucid and impressive thinking!
on 7 July 2017
“It is very abnormal for an adult in any developed nation to be completely emotionally healthy. Indeed, it may be rare in all urbanized, industrialized settings.” So says our author near the start of this book, adding, “Nor should emotional health be conflated with ideas like ‘life satisfaction’ or ‘well-being’, nor with happiness. This latter is usually a fleeting state, the feeling of pleasure you gain from sex or a cigarette, or the satisfaction on hearing of a successful exam result. Beware of authors bearing gifts of happiness. It is psychological snake oil.”
James is certainly in no danger of sugar coating his point, and overall he has taken an incredibly lucid and refreshing approach to the self-help genre. He cites some genuinely fascinating case studies from the likes of Henry, who killed many members of his mentally ill family, to Archie, a convicted football hooligan with a chilling relationship to women, and Gloria, an Indian born billionaire with a borderline sociopathic personality. He illustrates through these people and many others, his theories and beliefs in relation to emotional well-being, dispelling many myths along the way. He also references some other thinkers, the likes of Anthony Storr and Donald Winnicott as well as the results from the Human Genome Project.
This book is immensely readable and is packed with many erudite and insightful revelations and observations, like a “A Nigerian is six times less likely than an American to suffer a mental illness, and a Singaporean child is ten times less likely to be illiterate than a British one. Yet none of these things is as important to emotional health as our early care.”
At one point he pays particular attention to the USA, saying, “It is no coincidence that the highest rates of personality disorder are in ultra-individualistic America-many times higher than in Asian nations.” He goes on further, “There is good evidence that in America disagreeable people end up being paid more than friendly, likeable ones. This finding might seem surprising-you would have thought that popular people would do best-but in America shoving others out of your way or climbing on their backs is almost essential for success. There is also good evidence that narcissism is rampant among American high achievers. Full-blown narcissism is a state of ‘me-me-me’ attention seeking grandiosity. The individual compensates for feelings of worthlessness and invisibility by exhibiting their opposite.”
He draws on a number of studies done from the likes of 200 celebrities and MBA graduates, and ones between Americans and Danes with some telling results. He says, “The truth is that people who get to the top or into the public eye in America tend to be narcissists. But this is only the tip of their cultural iceberg. The majority of Americans hold unrealistically positive views on themselves, believing they are much better than average in a variety of ways.”
Toward the end James summarises by saying, “Focussing on happiness as a goal is destructive: it is unattainable. The same goes for mental health: there are no completely mentally healthy people. Improved emotional health is much more realistic.” He compiles a strong and thought provoking homework section at the back, which has a nice and appealing range of sources to follow up on. I’ve read most of the books from the “School of Life” series now and I’d say that this is up there with Philippa Perry’s and Roman Krznaric’s contributions as the cream of the crop. The world is all the better for clear thinking books like this and the world could do with more of them and the people who write them.