email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
100 Things Guys Need to Know1001 Solution-Focused Questions101 Ways to Meditate17 Lies That Are Holding You Back29 Gifts8 Keys to Stress ManagementA Layman's Guide to Managing FearA Parent's Guide to Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning AutismA User Guide to the GF/CF Diet for Autism, Asperger Syndrome and AD/HDADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your LifeAddiction and ChangeAddiction Recovery ToolsADHD Grown UpAdolescent DepressionAdvanced Sexual TechniquesAfter SuicideAfter the Ecstasy, the LaundryAge-Proof Your MindAnswers for AristotleAnxiety, Phobias, and PanicAre You Fully Charged?Authentic HappinessAwakening Self-EsteemBe Honest--You're Not That Into Him EitherBeating the BluesBecoming OrgasmicBeen There, Done That? DO THIS!Better Sex Through YogaBetter Than EverBeyond AddictionBibliotherapyBinge No MoreBipolar DisorderBlinkBoomers Really Can Put Old On HoldBrain LongevityBrainstormBread Upon the WatersBreak Through PainBreathingBringing Up ParentsBuddhist Boot CampBullyBut I Love HimCalm EnergyCalm Focus JoyCan't Eat, Won't EatCancer on $5 a Day* *(chemo not included)Caring in Remembered WaysChained to the DeskChange Your AgeChange Your Brain, Change Your LifeChange Your ThinkingChildren of the Aging Self-AbsorbedChildren of the Self-AbsorbedConceptual BlockbustingConquer Your Critical Inner VoiceConquering Postpartum DepressionConquering Shame and CodependencyCoping With Difficult PeopleCoping with Infuriating, Mean, Critical PeopleCoping With TraumaCreative Writing In Health And Social CareCrossing the Unknown SeaDance the Chakras Yoga WorkoutDaydreamingDe-Stress Your Life in 7 Easy StepsDealing with a NarcissistDefying DementiaDelivered from DistractionDematerializingDepression FalloutDepression-Free for LifeDivorce PoisonDoing ItDone With The CryingDown and Dirty Sex SecretsDr. Andrew Weil's Guide to Optimum HealthDr. Weisinger's Anger Work-Out BookDying to Be ThinEasy YogaEmbarrassing Medical ProblemsEmbracing UncertaintyEmotional Chaos to ClarityEmotional ClaustrophobiaEmotional Fitness for IntimacyEmotional IntelligenceEnjoying Guilty PleasuresEssays on Philosophical CounselingEvamarie Pilipuf's Yoga Express DVDEvery Day Yoga for Every Body DVDEveryday GreensExercise for Mood and AnxietyFailureFamily Desk Reference to Psychology Family FirstFast Food for the SoulFat and FuriousFatal FlawsFear and Other Uninvited GuestsFeeding Your ChildFinding Meaning in the Second Half of LifeFlow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceFluid Power Vinyasa Flow YogaFlying ColorsForgive Your Parents, Heal YourselfFreaks, Geeks and Asperger SyndromeFrom Sabotage to SuccessFull Steam Ahead!Getting a Good Night's SleepGetting ControlGetting over Getting MadGetting the Love You WantGetting the Love You Want Audio CompanionGetting Your Life BackGirl StuffGirlWiseGod Never BlinksGoddess WorshipGoing DownGoing Home without Going CrazyGood MedicineGoodbye, ThingsGrieving Mental IllnessGuilt, Shame, and AnxietyHalf Empty, Half FullHe's Just Not That Into YouHeal & Forgive IIHealing ADDHealing through ExerciseHealthy AgingHonoring GriefHooking UpHot ButtonsHow Full Is Your Bucket?How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow Philosophy Can Save Your LifeHow Proust Can Change Your LifeHow Successful People ThinkHow to Change Someone You LoveHow to Give Her Absolute PleasureHow to Handle a Hard-To-Handle KidHow to Have Magnificent SexHow to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can'tHow to Live Well Without Owning a CarHow to Make Great Love to a ManHow to Make Great Love to a WomanHow to Stay SaneHow to Stop Feeling Like ShitHypnography for MenHypnography for WomenI AMI am PotentialI Saw It HappenI Wasn't Ready to Say GoodbyeI'd Rather LaughI'm OK, You're My ParentsIllness and the Art of Creative Self-ExpressionIn the Mood, AgainIntroduction to Qi YogaIt's Called a Breakup Because It's BrokenIt's Not as Bad as It SeemsJudo