Read this article; it will change your life!
Since the publishing of ‘Self Help’ by Samuel Smiles back in 1859, the self-help industry has got its tentacles into every possible aspect of life. Got a problem? There’s a book or video out there for you! It can offer you an easy to follow, five stage programme to solve your issues forever and live life in a state of eternal enlightenment, free from the world’s problems… as long as you don’t mind forking out the cash. After all, when there are messianic life coaches such as Tony Robbins out there, who are willing to share their keys for “unlimited power”, allowing you to “discover the strength inside you to overcome obstacles, achieve success, and create a meaningful, fulfilling life”, what is the measly £5000 you’ll have part with to attend his show.
The self-help industry has ballooned in size over the past 2 decades and is currently worth $11 billion a year. With more and more people discovering the miracle of self-help, yet the mental health epidemic being never more prevalent in Bristol, it begs the question whether self-help is really a force for is good, or perhaps something more sinister. The assumed altruism of the “self-helpers” makes for a picture-perfect book cover, but the insidious alterior motive of profiteering that drives the industry is all too apparent. The fact that the self-help market as a whole depends on people having problems, means it is in the industry’s interests for you to have problems which they can solve - for a price. They imply that you’re not whole, that you need fixing, and that you’re fucked in life without their secret source for fulfilment. The circular irony of the self-help industry is that the problems it claims to be able to solve are the very same problems sustaining it.
An author cannot be blamed for wanting to share the way they made a success out of life while meanwhile making a profit for sharing their secrets, but in that sentence lies the root problem with self-help: the words “success” and “profit”. Success - the accomplishment of an aim or purpose- is by definition subjective, therefore generalised methods for success in life, such as Jordan Peterson’s infantilizing “tidy your room” mantra in his best-selling book “12 rules for life”, are simply just ideas which has worked for him and a few of his clients. So unless you want to end up like that fucking loser Albert Einstein (whose desk was famously chaotic and messy), you’d better get tidying. This illustrates how books which seem to be all encompassing, are best treated with a degree of suspicion, as they are often clearly written by people either too arrogant or too ignorant to realise there are no generalised ‘rules for life’, as everyone’s life is different. The second word ‘profit’ also needs dissecting. There quite clearly isn’t a one size fits all guide for success and meaning in life, but the constant need for profit drives the continuing proliferation of the already saturated self-help market. More and more ways to improve yourself keep popping up: ways to calm down, way to speed up, ways to sleep, ways to stay awake. Jo Hemmings offers you bedroom secrets in “how to have great sex” whereas Donna Williams asserts how abstinence is the key to recharging your spirit in “Sensual Celibacy”. By the time you’re finished searching for the right book for you you’re wrapped in a paralysing contradiction and feel way more confused than when you set out looking.
The benchmark for self-help is arguably “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie. This kind of book represents books which teach you how to interact successfully with people. The title should give you all the information you need to run a mile: when was the last time you introduced a friend proudly as something you “won”; is not the pursuit of influencing others the pursuit of emotionally manipulating others for your own gain? If you aren’t abhorred by the title alone, between the covers you’ll find tips and tricks on how to “make people like you” and “win people over to your way of thinking”. These so called “networking” books turn pals into pawns and life into a game by teaching you to act without authenticity in order to get what you want out of people. Moreover – what you’re told you want by these same self-help books! If we are constantly being told ways to manipulate people, is it any wonder that private sector industries and businesses have such a notorious reputation for being climates of back stabbing and toxicity. It’s a shame that weird old Dale has set the tone for many networking books, in which the need for power takes the driving seat, and honesty is stuffed in the boot.
We are constantly bombarded with adverts, books and blogs on ways to improve our longevity. We’re all dying, just at different rates; and there are a whole array of books showing you how to slow that rate down, by eating healthy, exercising and sleeping just the right amount. These are all obviously things which will make us healthier. However, these can quickly become an obsession, and can lead to unhealthy self-punishing for not following the made up rules and unattainable goals of what makes a successful person, who is “smashing life”. Why do I eat chips? Because they taste good. Why do I lie in sometimes? Because it feels nice. There is not enough said about epicureanism, where pleasure trumps the fear of death. These habits are proved to make you live longer, and there is evidence that they can improve general well-being, however they should only be maintained if they DO actually make you enjoy yourself, not because you’re told it’s what is right to do. Imagine the dystopia of coming home after a night out where you’ve just drank five pints of super greens smoothie, through the door way, a kale kebab in hand, ready to get up at 6am to go and do your cross fit session and to talk to your mates about the benefits of telling yourself in the mirror that ‘you’re a winner’.
My fear is that everyone becomes one homogenised clump of people all employing the same lessons they got from the same self-help book, with not a shred of originality or authenticity to be found amongst interactions. The worst thing about these health-obsessed drones is they’ll probably be around for the next 100 years because they’re so healthy.
To dismiss all self-improvement methods would be wrong. There are certainly parts of the industry which genuinely do help, but these books tend to be much softer in their approach; not offering any miracle cures or promises but instead drawing upon scientific evidence coupled with well-established philosophies. Although these kind of books (such as Mark Williams’ book on Mindfulness and Pete Walkers on PTSD) fall under the same self-help umbrella as Deepak Chopra’s books, the difference between the two is stark. The former are well intentioned books meant to help people cope with mental health issues, the latter are books intended to line the authors pockets while sending you on a path to enlightenment paved with pseudo-science and general mumbo-jumbo. Whether there are more people who are mentally ill than in the past, or societally we have improved at identifying and taking serious mental health issues is debatable. What isn’t debatable is that people of all genders and generations feel vulnerable and lost at times, and sometimes need help. However, the source of that help is key, and at times of mental vulnerability it can also leave you susceptible to pseudo-scientists and charlatans who really don’t have anything but their wallets interest at heart.
Images : Caio Orio https://trendland.com/ironic-self-help-posters-by-caio-orio/