Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Book Review: Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

Title: Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

Author: Richard Carlson

Date: 1997

Publisher: Hyperion

ISBN: 0-7868-8185-2

Length: 249 pages

Quote: “A stranger...might cut in front of us in traffic...we convince ourselves that we are justified in our anger...Many of us might even tell someone else about the incident later on.”

In the foreword to this book, Carlson explains that he got the main idea from Wayne Dyer, who once wrote to him that there were “two rules for harmony: (1) don't sweat the small stuff, and (2) it's all small stuff.”

Right. Consider the source. 

This is a book in which another self-righteous type—a disciple of Wayne Dyer—tells you that, whatever you may feel angry or sad or worried about, it doesn't matter, it's all in your mind, nobody else is interested in it...I'm one of those quiet, mellow people who's never had a blood pressure problem and always known how to use deep breathing for pain control, and that line of talk raises my blood pressure. So I can't feel too optimistic about this book having great promise for those whose doctors have ordered them to grow some patience, like, yesterday, before they have strokes and die “old” at forty-five. Many people have read it and said it helped them; Amazon shows a whole page of follow-up volumes that have been bought and loved by Carlson's fans. I'd still hesitate to give Don't Sweat the Small Stuff to a hypertensive friend. These thoughts did not, after all, keep Carlson from succumbing to cardiovascular disease before he was even fifty years old.

Genes undoubtedly contributed to Carlson's looking so much older than coevals like Barack Obama and George Stephanopoulos, and Hollywood customs may have contributed to his looking so much older than a long list of other well-known people born in 1961 (here), but let's face it: that pudgy, saggy-faced geezer of 45 was obviously unable to avoid "sweating" some things no matter how many blow-off-your-worries books he'd written. So this review of his first and best known book doesn't have to be charitable. It needs to point out the most obvious shortcomings of the contents of the book. 

How do you discuss the concept of mellowing out with someone who isn't hypertensive in the first place, without irritating even that person? For starters you avoid phrases like “you will begin to create a more peaceful and loving you.” Urgh. I can stand “you will be cultivating the virtue of patience,” but I'm a Christian. Generally, when we want to encourage adults to change their behavior (or when we want children to have any idea what we want), it's a good idea to avoid characterizing, or judging, or describing the person. Focus on the target behavior.

Was Wayne Dyer, a popular author of the 1970s of whose work I remember most vividly a suggestion that people ought to be able to tell themselves to be sexually excited by having dental work done, stupid, hateful, obnoxious, a pervert, or a person who really deserved 32 root canals without an anesthetic? How do you know that Dyer is or isn't any of those things? Where do you draw the line between doing something that is stupid, hateful, or obnoxious, and being a stupid, hateful, obnoxious person...

There is a way out of this little intellectual whirlpool. It consists of four words: “I am not God.” Since I'm not God, I don't have access to all the information about all your past, present, and future thoughts, words, and deeds, and the reasons for them, and the influences behind them, that God has to take into account in order to judge God's mortal creatures. So I do not, in fact, know what you are. In advice from a family counsellor, as in a confrontation with a family member, all of the “be” words are killer be's, best not used in the same sentence with “you.”

Some total Type A's are in fact loving people, even if it's possible to identify the people they love by their hunted expressions. They don't need to “be more loving.” They are already “loving” in all the ways that phrase brings to their minds. If they need to change their behavior, whether by getting that blood pressure down so they can go on loving their loved ones, or by listening more attentively, or cultivating a milder manner of speaking, or touching more, or swearing less, or whatever...that's what can usefully be described. Active verbs and specific suggestions can help somebody. "Be" phrases merely fail to communicate.

Since Carlson does offer some specific suggestions for things Type A's can do that may help them sweat less (“Don't Interrupt Others,” “Once a Week Write a Heartfelt Letter,” “Tell At Least One Person Something You Like, Admire, or Appreciate About Them”), it's fair to say that this book offers some helpful advice to anyone seeking to reduce the level of stress in their life. Unfortunately, it sets readers up to reject the good advice with lines like “a more peaceful and loving you”...

