Self Help Best Help Essay

With metronomic regularity, new books about both the strange and the mundane things human beings do with metronomic regularity become bestsellers. The American ‘habit’ industry produces a huge popular literature examining how habits are formed and how they are broken, how they enable and how they hinder, and how they are a function of heroic self-discipline or a confession of its absence.

They maintain that people can cultivate not just a ‘learning habit’ but even an ‘achievement habit’. They suggest that ‘Jesus habits’ and ‘joy habits’ are liberating, but that the ‘worry habit’ is shackling. ‘Habits not diets’ are the best way to free the self from the siren call of the refrigerator.

According to the bestseller, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2014), there are pesky habits of individuals (like smoking and procrastination), but also propitious habits of successful organisations (such as the ‘latte habit loop’ devised by Starbucks for its baristas – ‘latte’ here is not milky coffee, but a behavioural mnemonic) and social movements (like the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the early civil rights era). Gretchen Rubin, the author of another bestseller, describes herself as a ‘happiness expert’ and argues that habits are ‘the invisible architecture of our daily lives’. Training attention not only on this faintly perceptible structure of habits, but also on the shadows it casts and the light it lets in, will make readers, Rubin promises, ‘better than before’.

Much of today’s habits literature has a contemporary feeling, with its focus on time management, individual productivity, and business success, but the genre has a long history. For millennia, there has been a tradition of august thinkers writing about how healthy habits promote – and unhealthy habits undermine – self-fashioning and moral improvement. The ancient Stoics, for example, sought to understand how perfecting one’s reason by making it a habit could be the path to virtue. The Enlightenment psychologist Maine de Biran had a harder time squaring rigorous intellect and habitual practices, contending that ‘all that happens exclusively under the sway of habit should lose its authority before the eyes of reason’. Friedrich Nietzsche, too, was fascinated with habits. He had his own übermenschliche work habits, while at the same time he felt grateful to every bit of ‘misery and… sickness’ that came his way because they gave him ‘a hundred backdoors through which I can escape from enduring habits’. Gertrude Stein couldn’t have disagreed more. For Stein, the habits of ‘daily island life’ – those simple, unglamorous rituals of cleaning, eating, sleeping – were the means by which people who had lived through the savagery and chaos of two world wars could orient themselves with the simple and commonplace.

As ever, the habits literature of today promises order in a disordered world, but it also comes with a subtle and significant difference. The most important difference is not the forgotten art of style, though the staccato prose, exclamation points, bland generalisations, and clichéd motivational quotations of today’s literature neither stimulate the imagination nor activate the will. Rather, it is the lost promise of habits literature as a form of ethical inquiry and social commentary. Individual improvement has always been the purpose of habits literature, but the genre used to require appraising the society in which the self, and the habits, formed. Historically, thinking about habits without social contexts or ethical consequences was unthinkable. Today it is axiomatic.

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So what is a habit? There is consistent agreement throughout this long tradition that a habit is a learned behaviour repeated so often that it becomes involuntary. When it is a repeated behaviour that comports with ideals of health, righteousness, and wisdom, it can go by other names such as ‘spiritual practice’, ‘ritual’, and ‘routine’. When it is a repeated behaviour contrary to notions of health, righteousness, and wisdom, its synonyms are ‘tick’, ‘obsession’, and ‘addiction’. ‘Sovereign will’, ‘consciousness’, and ‘necessity’ were once the keywords of this literature; nowadays they are ‘mindfulness’, ‘happiness’, ‘autopilot’. The ‘thou shalts’ long common in theological discussions of habits as spiritual practices have faded. Now the call for action comes not from on High, but from the individual’s bad conscience or longing for happiness.

Earlier authors relied on logical argument or rhetorical power to explain what the French philosopher Félix Ravaisson, in 1838, described thus: ‘The progression of habit leads consciousness, by an uninterrupted degradation, from will to instinct.’ Today’s authors turn to longitudinal psychological studies suggesting that ‘as much as 40 per cent of everything we do is done merely from habit’. Ravaisson and today’s habits writers are both rattled by the prospect of human beings being forced to do anything without their consent.