with WordsKripalu YogaKripalu Yoga Dynamic DVDKripalu Yoga Gentle DVDKundalini Yoga MeditationKundalini Yoga to Detox and Destress DVDLearn to RelaxLearned OptimismLearning Outside the Lines Letting Go of AngerLies! Lies! Lies!Life MakeoversLife StrategiesLife's WorkLifting DepressionLiving the TruthLiving Well with Pain and IllnessLiving with AnxietyLiving Your Best LifeLiving Your DreamLost in the MirrorLove & SurvivalLove Your Body, Love Your LifeLoving Someone With Bipolar DisorderLunar Flow YogaMadhur Jaffrey's World VegetarianMake It CountMaking a Good Brain GreatMaking ADD WorkMaking Your Mind MatterManaging Your MindManic DepressionMastering Anger and AggressionMastering the Power of Self-hypnosisMaui PilatesMeditation for Optimum HealthMeditation in a New York MinuteMind MappingMind-Body Workbook for AnxietyMindfulness for BeginnersMindfulness for Urban Depression: Tools for Relief from Stressful City LivingModerate DrinkingMotherstylesMozart's Brain and the Fighter PilotNapkin NotesNatural Healing for DepressionNew Hope for People with DepressionNo Enemies WithinNo More AnxietyNot Your Mother's LifeObsessive-Compulsive Disorder DemystifiedOne Last Hug Before I GoOrgasmOrgasmsOutsmarting DepressionOutsmarting OvereatingOver 100 Truly Astonishing Sex TipsOvercoming Compulsive CheckingOvercoming Compulsive HoardingOvercoming DepressionOvercoming Obsessive ThoughtsOvercoming the Fear of FearOvercoming Your Difficult FamilyPain Free for LifePain Free for WomenParanoia of Everyday LifeParenting Children With ADHDPassionate VegetarianPlan BPlanning for UncertaintyPlato, Not Prozac!Position Of The Day PlaybookPositivityPotatoes Not ProzacPower Yoga: Fat BurnerPowerfully Recovered!PredatorsPreventing Misbehavior in ChildrenProcrastinationProcrastinationProtecting the GiftPsychology Moment by MomentQiGong IllustratedQuantum Memory PowerRaising a Self-StarterRaising Kids in an Age of TerrorRaising Resilient ChildrenReady for AnythingReal Solutions for Overcoming Internet AddictionsRecovery from AddictionRelationship RescueRespect-Me RulesRitalin is Not the Answer Action GuideRomantic IntelligenceSabbathSecrets of a Passionate MarriageSelf MattersSelf-CoachingSelf-CompassionSelf-Help NationSelf-Help Stuff That WorksSelf-Help Without the HypeSelf-NurtureSeven Life Lessons from Noah's ArkSex and SpiritSex DetoxSex PositionsSex Q & ASextasySexual PleasureSleep BetterSolar Flow Yoga DVDSoulmatesSpiritually Healing the Indigo Children (and Adult Indigos, Too!)Spontaneous HealingStanding at Water's EdgeStaying Connected to Your TeenagerStaying Sane When Your Family Comes to VisitStop Arguing with Your KidsStop Caretaking the Borderline or NarcissistStop Me Because I Can't Stop Myself Stop OverreactingStop Smoking and Chewing Tobacco for Life ChangesStop Walking on EggshellsStraight Talk about Your Child's Mental HealthStress ReliefStrong, Smart, & BoldSun SalutationsSunbathing in the RainSurviving a Borderline ParentSurviving Manic DepressionSurviving Sexual ViolenceTaking Charge of ADHD, Revised EditionTaking Charge of AngerTaking Charge of Anger: Six Steps to Asserting Yourself without Losing ControlTaming Your Inner BratTeen Angst? NaaahTen Minutes to RelaxThank You for Being Such a PainThe 10 Best Anxiety BustersThe 5 Reasons Why We OvereatThe 7 Secrets of the ProlificThe Anger WorkbookThe Antidepressant Survival ProgramThe Art of Becoming HumanThe Art of Exceptional LivingThe Beginner's Guide to Healthy EatingThe Better Sex Guide to the Kama SutraThe Betty Ford Center Book of AnswersThe Bipolar Disorder Survival GuideThe Breakout PrincipleThe Bully, the Bullied, and the BystanderThe Chronic Pain SolutionThe Complete Vegetarian HandbookThe Consolations of PhilosophyThe Core Question: Who Am I?The Crowdsourced Performance ReviewThe Emotional Eater's Repair ManualThe Emotional RevolutionThe End-of-Life HandbookThe Essential Guide to Prescription Drugs 2005The Essential KamasutraThe Feeling Good HandbookThe Five Things We Cannot Change ...The Game