The Self-Help Industry: Scam or Saviour?

Ok, so I’ll admit it- I have always wanted to buy the self-help book He’s just not that into you. If not for fear of the scorn of the bookshop workers or my dislike of online shopping, I could have sorted out any relationship problems (or lack thereof) years ago. But many people, it would seem, do not share this sense of embarrassment at purchasing books such as Cinderella Was A Liar: The Real Reason You Can’t Find or Keep a Prince or Angry All the Time. This is evident from the phenomenal growth of the self-help industry.

Bookshops now devote large portions of shelf space to the genre, and self-improvement books continually feature on bestseller lists. In a world where Oprah is God, George Bush has been seen carrying The Middle East for Dummies and with a market worth over £15 billion each year in the UK alone (including books, motivational speaker seminars, videos, CD’s, mail-order catalogues and personal coaching), the self-help industry looks set to grow, as people frantically attempt to improve every aspect of their lives.

But where did this concept emerge from and why is it that we are so overly dependent on other people telling us how to fix our lives?

Before becoming a synonym for psychobabble, the term ‘self-help’ was first employed in a legal context, referring to the principle whereby a party in a dispute has the right to make use of legal means without involving lawyers or even courts to remedy a wrong.

The first literary contribution to the genre of self-help, however, is said to have been published in 1732, when Benjamin Franklin wrote Poor Richard’s Almanack. Then in 1859 came Samuel Smile’s book Self-Help with the opening line ‘Heaven helps those who help themselves.’

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friend’s and Influence People (1936) marked the beginning of the 20th century’s self-help movement and is regarded as the quintessential self-help book, having sold over 50 million copies. Since then the industry has continued to grow, with books such as Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (1992) and The Secret (2007) becoming publishing phenomenons.

Author Christopher Buckley said: “The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one” and looking at the bestseller lists in America or the UK, it would seem this is an accurate assertion. With over 45,000 titles on Amazon that claim to help improve our lives, publishers and authors alike are catching on to this trend.

It doesn’t seem that hard to become a guru of the genre. If you are a recovering alcoholic/ have been a reject in love and/or have had a near death experience, it helps. You also need to reassure people that they should blame their parents/childhood for anything bad that ever happens to them- people like hearing that they are not personally to blame.

It was inevitable that the industry would drift across the Atlantic- mirroring American fads has become quite the speciality the UK and Ireland. It’s estimated that 1 in 5 people in the UK has had some form of self improvement service, but according to some surveys, Britons are less happy than ever before.

The New Age self-help genre has grown to such an extent worldwide that there is now a subsection within the market for those who have bought too many books (Bridget Jones comes to mind). An example of such is Stop Improving Yourself and Start Living.

Comedians, likewise, have cashed in on the industry’s success by publishing self-help parodies such as I Hate This Place: The Pessimist’s Guide to Life and Get Stupid! which promotes an ‘ignorance is bliss method’ to obtaining happiness.

Purely in the name of research, I decided to look at some self-help books, only to read that I am going about life completely the wrong way. Below are seven ideas that I picked up from books that will apparently drastically improve my life:

  1. The only reason a person does not have sufficient money is because they are blocking money from coming to them in their thoughts (if the UN read these helpful suggestions, no doubt world poverty would be banished)
  2. Don’t criticise, condemn or complain (what would we talk about if we couldn’t complain? Does this apply to the weather? )
  3. Encourage others by making their faults seem easy to correct (but I thought I wasn’t allowed criticise?)
  4. Shun your friends if they become ill because you are asking to get sick if you are listening to other people talk about their ailments (surely that is a fast-track way to losing friends? Is the aim not to win friends?)
  5. Don’t look at fat people because that encourages ‘fat thoughts’ to enter your mind (yet another helpful suggestion conducive to positive self-image)
  6. What is holding a person back is the relative smallness of their thoughts (big thoughts, big thoughts, hmm, but don’t think big thighs…)
  7. Don’t take anything personally (but you’ve just told me I’m a failure in life)

Unsurprisingly enough, the industry has come under much scrutiny and criticism for making false promises and regulation and accreditation is an issue. Academics have branded the self-help claims as being socially harmful.

Many books of this genre present a model that the participant is to learn and continuously apply to their life. Yet they also contain a disclaimer in some shape or form that absolved the author/guru from problems arising when the model fails. Examples of such include ‘trust your instinct’, ‘you won’t agree with everything I suggest’ and ‘adhere to my step-by-step strategies rigidly.’ These statements enable the author’s to propose unrealistic plans and flawed theories without having to back up their ideas with actual research.

If I have learnt anything from these types of books, it’s that self-help is where the money is. There are just so many self-help junkies out there who are willing to part with their money in search of success, happiness, inner peace, health and wealth. Maybe I could write a book entitled He Actually Is Into You as people will pay to hear that kind of thing.

Published: Trinity Record, May 2004

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