Steven Covey’s 1990 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a high-water mark in the contemporary American habits literature. Covey spawned a mass market for all-things-seven habits (seven habits of ‘highly effective teens’, of ‘happy kids’, and of ‘network marketing professionals’). He did so by taking the notion of a ‘paradigm shift’ – coined by the historian of science Thomas Kuhn as a way of understanding the structure of scientific revolutions – and applying it to the structure of people’s perceptions about themselves and their worlds. If we are looking for the origin of the the voracious American appetite for self-improvement, however, we have to go back two centuries before Covey, to Benjamin Franklin.

For Franklin, cultivating wholesome habits was as crucial as discarding bad ones for the ‘bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection’. Franklin warned that those very behaviours that cunningly ‘took advantage of [our] inattention’ would keep us from ethical improvement. In his Autobiography, the 79-year-old Franklin recalled his youth when church services seemed to hold no promise for his moral perfection. So he took matters into his own hands. He developed a hierarchy of 12 virtues he wanted to become second nature: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity. When a Quaker friend gently reminded him that he had left out one virtue he could use a little more of – humility – Franklin conceded and added it to the list to bring it up to 13.

Franklin had a staff of subordinates to help him cultivate self-reliance

He then figured out the habits that would help ingrain these virtues. For temperance: ‘Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation.’ For tranquillity: ‘Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.’ And for the elusive humility he pulled out the big guns: ‘Imitate Jesus and Socrates.’ Franklin invented what he described as a ‘method’, and what the French philosopher Michel Foucault two centuries later would characterise as a ‘technology of the self’, to track his habits. Today’s habits writers would simply call it a chart. He put the days of the week along the X-axis, the virtues he sought to habituate on the Y-axis; a black dot meant he had slipped up on that day in that virtue, while a column of clear blocks meant a virtuous day – a clear conscience. He included mottos from Cato, Cicero, and the Proverbs of Solomon to inspire him and encourage his practice of particular virtues.

Franklin’s ‘13 virtues’ method continues to be put to use in elementary school curricula and self-help manuals. His style of graphing, charting, and mantra-deploying technologies of the self are replicated in the habits literature in all sorts of ways. Practitioners of personal growth advocate making a ‘core values’ chart so that all of one’s daily commitments and activities comport with one’s life goals. The Post-it method involves sticking a yellow note on the food pantry door to help the reader’s higher self to stop his lower self from mindless munching: are you truly hungry, or just bored? There’s also the smartphone method for habit-breaking and making. Set a smartphone timer to ring every 30 minutes either with pleasing church bells or a jolting honk of a horn to make sure the habituator is aware of both good habits and bad ones.

Not unlike today’s habit industry, Franklin also had his social blindspots. In addition to his knack for industriousness and regimentation, he had his common-law wife Deborah to take care of their two children and his illegitimate son; a devoted sister Jane, who, though an impoverished mother of 12, served as her elder brother’s scribe, family record-keeper, and personal soap-maker; as well as household slaves who tended to his earthly needs so that he could devote his time to cultivating his virtues. He had, in short, a virtual staff of loved ones and subordinates to help him cultivate his self-reliance. Today’s habit industry is similarly blinkered about the social and economic architecture which for many makes cultivating personally-rewarding habits possible. 

For self-help readers who like to base their habit-management on ancient east Asian wisdom, Lao-Tzu’s dictum that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step’ reassures them not to be anxious about reforming a persistent habit. Others might prefer the advice of that jocular American sage, Mark Twain, who similarly observes: ‘Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.’ Carl Jung, by contrast, offers a behaviouralist approach. ‘We seldom get rid of an evil merely by understanding its causes,’ he argues, observing that obstinate habits ‘do not disappear until replaced by other habits’. Abigail van Buren, better known as ‘Dear Abby’, is more upbeat: ‘A bad habit never disappears miraculously. It’s an undo-it-yourself project.’

Of all of the habit prophets celebrated today, the Renaissance essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne is perhaps the most revered. Especially when the habit under examination is enervating (or even debilitating), habit experts turn to his meditations on the ‘sleep of habit’ that dulls the individual to herself and her world. ‘For in truth,’ Montaigne wrote, ‘habit is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress. She establishes in us, little by little, stealthily, the foothold of her authority… with the help of time, she soon uncovers to us a furious and tyrannical face against which we no longer have the liberty of even raising our eyes.’ Whether the habit in question is procrastination or nervous hair-twirling, authors have found this particular quotation indispensable.