What is “a more [desirable quality] you,” anyway? It's not a classic sneaky vap; it doesn't rely on intonation to distinguish an unmistakably hostile form from a benign form. (“If you really wanted to go out tonight, you should've told me so before I cooked,” is benign even though it might appear in a quarrel; “If you really wanted to go out tonight, you wouldn't have spent the money on [whatever],” is
hostile.) “A more [X] you” is rare. Women of a certain age probably encountered it first in the Girl Scout manual with the chapter heading “A More Attractive You.” Ouch. That presupposition, “You're not as attractive as you want to be, or as you might be”? What a thing to tell junior high school girls--though true in most cases. No wonder that, when the Girl Scouts divided their junior high school members into separate “Cadette” troops and gave them that manual, girls dropped out of Scouts in droves. No wonder readers who, whatever their flaws, knew they already were “loving,” made fun of Don't Sweat the Small Stuff.

Well, laughing is another way to rebalance our hormones in a mellower direction, Gentle Readers. May I suggest laughing at Don't Sweat the Small Stuff? Laugh out loud. “Create a more peaceful and loving you”? Hahaha! Hold the back cover up and laugh in Carlson's face. Laughing, even if it starts in a mean and snarky way, can actually help people reduce pain and control blood pressure. Then read on: “Remind yourself that when you die your 'in basket' won't be empty.” Most of us need occasional reminders. There are valid reasons to buy Don't Sweat the Small Stuff. Some of these thoughts can help.

The extent to which our thoughts really control the level of stress we suffer has been a matter of some debate. For some people, using angry energy in a nonviolent way helps build cardiovascular resistance and fight cardiovascular disease; for some people, the feeling of anger can become a physical addiction that increases hypertension, overall dissatisfaction, felt levels of anger about various provocations, and the chance that these people will abuse others, often family members who can't fight back. When Carlson and I (and all those movie stars at the IMDB site) were growing up, psychologists were encouraging people to get in touch with our anger, "Shout! Let it all out: These are the things I could do without!" Now there's more of a perception that, even if that was a healthy approach for some people (especially women) to take, to "rehearse" expressing our anger to adults rather than dumping it on children, that was just too dangerous for the anger addicts, so we should all focus on just releasing the emotional feeling of anger. For those interested in releasing the feeling through meditation, which really does work for some people, there are books on that specific subject. This web site recommends:

There's also valid cause for concern that too much focus on the feeling of anger may distract people from addressing the things that God gave us angry energy in order to help us change, because those things are doing harm to other people as well as us...I'm not saying that sweat, a flushed face, or clenched teeth are in any way necessary to address societal problems such as crime, but I am saying that anything that actually prevents or reduces the incidence of crime does crime victims more good than merely trying to feel something other than anger.

Fix Facts First Shirt

It can be worth spending the time to sort out how much of the stress we feel has anything to do with stuff that's not actually small, that does harm to us and others, and how much of it has more to do with merely feeling physically below par. Cardiovascular disease kills people who become angry because they feel below par. They get tired easily, their resistance to infections is low, they don't get enough sleep, they don't digest food efficiently, their hormones are unbalanced, they have addictions (including that addiction to the adrenalin rush of angry energy that some men get), and as a result of all these things they're grumpy, miserable to be around, capable of yelling at you because you left the window closed (or open) and then yelling at you, five minutes later, because you opened (or closed) it for their comfort. These people can benefit from working through their emotional feelings and thought processes, but they need more than that; they also need, at the bare minimum, a diet, exercise, and meditation regimen, and sometimes medication, supervised by a medical doctor as well as a psychotherapist or family counsellor.

So, in conclusion: if Richard Carlson did take the time to tell his children he loved them and write letters of appreciation to service people, that was good, and undoubtedly made his last years less unpleasant for everyone...but if he'd paid more attention to the advice of someone like John McDougall or Stephen Sinatra , he might be as fit and healthy, today, as most people our age are.

If you are hypertensive, there is nevertheless a stage, as you begin to fix the facts of your hypertension, at which the psychological and social exercises discussed in Don't Sweat the Small Stuff can be useful. So go ahead and buy the book, why not? It's a small, thin book and would fit into a package with Anger and Lower Your Blood Pressure and even this web site's trademark T-shirt from Zazzle. For that you'd pay $5 per book (yes, each of the three books is only $5, and the other two are Fair Trade Books!), $20 for the shirt, $5 for the package, and $1 per online payment.

(Will three books and a T-shirt really reverse cardiovascular disease? The answer is yes...for some people, if those people use the information in time. This does not, however, imply that three books and a T-shirt can take the place of a doctor.)