The next date for the Books on the Brain club is fast approaching, if you are interested in attending this informal gathering to engage with the next book: Happy ever after: A radical new approach to living well, please do get in touch with Amy or Emma to book your place.
On Thursday 25th November (12-1pm on Teams), we’ll be meeting to discuss Professor Paul Dolan’s book on how social narratives – or narrative traps - influence our ideas and experience of happiness. The book examines and unpicks ingrained social stories about how we ought to behave, what we should strive for and how we should relate to each other. There is also a focus on the impact that our adherence to these ideas can have on others and Happy ever after, looks at how people may be punished if they fail to confirm to social narratives.
Dolan claims that narrative traps often lead to a dissonance between what we think we should do to make ourselves happy, and what actually feels good and makes us experience happiness. As a behavioural scientist, Dolan draws on large datasets, including longitudinal studies from the UK and USA, on how people feel and rate their satisfaction. From this, he makes compelling arguments for applying caution to making decisions based on narratives as opposed to feedback from our own experiences.
Last book: Feel the fear and do it anyway
In August we read and talked about what in 1987 was a game-changing book on positive thinking. A best-seller and well-known book, ‘Feel the Fear and do it anyway’ by Susan Jeffers. We chose this one because we thought it might increase interest in the first meeting and fear is such a visceral experience that we can all relate to, especially these days. It also has lots of practical strategies, techniques and suggestions which we liked when reading it, and we thought these could make good discussion points.
Having never hosted a book club before it was a bit daunting as the first meeting approached. But we needn’t have worried. Everyone who came along was lovely, easy-going and open-minded. Conversation about the book flowed easily and most people seemed confident sharing their views and personal stories. One of our main goals was to create a safe environment where people feel comfortable to share and this was met.
I was quite taken a-back by the sense of how motivating the book was for some people. Most agreed that it helped develop an awareness of the pervasive and insidious impact of negative self-talk. And of course, awareness is the first step to making changes. One technique that piqued people’s interest was the Pain-to-Power chart to expand our comfort zone. It led to lively discussion of vocabulary and it’s subtle but powerful effects on our relationship to the world, for example, the book had some great suggestions for simple language switch-outs, such as replacing ‘I can’t’ with ‘I won’t’, or ‘If only’, with ‘next time’ to help shift to a more positive perspective and to remind ourselves of our agency.
My personal highlight was the concept of the ‘no-lose’ decisions. For someone who can frequently become paralysed with indecision, I found the re-framing of the decision-making process to be really helpful. The book helped me recognise that not making a decision is itself an option, although not usually a good one! By reminding myself that we can never know the outcome of any decision and reinforcing the idea that there will always be opportunities for growth along either path we choose, this book has helped take some of the fear out of decision making for me.
Some of us did struggle with the over-emphasis on positivity throughout the book. The breakdown is much more ‘do it anyway’ than ‘feel the fear’, and in that respect the book is a product of its time. I definitely found it lacking in some of today’s acknowledgment of the importance of self-acceptance, particularly of those emotions so often labelled as ‘negative’, which are well, just human really.
It was interesting that everyone had a different approach to reading the book. Not many people did the practical activities. Some didn’t manage to finish the book. Some read it years ago but didn’t have a chance to re-read. Some just picked out their favourite chapters. And that was totally fine. The hour whizzed by, and we didn’t need those Google suggestions to keep our conversation flowing.