As of 2008 the self help industry was an $11 billion one. Yet fast forward a decade and depression, feeling lost, or living an unfulfilled life are just as common. (Source)
At a glance it seems like if all that help the public paid billions of dollars to receive actually worked, this wouldn’t be true.
The author of the article referenced above, entitled “11 Billion Reasons The Self Help Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know The Truth About Happiness“, has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Dr. Jones says that the biggest problem with self help material is that it highlights what we’re missing.
Inadvertently, any time we start getting a laundry list of mistakes we’ve made or negative perspectives we’ve been stuck in, even if we asked for that kind of illumination, it tends to draw the attention there. There’s a particular mind set we need to have to make this attention productive, to really apply when we’re learning.
The trouble is, that kind of true open mindedness is usually a step ahead of where we are on the actualization journey when we’re shopping for self help books. Prior to that point we’re still stuck in bad habits, frames of thinking, and biases that prevent understanding. We’ll read advice and feel like we understand, but getting from an “aha” moment to real life changes usually involves some insight that self help doesn’t provide.
Self Help Often Fails Because Everyone Has Different Starting Points.
Another reason researchers have pointed to for why self help doesn’t often work is that we’re all at different points in our journey.
Anyone who’s overcome something and is better for it can write a book or stand up on stage, and talk about the path that led them there. But while there are certainly nuggets of truth in that, how accessible it will be will vary wildly from listener to listener.
Dr. Brenner talks about how many of these programs are tailored for certain demographics on Psychology Today. Other times it’s a matter of rapport with the teacher; whether or not you resonate with someone also affects how well their advice connects.
Dr. Brenner goes on to explain that the material in the book or seminar has to engage the parts of the brain associated with long term planning. If they don’t (they usually don’t) any efforts made will taper off. The user will get bored with them or lose sight of them, and will often move on to the next self help book or strategy.
Or, as Dr. Brenner points out, what happens is that too many problems are pointed out early on without enough solutions being given to illustrate that positive change is really possible. That discourages people.
The Happy Philosopher uses the apt analogy that self help articles and books are like the finished product — the meal served at your table. But they don’t really include the process the kitchen staff went through to create it, or the server getting it to the table.
And just like if you were learning to cook, seeing the finished meal on your table doesn’t teach you much about how to make it.
Self-Help Affirmations and Re-Framing
Since much of our unhappiness stems from biases and focusing on self destructive perceptions, whether we realize it or not, the path to progress often lies in learning to frame our lives differently.
We’ve all known a person that somewhat annoyingly chooses to see the positive in any situation. Maybe they just spent $800 on a car repair, but shrug and say, “Well at least I have a car that runs great now.”
Even if you don’t totally believe yourself when you say that, making it a point to frame your situation less negatively can train your brain to stop automatically going to the negatives when things happen.
While it seems that this technique can work in the right settings, it’s best when used for specific circumstances and not for broad statements that are more ambiguous than we think as we say them.
For instance, standing in front of a mirror each morning and telling yourself you’re a good person worthy of respect and love can actually cause your mind to rebel — coming up with little reasons and recalling memories that disprove that assertion.
If you’re not in the right frame of mind, of course. And if you are in the right frame, you probably don’t need the affirmations.
On that point, Pathway To Happiness talks about how at first these affirmations can make us feel worse. And even as the person insisting upon affirmations to themselves each morning starts finding the assertions make more sense over time, it can take a long time for that to happen.
Time, the author seems to imply, that would’ve been better spent on other self improvement activities more likely to evoke change.
Would-Be Good Advice That Goes Too Far In Self-Help
We’ve all been on social media and seen profiles vomiting happy platitudes left and right. These well-meaning channels are inadvertently working contrary to their purposes in many cases.
If it were truly as simple as “think happy, be happy” to shift your whole life, there would be no depression. And when it’s presented as being that easy, every person still struggling will assume there must be something wrong with them. After all, if this person has had so much success with it, and seemingly so have all their fans, “why can’t I?”
That and this nonstop barrage of rainbows carries with it an undertone that suggests we should only focus on the positives in life, and any mention of negatives is just being a downer. That stops people from having meaningful discussions of negative behaviors, circumstances, or incidents. “Stop bringing us down, man. Just focus on the positive.”
As Mark Manson says, “Essentially, The Secret tells you to become delusionally positive about yourself for a long enough period of time that your natural confirmation bias kicks in and you only attend to the things in your life that match these new beliefs.”
And so a person’s feelings are invalidated by someone else pretending that their own life is nonstop happiness, which is impossible and rather disingenuous for anyone to imply.
Dwelling on the negative isn’t helpful, for sure. But acknowledging all aspects of our lives to grow and change our behaviors? Healthy by any professional’s standards.
Just think about “The Secret”. It takes one salient point, that the world is what we make of it, and goes off the deep end.
Taken loosely as a guiding principle, there’s some wisdom in believing that altering our frames of mind can indeed cause us to perform better, and ultimately be more likely to achieve the positive things we were thinking about.
But taken literally, it asks us to believe that we actually manifest things into existence by a sheer force of will. Think about getting a promotion hard enough and believe it, and your boss will be compelled to do it.
It teeters on espousing mind control, like if you believe things will happen wholly enough it will shift the universe around you to make it so, which necessarily means other people must alter their behaviors to accommodate.
Everything that happens to us is a result of the energy we put out there.
Is a victim of assault really a victim then, or are they responsible somehow by inviting the negative energy? For clarity, totally not my belief here, but it does seem to be a necessary question if one believes the rest of The Secret’s message.
If we can reshape our reality to invite more money, more friends, etc. through mind set, why would avoiding negative acts by other people be any different? And if the answer is that you can’t, then this set of rules being defined seems rather arbitrary.
These kinds of uncomfortable questions seem completely avoided by proponents of The Secret.
Extreme Cases: An Anecdotal Aside
I’ve encountered spiritual healers who were also big believers in The Secret mentality. In one notable case, the person talked about focusing on making money such that that money would appear in your wallet, or bank account.
It was the most overt claim to magical evocation I’d heard. Not to mention the following philosophical conundrum: where is this money coming from?
- The manifestation is teleporting existing money from elsewhere to the user’s wallet. This is stealing, since it likely came from bank vaults or other people’s wallets to make this happen, just by magic.
- The manifestation is creating new money that never existed before, complete with valid serial numbers such that the money can be used in stores (else, what’s the point?). This is also illegal since only the government can mint currency.
It gets ridiculous quickly.
While the aim of self help authors is usually positive, real self development is a complex process that, according to many mental health professionals, is not very compatible with platitudes and “transformational” books.
We have only to look at the sheer volume of money spent in this industry to become a bit critical of it, particularly when prescriptions and therapy for depression or generally feeling lost are at an all time high.