Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

Longing to be... Happy
Montpelier Summer 1999

Longing isn't the exclusive province of poets and dreamy teens. Practically everything all of us do is driven by some degree of longing. We long to love and be loved, we long to be happy and satisfied, and that's what makes the world go.

Mark Warner ('79/M.A. '81/Ed.S. '85) has written a new book about longing. Its title is The Complete Idiot's Guide to Enhancing Self-Esteem, and the reason for its every self-affirmation exercise and confidence pep talk is that we humans long to feel good about ourselves and to be happy. That's why Warner wrote the book. Except he puts a lively spin on longing.

"My goal for this book is to take that feeling of longing and transform it to a feeling of being," says Warner, who first stepped foot on campus in 1975 as a psychology undergrad and hasn't left since. He received two more advanced degrees from JMU, was an assistant to former President and current Chancellor Ronald E. Carrier, and now is a health sciences professor and vice president of student affairs.

Published by Alpha Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing, and packaged in the familiar Complete Idiot's Guide cover, Warner's book is an odd addition to the series. Alongside guides to car care and income tax filing, enhancing self-esteem seems not to fit. Plus the name is hard to get over.

"I wanted them to strike through the word 'Idiot' on the cover," Warner says. "I was afraid that people would be turned off by the title." Apparently people are not put off because the book is selling, and Warner is already receiving fan mail. "I got a letter today from a woman in Massachusetts about how her life is terrible, but thanking me for writing a book to help." Peculiar fan mail, but Warner hopes the book will help transform her longing for happiness into being happy.

Longing to be... Happy

Warner's office is on the Quad in Alumnae Hall. As vice president of student affairs, he oversees student life, one of the components of which is the assimilation of self-esteem among students. So the topic is a natural for Warner to address.

"It was an incredible experience," he says. "Actually I was shocked by the whole thing. I write frequently for a publication called Executive Excellence, and one of their editors also is a literary agent. He said the Idiot's people were looking for someone to write a book on self-esteem and he asked me if I wanted to do it." At first, Warner was hesitant, and it wasn't because he'd be working for a group who call themselves "the Idiot's people." It was because of a little touch of self-doubt. "I didn't think I had a prayer. But I wrote a proposal and really got excited by the process. I decided that I would write this book even if the Idiot's people didn't accept my proposal." They did, and with few changes, so Warner went to work.

As he started writing the book, he was afraid. "My editor has Harvard and Yale credentials, and I thought he might think it was garbage. But he loved it." That fear is a funny thing for a self-esteem book author to admit. But without irony, Warner shakes his head and smiles. "It's written very differently from books with titles like Theories of Self-Esteem and Enhancement Processes. It's down to earth. And I really enjoyed writing it." As Warner speaks he cradles a copy of the book in his hands and shifts it about as if he's trying to judge its weight. His friendly manner and physically fit frame give him the presence of a guy 20 years younger. Before talking with him long, it's easy to see that Warner lives his self-esteem advice and is a very happy man.

It's because he was brought up that way, he'll tell you. "My mother was the most positive person I've ever known. She was a high school athlete and loved sports. She developed Multiple Sclerosis and died a quadriplegic at age 60. But in the 30 years she had the disease, she was an incredibly positive person. It's as if it none of her troubles affected her. Plus my father was the same way. Whenever there was a problem, he would say, 'It'll work out.' That's how I grew up."

For those without such inspiring role models, there's Warner's book. It's arranged in a contemporary style with every page containing sidebars, tidbits and cartoonish illustrations. It's like a self-esteem buffet and not a sit-down dinner. "You don't have to start at the beginning," Warner says. "It's in compartments. That way readers can start in an area where they feel they need the most help or skip parts they feel they've already mastered." That's a great idea because not finishing self-esteem books can cause low self-esteem.

After completing the book, Warner didn't see the cover until it was finished, printed and distributed to bookstores everywhere. He got his first glance when it arrived at the JMU Bookstore, ready to go on display. "I was surprised," he says. The cover prominently displays a photo of a teenage girl in a towel looking at her reflection in a mirror. Her reflection is distorted so that she appears fat when she's actually thin. "I'm not so sure about that photo. I don't want the book to be seen as just for teens. It's for everyone. I want anyone to feel as if the book can help them."

The cover photo is not a complete disconnect, however. The book's first chapter is called "Who Is That In the Mirror?" As you read down from there through the rest of the table of contents, one fact is striking; every chapter title or subtitle begins with an action verb like "embrace," "finish," and "laugh." The book spends little time on the history or causes of self-esteem problems and gets right to work.

Warner says, "Unfortunately, people get trapped in the longing stage, waiting for that unreachable tomorrow. Self-esteem requires constant work." So practically every portion of the book asks the reader questions or challenges them to engage in an activity or exercise. "Feeling good about yourself is an active choice," he says, explaining the reason behind this dynamic orientation. "Actually, I wanted to subtitle the book "Living and Loving It" because I do believe that's really the basis for positive self-esteem. My favorite part of the book is the thread running through it that says you can make a difference. That's what it's all about."

Warner's focus on motivated choice runs through every aspect of his daily life, too. In fact, each of his email messages carries the admonishment, "Create a Great Day." This might annoy cynics, but that's okay with Warner. "People accuse me of being idealistic," he says. "Well, I am." After all, idealism can propel the transformation of longing into being. With a smile, he continues. "Others accuse me of having a Pollyanna view on the world. That's fine. Because for 42 years it's served me well, and I wouldn't change it."

  • Story by Andy Perrine
  • Photos by Tommy Thompson and Cathy Kushner

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