of TruthThe Gift of FearThe Gift of ShynessThe Good Vibrations Guide to SexThe Guide for International Intercultural Couples and Families Intercultural MarriageThe Happy Hook-UpThe Healing JourneyThe Healing Journey for CouplesThe Healing Journey Through GriefThe Healing Power of PetsThe Identity CodeThe Illustrated Guide to Extended Massive OrgasmThe Inside Story on Teen GirlsThe Introvert AdvantageThe Intuitive WriterThe Irritable Male SyndromeThe Jewel Tree of TibetThe Joy of MeditatingThe Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever NeedThe Light of DiscoveryThe Little Book of Healthy TeasThe Little Yoga BookThe Magic of Thinking BigThe Making of Dr. PhilThe Male Stress Survival GuideThe Money WorkbookThe Mood CureThe Mozart EffectThe Myth of Self-EsteemThe New Cancer SurvivorsThe New Rational TherapyThe OASIS Guide to Asperger SyndromeThe OCD WorkbookThe Passion PlanThe Pilates Workout JournalThe Pill Book Guide to Natural MedicinesThe Places That Scare YouThe Pocket Life CoachThe Porn TrapThe Power of FocusThe Power of Full EngagementThe Power of Negative ThinkingThe Power of PlayThe Power of Self-CoachingThe Pursuit of PerfectThe Quest for Peace, Love, and a 24'' WaistThe Real Rules for GirlsThe Secret of LifeThe Secret Strength of DepressionThe Self ImprovedThe Self-Compassion Skills WorkbookThe Self-Help SourcebookThe Sex Addiction WorkbookThe Spa DeckThe Stoic Art of LivingThe Stress CureThe Stress Less WorkbookThe Stress Owner's ManualThe Stress Reduction Workbook for TeensThe SuperStress SolutionThe Ten Minute Sexual SolutionThe Therapy for the SaneThe Truth About Chronic PainThe Ultimate Guide to Sex and DisabilityThe Van Gogh BluesThe Way of StretchingThe Way of the JournalThe Way of TransitionThe Weblog HandbookThe Why CaféThe Worst-Case Scenario Survival HandbookThere's a Spiritual Solution to Every ProblemThings Might Go Terribly, Horribly WrongThink Confident, Be ConfidentThink NakedThink SmartThinking for a ChangeThis Is HowTotal PilatesTrain Your Brain to Get HappyTrain Your Brain to Get RichTransformation Trauma in the Lives of ChildrenUltimate SexUnderstanding the Borderline MotherUndoing DepressionUnhappy TeenagersUnlock the Genius WithinUntangling the WebVirtual AddictionWaking Up to What You DoWay to Be!What We Say MattersWhat Women WantWhat's Happening to My Body? Book for BoysWhat's Holding You Back? When a Family Member Has DementiaWhen a Parent is DepressedWhen in Doubt, Make BeliefWhen Perfect Isn't Good EnoughWhen Someone You Love Is DepressedWhen Things Fall ApartWhen Words Are Not EnoughWhen Your Body Gets the BluesWhen Your Child Has an Eating DisorderWherever You Go, There You AreWhy Can't I Change?Why Is It Always About You?Why Smart Executives FailWorried All the TimeWoulda, Coulda, ShouldaWriting as a Sacred PathWriting in FlowWriting to HealYes, Your Teen Is Crazy!Yoga 4 TeensYoga as MedicineYoga for EveryoneYoga for MeditatorsYoga for OsteoporosisYoga for Pain ReliefYoga for Regular Guys DVDYoga for the Young at HeartYoga on DemandYoga Weight Loss for DummiesYou Are Not AloneYou Are Not Your IllnessYou Can Think Yourself ThinYou'll See It When You Believe ItYour Body Speaks Your MindYour Brain on FoodYour Child, Bully or Victim?Zen Sex
Many of us are unhappy because of pressure, both social and self-imposed, to be perfect. Unfortunately, this merely leads to frustration and unhappiness, since perfection is impossible and any shortcoming feels like a catastrophic failure. The way to a happier existence is to accept the limitations of our humanity and not to set ourselves impossible objections. The healthy and happy individual is, therefore, not a perfectionist but an 'optimalist,' someone who strives for the best possible but accepts failures as not only inevitable but opportunities to learn and grow. This, at least, is the argument of Harvard-trained psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar and he should know for, as he freely admits, he's something of a perfectionist himself.
