💎 On our tendency to explain behaviour too much in terms of personality and not enough in terms of circumstances

The bias runs deep. Few of us, surely, think of ourselves as having a fixed, monochrome personality: we’re happy or sad, stressed or relaxed, depending on circumstances. Yet we stubbornly resist the notion that others might be similarly circumstance-dependent. In a well-known 1960s study, people were shown two essays, one arguing in favour of Castro’s Cuba and one against. Even when it was explained that the authors had been ordered to adopt each position based on a coin-toss – that their situation, in other words, had forced their hand readers still considered that the pro Castro author must be deep down, pro Castro and vice versa.

Excerpt from Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman

💎 On how transient our beliefs can be

In a study entitled “After the Movies’, some crafty Australian researchers grilled people leaving the cinema about their views on politics and morality; they discovered that those leaving happy films were optimistic and lenient, while those leaving aggressive or sad ones were far more pessimistic and strict.

Excerpt from Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman

💎 On the underrated value of ‘interstitial time’

There’s a popular subgenre of books about writing known informally as ‘writer porn’, in which famous authors describe their daily routines, which pens they use and, especially, the secluded mountain-top cabins where they work each morning for six blissfully undisturbed hours. I don’t think I’ve ever actually met such an author, but for anyone whose job is even slightly ‘creative’, they stir envy: we’d all love such big chunks of time in which to focus. Instead, our lives are plagued with what the blogger Merlin Mann, at 43folders.com, calls ‘interstitial time’ – small chunks of minutes spent waiting at the doctor’s surgery, or for someone who’s late, or for a meeting postponed at short notice.

It feels like time wasted. But it needn’t be. The poet William Carlos Williams, for example, wrote much of his oeuvre on the backs of prescription pads during gaps in his workday as a paediatrician.

Excerpt from Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman

💎 Why failures to act tend to haunt us more than failed actions

But in his book If Only, the psychologist Neal Roese argues that when it comes to real-life choices, ‘if you decide to do something and it turns out badly, it probably won’t still be haunting you a decade down the road. You’ll reframe the failure, explain it away, move on, and forget it. Not so with failures to act’. You’ll regret them for longer, too, because they’re ‘imaginatively boundless?’ you can lose yourself for ever in the infinite possibilities of what might have been. In other words: you know that thing you’ve been wondering about doing? Do it.

Excerpt from Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman

💎 If you can’t make it shorter, make it feel shorter

Indefinite wait seems longer then defined ones, writes David Maiste in his paper “The Psychology of Waiting Lines’, which is why Disney theme parks use complex formulae to calculate and display wait-times. ‘Pre-process’ waits seem longer than ‘in process’ waits, which is why restaurants will seat you before they’re ready to serve you. Customers are happier when queues are acknowledged: when a supermarket calls ‘all staff to the checkouts’, it’s as much about you hearing it as about staffing. And occupied time passes faster than unoccupied time: mirrored walls are especially effective, apparently because most people love looking at themselves.

Excerpt from Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman

💎 An explanation as to how groups (and companies) make decisions which are favoured by none of their members

The article is called “The Abilene Paradox’, and it’s by the management theorist Jerry Harvey; it begins with a personal anecdote set not at Christmas but during a stiflingly hot Texas summer. Harvey and his wife were staying with her parents, and relaxing one afternoon when his father-in-law suggested a trip to Abilene, 50 miles away, for dinner. Harvey was appalled at the thought of driving ‘across a godforsaken desert, in a furnace-like temperature … to eat unpalatable food. But his wife seemed keen, so he kept his objections to himself.

The experience was as terrible as he’d predicted. Later, trying to be upbeat, he said, “That was a great trip, wasn’t it?’ but one by one, each family member confessed they’d hated they had agreed to go only because they believed it was what the others wanted. “Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene”, Harvey’s father-in-law said. “I just thought you might be bored?”

Excerpt from Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman