I confess, I am one of the ‘women who think too much.’ In fact, at times I’m capable of ‘thinking big’ and this has enabled me to achieve goals and be ‘positively happy.’ I’ve thought a lot about how ‘you can heal your life,’ and have been assured that if you want to it takes just ‘a weekend to change your life.’ We all want change, not just in our lives but some of us dream of ‘a new earth.’ Ultimately, though we torture ourselves with desiring change in our lives and for humanity, it’s important to realise that ‘I’m ok - you’re ok. Are you wondering if I’ve gone off the deep end? I can reassure you that not only am I ok and you are ok, but the multi million dollar self help book industry is also very much ok, some titles of which are represented above. How helpful are they though?
The titles in quotations are an example of the eleven self help books I’ve been given or purchased in my life. What brings me or anyone to the point of buying a self help book? Simply, we want a quick and easy fix, a list of instructions to follow, some one else to tell us what to do to change our lives. We may be desperate and feel we have tried everything. The very act of buying a book and investing it with hope and a certain authority, in that we look to it for the answers, almost guarantees our failure. Whatever your problem, no lasting help is to be found in handing it over to someone else. Not only is it not helpful, it may well be harmful.
Have a look at the evidence. If self help books worked, according to Christine B. Whelan of the University of Oxford, why have they “doubled as a percentage of all book titles since the 1970’s?” She contends that self help books are a reaction to feelings of alienation and lack of control. These books provide one with the illusion of taking the first steps to control their own lives, in the face of a weakening sense of self control in America. The most successful publications are born in America and consequently it’s a good case in point. According to Miss Whelan’s findings, the demographic of the self help publishing’s success is well educated, middle class, in their late 30’s-early 40’s. They are also more self confident, sophisticated and open to innovation than the average American. Are you surprised? People in this group are already in control of their lives, why would they seek help? The answer is simple. Those that have self control understand it’s value and seek more of it.
Even a cursory analysis of my own small collection reveals by their titles alone, the only thing they are helping is the publishers, authors and the sales of such books in general. I call it the ‘supermarket growing herb phenomenon.’ Do you remember when you could purchase ‘growing herbs’ in supermarkets that actually lived and grew? I do and bought them on one or two occasions. At some point they changed though, became less resilient, no matter how I cared for them they died. Then I figured it out, the secret to their shorter mortality – they had somehow been grown corrupt, either by lack of sustenance in the soil, weak roots or some other means so that they would not last. They weren’t really growing herbs as much as they were more expensive herbs in pots. I am convinced that kettles and toasters are designed in the same way – they are not intended to ‘work’ indefinitely. If they did, we wouldn’t be compelled to replace them and sales would plummet. By the same token, if self help books worked, we wouldn’t need any more. The same is true of a massive part of the self help book market - diet books. If they delivered what they promised, we’d need only one good one, everyone would read it and there wouldn’t be an obesity epidemic, rising diabetes, heart disease and other weight related issues. There also wouldn’t be any more books. No more Valerie Bertinelli in tight jeans with her narrow backside and wide smile, no Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig or any of the other ‘cures’ for losing weight.
It’s debatable then as to their efficacy, but as some time out in fairy land where we pretend our problems are as simple as ten easy steps or something similar, what’s the harm? The harm comes from believing that any serious problem is solved from the surface, or is as superficial as a set of how to instructions. Tell that to the person fighting obesity, who has tried every single diet going and not only not lost any weight, but probably gained more with each successive new gimmicky diet. For them, the answers don’t lie in a book, they lie in understanding the pain that lies deep within and why they developed an overeating coping mechanism to stifle those feelings. Telling them that by doing x, y and z they will be thin and beautiful and solve their problems is not just naïve but reckless. This is true of any self help book. Furthermore, with every book read that doesn’t deliver the results, the person turns that failure inward and it adds to self loathing, thus perpetuating the whole cycle. It seems so easy, what’s wrong with me that I can’t succeed at this? After some time of hating themselves for their problem, the facts of their failure all too evident, they turn to another book which promises that this one will really work!
The interesting thing for me about my own collection of books is that I’ve only read one of them. They attracted me at a particular time (of the ones I bought) because I wanted what they offered. I think I knew I was kidding myself, and they weren’t the answer. I’ve never read Rhonda Byrne’s book, “The Secret,” but if as she claims, (with no verifiable support) that Shakespeare, Plato, Beethoven, Lincoln and Einstein were some of a select few who were in on it, why then were they unhappy at all. People that knew Lincoln described him as having the saddest eyes, Shakespeare’s was the world’s most famous bard but if he held ‘the secret,’ would he not have used it to visualise his wife pregnancy free and thus necessitating their marriage. With the means to control fate with positive thinking, why didn’t he prevent his only son dying? Perhaps he wasn’t visualising effectively? Einstein also lost a child, his only daughter and endured a very stressful marriage breakdown. True, these men represented the best of their time and their good work will live on but they did not have ‘the secret.’
What is the answer then? For fear of sounding like the very thing I am criticising, the secret is not secret and has always been there. It may be unpalatable but the answer to big, deeply entrenched problems lies in hard work, often painful and sometimes years or a lifetime of it. There is scientific evidence to suggest that positive thinking does have an impact on our lives but more importantly, so does hope and meaning. That’s the danger of self help books, they offer both far too cheaply and nothing that easily acquired is ever of any value.
“Self Help Books and the Quest for Self Control in the United States, 1950-2000,” Christine B. Whelan, University of Oxford
Daily Mail Online, Professor Timothy D Wilson, August 15, 2011
“The Secret,” Rhonda Byrne, Wikipedia
© S. Marian, July 17, 2012