If you scanned the bookshelves in my office, you’d think I have a lot of problems: I’ve got books on how to find a date, have a good relationship and save a failing marriage. I’ve got guides to losing weight, overcoming anger, learning how to pray and finding one’s inner child. There are manuals for self-control, motivation, happiness and overcoming grief. In my own defense, though, I have a good excuse: I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the increasing popularity of self-help books, and in the years since then, I’ve been both a vocal critic and supporter of the $11 billion personal improvement industry.
So when a respected psychologist and myth-busting author comes out with a self-help book claiming to distill the best of psychological research into a user-friendly, fast and surprisingly simple book for personal improvement, I’m all over it.
In 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman uses academic research to shatter the myth that positive thinking alone will improve your attitude and performance — Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking takes a hit — but presents dozens of studies that support Dale Carnegie’s simple aphorisms about smiling and complimenting others as the way to win friends and influence people. He explains why writing down your goals is more effective than visualizing them, why retail therapy doesn’t actually make you happy, and why active listening in relationships might not be the secret to a happy marriage.
In easy-to-read, quick and fun chapters (with plenty of interactive exercises), Wiseman finds that: spending money on a vacation makes you happier than buying a new gadget; expressing gratitude and helping others boosts your mood; and finding the silver lining in a situation — or God’s purpose and plan for you during a tough time — allows you to come out of a dark moment with your head held high.
But what about dating and relationships? Should you follow The Rules and play hard-to-get? Is there a single “best” way to demonstrate your love? Can body language be the secret to successful speed-dating? And is there such a thing as a perfectly planned first date? No, no, yes and yes.
Here’s some of Dr. Wiseman’s research-based advice for your love life:
Don’t play hard to get
The conventional wisdom is that we all want what we can’t have — so girls should play a little “hard to get” and that will drive a guy wild with desire. Don’t return his calls immediately. Don’t seem too interested. Pretend you are very busy. You’ve heard it all before, right?
So when psychologists at the University of Hawaii couldn’t prove this in a series of experiments, they were confused. Surely something was wrong with their methods, right? Nope. After years of trying to prove that playing hard to get is the best way to land a date, they came to the opposite conclusion.
Bottom line: If you like someone, just be yourself and skip the games. If you’re worried that you seemed too eager to go out on a date, you can hint that you’re usually a challenge to get a date with, but you’re so enthusiastic about him/her that you let down your guard.
There are many languages of love
More than 30 years of research shows that most people adopt one of a few different styles of expressing love and affection, writes Wiseman. In the language of the Greek philosopher Plato, these styles can be broken down into Eros (desire), Ludos (game playing) and Storge (affection). Wiseman offers a short quiz to figure out what style you and your partner might exhibit. Another excellent way to think about this is Gary Chapman’s bestselling relationship book, The Five Love Languages. Do you show love through words of affection and kindness, or actions of generosity and caring? Do you prefer hugs and snuggles or notes and private glances? All are great — but different people have different ways of loving.
Bottom line: There’s no right and wrong way to love, but be sure that you are expressing your love in the language that your spouse or significant hears best.
Simple touches and body language speak volumes
Psychological studies have found that a brief touch on the arm makes people more likely to warm up to you. In a series of experiments, women who were asked to dance by a stranger who briefly touched their arm were more likely to say yes than those who weren’t touched on the arm. Wiseman writes that a quick touch on the arm “increases the likelihood that one person will find another person attractive, providing that the touch is short, confined to the upper arm and delivered at the same time as a compliment or request.”
And on a date, simple things like leaning forward, smiling and mirroring how your date holds his or her hands can send subtle (positive) signals. (Check out my column on body language and dating for more on this, too.)
Bottom line: A touch on the arm goes a long way toward breaking the ice — but don’t be creepy about it!
Tips for a perfect first date
Wiseman surveyed dozens of studies since 1975 on interpersonal interactions, and came up with a list of venues and conversation topics for the perfect date. “Choose an activity that is likely to get the heart racing,” he advises. Amusement parks, hiking, bike rides and the like. “The theory is that your date will attribute a racing heart to you rather than the activity,” and that will help spur along the romance. And when it comes to sharing, Wiseman quotes the work of psychologist Arthur Aron and lists a bunch of questions to get everyone chatting in those awkward first meetings:
- When did you last talk to yourself?
- Name two ways in which you consider yourself lucky.
- Name something you have always wanted to do and explain why you haven’t done it yet.
- Describe one of the happiest days of your life.
Bottom line: Fun activities are better date ideas than the traditional dinner-and-a-movie combo — and good communication starts early. I have to admit that I’d have probably freaked out if a guy started asking me all those questions on a date, but hey, it might be worth a try (although I’d suggest phrasing them a little less awkwardly!)
Want more? Dr. Wiseman’s blog offers some additional research-based tips. Plus, 59 Seconds has chapters on motivation, happiness, creativity, relationships and decision-making, among others. So next time you are browsing the self-help aisle, put down the books that offer no research-based proof for their feel-good advice, and give Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds self-help boost a try.