When I was younger so much younger than today I never needed anybody's help in any way But now these days are gone, I'm not so self-assured Now I find I've changed my mind and opened up the doors
Help me if you can, I'm feeling down… Won't you please, please help me?
The Beatles—those are the lyrics to ‘Help!’—had every material advantage in life, but still, as the Fab Four matured, they found themselves leaning in—to borrow the title of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book—to Eastern philosophies, specifically the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. To be sure, if he had written a book, it would have been a huge bestseller.
Plenty have done just that. Helping oneself—to improve one’s life in whatever way one deems fitting—might well be an entirely logical thing to do. It’s a positive urge. But the more dubious, potentially detrimental and somehow embarrassing genre of assistance known as self-help is something else—a global industry of advice too often given by the inexpert to the insecure. And yet, according to Harvard Business Review, the self-help industry—not just the books, but CDs, audiobooks, conferences, coaching, webinars, retreats and so on—is, within the next two years, predicted to be valued at a staggering USD13.2 billion. We must really need help.
It’s been noted that, almost by definition, the self-help advice can’t work or we wouldn’t have to keep going back for more of it. Much self-help advice is, furthermore, from people who are already privileged. It doesn’t speak to the real world, either in addressing most readers’ place in life—the tired and poor have neither the time, the money nor the support to restructure their life in order to, say, drastically cut their working hours—or their ability; despite the claims in Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek that anyone can learn to read 300 percent faster, see if you can get to the end of this article in a minute and take it all in.
Indeed, the industry popularises the idea that if you’re not always improving, there’s something wrong with you, which, naturally, the self-help industry can help you with. Self-help can even make you worse off, encouraging doubt regarding aspects of our lives we didn’t previously think required improvement. Instead, one goal is followed by another in endless dissatisfaction. A 2008 paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science underscored this idea, correlating rumination on one’s shortcomings with, well, the generation of a greater sense of one’s shortcomings—specifically increased frequency of negative thoughts, reduced motivation and decreased problem-solving abilities.
You can teach your dog new tricks with repetition and biscuits, so why not yourself? Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit recommends a three-step conditioning process: cue (put your running shoes by the door), reward (promise yourself a sweet treat afterwards) and execution (go for that run). Or maybe you’re a second-rate player. In her book SuperBetter, Jane McGonigal frames her advice in the language of gaming, in finding ‘allies’ and motivational ‘power-ups’.
"I review a lot of self-help books prior to publication and I can see how the writer will make a lot of money from their book, but what’s lacking is the evidence behind the ideas. Similarly, self-help professionals tend to make a lot of claims about the people they’ve helped. But where’s the evidence that they actually have? The people they haven’t helped have just walked away and bought another self-help book from someone else.”
“The fact is that so many of the ideas in so many self-help books are a long way from being evidence-based,” reckons Professor Stephen Palmer, founder director of the Centre for Stress Management at London’s International Academy for Professional Development, and author of several self-help books, including, inevitably, How to Deal with Stress. “It’s different to taking, say, a cognitive behavioural approach to advice, one that’s got a scientific underpinning. I review a lot of self-help books prior to publication and I can see how the writer will make a lot of money from their book, but what’s lacking is the evidence behind the ideas. Similarly, self-help professionals tend to make a lot of claims about the people they’ve helped. But where’s the evidence that they actually have? The people they haven’t helped have just walked away and bought another self-help book from someone else.”
Of which there are plenty to choose from. But while it may have gone into over-drive over the last two decades, the self-help market isn’t a new one. Many ancient philosophers of a more practical bent considered how to live. But it was in 1859 that Samuel Smiles published what is considered to be the first self-help book; indeed Self-Help, as it was called, gave the genre its name. Extolling the rather old-school virtues of self-discipline, sobriety, thrift, perseverance and faith, the work chimed with a newly entrepreneurial era in which, for the first time, class boundaries were breaking down and effort for its own sake was rewarded. But, Smiles stressed, this wasn’t about the individual; rather, he contended, it was only through the self-improvement of millions of individuals that society as a whole could be “dragged up”. People liked what they heard. Before he died in 1904, Smiles had sold a quarter of a million copies of his book, making it the bestselling book of his lifetime.
It would be only in the following decade when self-help would seek to gain the legitimacy of science. A French pharmacist and hypnotist by the name of Emile Coue published his Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion, bringing in the still popular idea that repeating positive mantras could mould your unconscious self. The Great Depression in 1929 also reshaped the burgeoning self-help offer, with the likes of Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich and Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, remarkably a bestseller even today. Likewise, the pseudo-spiritualism of the 1960s saw another explosion in self-help thinking, with, notably, the Human Potential Movement couching its take in religious overtones. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the salesperson-as-saviour—all white teeth, tan and coiffure—filled stadiums around the world and built TV networks around their purported insights.
This isn’t to say that there are not bon mots of sage wisdom to be gleaned from the self-help world. Susan Jeffers’ Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway is, for example, a good message. As in medicine, the placebo effect has its role too. But the industry, more than ever, is also ripe for people to offer less tried-and-tested advice in a bid to make a lot of money. And there’s a lot of money to be made. Superstars of the genre, the likes of Philip ‘Dr. Phil’ McGraw and Tony Robbins, both have a net worth of around USD500 million.
According to Will Storr, author of Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, that so much money is being made is hardly surprising, given that we live in notably narcissistic times. He argues that nature plays its part. Our brains give us an idea of ourselves through narrative; we’re the headline acts in our own show. But we’re also tribal, so we covet those things that make us stand out, that give us status, like showing we’re making progress in ourselves and in the world.
Add in culture—the long embedded notion that we should strive to find our highest potential, a notion commonplace in religion, in Freudian psychology, even in national stories the likes of The American Dream—and the super-competitive economy—get more productive or die trying and unemployed—and it’s no wonder we’re desperate for succour. That we have no limits is a life philosophy now passed down from parent to child through the generations. And then, as the Danish intellectual Sven Brinkmann has pointed out, there’s the sheer pace of life these days, with its fleeting trends, its blurring of work and home life, the demand that, with life so short, we “do more, do it better and do it for longer with scant regard for the meaning of what we are doing”.
The solution may be less to change ourselves as to change our environment. “Find projects to pursue which are not only meaningful to us, but over which we have efficacy,” advises Storr. Take a breath. Take back control. Stop worrying about falling behind in a race of your own making. But there we are, offering our own self-help advice.
Yet it doesn’t take much close examination to reveal why taking a sceptical view of the self-help industry might be one of the best ways by which we can help ourselves. Many leaders in the self-help industry are no more qualified to offer advice than your friends, their claims often unsubstantiated, their advice contradictory; the track record for many of them hasn’t been great, with bankruptcy and jail featuring among some of their stories; there’s the characteristic emphasis on anecdote over hard data, on providing easy answers rather than addressing the really difficult problems; there’s what is called circular authority—proof of their expertise only coming from having given it before. There’s also the over-bearing emphasis on making money, money, money; and, for some people at least, the bad taste left by the cult-like nature of self-help’s guru frontmen and women.
“Actually, there’s a lot of good self-help out there. But there’s also an awful lot of bad self-help—all that looking in a mirror and repeating a mantra gives the good stuff a bad name,” suggests Gael Lindenfield, the author of several international bestselling self-help titles and of the forthcoming How to Feel Good in Difficult Times. “The fact is that self-help only works if it changes behaviours and that’s a serious business that involves hard work. There aren’t any quick or slick fixes, which is what a lot of people want. And if the self-help suggests there is, it’s probably not worth listening to.”
Then there are some outright crackpot, snake-oil fixes too. The lack of due diligence—by speakers and authors, by publishers and promoters and, to be fair, by readers—can lead to preposterous and manipulative claims. If self-help tends to reflect the priorities of the times, it’s easy to chart how getting up the slippery pole, being more productive, managing one’s time more efficiently, decluttering and cherishing one’s inner spirit have, by turns, echoed broad societal concerns—then in 2006 perhaps it was the impending financial crisis tat had people reaching for mega moolah-making mumbo-jumbo.
That was the year Rhonda Byrne saw the publication of The Secret, her book that explained “the law of attraction”—essentially the idea that your mind is some kind of mystical magnet, that you only need to wish hard enough for something for it to inevitably become yours. Or “whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, ye shall receive,” as the Bible put it millennia before. The Secret sold over 20 million copies so Byrne certainly received. One might ask today what lies behind a willingness for women, mostly, to buy into the claims made by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop organisation. Depressed? Just walk barefoot. But remember to spray your psychic vampire repellent. Don’t get it on your USD2,400 spirit-animal ring.
