59 Seconds by Professor Richard Wiseman

A book review by Bobulous

If you've encountered self-help books and you're of a scientific mind, you've probably spent more time asking "where's the proof" than "where do I start", thanks to the lack of any explanation of how the advice was discovered or formulated.

Professor Richard Wiseman was skeptical about the baseless nature of most claims made by the self-help industry, so a friend challenged him to come up with a set of quick, evidence-backed tips for increasing happiness. Which led to his writing 59 Seconds. Rather than suffice with boosting your happiness, the book also contains advice and observations about human psychology in numerous other areas. Along with happiness, there are sections about the art (well, science) of persuasion; about boosting motivation and creativity; the secrets of human attraction; mechanisms for reducing stress; guidance for sustaining romantic relationships; observations about decision making and deception; advice about parenting; and a section about human personality traits.

Some popular myths are dispelled. For instance, positive thinking has been found to be of little benefit, but certain writing exercises can have a lasting effect on happiness and stress levels. And the revered act of brainstorming actually reduces creativity, so a group is better off splitting up and coming up with ideas alone before reconvening. Nervousness and anxiety are not reliable indicators of deception, but a liar is more likely to be seen to concentrate harder and replace actual names with impersonal terms in their speech. And attempting to relieve stress by attacking a punch bag leads to prolonged aggression rather than having a calming effect, but listening to classical music can speed recovery from stressful situations.

Every time a piece of advice or an observation is presented, Wiseman explains how scientific studies were conducted to understand the human psychology involved. In the section which describes how the choice of a baby name can affect that child's future prospects, Wiseman describes the work conducted by economists to analyse the correlation between student surname and student success, and an analysis conducted by the University of California which found a link between a person's initials and their expected life span. Plentiful endnotes name the relevant research paper for each claim, so you can find and read the work yourself if you have a particular interest in its method or its findings.

It's not possible to say in advance whether you'll find that the advice in this book works for you (because this is science, not magic). But the evidence-backed findings are often surprising and make this book a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in self-help or human psychology.