“It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing, that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.” Dale Carnegie told us in his How to Win Friends and Influence People. This brilliant book, despised by the cognoscenti, is a classic of self-help literature. It stands in line with Confucius, Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus, Heraclitus, Boethius and many others who have offered to help us.
The self-help shelves in a bookshop are always busy. There you may learn all manner of skills from the central values of life to its most detailed elements. And they are potentially effective because their format is designed to take the reader through stage by stage, often buttressed by summaries and exercises. One cannot study the book as the author intends without getting a good grasp of the subject. Indeed, if I am to master an unfamiliar topic I will start by reading an “idiots guide” to give me a route map for my further exploration.
But there can be a snag. We may buy a self-help book with the best intentions. We may leaf through it, perhaps actually read it. We may even have a go at the first section. But, all too often, we are distracted, and the priority which led to our purchase somehow gets lost in the recess of the memory. We may be subject to an illusion, which I fear I share, that owning a book means that I own its contents – whether or not I have read it. There is only one way known to me that is effective in self-improvement, and we owe it to Benjamin Franklin, the 18th century American statesman, who lived in this country for many years. But, before we examine his ideas, we need to choose a subject.
The one self-improvement which we all need is the development of virtue. Agreed? Aquinas describes virtues as habits. One way to interpret this is to grasp that our state of virtue defines the sort of person we are, and therefore how we characteristically behave. Virtue orients us on God. On a natural level, habits are seen as a circuit of neurons. The connection is formed by practice. For instance, if I have the habit of cooking breakfast on a weekday morning it is because I once disciplined myself to do so, and continued the discipline until I had trained my neurons to make the operation second nature. I can now do it on autopilot, and I sometimes do it on Saturday by mistake.
How do we relate the supernatural aspect of virtue to the natural habit? We know in advance that we will never fully understand the way in which these two aspects of our incarnational nature operate, but I will try. Here I rely on Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Doctrine (1960) in which he devotes some 50 pages of dense notes to the subject of grace.
Actual grace is what we need to perform activities which tend towards salvation, and the development of virtue is certainly one of these. Two forces are at work. One of these is the necessary power of God’s grace, the other is our free consent. This is not like two carthorses pulling the same wagon since the whole act is both ours and God’s. (Don’t ask me how this works, I don’t know. I don’t think anyone else knows either.) Unlike traditional Protestantism, which holds that the merit lies only with God and that man remains intrinsically unchanged, Catholicism teaches that the action, and so the actor, is truly meritorious.
At this point (to follow Franklin) we must be concrete. What aspects of virtue are we choosing for development? To achieve the concrete, we need to identify the action which results. If I choose my prayer life, one action might be to review the quality of my night prayers, to include a thorough examination of conscience, and to maintain regularity. In another area, the improvement I seek might be to overcome a habit of being snappy to my nearest and dearest.
You are unlikely to have any difficulty in spotting enough aspects of virtue for improvement. But here lies the danger. If you try to improve on all of these at the same time, and in an open ended way, you are likely to fail. Franklin’s solution is different.
He suggests that we take, and list, the 13 improvements which seem to be most pertinent. Set these out over a quarter, allotting each one its own week. Then concentrate on each in turn before moving on to the next — leaving the others to ordinary chance. We should of course repeat the programme for following quarters, amended perhaps by experience.
Our choice of concrete actions will allow us to keep an informal diary, which will act as reinforcement and will track improvement. When “I will be more affectionate to my spouse” has been translated into, say, “I will give my spouse one or more hugs every day” we will have something definite to measure. I may profitably measure my progress day by day — marking myself out of 10.
The psychology is clear. By focusing on one objective at a time, and for a limited period, we have the best chance of perseverance. And we will be much helped by the reward of measuring success. Franklin’s 13-week scheme is simply a most effective way in which we give the consent of our will. And God has promised that this mundane activity will be inspired by, and infused with, grace.