Saturday, 22 November 2014

Rethinking Positive Thinking

Rethinking Positive Thinking by Gabriele Oettingen

Finally!  A book about optimism and positive thinking that is based on science.  And the result is surprising.  

We have been told for decades that positive thinking is a good thing, every time we have a negative thought we should reframe it in a positive way, and that being optimistic is healthy.

Turns out this is all wrong.  People who regularly indulge in positive self talk and fantasies are less productive than people who are more realistic.  Visualising yourself living a life of luxury, running a successful business, being fit,slim and healthy, etc. means you are far less likely to achieve those goals.  

In this book Oettingen details the research she has undertaken over more than thirty years, in both Germany and the USA, into the effects of positive visualisation and fantasies.  Turns out these activities are excellent for lowering stress, reducing blood pressure and increasing one's ability to wait patiently or to endure less than ideal circumstances.  They are so good, in fact, at calming you down that they actually reduce the energy, motivation, will and desire to take action to achieve one's goals.  Helpful if you are stuck in a situation you have absolutely no control over, like people living in East German before the Berlin wall came down, but not much help for anyone that actually wants to get something done.

Thankfully Oettingen's research did not stop there and she looked at what actually did work in helping people to achieve their goals and take action.  Again the result was a surprise.  It turns out that mentally rehearsing everything going right won't help but visualising all the obstacles and things that can go wrong will.  When her study participants fantasised about achieving a cherished goal and then fantasised about the obstacles one of two things happened.  Either the dreamer decided their goal was unachievable, the obstacles insurmountable and the outcome not worth the effort and they stopped wasting their time on the goal or they decided the opposite and almost immediately took action to make their dream a reality.

Like all good psychology experiments the results seem like common-sense with hindsight but we are so used to the self-help community peddling the notion that we can 'think and grow rich' or that the abundant universe will answer our prayers that this common-sense notion seems quite radical.

Oettingen takes us one step further on this journey towards action by looking at the most effective way to plan for our success and this is through using an 'if... then' formula.  Unlike most planning which is vague and ineffectual an 'if... then' formula provides us with a specific action to take and a specific time or situation to take it in.  This is the kind of planning that builds habits and helps us to avoid temptation.  If our goal is to get fit then the vague idea to 'do more exercise' becomes a concrete plan 'if it is 6pm then I will go to the gym'.

Although this is a scientific book based on solid scientific research, Oettingen does provide an easy to use formula for making the most of her research.  To provide the best template for the kind of thinking required to start taking action, she came up with the acronym WOOP.  There are even two apps available - one for school students and one for adults - which provide this template for you.

WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.  The idea is that you spend some time visualising your wish, vividly picture the outcome you want and how good it will feel to achieve that goal, then picture the obstacle(s) standing in your way. At this point you will probably realise whether your wish is achievable or not.  Allowing yourself to really feel the benefit of the desire will help you to decide how much you really do want it.  By then focusing on the obstacles in your way your creative mind will come up with all sorts of solutions and as you dig deeper even get to the bottom of the 'real' obstacle which will inevitably be some behaviour of your own which you can change.  At this point the 'if... then' plan will be easy to construct.  It is essential that the process is done in this order.  Over many experiments, Oettingen discovered that visualising the obstacle before the outcome led to no increase in action.  

Obviously better results were achieved by subjects who used the WOOP formula regularly but even those who only used it once found themselves subconsciously moving closer towards their goals.

Overall this was a fantastic book with real detail and depth, solid scientific experiments and practical steps to take.  There was no 'secret' involved, no abundant universe or 'higher power' just harnessing the power of your own mind to get you what you want.  Brilliant. 

2 Month Update

So far I have read 11 non-fiction books and 9 fiction books (although 4 of those are from the same series).

I am averaging 10 books a month and some of the non-fictions have been whoppers (Cornelius Owen I'm looking at you!).

At this rate I will have finished the 80 book challenge by August and that's not taking into account that my rate will go up whenever there is a school holiday and I am currently studying for the Primal Blueprint Expert Certificate which is taking up most of my non-fiction reading time.

Might have to make the challenge 120 books instead of 80!!

Two for the price of one...

Quick review of two more books by Philip Reeve - the last two in the Mortal Engines series.

I'm actually counting all four of these books as one YA book in my challenge.  You wouldn't want to read these two if you hadn't read Mortal Engines and Predator's Gold.

Infernal Devices by Philip Reeve

This book catches up with Tom and Hester 15 years after Predator's Gold.  The main protagonist this time is their daughter Wren who has inherited her mother (and grandfather's) love of action and adventure and will do anything to escape their safe but dull existence on the now stationary Anchorage.

The war between the cities and the Anti-Tractionist League still rages and Wren's actions hurl herself, plus Tom and Hester once again, into the midst of the conflict.

I really enjoyed this book, more so than Predator's Gold.  Hester's true warlike personality is revealed although we are still sympathetic towards her but Wren is a cleverly written composition of the opposing traits that Tom and Hester exemplify.  She is as brave, fearless and mercenary as her mother and also as thoughtful, empathetic, caring and morally robust as her father.  As such she makes for a fantastic heroine and role model for teenage girls; much better then the two extremes of Hester and Freya fighting over Tom in the previous book.

