This charming self-help book is broken down into 12 seasonally appropriate themes. January is for future-facing resolutions. March is for spring cleaning – mental as well as physical. September is about re-engaging with work, perhaps seeing it differently it after a break. The guiding principle is that clinical psychology isn’t just for fixing dysfunctional situations; you can also use it to improve functional ones. If you feel a bit off-kilter but not quite bad enough to spend hundreds of pounds on therapy, Maddox’s tips and tricks from the consulting room could be for you. Not only do the book’s modest claims make it likable, but the fact that it isn’t trying to sell you some pumped-up, perfect version of yourself has the effect of making it seem trustworthy too.
A Year to Change Your Mind was written during the pandemic and is suffused with an air of staying calm while the world is having a freakout. Maddox feels like a solid companion. She self-discloses, but not too much – just enough to let you know that the person behind all the sensible advice has had a hard time too. She alludes to the hardcore problems she confronts in her work with young people in hospital settings, not to set up an us-and-them hierarchy of suffering, but to show what we can learn from people who face serious battles with their inner and outer circumstances. It’s easy to see how these people might benefit from Maddox’s insight and kindness. She doesn’t show off at all – you can just deduce from her manner on the page that she’s someone you’d want on your team in a crisis.
If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that it contains little of the counterintuitive thinking that makes psychology not only exciting but potentially more useful than a chat with a sensible friend. Those who count themselves among the “worried well” probably already have the odd wise confidant to process ideas and feelings with, and are well versed in the notion that life inevitably has its ups and downs. We perhaps turn to psychology in the hope of being surprised out of the furrows in which our habitual thinking can get stuck. (And while we’re on this point, it can be infuriating to read accounts of extraordinarily cruel animal experiments whose results are so blindingly obvious they hardly merit testing. Dogs who are exposed to “uncontrollable trauma” become demoralised – you don’t say.)
Having said that, sometimes it’s extremely helpful to be reminded what a “sensible person” might make of any given question. Overthinking is one of the more common symptoms of everyday unhappiness. We keep niggling over mildly aggravating thoughts as if trying to solve a maths problem whose solution seems slightly beyond reach. If someone steps in and says: “Don’t worry – the big mathematicians have basically decided that this one’s impossible, so they just fudge it like this …” it can be really helpful. For me, the chapter on friendship was genuinely useful. Fluctuations in intensity are OK, apparently. Don’t overthink it. Phew!
Perhaps the most comforting – and discomfiting – thing about this book is that it sketches a world of pain and injustice in which it’s nonetheless possible to enjoy life. Mental illness, extreme poverty, the cost of living crisis, the climate crisis: these are all real. It’s a good idea to try to do something about these things, however insignificant your efforts might feel. But the message we might also take away is that, while circumstances afford us at least the possibility of feeling good, we should be thankful – and not waste the opportunity.
• A Year to Change Your Mind: Ideas from the Therapy Room to Help You Live Better by Dr Lucy Maddox is published by Atlantic (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.