Does Self-Help Help?

“Hello. My name is Mark, and I’m a self-help bookaholic.”

“Hello, Mark,” answer thirty million people.

Like so many buyers of self-help books, I see a title that promises to address something I’m feeling in the moment, an emotional need. So I buy the book. By spending money on a book, I have helped myself. This is why it’s called self-help. This is what I’ve been told.

Reading is my preferred style of learning, rather than learning while interacting with another human. I learned that reading is my preferred style of learning by reading a book about it.

At first, self-help was a revelation. My feelings of being lost, anxious, and not at home in the world could be solved by reading a paperback. There was hope! I now had a tool and a strategy for becoming normal. For becoming okay. Of course, despite my negative feelings, I was already okay, and I didn’t need to read a book that told me so, although I probably did.

It’s estimated that self-help will be a $14 billion industry by 2024. Self-help is a broad category, covering everything from time management to weight loss to spiritual growth to financial planning to tidying your closets to woo-woo titles like The Secret. These books run the gamut of quality, from the Eastern Wisdom of the Buddha to whatever nonsense Dr. Phil is hawking.

My cycle goes like this: I’ll be feeling inadequate. I’ll see a book title offering hope. I’ll spend some cash. There is always a honeymoon period with a new book. Initially, it’s exciting, then it goes sour. Maybe it’s too much work. Maybe it’s a bad fit. Maybe it reads like it was written by a third-grader. For whatever reason, disenchantment grows. Guilt follows. I tell myself I’ve wasted my money. Then I weaken and buy a book about dealing with guilt, which will at first be exciting and then go sour…

I don’t deny many of these books have value. I’m sure the collections of stories and inspirational articles, under the umbrella Chicken Soup for the Soul, have given a Reader’s Digest sort of comfort to many. 

I knew there were more than one Chicken Soup for the Soul titles. I didn’t realize there were 250. These include Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan’s Soul, Chicken Soup for the American Idol Soul, Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover’s Soul (Volumes 1 & 2), and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Too Funny!, with a picture of a laughing giraffe on the cover. If Too Funny! is half as funny as Giant Banana Over Texas it’s worth the money. Actually I’d be very surprised if it’s half as funny as Giant Banana.

Big business. And not to be cynical, but I wonder to what extent emotional issues are trumped up so that books addressing these issues can be sold. When did we first suspect that our emotional intelligence should be higher? That we weren’t thinking big enough? That we lacked effective habits? Or grit? Are these shortcomings like body odor, something we never worried about until we were told by the people who sold deodorant that we should be worried about them?

I can’t begin to recall all the titles I’ve purchased in my life.

Years ago, I was curious about Scientology, long before the general public became aware of how coercive and batshit that particular cult is. I’d visit their their center in Evanston , Illinois, and buy a book, as they gave me the hard sell on joining. After three or four visits, they refused to sell me any more books unless I took a class. No thanks, I said, I’d rather read about it. Thus ended my flirtation with the church of L. Ron Hubbard.

Once, at my local pub in Studio City, California, I was reading a new title I’d just purchased, Ready for Anything, about goal-setting and productivity. 

After my fourth pint of Stella Artois (I should have been reading a book on alcoholism), I attempted to stand. My legs buckled under me and I fell to the floor. An attractive young lady at a nearby table remarked, “Well, I guess you’re ready for anything.

To my credit, there are titles I avoided:

How To Be Successful by Being Yourself. This smelled like a stinker, even to gullible me.

You Must Relax! A classic from the ‘50s. Note the relaxing exclamation point in the title.

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. It’s a good thing I passed on that title. If I’d bought it and followed the directions–and ended up feeling good–I would have noticed the sequel, Feeling Great, and ended up feeling bad that I only felt good and could have felt better.

The giants of the self-help industry–Wayne Dyer and Tony Robbins– are highly paid authors and speakers. I’ve read books by both of them. Have I retained any of it? No. I’ve retained more from Chirs Farley’s motivational speaker, “In a van down by the river.” Thanks, Bob Odenkirk, for writing that classic.

Have I ultimately gotten any value from self-help books? Yes. I make my bed. Actually, I did that anyway, without having to read, Make Your Bed.

I’m getting better about setting and achieving goals, after reading dozens of books about goal-setting that encouraged me to stop reading books about goal-setting and start taking action.

I’m getting better at thinking like a psychopath after reading The Wisdom of Psychopaths, by Kevin Dutton. Honestly, it’s a fascinating, inspiring read.

I’ve learned, and am continuing to learn, how to think for myself. Actually, I didn’t learn that from a book either, I learned that from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

Brian (to his followers): You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!

The Crowd of Followers: Yes! We’re all individuals!

Have I learned anything from self-help books? Not much. Will I ever buy another self-help book? No… well, not today anyway. One day at a time.



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