Self-help books are bestsellers. But do they work? Lynne Wallis chills out with the latest crop, then listens to some sceptics
One of the more illuminating indicators of the state of a nation's psyche is to be found in its bookshops. Shelves currently groan under the weight of self-help texts, the contents of which suggest that we are all enslaved by stress, driven to melancholia and locked in an endless search for greater personal happiness and fulfillment.
The self-help book has become a publishing phenomenon, and none typifies this more than Paul Wilson's Little Book of Calm, the best-selling book in Britain in 1997. It still figures in the charts, with other diminutively-titled heavyweights like Lillian Too's Little Book of Feng Shui and the Little Book of Dreams.
One of the latest additions is The Small Pleasures of Life. This particular guide to restoring your equilibrium and perking up your miserable existence is written by a French teacher, Philippe Delerm.
A best-seller in France in 1998, Delerm identifies and describes some of the small, but exquisite things which he feels make life enjoyable.
There isn't any mention of bright copper kettles and packages tied up with string, but the Singing Nun's favourite things would not be that out of place next to Delerm's selection.
Small Pleasures offers 34 meditations on life's "plaisirs minuscules". Among Delerm's life-enhancers are:
* impromptu suppers with close friends * a glass of port. "Port drinkers," he writes "appreciate the tepid warmth of the fading aristocracy, the taste of fruit from the curate's garden..." Whatever that means. (Perhaps it has lost something in the translation.) * looking through a kaleidoscope, or watching a snowstorm in a paperweight * the smell of apples * the ritual of Sunday evening baths * inhaling menthol * sinking your incisors into a piece of real Turkish Delight "as your free hand brushes icing sugar from your sweater".
Phoenix House, his publishers, claim that he wrote down a few motivating thoughts with no intention of getting them published. Although it's probably no accident that he started compiling them in the middle of a messy marriage break-up. Phoenix House publishing director Maggie McKerman admits "He wrote (the book) to pick himself up. Neither he, nor we, expected it to sell over 600,000 copies in France alone."
McKerman attributes the book's success to plugging into nostalgia rather than any attempt at therapy or philosophising. "It's escapism. It makes you appreciate things you'd never have recognised as being enjoyable. It's not deep and it's certainly no substitute for religion. It's about being tranquil and it absorbs you."
But will it work?
Trainee primary teacher Louise Pike, a mother of two, doesn't have time to ponder on life's finer moments. "Reading these sorts of books or picturing pleasant scenes, just don't occur to me when I'm stressed. They're incredibly popular, but just not my sort of thing. I'd probably watch the telly, have a bath or go to sleep."
Julie King, deputy head of Beatrice Tate in Bethnal Green, east London, a special school for children aged 11-19, relies on her sense of humour to pick herself up, although she does admit to imagining painting a room or downing a cold beer if she's very stressed.
"It helps to think about something pleasant but I'd never think of something like blackberry picking, as Delerm suggests, or eating a banana split. I'm too much of a concrete thinker. To be honest, I'd rather go and have a good game of tennis."
The Little Book of Calm promises that you can "open at any page and you will find a path to inner peace". Its tips include getting up in time to see the sun rise or wearing Donald Duck underpants "to remind you of the irreverent, uninhibited, joyous side of life". The follow-up - Little Book of Calm at Work - even suggests a swear box to encourage boorish colleagues to clean-up their acts.
Dr Chris Kyriacou, an expert on teaching and stress who heads York University's department of education studies, says there is a lot of mileage in self-help stressbusters. "Basically there are two approaches to conquering stress - the Rambo technique of direct action, which is identifying and destroying the stress, and then palliative techniques which find ways to calm down by using things like mental imagery. Anything a teacher can do to help them to feel comfortable is a godsend. Lots of teachers who attend my classes use books (like this) and they do work."
Don't just crack on, Kyriacou advises stressed teachers: think about something that relaxes you - "something pleasant, perhaps Delerm's imagery of real Turkish delight, or a new activity you would like to take up.
"If you think of something calm, the body starts to become calm. Think about the new Gilbert and Sullivan club you'd like to join, or whatever. It will be different things for different people. The biggest stress for teachers currently is coping with change and learning new approaches to teaching. It's more important than ever they learn how to feel calm."
Former English teacher Glynn MacDonald teaches Alexander technique at several London drama schools to enable students to learn how to relax. "I think these sorts of books are fun to read, but for real stress, problems of posture and breathing must be addressed. Books like this should not to be taken too seriously."
Of all of Delerm's small pleasures, she feels the most effective for calming is menthol inhalation. "Smells are incredibly nostalgic, and our sense of smell is our most primitive sense because it's the only one that doesn't get blocked by the brain. That's why we smile when we remember our grandmother's lavender-scented living room. It's incredibly calming."
But the kind of mental imagery espoused by self-help books to reduce stress proves completely useless for some teachers. Margaret Hill, deputy head of Bolsover school in Chesterfield had to take a six-month break for job-related stress.
"I tried picturing myself on top of my favourite hill, looking down on Princes Street, but it didn't help," she says. Complete rest and counselling did. She believes that calming techniques are merely a sticking-plaster solution. "Telling teachers to focus on silence to calm down doesn't work because you just can't do it. People follow you to the loo with problems in this job."
Professor Guy Claxton of the Graduate School of Learning in Bristol believes in a more practical use of mental imagery - by mentally rehearsing, for example, an anticipated difficult meeting with the parent of a disruptive child. "This way, it's not just a bland way of chilling out, but a way of dealing with the stress by planning and preparing for a given situation. It's contrary to lots of the New Age stuff about relaxation, but it's more constructive."
But he admits that if you're totally frazzled, it won't work, "because you won't think clearly". Perhaps this is the time to imagine you're lying on a beach or sitting in a hay-strewn meadow.
Or, if you follow Philippe Delerm's advice, open a box of cakes, pull on your favourite autumn sweater and enjoy the "curious luxury" of reading a news-paper over breakfast.
'The Small Pleasures of Life' by Philippe Delerm is in most bookshops and costs pound;5.99
THE TOP 10 SELF-HELP BOOKS FOR 1998.
Lillian Too's Little Book of Feng Shui Lillian Too. Element Books. (89,851 copies sold)
The Little Book of Calm Paul Wilson. Penguin. (61,544)
Sixty Ways to Feel Amazing Lynda Field. Element Books (41,442)
The Celestine Prophecy James Redfield. Bantam Books (41,049)
The Little Book of Dreams Joan Hanger. Penguin (29,242)
The Road Less Travelled Scott M Peck. Arrrow Books (24,627)
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway Susan Jeffers. Arrow Books (23,296)
The Bible Code Michael Drosnin. Orion (20,378)
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen R Covey. Simon amp;Schuster (17,340)
Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ Daniel Goleman. Bloomsbury (16,934)