Real Bodies: The happiness challenge: be nice for 24 hours

Richard Carlson is a self-help guru who can't stop smiling. HESTER LACEY meets him - and tries out his programme
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If there is one group of people that is likely to be particularly happy at the moment, it's publishers of books on happiness. Telling others how to perk up is a theme that shifts volumes by the million. And the original happiness guru, Dr Richard Carlson, has a particularly upbeat demeanour, as well he might. His first volume, Don't Sweat The Small Stuff ... And It's All Small Stuff, was the fastest-selling paperback ever in America; it's now available in more than 100 countries and is currently the number one bestseller in Japan. Since Don't Sweat ... was first published, he has come up with another four variations on the happiness theme, the latest of which, You Can Be Happy No Matter What, was published in Britain last week. So no wonder he is smiling so widely.

Dr Carlson's books all follow a similar pattern: bite-sized chunks of wisdom that accumulate into a life plan. These veer from the strictly practical to the metaphysical; thus "Set Aside Quiet Time Every Day" (his own preferred Quiet Time is 4.30am) is found near "Acknowledge The Totality Of Your Being" (rather a taller order for most of us). Becoming a more tolerant driver and nurturing a houseplant take their places alongside imagining your own funeral. This last one may sound morbid but in fact it's a curiously satisfying exercise: try it and see. Dr Carlson views the imaginary wake as a chance to look back on your life and plan how you'd like it to be different in future, though I prefer to focus on the grieving mourners, weeping that they never appreciated me.

According to the genial Dr Carlson, radiating Californian sunshine from every pore (and the dimple in his chin), this kind of exercise is vital for mental well-being. "In America, we tend to define health by absence of illness," he says. "Health isn't about not being ill - it's about feeling good and having energy. It's the same with happiness. People seem to think if they're not suicidal they're OK."

Much of his prescription is based on sound common sense - not equating material possessions with happiness, being kind to others, attempting to see other people's viewpoints, minimising stress and managing conflict serenely.

However, Carlson himself seems to have been born with some kind of almost super-human extra happiness gene. "I was always a happy kid," he says. "I had a dog called Happy. I was always the conflict-resolver in the family, and I always liked to see people doing kind things."

One of his recipes for happiness is doing little tasks that may seem insignificant but that make other people's lives better - for example, he picks up litter. "I pick up 10 pieces a day and it just takes a few seconds. If everyone did it imagine the effect on pollution!" And, of course, he's quite right. The trouble is that I already do this - but it just makes me angry. When I retrieve a handful of grubby crisp packets from the pavement outside my house I generally storm through the front door muttering that litter louts should have their hands severed at the wrists. Perhaps I have a fundamental personality defect.

Other people's happiness is a full-time job: Dr Carlson has just returned from a promotional trip to Japan. Aha, Dr Goody-Goody, what about your poor family, pining for you in California? Bet they aren't very happy all alone. It turns out that his wife and two young daughters are coming over to join him at the end of the week and they are going on a family holiday. "I probably spend more time at home than anyone else you know," he says. "I turn down more than 99 out of 100 offers of work. I never work weekends - I'm there for my children. The biggest disgrace for me would be not to walk my talk. The measure of my success is the degree to which I practise what I preach."

And, it seems, he really does - all his employees work a four-day week. "They feel like they have a life. People need time off."

Disarmingly, he agrees that his brand of self-help is an easy target for critics. "My books are about reminding people of what they already intuitively know. A lot of people write to me and say they could have written the books themselves. The biggest criticism I get is that people say my work is simplistic, though no one ever actually says that any of the ideas in it are wrong." Cynics, he says, are probably the saddest people of all. "They think they are being wise and discerning by being cynical. In fact they are missing the boat but they don't know it." People, he says, call his techniques Pollyanna-ish: Pollyanna, they forget, was actually a very happy person.

`You Can Be Happy No Matter What' and `Don't Sweat The Small Stuff' by Richard Carlson are published by Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 7.99.