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Review: Self-Help: Flourishing by Maureen Gaffney

Dale Carnegie may have pioneered the self-help guidebook with his How to Win Friends and Influence People in the 1930s, but it was Malcolm Gladwell in the last 10 years who, with The Tipping Point and Blink, turned the genre more towards MBA-type presentation of psychological case studies and away from immediate self-improvement.

Carnegie gave readers the instructions on how to improve their screwed-up lives. Gladwell gave them the data on which to fully understand the processes by which their lives got screwed up and the measurable clues explaining their past, present and future.

Maureen Gaffney's Flourishing treads the line between the two, exploring in some detail psychological research into the factors which enable individuals to overcome adversity, maximise potential and enjoy life, while providing a plethora of recommendations allowing a reader bent on self-improvement to undertake the task in an organised way.

Central to her thesis is a mathematical ratio: the relationship between the positive and negative in an individual's own internal conversation and in their external relationships.

Work done by John Gottman in the University of Washington in the 1980s into why some couples stayed happily together and some didn't established that a balance of five positives for every negative was pivotal.

"In other words, for every burst of irritability, every tense exchange, every negative thought and feeling of disappointment, there had to be not double, but five times as many positives . . ." notes Gaffney.

How some individuals end up with a negative internal commentary, while others talk to and about themselves in a more buoyant way, is related to nature, nurture and personal decision.

Nature, in the form of inherited traits, delivers roughly half of the capacity to be positive or negative. Nurture also plays its part, and, given the level of negativity surrounding young children, it's a miracle that any of us turn out to be optimists.

One study in the US fitted three-year-olds out with audio recorders in order to catch -- over a two-week period -- the messages they received from adults, including, crucially, their parents. Some 85pc of those messages, subsequently analysed, turned out to be negative.

The children were repeatedly told what they should not do and frequently criticised for what they had just done.

Incorporated, over time, into their internal commentary, the messages could not but create a stream of personally destructive "self-talk".

When it comes to measuring the probability of happiness in any life, circumstances also matter. People who are married tend, in the main, to be happier than those who are single; healthy people tend to be happier than those who are sick; and those with a strong religious belief are usually happier than those without one.

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But life circumstances, Gaffney strongly maintains, account for just 10pc of happiness.

"The remainder, a full 40pc of happiness, derives from our intentional activities -- things we consciously and freely set out to do."

Or, to put it another way, a full 40pc of one's potential for happiness lies in one's own hands, and Gaffney sets out to present almost all of the available research on the topic and makes it accessible.

She takes the theory and extrapolates it into everyday guidance with authority and enthusiasm. Therein, paradoxically, lies the danger in this book. Its lively, anecdotal movement from one study to another makes for easy reading, but -- to be practically useful -- a guidebook to personal efficacy cannot afford to be as "unputdownable" as a thriller.

Reading it from start to finish in one go is probably a mistake, creating a cognitive process akin to what happens an audience during a packed PowerPoint presentation where concentration is lost in a hail of bullet points, each one of which may be fascinating, but the speedy succession of which ensures no single point is fully absorbed or retained.

Gaffney provides substantial and evidenced guidelines to the reader on how to improve their capacity to get into what's been called "flow" and what she defines as "flourishing". It is, she holds, all about choice: what you choose to attend to in life, how you choose to think, which activities you choose to engage in, day-to-day, together with the goals that you set yourself and pursue, can change your life for the better.

While it is arguable that the sheer number and variety of strategies she offers may be counterproductive, they nonetheless present practical alternatives to learned helplessness and disabling victimhood.

Tom Savage, a former social worker, broadcaster and journalist, is chairman of the RTÉ Authority

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