Sunday, October 30, 2016

How to be Miserable - in search of happiness

book review

A humorous and pleasant take on combating misery using reverse psychology

Book: How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use
Author: Randy J. Paterson, PhD

Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, most of us spend our entire lives striving towards one goal: happiness. Yet happiness often proves to be an elusive target; the actions that we thought would, directly or indirectly, bring us joy end up pulling us in the wrong direction and fail to prevent our descent into the deep, dark valley of misery. Irrespective of our financial and social status or the amount of good fortune that is showered upon us by fate, most of us will, at one time or another, struggle with sadness and when we do, a whole industry is waiting in the wings, ready to dispense advice on how we can deal with our issues and cure our gloom through a readily available tool: the self-help book.

The self-help genre constitutes a lucrative industry with many such manuals being published every year. And while their efficacy remains dubious, they are still immensely popular with an audience that is trying to find ways to improve their lives — by becoming slimmer, prettier, smarter, wealthier — and find happiness.

In one of the latest additions to the sagging bookshelves in the self-help section, Canadian psychologist Randy J. Paterson has put a different, more interesting spin on the concept with How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use. Instead of trying to advise readers on how to be happy, he has turned the idea on its head and decided to do the exact opposite by telling us how to be miserable.

Inspired by a talk the author gave at a lecture series for the public, How to be Miserable aims to analyse the actions and thought patterns that ultimately make people less happy. Most of the strategies in the book arose from an unorthodox discussion exercise for depression groups wherein the participants were asked what the writer calls the 10-million-dollar question: “Imagine that you could earn $10 million for just half an hour’s work — let’s say tomorrow morning between 11:00 and 11:30. All you would have to do is make yourself feel worse than you do now. Worse, in fact, than you’ve felt in the past week. How would you do it?” The responses presented the opportunity to learn what we do to feel worse instead of better so that we can (hopefully) make a conscious effort to mend our ways.

Before dispensing his advice, the writer acknowledges that we all encounter unwelcome circumstances that are beyond our control, and that these “capricious whims of fate” aren’t the subject of the book. Instead, the volume focuses on the “mood-influencing factors that lie within the scope of our own choices”.

The tongue-in-cheek guide to misery is divided into four main sections, presenting a total of 40 strategies (10 per section) that lead us to unhappiness. The first part, titled ‘Adopting a Miserable Lifestyle’, describes the day-to-day choices such as avoiding exercise and nutritious food, reducing the hours of restorative sleep, seeking emotional fulfilment by purchasing things, and spending too much time in front of a screen, that we can make to enhance our gloom. The second section teaches the reader ‘How to Think Like an Unhappy Person’ by creating a low mood via alterations in your thinking, such as rehashing the regrettable past, constructing future hells, valuing hope over action, and aiming for perfection. Then comes ‘Hell Is Other People’, the third part of the book, which deals with generating unhappiness through social interactions, by employing techniques such as having high expectations, cultivating toxic relationships, and holding others to higher standards than we do ourselves. In the fourth and final section, the writer talks about ‘Living a Life Without Meaning’ through methods such as being ruled by our impulses, deferring life in favour of meeting duties, staying in our comfort zone, and turning everything into a competition.

By following his guidelines, the author assures us that we, too, can dive into the abyss of despair, although his real intent, of course, is the opposite. At the end Paterson explains how to apply what we learned from the book to make our lives better. By dissecting the ways in which so many of us mess up and complicate our lives, the readers will hopefully become aware of these pitfalls and avoid these mistakes, ultimately opting to escape the cycle of misery and striving for long-term contentment instead of chasing short-term highs.

Laced with irony, How to be Miserable provides information and inspiration to shun unhealthy habits. The author offers a different take on ideas that you’d think were positive — like giving 100 per cent to your work, and being well informed — by highlighting their negative impact on our lives. Other points discussed in the book seem more familiar and obvious; still it’s hard to deny that we’re guilty of many of these things anyway, and it really is interesting to see what mental tricks we play on our unsuspecting selves. That said, while the ideas in the book really do sum up the many bad habits that we fall prey to, they don’t offer anything remarkably innovative to the readers. All of the 40 strategies mentioned basically come down to common sense and there isn’t anything particularly surprising in its content that you haven’t already realised or read elsewhere before. In effect, the book is an engaging, witty summary of well-worn ideas about healthy living, but with a reverse psychology spin. While you won’t find anything here that will blow your mind, the content is still likely to help shed light on your failings and inspire you to work on them. Also, since How to be Miserable touches upon 40 points, it obviously isn’t easy to remember everything the author talks about — or even be mindful of just the strategies that apply to you — at all times. The reader will need a fair amount of dedication to truly benefit from this text by repeatedly going back to the book, picking a few strategies at a time, and then trying to apply them to his or her life.

Paterson’s gentle, amicable tone, with humour sprinkled throughout the text, makes the book pleasant and friendly while the short, succinct chapters make it a quick read. The writer has distilled years of experience into this book (and on occasion also refers to the work of other experts), explaining the kind of things that you would probably learn in therapy, although the book is obviously not a substitute for professional help, nor is it intended for those with severe depression as the author himself points out. Its effectiveness also depends on the reader and their willingness to embrace these principles. Ultimately, How to be Miserable will let you identify some of your weaknesses, and, if you’re willing to put in the effort, it could help you tweak your life and make it more fulfilling.
- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 30th October, 2016 *

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Skiptrace - silly but fun

movie review


Starring: Jackie Chan, Johnny Knoxville, Fan Bingbing
Directed by: Renny Harlin
Tagline: Watch your backup.

