Books: Can tips and tricks fix relationships?

The Mind Gym offers a helping hand in personal interactions, but Mark Vernon finds the optimism a little relentless.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Mind Gym: Relationships

Sphere £12.99 The Mind Gym has a strong brand for a good reason. The idea that thought and insights can improve our lives is an excellent one. Now the team turns to relationships. And its new book contains many good suggestions, such as learning to empathise more, thinking objectively about your relationships, and developing your capacity to converse with others.

But a fact buried on p266 set me thinking. It's about the difference that training courses actually make in changing human behaviour long-term. It turns out that a discernible difference can be measured in only 15% of participants.

This strikingly poor return is quite an admission for a volume that promises to make good relationships great and bad relationships better. The question is: why? If the ideas are basically good, is there something about the nature of books like this that is actually self-defeating?

The insights stem from the work of empirically based psychologists who work in the field of relationships. They assemble groups of people - students are cheap to hire and ready to hand - and ask them how they deal with the people in their lives. The responses are then processed, using statistics, and published as means and averages.

This methodology boosts psychology because it supports intuitions with evidence. But there is a first danger to take note of here. If an individual applies those means and averages to their life, they may end up with a rather mean and average life. In fact, most people with a few minutes on their hands could come up with most of the 'secrets' the Mind Gym 'reveals'. So maybe the problem is not that we know nothing about relationships but that we live in a world that can't, or won't, spend even a few minutes thinking about them.

What difference might that make? Well, if you do think about your relationships, it quickly becomes apparent that they are complex. And yet the tone of this book is relentlessly optimistic. The chapters do flag up difficulties but, reading them, you'd never believe that life can actually be ruined by a vindictive boss, or break down as a result of a painful love affair. You'd conclude there's nothing that the right technique can't fix. The only way is up. But is that real life? Is that truly the best way to handle the complexities of relationships?

My suspicion that relentless optimism might be a flaw grew when I came to what the authors make of Homer Simpson. They gloss over the fact that The Simpsons is quite a dark show. Homer's toast is 'to alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all life's problems'. In other words, it's both funny and wise because it is not afraid to be bleak.

Barack Obama's 'A More Perfect Union' speech is quoted, and The Mind Gym puts its success down to Obama's use of 'impact words'. But that is a travesty. The speech was so affecting because it spoke to the suffering of African Americans and their moral courage.

Another problem is the almost total lack of social context in the book. Most of the tips and tricks are abstracted from the salty reality of life. Relationships with the boss are treated in the same breath as relationships with your lover: being entertaining on a date is the same as winning hearts and minds at a sales conference. Yet a culture of injustice, animosity or abuse at work will spoil relationships regardless of what you might try.

A final thing is the language. Like a lot of evidence-based psychology, it's borrowed from economics: relationships are treated as an exercise in cost-benefit analysis. Thus, empathy or self-control, say, are commended as a means to boost your levels of happiness. There is, though, another great risk here. If you really think of life like this, you might come to treat relationships like an accountant - friends and colleagues becoming your service-providers in the commerce of a self-centred life.

The philosophers of antiquity often reflected on the nature of relationships and they provide a striking contrast. What stands out is their social realism, their moral awareness, and their insistence that life is for others. Aristotle noted that 'the desire for friendship comes quickly. Friendship does not.' Seneca advised that you spend time each morning considering the worst that might happen to you that day. Then, when it does, you'll be prepared and, remarkably, you will stay pretty happy throughout.

Pessimism as a Way of Life. There's a book that wouldn't sell as well, though I wonder whether it would achieve a better success rate.

Mark Vernon's latest book is Wellbeing (Acumen), part of the 'Art of Living' series he edits.

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