One cannot blame these authors for turning to Montaigne. In Of Habit, and Not Easily Changing an Accepted Law (1580), he provides a treasure trove of images for thinking about how practices calcified into habits can deform the self. What is often missed is his equally urgent insistence that habits deform one’s understanding of others. What was insidious about one’s own silent consent to certain habits was not only that they ‘unhinged’ one from critical reason and self-reflection, but also that they blunted one’s ability to discern the beauty and dignity of other people. For Montaigne, the rumoured cannibalism in the New World was no more grotesque than the barbarism of the Old, and men lying with men no weirder then men lying with women. Thus, Montaigne’s scrutiny of habit also encouraged a scrutiny of the ethnocentrism and moral chauvinism of one’s own society.

The American philosopher and psychologist William James also appears frequently as an authority in the habits literature. It is not because the habits writers are philosophical pragmatists. James is a favourite because of his ‘fly-wheel’ metaphor, from his 1890 Principles of Psychology:

Habit is … the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log-cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. It keeps different social strata from mixing. Already at the age of twenty-five you see the professional mannerism settling down on the young commercial traveller, on the young doctor, on the young minister, on the young counsellor-at-law. You see the little lines of cleavage running through the character, the tricks of thought, the prejudices … from which the man can … [not] escape. On the whole, it is best he should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

If this chilling image of a deterministic universe seems hard to square with James’s (occasionally) buoyant ‘will-to-believe’ pragmatism, perhaps it is because it was also hard for James himself. He was riddled with deep and paralysing bouts of ‘neurasthenia’, and struggled to find medicine a rewarding career after turning away from his childhood dream of being an artist. James developed pragmatism to work between these warring intellectual impulses; on the one hand, his ‘tender-minded’ romantic longings, and on the other, his ‘tough-minded’ desire for scientific authority. 

This oft-quoted passage has a vibrant life in the habits literature. But the passage to follow merits mention too. There James, who will never let determinism get the last word, challenges this morbid version of habit, and calls upon the will to fight back. James takes the reader from macabre nay-saying, caught in the fly-wheel of a predestined world of habits, to yea-saying maxims of overcoming. James’s message here is not to be satisfied by maxims. Don’t just shout maxims back at a deterministic universe, James exhorts, act on them by remaking habits to be fruits of your own will by practising them over and over and over again. ‘Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day … [Be] the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.’

The fuller passage does more to show readers a conflicted self like their own, struggling to believe in and to exercise free will, despite an intimate awareness of a universe that conspires against it.

Even more important are James’s moral concerns, bound up in his preoccupation with the psychology of habit. James suspected that habits – dumb, blind, and often the result of something arbitrary or accidental – were the actions and beliefs people mistakenly ascribe to nature or necessity. But for James, the things casually attributed to the ‘human condition’ are nothing of the sort. They are just the condition human beings have gotten themselves into. And yet the promise of this revelation wasn’t simply that it should free the self from sea salt brownies and wasting time on Facebook, it was that it could liberate modern societies from their penchant for violence and militarism. In this light, James’s ‘Laws of Habit’ argument is best understood in relation to his ‘Moral Equivalent of War’. Published shortly before his death, the latter makes the case for redirecting habits of devotion, duty, and strenuosity, from moral campaigns fuelled by hatred to those that foster harmony; in essence, from warfare to social welfare.