The success of action comedies like Rush Hour (1998) and Shanghai Noon (2000) helped Jackie Chan gain international recognition. For his latest cinematic endeavour, the star from Hong Kong has teamed up, yet again, with an American actor for another action comedy, Skiptrace. Joining him for the buddy adventure this time is Johnny Knoxville, the Jackass crew member who may not have the star power of Chris Tucker or Owen Wilson, but still manages to deliver the requisite comic relief in a movie that is considerably more enjoyable than it has any right to be.

The story revolves around Hong Kong detective Benny Chan’s (Jackie Chan) pursuit of a notorious crime boss known as the Matador, whose identity is unknown, but Benny believes to be businessman Victor Wong (Winston Chao). After his partner Yung (Eric Tsang) dies while the duo are on the Matador’s trail, Benny becomes obsessed with exacting revenge for his fellow officer’s death.

Nine years later, when Yung’s daughter Samantha (Fan Bingbing), whom he promised to look after, gets in trouble with Wong’s crime syndicate, Benny must find a way to ensure her safety and unravel the case of the Matador. This involves tracking down an American conman, Connor (Johnny Knoxville), who has unwittingly witnessed a murder in Wong’s casino.

The film turns into a buddy road comedy as Benny tries to take a very reluctant Connor back from Russia to Hong Kong. Silly shenanigans predictably ensue. The story is paper thin and overstretched, but then again you don’t go for an action comedy if you want a realistic, intricate plot and stirring emotions. Skiptrace does exactly what you’d expect it to do, offering goofy gags instead of brains for some escapist fun. The laughs come from amusingly random antics – as random as Jackie Chan spontaneously bursting into an Adele song! There’s some sort of a cultural festival everywhere they go, and the countries they traverse provide stunning backdrops.

The leads are charming and make their characters likable. Chan brings energy to the proceedings; he may not be as spirited as he was in his youth, but he also doesn’t let his age – he is now 62 – get in the way of elaborate action sequences. Knoxville assists him with zeal, and proves to be a capable sidekick. The lovely Bingbing, however, isn’t given a chance to make much of an impact, even though her damsel-in-distress character is the main female role in the movie.

Ultimately, despite its generic storyline and overall ridiculousness, Skiptrace remains surprisingly watchable, mostly because of its affable leads and the steady supply of humour. This isn’t a ‘good’ movie, not by any metric. It’s overlong, predictable, clich├ęd, and all kinds of preposterous. But the over-the-top action and amusing high jinks will try their damndest to entertain you if you’re willing to turn off your brain and just enjoy the silly ride.

- By Sameen Amer  

The Express Tribune blogs - 26th October, 2016 *

Monday, October 03, 2016

Suits (season 6) - an overlong, predictable slog

TV series review

Season 6 (summer season)

Starring: Gabriel Macht, Patrick J. Adams, Rick Hoffman, Meghan Markle, Sarah Rafferty, and Gina Torres

USA Network’s legal drama Suits’ mid-season finale reminded viewers why the series has successfully been on air for six seasons, and has already been renewed for a seventh one. In a touching, poignant episode, the finale bids goodbye to a beloved regular character while gazing at the uncertainty and promise of the future. The series clearly knows how to offer some engrossing, moving drama, which is why it was frustrating to watch it deliver much less for the first nine episodes of the season.

With the reveal of Mike’s secret (Patrick J Adams) throwing Pearson Specter Litt into jeopardy, it was up to Harvey (Gabriel Macht), Jessica (Gina Torres), and Louis (Rick Hoffman) to buckle down and face the daunting task of rebuilding their firm. So they ‘obviously’ decided to spend the season doing other things instead.

The primary focus of the summer run was on Harvey’s mission of getting Mike out of prison, where another inmate – Frank Gallo (Paul Schulze), a criminal who has a vendetta against Harvey – threatened Mike’s safety. Things quickly went from unrealistic to preposterous, and Suits turned towards a predictable conclusion. With Harvey bending and even breaking the law in his bid to get Mike released, it was obvious from the get-go the series did not want Mike to face the aftermath of his mistakes, learn from them and seek redemption. Instead of character growth, we were given an unconvincing and an uninteresting plot, offering us little to empathise with.

Elsewhere, Jessica got roped into taking on a pro-bono case by Rachel (Meghan Markle). But it was flabbergasting how Rachel’s character remained so grating even when she was given the promising story line of defending a death row inmate. Louis fell for a random woman we hardly know, making it one of the least convincing romances the series has ever subjected us to. And with no real story line of her own, Donna’s (Sarah Rafferty) character was lost in everyone else’s chaos.

Exciting cases and interesting legal battles were no where to be found. Suits gave us an overlong, predictable arc that wasn’t nearly as thrilling as one would have hoped. The writers didn’t do a good job in character developments and, for some odd reason, couldn’t find anything substantial for Donna to do, making her feel underutilised.

However, the summer finale was (almost) everything a Suits fan could hope for. The 10th episode, which felt more like a series finale than a mid-season pause, tied up loose ends, bid an emotional adieu to a character without whom the series won’t be the same, and gave us compelling legal and emotional drama. For once we were given the chance to root for the characters, something we missed doing throughout the previous episodes.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune website - 3rd October, 2016 *