Including the word “smart” in the title is tricky. Will readers assume that they aren't smart enough to qualify to read this book? Getting past the title is the first hurdle in coming to grips with this thought-provoking book. Get over it. Unless you're a drooling zombie, you'll get something out of reading this.

This book addresses issues that plague people who think and reflect on their own life and the world around them. People of high intelligence have more of this kind of problem because their brains are high functioning, but people of middle intelligence experience these symptoms, too. The imaginary line in the sand of intellectual capability is fuzzy. It's really a matter a reader's desire to investigate the root sources of distress and functioning problems through an innovative perspective.

Dr. Maisel subscribes to a new modality called Natural Psychology. Old Freudian labels like neurosis, inferiority complex, and depression are mostly abandoned. This is a suitable profession-based counter-reaction to a society now over-burdened and over-medicated because of labels. Techniques of natural psychology address specific modes and patterns of self-defeating thinking and mental habits that provoke or avoid distress (aka anxiety). It's a refreshing perspective on the workings of the human mind. The author candidly admits that not all of its suggested techniques for improvements will work, but insists that working with these methods will make life more bearable and meaningful. 

Chapters One through Fourteen examine the sources of distress and the kinds of thinking patterns and mental habits that can launch distress and anxiety into hyper-drive. The author addresses the difficulties of living in an anti-intellectual society, as well as the issues faced by highly intelligent children growing up in environments that are paradoxically supportive and degrading of, or even hostile to, that intelligence. Problems include racing-brain and self-pestering.

Making meaning and investing in meaning-making, value-based activities, along with cultivating a meaning/value-based personal outlook are the goals asked of readers of the book. Each chapter ends with a series of questions to consider. Readers will find that some of the thinking habits and patterns apply, while others do not. Put the ones that resonate on your honey-do list. The final five chapters offer specific techniques and coping skills that will lead to a more contented, meaning-full life. There are suggestions for improving one's overall life plan, as well as daily orientations that reduce the possibility of meaning-based crises.

Caveat emptor: this review is for the Facing North review site and so presumably targets pagan, Wiccan or Earth-religion readers. From that perspective, aspects of this book merit a warning to tread carefully. Maisel subscribes to atheism (there is no god and no afterlife) and existentialism (within the context of natural psychology, the individual is fully and solely responsible for crafting a life that is satisfying). He posits meaning as a purely subjective experience. For the self-improvement purpose of this book, the subjective sense of meaning is obviously the most important.  But a coherent society, and groups and relationships within a society, center on shared meanings and values, so that position is arguable and a bit dodgy.

In Chapter 10, The Lure of Mysticism, the author conflates mysticism with ingrained thinking patterns inculcated through religious dogma, prejudicial superstitions, and other unattractive, anti-intellectual, god-squatter baggage. Dr. Maisel seems blithely unaware that many pagans make a conscious decision to pursue an independent, non-traditional spiritual path as adults, primary because they are searching for meaning and spiritual enrichment denied them by the hollow platitudes of organized religions. I am not convinced that seekers believe that a mystical or occult worldview is the be-all/end-all that provides all the answers. Rather, it's a pursuit to discover which questions to ask of life, and to place oneself in a meaningful context within the cosmos and any deities and forces that exist within it. Mysticism is a mode of living within reality while acknowledging that mysterious, invisible forces exist and influence things within our world. It provides a language for talking about invisible forces and paranormal experiences that are just as real as the subjective experience of meaning. At best, it allows the individual to experience the ultimate unity of cosmic love engendered by immanent divinity.

This chapter may be troubling and uncomfortable for pagans. There are, indeed, individuals who use occult knowledge in a rigorously authoritative way to justify personal superiority and as a bully club to degrade others, but that's true of every religion! All spiritual paths present a risk of becoming a cognitional dead-end that serves the ego rather than the soul, but there's equal potential for great fulfillment, personal meaning, and inner peace. It's a cheap shot to dismiss these pursuits out of hand; the author appears to lack enough comprehension of the topic to treat it with sensitivity and respect.

The book includes testimonials from patients that have experienced the perils of profound thinking. Pagan readers will get a hoot out of the testimonial from the young pastor's wife who relates the couple's crisis of faith and leap into atheism. They were utterly shocked when members of their former congregation ostracized them. Incredible! The couple shifted from running a church to running a self-help group for atheists, simply transferring from one social-enabling modality to another. Since the lady's testimonial was written in the context of searching for greater meaning, it apparently made the cut for inclusion because it validates Dr. Maisel's preference for atheism. How did this chunk of tripe slide through the editorial process? It's utterly silly except as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of cult indoctrination. The testimonial certainly spotlights the inbred hypocrisy and hostility of certain evangelical Christian sects, and their proclivity for engaging in the communal demonization of any person or group that doesn't share their regressive worldviews. It does little to validate the pursuit of meaningful, value-based activities. Other than this lapse of poor taste, the other testimonials are relevant and helpful.

Dr. Maisel has written dozens of books on a variety of subjects. While this boosts his cache as an author, his prolific output has side-effects on the writing. Some of the analogies or examples are clumsy and ill-considered. Explanations and topical points are occasionally superficial and wobbly, provoking suspicions that the author didn't dedicate sufficient time or thought to his material in a consistent way.

With all this in mind, this book does offer genuinely valuable and relevant information to a person who experiences distress from seeing and perceiving too many horrible things in the world, who struggles to find motivation in a life bogged down by meaningless pursuits, stupid jobs, and bad relationships. The improvement techniques are worth the effort of application. This book isn't just for incredibly smart people, but for anyone who struggles to live a relevant, productive, and satisfying life in the overwhelming complexities of a high-tech, post-modern society. 

Recommended as a whole, but with cautionary warnings about some of the contents.

~review by Elizabeth Hazel

Author: Eric Maisel
Conari Press, 2013
pp. 230, $16.95 pb