Reasons to be Cheerful

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The Optimist: One Man's Search for the Brighter Side of Life  By  Laurence ShorterGiven the choice, would you rather hang out with optimists or pessimists? It seems like a simple choice doesn’t it? Wouldn’t we all choose a life uplifted by rubbing shoulders with perpetually sunny cheery glass-half-full types over one dragged down and depressed by those who always expect to lose a fiver and find a shirt button?

Laurence Shorter’s book ‘The Optimist‘ is a one man quest to uncover the secret of optimism and is based on the premise that optimists have better lives – or maybe optimists just cope better when faced with adversity. That’s part of the problem; it’s quite hard to get a clear idea of why Shorter really wants to discover the secret of positivity. He believes that if he can become an optimist, then his life will be better and he will be more successful.

Shorter doesn’t at first glance appear to have all that much to be optimistic about. His career’s going nowhere, he’s not achieved much in his life, he’s still living with his grumpy father and his love-life’s not exactly stunning either. However, he’s convinced that somewhere, somehow he can find the secret of optimism and make both his life and those of his readers so much better. How? Well in this case by going off and trying to track down the most optimistic people in the world so that he can learn from them.

Now I do rather like a book based on the ‘Man with a Quest’ theme. Whether it’s Tony Hawkes pushing his fridge round Ireland or trying to beat the Moldovan national football team at tennis or Michael Palin setting off on one of his many geographical missions, I rather enjoy a book based on the premise of personal discovery.

Shorter starts off by making a list of all the reasons to be depressed which includes a Victoria Beckham, plastic bags and the decline of English grammar. With a little more research, the list just gets longer. In order to stem the rising tide of negativity he sets off to find optimists across a wide range of walks of life. Early meetings include a session with Tim Smit, the chap who set up the Eden Project and in no time Shorter’s friends are helping to set up encounters so that he can be patronised by Harold Pinter and ridiculed by Bishop Desmond Tutu. He has a characteristically jolly encounter with Richard Branson who seems incapable of being down about anything. He’s soon sending emails to all sorts of people – Prince Charles, Bill Clinton (repeatedly), and President Ahmedinajad of Iran. When he doesn’t succeed with Ahmedinajad, he’s soon writing (in a fake name – he might be optimistic but he’s also scared) to one of the Ayatollahs, proposing peace and reconciliation with the Israelis. He’s on the phone to Ashley Judd learning about her work in Indian slums, he’s bobbing off around the world meeting a surfing rabbi, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and the Dalai Lama’s interpreter who might just be the happiest man in the world. Some of the most inspiring people turn out to have the least to be optimistic about and include a woman with cancer who just squeezes every last drop of happiness out of every day.

“Another inspiring aspect was realising that if you REALLY want to make contact with someone – in his case, Bill Clinton was his Holy Grail – you can get there if you stick at it.”

As the book progresses Shorter attempts to define and control the concept of Optimism, drawing graphs and diagrams, putting together equations and building models. He meets exponents of a wide range of religious and philosophical theories and tries his hand at ‘cosmic ordering’ which results in the loan of a VW Campervan for the weekend. He trots around after a ‘girlfriend’ who has told him from the very beginning that she doesn’t ‘do’ relationships and you are left thinking ‘Laurence, mate, that’s not optimism, that’s stupidity’. The problem is that the more he looks and the further he searches, the less clear it all becomes until eventually he realises that the secret of Optimism seems to be simply not caring about anything too much.

Most readers will be looking for Shorter to entertain them and/or lift the lid on the secret of happiness. He’s not really funny enough for the former and the theories just don’t gel for the latter. The jokes wear a little thin after a while and I did on many occasions have an urge to shout “Stop messing about Laurence and get yourself a proper job” but in its own strange gentle way I was inspired by his book. Not perhaps in the way I should have been or in the way that Shorter intended but some of the people he interviewed really made me think about how we look at life.

Another inspiring aspect was realising that if you REALLY want to make contact with someone – in his case, Bill Clinton was his Holy Grail – you can get there if you stick at it. The range of people who would reply to an unsolicited email from a total stranger and even meet that person surprised me too and made me think that perhaps we should all once in a while use that ‘contact’ button on a celebrity’s website and see whether they will reply. I might just pop off and start an e-correspondence with the Pope and see if he’s as communicative as the Ayatollah who Shorter got in touch with. What do you reckon? Do think he’d reply?

Published by Canongate Books, 320 pages, January 2010
Thanks to Canongate Books for providing a free review copy to us.

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Optimist (The): One Man's Search for the Brighter Side of Life
by Laurence Shorter

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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