Today’s habit authors do surprisingly little moralising. They do not hint that smoking makes the reader a bad person. They suggest she cut the habit because it makes her lungs black

For all the great historical thinkers and writers on habit who appear in today’s habits literature, two major figures are curiously absent: Alexis de Tocqueville and Arnold Toynbee. De Tocqueville and Toynbee’s observations about habit – American habits in particular – are as relevant today as they were when de Tocqueville visited America in 1831, and Toynbee in 1964-65. For de Tocqueville, what he called ‘habits of the heart’ – family relations, religion, notions of belonging – were crucial for fostering and sustaining a democracy. He thought the absence of these habits of affiliation might ‘some day prove fatal to its liberties’. Though de Tocqueville coined the term ‘individualism’, he did not think that habits belonged to the atomised human being, but rather to the social self. Similarly, when Toynbee wrote Change and Habit: The Challenge of Our Time (1966), he highlighted the dangers in the Cold War world, of Americans’ persistent parochial habits of heart and mind that kept them from thinking as citizens of the whole ‘human race’. For Toynbee, much like de Tocqueville, it was habits in the aggregate – not in isolation – that presented the greatest promises, and also the principal perils, for human flourishing. As with Montaigne, habits were social things.

There is much to recommend in today’s habit industry. It can awaken readers to new perspectives on themselves and their world. It can encourage people to take up challenging new practices that might roughen up the smooth grooves of familiar rituals, or it might help to chart a smooth new path through the rocky terrain of life.

But still, there is also something troubling about the habits literature of the present, and it is not its moralising tendencies. It may be that today’s habit authors do surprisingly little moralising. They do not encourage the reader to deny herself a cigarette by hinting that smoking makes her a bad person. They suggest she cut the habit because it makes her clothes smell and her lungs black. Nor do they insist she break her procrastination habit because she has an ethical obligation to get that report to her boss by 10am as promised. They encourage her to break her procrastination habit because she wants to keep her job and her vitality.

The shortcoming of this new habits industry is that it has lost touch with the social and ethical dimensions of habit talk so central to the classics in the genre. To be sure, habits authors have long adopted what now is called behaviouralist approach to the making and unmaking of habits. But Franklin’s ‘methods’ (imperfect as they were), Montaigne’s relativism, and James’s pragmatism demonstrate that habits are more than technologies of the individual self. They are also cultural practices, tethered to the social and economic contexts, and they have ethical implications. When today’s habit aficionados figure this out, they will truly offer readers a better self and a better society.

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Free WillHistory of IdeasSelf-ImprovementAll topics →

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen

is the Merle Curti Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her most recent book is American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (2011).

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‘Double-fault!’… ‘Ju-ust out!’ Generally a calm man, I throw my tennis racquet against the thick green court curtains with disgust… Akh, the torture of tennis. 

I make a dejected approach to shake hands with my supercilious nemesis on the occasion of another easy victory. Maybe he feels sorry for me this time so, while towelling off, he reveals his secret: he has been reading tennis self-help books and ‘hasn’t lost a set since’. I feel outraged: it’s like he was doping, but with ideas.

I never read books that purport to help those who read them to help themselves. Pardon my ivory tower accent, but with a psychology PhD and classes full of (admittedly, glazed-over) undergraduates to teach, there is no way I am going to read a self-help book; those books are, well, ahem… slightly beneath me.

At least that’s what I thought walking home that afternoon but, after yet another loss the following weekend, a slightly different consideration entered my mind: if these tennis books are bestsellers, then is there a chance that all the players who defeat me in my local club league have read them too? Nah, not possible – don’t all self-helpers live in California where they unlock their chi energy and eat chia seeds? The guys at the tennis club don’t ‘talk feelings’ – it’s unlikely they would entertain such drivel.

It was after my fourth consecutive 0-6 loss that I drove directly to a used bookstore and went native. My name is Dr Gabriel, and I used self-help.

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How does a person assess that something is not working in his or her life? And how does that person decide on the best way to fix it? In our secular age, there is a plethora of choices, from ancient wisdom (religious) traditions and New Age wish-fulfilment brochures to scientific popular psychology books by bona fide psychologists. On the surface, these three avenues seem very different, but are they all just forms of magical thinking?

When brain scientists and analytical philosophers retreat from the public sphere into their complex and mostly incomprehensible journal literature, there is a danger that the role of wise man falls to the charlatan and the demagogue, in other words, authors of self-help books. The world of ‘knowledge’ is split between an academy that does not acknowledge the soul – or the importance of falling in love – and a publishing industry that offers whatever emotional solace gets books sold. The contrasting knowledge industries offer differing visions of control: academic psychology is Promethean, seeking to explain the human condition by the virtues of rational and empirical truth-seeking, while popular psychology has Narcissus as its model, providing superstitious rituals that depend upon the purportedly limitless power of the self.

