Self help is a topic so full of options at the book store there is an entire section devoted to it. Libraries stock shelves bursting with dog-eared titles, some of which were written in the 1970s but have had to be replaced multiple times with new and updated editions because of their popularity and because the spines of old versions simply fall off with use.
What is the appeal of self help and does it really work? Which trends in the books you find most commonly available from 4 decades ago and from modern authors are most prevalent?
Self Help Books of Old
Here are some titles from the past: The 7 Habits of Highly Influential People by Stephen R. Covey and his First Things First; The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles; You Can Heal Your Life by Louise L. Hay; and the Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck; Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.
That’s just scratching the surface of a massive array of volumes.
What They Have in Common
Earlier in the 20th Century there was one book which every member of western society was supposed to take their moral guidance and personal direction from, the Holy Bible. This was in spite of many decades and centuries of resistance founded in schools of thought such as the Enlightenment of the late 18th Century, Post-Modernist thinking, and the theories of great psychiatrists/psychologists of the early 1900s.
At the same time that people like Voltaire and Descartes and a growing middle class were undermining ideals of community and society by putting the individual first (consider the rise of epistolary or “letter” novels in the 18th Century and architecture increasingly focused on small rooms rather than communal spaces), God was increasingly losing his place in the family home. The “self” was subtly put ahead of Him and steadily gained ground over the 200+ years to follow.
All self help books, by their very nature, seem to teach that the self or ego is number one and any direction a person takes in life is controlled by the individual. He chooses and shapes his fate, not so much God or destiny (destiny and fate are worthy of another separate topic of study).
Granted many self help books do suggest using God, or infinite intelligence, the universe etc., along with the self to shape people’s lives.
The most successful books targeting an audience of people keen to help themselves is geared at gaining wealth. North American society is obsessed with being rich. How can consumers achieve financial wealth? They just have to read the stories of people like them; ordinary people who went from having nothing to having everything.
American readers should follow their patterns and their advice in order to become financially secure. After the stock market crashed in the early 2000s, it’s no wonder consumers turned to confident people who still had their money in order to find inspiration.
The next top trend is self-healing. You do not need a doctor or counselor to help you feel better. You just need this or that formula; perhaps a mantra you repeat or exercises to perform every day.
Some fitness programs have become similar to self-help healing tomes because they perpetuate the idea that one can connect with the spirit, with the breath, and restore peace in order to overcome emotional and digestive disorders or even worse illnesses.
Some practices are very helpful in learning to deal with pain but they don’t make pain go away; they do not cure cancer or liver disease. Their usefulness is real but limited.
Self Help Literature
Every year several books are released or re-released and sales are generally good if the face on the cover already has a following on his blog or YouTube channel. If any one of these books was good enough on its own, though, there would be no need to see shelves lined with so many.
A good author telling a useful story the first time doesn’t need to write another one. The reality is that none of these books truly fulfills its role. Each book leaves gaps in its teaching and leads a person back to “self,” a lonely place essentially.
One also has to wonder why someone who is so successful needs to keep writing books about becoming wealthy. One might see the altruism behind self-healing; the hours spent organizing a story so that it is meaningful and applicable to tens of thousands of strangers.
When it comes to books about wealth, however, that makes so much less sense. If you are wealthy, you spend and increase your money and you know that helping other people get a piece of the pie only reduces the size of your piece. Sharing knowledge about establishing wealth is counter-intuitive.
Real Fears about Self Help
There is also the worry that a person in real trouble emotionally or even physically will choose to follow the latest book about self-healing to overcome cancer instead of visiting the doctor. A well-rounded approach to mental or physical illness starts with a visit to one’s GP or counselor but might also include special exercises, herbal treatments, a change of diet, or alternative therapies, even the notions of a self help guru who overcame disease to live a happy life (so far). These should support medical help, not become the be-all and end-all.