The book is dived into three parts. The first four chapters explain the basic theory; the following three chapters apply this to the areas of education, work and love; and finally there are ten brief meditations focused on helping one to make the transition from perfectionist to optimalist (though there are exercises and moments for reflection strewn throughout -- the author recommends that it is a book to work through, rather than read like a novel).
Being broken up in this way makes the text quite readable, even though (or perhaps in part because) it is sometimes a bit repetitive. A sprinkling of the author's personal experiences, bon mots from the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln, and appeals to authority (both psychologists and philosophers) helps to maintain the interest. (I have to say that not all of the author's interpretations of philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, struck me as entirely accurate, but that's not the greatest concern here.)
Ben-Shahar draws a basic contrast between perfectionism (which he uses only to describe a negative or maladaptive trait (p. xx)) and 'optimalism.' The distinction is actually more subtle than he sometimes makes it appear. At times it seems 'black or white' -- the perfectionist fears failure, focuses on their destination rather than their journey, thinks in 'all or nothing' terms, is a fault-finder, overly defensive in response to criticism, inflexible, etc -- and the optimalist the opposite (p. 18). In fact, he acknowledges that these attitudes really lie on a continuum and that most people have a bit of both in their make up (pp. 7, 227). Although he often speaks as if the problem with the perfectionist is setting unrealizable targets, the real contrast between the two attitudes seems to be not the content of their goals but how they go about pursuing them (p. 8). The perfectionist expects, or at least hopes for, a straightforward shortcut to his or her destination, while the optimalist is willing to accept -- and learn from -- setbacks along the way.
This actually raises a number of interesting questions about the theory. While Ben-Shahar is open about his own perfectionist elements, and seemingly thinks that his experience can serve as an example to help others overcome such destructive tendencies, presumably it's possible to approach this process itself in the wrong (perfectionist) way. If the perfectionist realizes that her perfectionism is a barrier to her own success and happiness, then she might aspire to become an optimalist -- yet if she wants to be the 'perfect optimalist,' and seeks a shortcut to this destination, then she has not in fact overcome her perfectionism at all. Sadly, these more complex and interesting issues are not really dealt with, since the book is intended for a wider audience. Perhaps, however, they explain why Ben-Shahar remarks that genuine acceptance cannot be merely instrumental or conditional (p. 44).
Since the purpose of the book is practical, rather than theoretical, it is perhaps on the second section -- Applications -- that it should be judged. The prescriptions here seem sensible and to follow from the theory. For example, on love, Ben-Shahar observes that we're never going to find the 'perfect' partner, like in the movies, and constantly expecting such is only going to lead to disappointment. Instead we have to accept our partner's flaws and take the rough with the smooth, which can lead to a stronger relationship with more positive than negative.
My only cavil would be that good advice is purchased at the cost of triviality -- invoking Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, Ben-Shahar frequently tells us to do something, but not too much. In fairness though, it's unrealistic to expect genuine practical wisdom from a book -- and the message throughout is very much that we need to find our own way through life and learn from our own mistakes (I'm surprised that there is no reference to J. S. Mill's ideal of 'experiments in living' here -- he comes up only in a discussion of sexual equality).
The third part of the book simply consists of reflections and exercises designed to help one change. There are moments of insight here -- for example, we find it hardest to change those negative aspects of our personality that we actually value under a different description, e.g. we find it hard to give up our rigidity because we associate it with the virtue of consistency (pp. 169-70). Nonetheless, for the most part I didn't find this section too interesting.
Although I've been somewhat critical in my comments, as a self-help book much of this struck true. I certainly recognize perfectionist traits in myself and many of those that I know. It's easy to see how this causes problems like writer's block, because one thinks that whatever one writes must be perfect and consequently regards anything one does write as not good enough. This book may not be perfect, but that is its message: nothing is, but often it is good enough. This is one that I think we should take to heart and it is a book that I would recommend for anyone battling their own perfectionism and seeking genuine acceptance, success and happiness.
© 2009 Ben Saunders
Dr Ben Saunders, Departmental Lecturer in Philosophy, Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.