I turned to tennis self-help because I was anxious about the efficiency of my game. Ultimately, I wasn’t even sure why I was pursuing this torturous pastime at all. I knew there was something wrong with the way I played (duh!), and I wanted to believe there was a way to fix it. I sought wisdom and, in buying the books, I believed I’d found a way to help myself. Looking back, I think I achieved some control over my game by believing in its controllability. Perhaps this is the clue.

based on the bestsellers list, our aspirations constellate around becoming more efficient, falling in love, and making tons of dough

Self-help ­– including popular psychology – is a genre of books (not to mention seminars and videos) containing practical and ethical strategies for changing our behaviours and mental habits. They deliver principles that – with the requisite hope, practice and belief – promise to deliver control over our minds, which in turn helps us to achieve our aspirations. The self-help movement is, in many ways, a continuation of – and maybe a contemporary substitute for – ancient traditional wisdom. These books inspire and educate millions of people with personal anecdotes that read like profound moral fables. From this literature, we get formulas both prescriptive (‘you ought to stop picking your nose on first dates’) and descriptive (‘look how great Tony Robbins is, he never picks his nose’). In our post-Gladwell age of publishing, they increasingly include smatterings of statistics to keep the narrative grounded.

Recurring themes in popular psychology include: the utopia of therapeutic recovery; the importance of positive thinking; the attainability of happiness; and the possibility of transforming the self (I wonder if Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s estate gets royalties from the industry?). The goal of this literature seems to be a miraculous attainment of one’s sought-after aspirations – and, of course, a blissed-out, sustained, state of happiness. Along with my colleague Sean Victory, I undertook a review of 40 traditional self-help bestsellers in the United States, with a focus on books published since 2001; previous eras are well-covered in Steven Starker’s Oracle at the Supermarket (2002). If one were to make a blanket statement based on consulting the bestsellers list, our aspirations constellate around becoming more efficient, falling in love, and making tons of dough.

Whether critiques of this genre are delivered by scientific psychologists such as me, or jaded adolescent ironists, the usual criticisms of self-help have consistently been that it lacks external validation and casually disregards the importance of individual differences in the application of said panacea strategies. The exploitation of ignorance and hope within the medical and diet end of self-help is a particularly egregious example. Even so, this is an $11 billion industry in the US alone. We should take it seriously.

Looking to the written word for guidance is nothing new, of course: ancient ‘self-help’ such as the Tao Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius, the Bhagavad Gita, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Holy Quran and the Holy Bible loom large as tried-and-true one-stop wisdom shops. These books provide not only ethical prescriptions but also metaphysical descriptions of the origin and fate of life; in effect, ancient wisdom served as portable moral universes, in book form. Their messages speak to the human condition: our existential, psychological and emotional needs for hope and a sense of purpose and control.

It is no wonder then that popular psychology gained prominence in the US in the mid-20th century. As institutionalised wisdom traditions (including Christianity) began to play a diminished role in our culture, and alternative cosmologies that mixed and matched from indigenous and global traditions became more widely known, popular psychology started to replace the role traditionally held by figures of wisdom in one’s local community.

Self-help shadows the concerns of the people by matching appropriate rituals to prevalent anxieties. Similar to ancient wisdom traditions, it tends to rely on magical thinking; for example, the outsized strength of one’s own thoughts, or believing the universe will hear your wish. Even the newest self-help books do this, despite coming chock-full with empirical claims that purport to leapfrog narcissism and superstition through the unassailability of data. This scientific popular psychology reaches out in seemingly simple book titles that teach us how to quiet our mindset, so that we don’t choke when we feel the nudge to blink. After all, as other self-help titles quip, the paradox of choice is that, after reading books by people with PhDs, we must certainly find ourselves stumbling on happiness and feeling superbetter.  