A Darkling Plain by Philip Reeve

The final book in the series which brings the story to a complete and satisfying conclusion, tying up all the loose ends of all the different characters.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Confessions of a Conjuror by Derren Brown

Confessions of a Conjuror by Derren Brown

I really loved this although it is a very unusual autobiography.  The whole book spans the performance of one card trick to three customers in a swanky restaurant which happened very early in Brown's career.  As Brown describes the trick, and the response to each element of it from his clients (or participants), he wanders off into reminiscences of his childhood or describes in details some minutae of his life now.  Occasionally there is too much information, for example on some of his bathroom habits (!) however it is a fascinating insight into Brown as a person and his understanding of human nature.

I quite enjoy Deren Brown's 'magic' shows but I am much more fascinated by his psychology experiments and although this book ostensibly deals with magic it also explores that side of his work.  I particularly like how he thoroughly debunks spiritualism, clairvoyancy and mediums, etc and I like his attitude towards religion and atheism.

This book is occasionally a little pretentious and Brown's vocabulary deliberately ostentatious - a bit like him.  I actually found his use of over-blown language made the book a rich and satisfying experience and it was short enough not to be too much.  He is clearly well-off and doesn't mind name-dropping or mentioning how much money he has spent on things - but at the same time he is self-mocking and aware of his own affectations.

Amongst the ephemera there were some gems of advice, the best one being that if you truly want to be successful and 'win friends and influence people' then just be kind.

A great Sunday afternoon read.

Predator's Gold by Philip Reeve

Predator's Gold by Philip Reeve

Short post this one. I've finished book 2 in the Mortal Engines series. This follows the further adventures of Tom and Hester and introduces some new characters and new places.  Another quick and easy read which was imaginative and engaging.  Good for younger teens.  Can't say much more about it without revealing spoilers but I enjoyed it although not quite as much as the first one.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Having finished David Copperfield in the morning I then started Mortal Engines because my husband has been hooked on the series.  He told me I would finish it in the day and he was right!  I couldn't put it down.

Whereas David Copperfield lacked plot this teen fiction novel was stuffed full of it.  At first glance it seems to be yet another teenage dystopian science fiction series but it was written in 2001 so isn't just jumping on the Hunger Games bandwagon.

The novel is set in a post apocalypse future where cities have been built (or re-built) on to wheels and engines so that they can move about; they survive by capturing and devouring each other in a warped survival of the fittest called Municipal Darwinism.  As with so many of these books, society is divided up into classes with a strict hierarchy and the main protagonist is a young orphaned boy called Tom who is near the bottom of the social pile as a Third Class Apprentice.  As well as a vertical hierarchy, society is also divided horizontally into four supposedly equal guilds although the novel mainly focuses on the Engineers who appear to have the most power and the guild Tom belongs to which is the Historians.

Like many novels of this type the story centres around the way in which greedy power hungry adults find and use the technology which caused the apocalypse in the first place and the teenagers struggles to prevent them. However, Mortal Engines rises above so many of these teen novels and is pacy, well-written and actually quite profound.

Although Tom is the main protagonist his story is intertwined with that of Hester and echoed by the story of Katherine who is helped by Pod.  Between them the boys and girls display a range of characteristics and are certainly not gender stereotyped; all four of them are brave, clever, resourceful and moral.

It is difficult to say much more about this novel without revealing any spoilers but what I really liked about it was that, although it is the first novel in a series, it does actually reach a satisfying conclusion.  I want to read the rest of the series but I don't feel I have to to find out what is going on.

Overall, a wonderful book which I would recommend to any teenager (and adult!) and might be especially good for reluctant boys.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Finally finished David Copeprfield yesterday morning so that's the first of my classics ticked off.  I'm a big fan of Dickens so it is quite surprising that I'd never read David Copperfield before.  Given that it was Dickens own favourite and I know many other peoples' favourite I didn't enjoy it that much.  

There was certainly plenty to enjoy and some characters such as Micawber and Uriah Heap are brought to life beautifully.  One of the things that struck me, as it always does when I read Dickens, was the absolutely cruelty of Victorian society.  They were obssessed with manners and propriety but had a complete lack of basic humanity towards others.  I think that this portrayal of Victorian society was Dickens' finest achievement and the first steps towards breaking down that horrendous class system which continued with the First World War but which, unfortunately as our present government demonstrates, has not yet disappeared.  Child abuse, the practice of marrying very young girls off to much older men, domestic violence especially of the emotional and psychological kind, were commonplace and in fact normal until Dickens began to shine his light on them and are all illustrated in this novel.

With the exception of the fabulous Betsy Trotwood and to some extent Peggotty and Emma Micawber, most of the women in this novel are fairly weak and insipid. Dickens does go some way to explaining how they are made that way by the men in their lives and the constraints of society, though.  The main reason I didn't enjoy this as much as say, Great Expectations or my personal favourite The Tale of Two Cities or even Oliver Twist, is that as it is set out as an autobiography it lacks an overarching plot. A few of the events also seemed rather convenient for all involved.

I can see why people love it.  There were some great character descriptions and vivid portrayals of Victorian society and institutions such as the debtor's prison, school and the shipping community at Yarmouth but I prefer a stronger storyline.