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Many of us are unhappy because of pressure, both social and self-imposed, to be perfect. Unfortunately, this merely leads to frustration and unhappiness, since perfection is impossible and any shortcoming feels like a catastrophic failure. The way to a happier existence is to accept the limitations of our humanity and not to set ourselves impossible objections. The healthy and happy individual is, therefore, not a perfectionist but an 'optimalist,' someone who strives for the best possible but accepts failures as not only inevitable but opportunities to learn and grow. This, at least, is the argument of Harvard-trained psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar and he should know for, as he freely admits, he's something of a perfectionist himself.
The book is dived into three parts. The first four chapters explain the basic theory; the following three chapters apply this to the areas of education, work and love; and finally there are ten brief meditations focused on helping one to make the transition from perfectionist to optimalist (though there are exercises and moments for reflection strewn throughout -- the author recommends that it is a book to work through, rather than read like a novel).
Being broken up in this way makes the text quite readable, even though (or perhaps in part because) it is sometimes a bit repetitive. A sprinkling of the author's personal experiences, bon mots from the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln, and appeals to authority (both psychologists and philosophers) helps to maintain the interest. (I have to say that not all of the author's interpretations of philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, struck me as entirely accurate, but that's not the greatest concern here.)
Ben-Shahar draws a basic contrast between perfectionism (which he uses only to describe a negative or maladaptive trait (p. xx)) and 'optimalism.' The distinction is actually more subtle than he sometimes makes it appear. At times it seems 'black or white' -- the perfectionist fears failure, focuses on their destination rather than their journey, thinks in 'all or nothing' terms, is a fault-finder, overly defensive in response to criticism, inflexible, etc -- and the optimalist the opposite (p. 18). In fact, he acknowledges that these attitudes really lie on a continuum and that most people have a bit of both in their make up (pp. 7, 227). Although he often speaks as if the problem with the perfectionist is setting unrealizable targets, the real contrast between the two attitudes seems to be not the content of their goals but how they go about pursuing them (p. 8). The perfectionist expects, or at least hopes for, a straightforward shortcut to his or her destination, while the optimalist is willing to accept -- and learn from -- setbacks along the way.
This actually raises a number of interesting questions about the theory. While Ben-Shahar is open about his own perfectionist elements, and seemingly thinks that his experience can serve as an example to help others overcome such destructive tendencies, presumably it's possible to approach this process itself in the wrong (perfectionist) way. If the perfectionist realizes that her perfectionism is a barrier to her own success and happiness, then she might aspire to become an optimalist -- yet if she wants to be the 'perfect optimalist,' and seeks a shortcut to this destination, then she has not in fact overcome her perfectionism at all. Sadly, these more complex and interesting issues are not really dealt with, since the book is intended for a wider audience. Perhaps, however, they explain why Ben-Shahar remarks that genuine acceptance cannot be merely instrumental or conditional (p. 44).
Since the purpose of the book is practical, rather than theoretical, it is perhaps on the second section -- Applications -- that it should be judged. The prescriptions here seem sensible and to follow from the theory. For example, on love, Ben-Shahar observes that we're never going to find the 'perfect' partner, like in the movies, and constantly expecting such is only going to lead to disappointment. Instead we have to accept our partner's flaws and take the rough with the smooth, which can lead to a stronger relationship with more positive than negative.
My only cavil would be that good advice is purchased at the cost of triviality -- invoking Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, Ben-Shahar frequently tells us to do something, but not too much. In fairness though, it's unrealistic to expect genuine practical wisdom from a book -- and the message throughout is very much that we need to find our own way through life and learn from our own mistakes (I'm surprised that there is no reference to J. S. Mill's ideal of 'experiments in living' here -- he comes up only in a discussion of sexual equality).
The third part of the book simply consists of reflections and exercises designed to help one change. There are moments of insight here -- for example, we find it hardest to change those negative aspects of our personality that we actually value under a different description, e.g. we find it hard to give up our rigidity because we associate it with the virtue of consistency (pp. 169-70). Nonetheless, for the most part I didn't find this section too interesting.
Although I've been somewhat critical in my comments, as a self-help book much of this struck true. I certainly recognize perfectionist traits in myself and many of those that I know. It's easy to see how this causes problems like writer's block, because one thinks that whatever one writes must be perfect and consequently regards anything one does write as not good enough. This book may not be perfect, but that is its message: nothing is, but often it is good enough. This is one that I think we should take to heart and it is a book that I would recommend for anyone battling their own perfectionism and seeking genuine acceptance, success and happiness.
© 2009 Ben Saunders
Dr Ben Saunders, Departmental Lecturer in Philosophy, Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.