Popular psychology comes with a message about the possibility of surmounting obstacles through the free will of the almighty self, as well as continual exhortations to practise hopeful optimism and disable despair and hopelessness: in all, a reflection of an individualistic, even narcissistic, culture in the contemporary US. Thus, the differences between genres of popular psychology books can be secondary to the inspirational purpose they share: to enable individuals to gain more control over mind and career. In all cases, these books focus exclusively on the role of the individual in achieving self-mastery, while ignoring all other factors in a person’s fate, such as poverty, family conflict or political exclusion.

don’t take the authors’ word for it just because they are extra-spiritual, or manly, or a doctor who knows Oprah – listen because they are scientists and use data

As a scientist, I was taught that ignoring empirical aspects – such as facts, history and statistics – was superstitious behaviour; it meant ignoring the hard-won analytical tools of the modern age and reverting to magical thinking. This could take the form of personifying the weather and praying for rain, or believing in fate or some other abstract power. Fallacious connections entwined with hope and wish-fulfilment might be a part of the human condition, but in academic circles rational justification is the very marrow of quality.   

In my study of self-help books, I decided to look more deeply into how sub-genres of popular psychology provide succour to our needs. Each is subtly different. Business self-help has the purpose of mediating professional relationships and fiscal ambitions. Love self-help offers manuals for intimate relationships and, secondarily, salves of hope for an end to loneliness within a national mythology of romantic love. New Age ministers to the need for metaphysical myths to give meaning and hope to daily life. Inspirational self-help curates self-confidence amid personal insecurity caused by social and economic pressures. Scientific popular psychology tends to deliver similar therapeutic advice for love, business and self-esteem purposes – although rather than take the authors’ word for it just because they are extra-spiritual (big ups, Deepak Chopra), or manly (hey-ho, Tony Robbins), or a doctor who knows Oprah (rake it in, Phil McGraw), we should listen because they are scientists and use data.

Each genre satisfies different needs: business books such as Robbins’s Awaken the Giant Within (1991) or David Allen’s Getting Things Done (2001) describe a format for success through organising one’s efforts and career moves efficiently towards attaining fiscal success. Meanwhile, love books such as John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) and McGraw’s Love Smart (2006) address emotions that arise in intimate relationships and the personal insecurities that keep us alone (and miserable to boot). New Age books such as Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements (1997) or Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now (1999), on the other hand, speak directly to people who have turned their backs on the religious dogma they grew up with but still need both something to believe in and a community of believers. The inspirational genre exemplified by Joel Osteen’s Break Out! (2013) and Bruce Wilkinson’s A Life God Rewards (2002) weds traditional Christian values with the financial ambitions of business books (for some reason, this genre became more prevalent after 2001).

The mystical claims commonly put forward in the New Age and inspirational genres are an amalgamation of Judeo-Christian ethics and Hindu afterlife scenarios; Brian Weiss’s Many Lives, Many Masters (1988) is a clear example. Some claims said to be drawn from the East or Buddhism or Hinduism insist on the efficacy of sending one’s wishes out into the world, for example Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006) and Chopra’s The Book of Secrets (2004). The metaphysical ideas presented in popular psychology – either explicitly in Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success (1994), or implicitly in Ruiz’s The Four Agreements – assume a philosophical position of idealism, namely that mind is stronger than matter.

The wisdom of popular psychology has three main tropes: that there is a power of thought; that there are effective habits for mental organisation; and that there are benefits to be gained from a self-help book. Maybe, as in the ancient Sanskrit Rigveda, rituals or incantations are themselves the embodiment of wisdom. In implementing a system – whether it be ‘the Secret’ or ‘the Tao’– belief becomes embodied in our actions, and so it is within this universal tradition of achieving a sense of control through manifesting beliefs in ritualistic thoughts and actions that popular psychology stakes out its position.

The power of thought is really an idealist claim concerning how proactive thought can change the world through putting the individual in touch with ultimate forces, such as the universe, god, past lives, the great potentiality, love, karma, enchantment, new levels of being or, simply, the true nature of reality. Prescriptions in this vein are generally derived from a syncretic collection of wise men from Buddha to Abraham Lincoln (and more recently, Steve Jobs), or past-life revelations, the wisdom of the ‘East’, miracles, pure faith, and enlightening shifts in the way we perceive the world around us. For example, my tennis book with a Zen Buddhist twist – The Inner Game of Tennis by W Timothy Gallwey (1974) – spent a disproportionate amount of time explaining how to sequester the insidious effects of thought, in particular the tendency to judge one’s own strokes, so as to allow the deeper parts of the self to act in Zen-tennis freedom.

