The great writers’ guide to happiness

The author who wrote a bestselling guide to picking up girls has a new book in the shops. Neil Strauss’s Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead considers his interviews with the famous, mostly pop stars, and teases out lessons in life from them. Cher believes we should trust our instincts. Jerry Lee Lewis is in favour of not dwelling on the past. Merle Haggard thinks we should live in truth. The book has caused a mini-blizzard of publicity but seems to be based on a flawed idea. Chuck Berry may have written some great songs, for example, but he would be some way from being my first choice as a life coach.

It is writers we should be turning to – those whose lives have been spent working on their own version of the truth. As it happens, I have been collecting material for The Great Writers’ Guide To Life, Contentment and Everyday Wisdom for a few years now.

Perhaps the time has arrived to share the main conclusions of literature’s happiness gurus.

1. Remain innocent. Somerset Maugham may not be everyone’s idea of a counsellor but he was sound on the case for never quite growing up. “A novelist must preserve a child-like belief in the importance of things which common-sense considers of no importance,” he wrote. How true that is – and not only for writers.

2. Know and admire yourself. “The main thing in life it to know who you are, to discover yourself,” said John Fowles, but it was Trollope, that favourite novelist of Tory politicians, who pushed the idea a little further. “What man will do any good who is not conceited?” he asked. “Nobody holds a good opinion of a man who has a low opinion of himself.”

3. Do not be too free with your emotions. Philip Larkin’s warning of the dangers of “giving in” to another person is somewhat uncompromising, but may work for some. “It’s very easy to float along in a semi-submerged way, dissipating one’s talent for pleasing by amusing and being affectionate,” he wrote. “I find, myself, this letting-in of a second person spells death to perception and the desire to express.”

4. Work brings happiness. The great writers tend to avoid owning up to happiness – something only amateurs and civilians tend to experience – but most of them agree that working brings some sort of contentment. “Work yourself all out to the limit of your passion for activities,” was the advice of Ford Madox Ford.

5. Be intolerant towards time-wasters. Cyril Connolly warned sternly that one should beware of “charming failures” in life. Failure, he believed, is infectious. “Unless a writer is quite ruthless with these amiable footlers, they will drag him down with them.”

6. Get used to being disappointed. Startlingly, it was Norman Mailer who suggested that we should “learn to live with the expectation of disappointment … You just want to keep the store going. You’re not going to do as well this year as last year probably, but nonetheless, let’s keep the store going.”

7. Contrive a reason not to achieve what you want. Geoff Dyer came up with the perverse, yet wise, theory, that “people need to feel that they have been thwarted by circumstances from pursuing the life that, had they led it, they would not have wanted”. The hamster not only loves his cage but would be lost without it, Dyer argues.

8. Avoid fame. Few of those who have been issuing super-injunctions would disagree with John Updike’s famous warning that “celebrity is a mask that eats into the face”.

9. Do not become rich early in life. Another unlikely agony aunt, Sir Vidia Naipaul, has decreed that the age before which one should avoid being wealthy is 40.

10. Do not be too ruthless. Remember the regretful words of William Burroughs: “The things I had to do to do the things I had to do … I had to keep moving.”

Independent, Tuesday, 17 May 2011