“Some self-help teaching can be very practical. They can tell you how to look after yourself more or be a better time-manager or improve your self-esteem, all by very simple interventions. But there’s also Pollyanna-ish ‘positive thinking’ and some self-help teaching that people need to be downright cautious about,” warns Palmer. “If a book gives you practical steps to, say, improve your business, that’s one thing. If it tells you that, for example, just wishing for something will make it happen, that’s clearly something else entirely. Beyond that, part of the problem with self-help, for many people, is that it requires the reader to take action. You can’t just read a self-help book, think ‘that’s rather nice’ and then read the next one.”
“The fact is that self-help only works if it changes behaviours and that’s a serious business that involves hard work. There aren’t any quick or slick fixes, which is what a lot of people want. And if the self-help suggests there is, it’s probably not worth listening to.”
But in many ways that’s precisely how the self-help market functions. Self-improvement has become a consumer good; not something one practices, but something one buys, repeatedly, in the hope of a magical, effortless fix. “In a consumerist society, we are not meant to buy one pair of jeans and then be satisfied,” note Andre Spicer and Carl Cederstrom, two business school professors who, as recounted in their fun and insightful book Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Organisational Movement, made a year-long commitment to life-hacking in ways that were meant to improve their health, mind, creativity, wealth and biceps. The same is true of self-help, they concluded: as with our phones and our clothes, we’re sold on the idea of constant upgrade. “We are under pressure to show that we know how to lead the perfect life. [Yet, one concludes] I could not think of another year I spent more of my time doing things that were not me at all,” they write.
That the self-help solution all too often doesn’t solve much at all has perhaps slowly encouraged self-help consumers to become more discerning. In recent years the self-help market has shifted, if not towards being more evidence-based, then at least towards the provision of metrics against which your progress can be measured. We chart our development as we record our sleep patterns, count our steps or diarise our emotional states—making what adjustments the data suggests before starting the process over again.
Even the effort of reading a book is now being superseded too. For the Millennials and Gen Z worriers—and, maybe or maybe not fuelled by social media and the demands of technology, both demographics are seeing record levels of anxiety disorders—increasingly it’s about not turning a page but turning on their phones and loading a self-help app.
As the giants of self-help—the likes of Robbins, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Zig Ziglar, Wayne Dyer or Jim Rohn—die, retire or risk no longer seeming relevant to a younger crowd, so in come apps the likes of brain-trainer Luminosity or meditation guide Calm. These are already big business. Calm is worth a whopping USD250 million. And it’s easy to see why they’re becoming the preferred outlet for self-helpery: for producers there’s the lack of overheads and the global access, for users the convenience—from immediacy to pay-as-you-go—and even the anonymity. Headspace, Mend, Happify, Stigma—apps are lining up to make a better you with each monthly subscription.
But rather than just more of the same, with different packaging, might we also be seeing a counter-action against self-help? Look to a different shelf in your bookstore—the dark side—and there’s a boom in, ironically, a new genre of self-help books aiming to help us get over our addiction to self-help. Enter profanity-rich self-help correctives the likes of Sven Brinkmann’s underground hit Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, Mark Mason’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Sarah Knight’s You Do You: How to Be Who You Are and Use What You’ve Got to Get What You Want and Michael and Sarah Bennett’s bluntly titled F*ck Feelings.
Here’s still plenty of advice but it’s the cold shower kind that frees readers from the constant striving towards being someone other than themselves. They say we should set realistic expectations; get a backbone and not be so touchy-feely about everything; recognise that while exceptional people are exceptional, most of us are average; that we should regularly ponder death and own our cosmic insignificance so as to help us embrace life while we have it. We should realise that nearly everyone out there is struggling and stumbling on in the same ways as we are. Indeed, it’s all solid, rather old-fashioned advice. Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics were saying much the same 2,000 years ago.
“There’s certainly something to be said for accepting the cards that you’ve been dealt and just getting on with it,” says principal psychologist Mike Hughesman. “It is good to be exposed to ideas that could have a positive benefit on your life. For my father’s generation life was built entirely around work, marriage, children. There wasn’t the scope to stop and think about the quality of life. But we shouldn’t think of it as selfish to do that. People should assess their lives. The big question is how and a lot of self-help comes from a certain agenda or just lacks substance. It’s simplistic or doesn’t really understand the challenges involved. You know, just reading a book or an article really isn’t going to change much at all.”
For more stories like this, subscribe to Esquire Singapore.