The truth about self-help books

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Remember Green Goddess Diana Moran?

Older, British, readers may recall she was the ‘pioneering’ lifestyle coach who appeared in her trademark green leotard on the fitness segment of the BBC’s revolutionary morning programme Breakfast Time which has just celebrated its 30th birthday. In the US, it was those fitness videos by actress Jane Fonda that aimed to send out pretty much the same message.

It has to be said, however, that self-help and ‘life coaching’ has come an awful long way since the Green Goddess and Jane Fonda.

Visit the self-help section on Amazon or browse the shelves of your local bookshop nowadays and you will find hundreds of books that promise to improve your life in any number of ways.

You can read, among other things, about the secrets to daily joy and lasting fulfilment, how to find career success, supposedly simple steps to emotional healing and how to stop worry and anxiety from ruining your relationships. 

Little wonder, then, that such books sell in huge numbers – and sell fast, particularly during an economic downturn. While UK book sales were down recently by 1 per cent overall, sales of self-help books for the same period soared by 25 per cent. In Britain alone, it’s estimated that the cult of self-help has earned publishers some 72 million euros in the past five years. In the US, the self-help market is worth more than 12 billion euros a year.

But just how honourable is the self-help industry? It demands you buy book after book while arguably leaving you more restless and dissatisfied than you were before. 

It could be said that all those bookshelves heaving with self-help tomes promise the earth but deliver rather less.

Brussels-based psychologist Dirk Van Cutsem says, “It is hard not to compare the modern-day self-help cult with the pathology of drug addiction: the constant need for more, with a diminishing sense of return. “Thanks to the internet, there’s never been more self-help out there, but we still don’t appear greatly helped by it. As we pay out yet again for the ‘next great thing’ in popular psychology, are we simply more credulous these days, hopelessly immune to the genuine truths we’re being offered – or just missing the point?”

As Van Cutsem points out, it’s certainly a profitable business, worth billions globally, and one untouched by the recession. Indeed, recession is grist to its mill. For just as some reach for chocolate when times are hard, others reach for the latest self-help gurus like James Arthur Ray.

He wants to bring you wealth beyond your wildest dreams. Not just any kind of wealth, either – ‘harmonic wealth’. So you get goldplated relationships, 24-carat sex, a richer mind, a priceless glow of spiritual wellbeing… and yes, pots of money, too. 

‘Get ready!’ says Ray in his slick promotional video. ‘Because everything in your life is about to change.’ Really? I mean, it all sounds wonderful, but should we believe him? Or are we better marking him and his kind down as yet another false prophet in a self-help industry populated by chancers who over-promise and underdeliver? 

If so, what will really make us happy? Research reveals there are three key ingredients to human happiness: meaning, hope, and purpose. For us to feel truly content we need a spiritual and ethical framework – be it religious or otherwise – that gives us an understanding of our place in the world, in a way that allows us to make sense of why bad things sometimes occur. 

Second, it helps to be optimistic – not because positive thoughts magically attract things to us, but because optimistic people cope better with adversity.

Third, it helps to view ourselves as strong protagonists who set our own goals and make progress toward them. In other words, to have a sense of purpose.

The good news is that there are still relatively simple exercises any of us can do to shape our views in these directions. One such exercise is Bikram yoga which is a complete system of wellness, restoration and rejuvenation. 

Brussels-based fitness fan Ruth Marsden said, “Bringing Bikram yoga into your life cleanses the body and calms the mind. The studio is hot (over 100 °F) but this is to facilitate deeper stretching, prevent injury, relieve stress and tension and to detoxify the body.”

Liverpudlian Ruth, aged 27, adds, “Bikram yoga was designed to systematically stimulate and restore health to every muscle, joint and organ of the body. Participants are guided through a series of 26 postures, each increasing in physical challenge. The body is flushed of toxins, leaving a deep sense of relaxation and well-being.”

Like any industry, self-help has its poor products and its good ones. Poor self-help material plays on greed, laziness and vanity: ‘Instant everything now!’ 

Good self-help, on the other hand, tells us not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear – that is, the truth of who we are. Like the best doctors, it gives us a correct diagnosis; it opens windows on our particular genius, but also frees us to accept failure – for only the cracked let in light. 

Preachy healthy lifestyle advice often seems to take the joy out of living, but there are still some simple steps that will help keep you on track without feeling guilty. British author Hilly Janes has written, yes another, self help book called Latte or Cappuccino? 125 Decisions That Will Change Your Life which proposes a number of simple steps that will help keep you on track without feeling guilty. 

For those who, like me, remain rather baffled by the massive growth in the self-help industry, you will be glad to hear that the good old British breakfast is on her list. Janes says that a rasher of back bacon, a tomato, some mushrooms and egg (scrambled or poached) is a more nutritious, more filling option than fat and sugar-laden “Continental” pastries, juice and lattes.

Wonder what the Green Goddess would make of that!