All day long people give us advice - magazine editors, lifestyle coaches, parents and self-help gurus. What a pity most of it is wrong. Here is a list of the most common bad advice of our times.
❏ Live in the present This piece of advice is so often cited it has itself become a reason for not living in the present, since so much of the "present" now consists of people lecturing you about how you should live in it. Actually, the recollected past and the anticipated future are both quite nourishing places. The present nearly always involves a soup of distractions; it contains the thing that's important, plus lots of things that get in the way. Recollecting the moment you stood in front of a favourite painting, for example, is often better than the moment itself. In recollection you can strip out all the things that were unimportant: your sore feet, the couple talking loudly behind you, the queue for admission. Memory pares down the moment to its essence. The same is true of the birth of a child, a kiss, a bushwalk. In memory, the experience is at its most intense and pure. After remembering these things in blissful reverie, you can then anticipate similar, or better, experiences in the future, the hoped-for experience fizzing in your mind in a way that is pure and unencumbered. I'm not attacking the present. It's highly useful in prompting both recollection and anticipation - the real things of life.
❏ Think positive Have these people never read Seneca? It took three goes to kill the Roman philosopher - he opened his own veins, which didn't work, then took poison, which didn't work, then threw himself bleeding into a warm bath, which finally did the trick. Seneca, though, took it all in his stride. He'd spent a lifetime training his mind to think negatively. Leaping from bed in the morning, he'd consider all the things that could go wrong and then - as the day went on - be pleasantly surprised by how well things went. Compare that to the ''think positive'' crowd who must spend every day in a funk of outrage over their shocked realisation that the world is an imperfect place. As to that last terrible day of poisoning and blood-letting, at least Seneca would have died with a pleasant thought tinkling through his head: "I've been proved entirely correct. Today really was total crap."
❏ Be healthy Of course it's good to be healthy, but this advice is normally so thoroughly bundled up with shame it often does more harm than good. Yes, people enjoy happier and longer lives if they are not carrying extra weight. They also enjoy longer and happier lives if they are not laid low by anxiety, depression and self-contempt. Is our central problem that we ask too little of ourselves or that we demand too much? We hate ourselves for our every imperfection and then we over-consume in various ways to suppress the shame of that previous over-consumption. There are two epidemics under way in the West - obesity and depression. How interesting that both started just as people began obsessing over their body mass index.
❏ Drink less Have you tasted the new 2011 Best's Bin No.1 Shiraz? Lush, isn't it? And you are still saying, official guidelines, that it's 1¼ standard glasses and put the bottle away? You don't feel you are setting the bar, in both meanings of the word, a little high?
❏ Don't focus on past errors This is the modern version of ''don't cry over spilt milk''. There is still, however, the question of how the milk was spilt in the first place. Maybe you need a different bucket, without holes. Maybe you should carry the bottle to the table rather than balancing it on your nose. Perhaps a motorised Lazy Susan isn't the best idea for a breakfast table. Crying over the spilt milk is how we focus the mind to solve whatever problem is causing the milk to spill. Consider, for instance, the little UHT packets you find in motels: people's unwillingness to cry over spilt milk may be the reason they've never been redesigned - despite decades in which they have spilt milk over everyone who's ever tried opening one.
❏ Smell the roses This is a staple of the graduation speech. A person in their late 50s, having already achieved much in life, tells an audience of young people to slow down. Note that they never took this advice themselves; when young, they threw themselves at life. That's how they became sufficiently successful to deliver this speech which, frankly, is going on a bit. Don't they have a meeting to get to? The truth is that good things happen when we burn the candle at both ends.
So here's to us - we who spend our lives in a daydreamed past and an anticipated future, we who drink too much, work too hard and plan for the worst. We're happy those around us constantly proffer advice. We're just unsure we want to take it.