Richard Carlson

Bestselling self-help guru


Richard Carlson, psychologist and writer: born Piedmont, California 16 May 1961; married 1981 Kris Anderson (two daughters); died 13 December 2006.

Richard Carlson was a popular psychologist in all senses of the phrase. His best-known title, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff . . . and It's All Small Stuff (1997), was one of the fastest-selling books of all time and made publishing history as USA Today's bestselling book for two consecutive years. It spent over 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, as well as topping the sales charts in nations as diverse as the UK and Japan. In the self-help market, where new titles proliferate and disappear as fast as they appear, Carlson's Don't Sweat the Small Stuff has been a constant on the shelves of UK bookshops for nearly a decade.

His philosophy is that we all spend far too much time fretting over trivia that is irrelevant in the long run ("sweating the small stuff") and not enough time concentrating calmly on what's going right, rather than what's going wrong. "We blow things out of proportion," he explained:

When people are dealing with the big stuff in life - death, earthquake, financial crisis - they find an inner strength. But they freak out over the smallest things. The big things are few and far between, but the little things drive us bonkers. It's very exhausting and it takes the joy out of life.

Carlson lived in California all his life. He was born, in 1941, and grew up in Piedmont, where his childhood pet was a dog called Happy. He graduated from Pepperdine University in Malibu and received his PhD from La Sierra University in Riverside. Carlson worked as a psychotherapist and ran a stress management centre before devoting himself full-time to writing; early titles included Celebrate Your Child: the art of happy parenting (1992) and Handbook for the Soul (1995), before the runaway success of Don't Sweat the Small Stuff.

Many of Carlson's ideas are straightforward. The first suggestion in Don't Sweat the Small Stuff is "don't sweat the small stuff"; other ideas include getting up early to enjoy a period of quiet and meditation first thing in the morning, writing things down in the form of a diary, journal or letter, and focusing on the 90 per cent of things that go right rather than the 10 per cent that go wrong ("avoiding the 90-10 trap").

The Don't Sweat formula was rolled out with Don't Sweat the Small Stuff with Your Family (1998), Don't Sweat the Small Stuff at Work (1999) and Don't Sweat the Small Stuff for Teens (2000), as well as Don't Sweat the Small Stuff in Love (1999), co-authored with Kris, his wife. Carlson was one of the first self-help gurus to advocate the gentler goals of self-fulfilment, personal satisfaction and happiness, after the go-getting, grab-it-all focus of the Eighties. His 30 titles also included You Can Be Happy No Matter What (2006).

His tenets are less anodyne than they might seem, concentrating as they do on not equating material possessions with happiness, being kind to others, attempting to see others' viewpoints and managing conflict serenely. When I interviewed him in 1998, I was prepared to be cynical. In fact, Carlson was not only likeable and friendly, but realistic. He did not deny the existence of "big stuff" (indeed, in 2002 he published What About the Big Stuff?). However, he claimed, reasonably enough, that we have no right to expect everything else in life to run smoothly.

"We have come to believe, especially in industrialised Western nations where we are very privileged, that our lives should be perfect," he said. "We feel like we shouldn't have to deal with traffic jams or flat tyres or people who are rude to us."

Carlson died, apparently of a heart attack, on a plane on the way from San Francisco to New York; he was on his way to make television appearances promoting his latest book, Don't Get Scrooged: how to thrive in a world full of obnoxious, incompetent, arrogant and downright mean-spirited people.

Hester Lacey

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