Your guide to happiness

Life coaching has become a boom industry. But what is it? And, more importantly, does it actually work?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

"What is a good life?" "How can I be happy?" Traditionally, such questions have fallen within the realm of philosophy and as such are answered in a philosophical way. So if you were to ask a philosopher, "How can I be happy when I can't afford a Smeg fridge?" then he might, if he were of an Epicurean bent, have said, "By curbing your desires so you don't want a Smeg fridge any more." If he were a Stoic, he might have suggested, that yes, it is a shame you can't afford one, but then life's just like that.

"What is a good life?" "How can I be happy?" Traditionally, such questions have fallen within the realm of philosophy and as such are answered in a philosophical way. So if you were to ask a philosopher, "How can I be happy when I can't afford a Smeg fridge?" then he might, if he were of an Epicurean bent, have said, "By curbing your desires so you don't want a Smeg fridge any more." If he were a Stoic, he might have suggested, that yes, it is a shame you can't afford one, but then life's just like that.

However, the millennial melancholic is unwilling to give up physical pleasure in the pursuit of spiritual happiness. We want to be happy - but we want to be happy with the perfect job, the perfect partner - and the perfect fridge. To this end, philosophies such as Epicurianism, which tend to teach you to adapt your aspirations to your surroundings, aren't much help. To resolve such difficulties we are turning instead in our thousands to life coaching.

But what does a "life coach" - a term too ambitious to be informative - actually do? "A life coach is someone who makes you think, 'It can happen - I can do it'," says Suzy Greaves, a life coach who has just published a book called Making the Big Leap (New Holland Publishers, £9.99). "There really is no need for anybody who feels unhappy and discontented to think, 'Oh, this is just how it is'."

Though the term is around 20 years old, it is only in recent years (and in the wake of Cherie Booth's high-profile assistant, Carole Caplin) that life coaching has moved into the public consciousness. It is estimated that in 2002 there were around 500 coaches in the UK; now there are more than 4,000, with many more in training.

Life coaching sessions usually take place over the telephone and can cost between £35 and £200 for an hour-long session. Tutees will take as many calls a month as they feel necessary (usually between one and four) and coaching can continue for many years.

During the calls, the life coach will ask you questions about yourself to help you get to the root of your problems, and then ask more questions to try to bring you to a point where you can find a solution. They will then help you to stick to your goals.

"I went to a life coach because I thought it would be someone to nag me," says Andrew Stone who went to Greaves for coaching. At 32, Stone was a journalist in London but he desperately wanted to stop writing for trade magazines and travel the world.

"It was always very easy to find excuses - even quite valid ones - for why I was not pursuing what I really wanted to do," he says. "Knowing I would have to justify myself to Suzy every two weeks meant that I actually had to take some action."

In that it deals with people who are discontented with their lot in life, coaching might seem similar to therapy. However, although the two have a similar starting point ("I'm miserable") they differ in their approach to sorting it out.

"Therapy is about unlocking things in the past to help someone move forward with their plans," says Pamela Richardson, principal of the UK College of Life Coaching. "A life coach wouldn't do that. They'd encourage you to shelve your problem and continue with your plans anyway, as you might find the fear or problem you thought was stopping you doesn't really exist."

So, if being encouraging and chatting on the phone is all that is involved, then what, apart from charge you a great deal of money, does a life coach do that a good friend or relative wouldn't?

"If you talk to family or friends they might not necessarily give you impartial advice," says Richardson. "They might have their own agenda - perhaps they want to keep you safe and not to take risks. Or they might even be unwilling to encourage you to go on and succeed in your life as that could make them feel worse about their own."

If you are unwilling or unable to fork out for telephonic guidance, there are plenty of life coaching books, such as Greaves's, to try. In Making the Big Leap, she issues her reader with a five-step guide to achieving happiness. Any potential obstacles or aids to the cause are personified - so we meet your "Inner Pessimist" and the "Inner Coach". The reader is then taken on a sort of self-help Pilgrim's Progress through an allegorical landscape filled with places such as the "Void of Fear", "Victim City" and "The Gloop Zone" towards success.

However, while your Inner Breakfast might object to phrases such as "Leave fear behind and take a trip to La La Land - the happy zone," the book is nevertheless full of good, gentle and often practical advice to help you find your interests and pursue them.

So, does coaching work? Very much so according to Stone. "I've done everything I set out to do; I've travelled all over the world, I'm writing guide books, doing some journalism and I'm happy."

Although life coaching doesn't yet have the intellectual prestige of philosophy, it may have the edge over it in terms of practicality. The great philosophers tended to lead lives of abstinence and endurance - Epicurius advocated feasting on bread and water as a way of having fun - and then die in unpleasant ways. Consequently, it has been said that a philosopher is an unhappy person who teaches people happier than themselves how to be happy.

Most life coaches today, in contrast, seem evangelically content with their lot. If philosophy taught people how to survive on bread and water, then life coaching teaches them how to have their cake and eat it.

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