The second message of popular psychology is that effective habits of organisation can help you to empower the self, influence people, work towards achievements, manage your time, improve your life circumstances, make money, and build character. Pseudo-Buddhist and Protestant practical strategies come up frequently, for example in the hardnosed economics of mental energies deployed in the business literature exemplified by early classics such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989). There is an emphasis on the individual, and specifically on the existence of an element within each individual, usually referred to as the ‘subconscious’ or the ‘soul’, which is an invisible source of creative power that can be harnessed by using particular contemplative exercises.

All these habits require practice, diligence, trust, cognitive effort and, sometimes, belief in the revelations of an inspirational leader and the requirement to join (at least fiscally) his (it’s usually his) community of devotees. As in the first message, there is an element of wish-fulfillment here: that one’s belief in organising habits and enactment of the rituals of organisation will therein lead to control over the mind. For example, a popular tennis book I read – Brad Gilbert’s Winning Ugly (1993) – advised not only what to think about during important points and in between sets, but also included a chapter meticulously describing the importance of packing your tennis bag with bandages and extra socks.

Believing that there is an answer might be more important than whether the specific practice is actually successful

The third message, on the worth of therapeutic practices, emphasises how belief will ameliorate one’s self-confidence, help manage one’s sense of victimisation, and create a feeling of empowerment. There is a focus on the individual here, and an invitation to a journey of self-revelation that will ‘change your life’. This message aims to engender in the reader a belief that foolproof strategies exist to cure emotional wounds. A range of esoteric methods are presented, including proper meditation skills, learning how to break bad mental habits, doing the ‘primal scream’, remembering past lives, and achieving moments of transcendental revelation about one’s own character and traumas.

Scientific popular psychology relies upon the empirical method, whereby interviews with scientists – as in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (2005) – or piles of psychological experiments – as in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) – buoy the author’s assertions. Above all, these practices require trust in the therapist or scientist and his or her method. The bestseller tennis books I encountered make a case for themselves when the authors detail whom they have coached and how successful they’ve been. Believing that there is an answer might be, at least emotionally, more important than whether or not the specific practice is actually successful. It is no surprise that, in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need for safety and security (in this case, the belief that there is an answer) is prior to the need for self-actualisation.

Looking across traditional self-help, I found many prescriptions on how to manage one’s mental life to become an adaptable person and align one’s beliefs with new ways of behaving towards some larger purpose. Like the ancient Brahmanic books that dictate ritual processes to put the universe in order, popular psychology coached me into feeling more in control of my thoughts and actions through both therapeutic practices (‘maintain focus no matter what’) and metaphysical narrative (‘when thinking about why you missed a shot, you damage flow by separating mind from body’).

The broad claim is that one’s hopes and dreams – as materially substantiated in the form of job opportunities, romantic relationship partners, spiritual pacification, calming the demons of desire, and just plain making the most of life – can be fulfilled through simply thinking such wishes true. That sounds like magical thinking to me. Still, maybe magical thinking has some value. Could it even work?

Perhaps popular psychology is essentially the same as reading coffee grinds or listening to the advice of a wise minister. If success is conceived as a method to bridge the gap between aspirations and dissatisfactions, then it can be helpful. For many, the practical strategies and principles that constitute the philosophical and ethical core of self-help satisfy the need for hope and empowerment over self-assessed shortcomings. If the purpose of religious ritual is to validate one’s beliefs by satisfying the very emotions that motivate belief, then self-help is a remnant of religious thinking, and belief is truly the engine of magical thinking. Indeed, self-help and religion not only play similar roles as belief and ritual states; they also recruit common mental processes, such as emotions, social needs, and inhibitions.

Magical thinking might be helpful if you have a vague metaphysical issue to deal with, but if your issue is a lack of effort, guidance, training, imagination etc, then in most cases magical thinking will be, at best, useless. Ultimately, the utility of popular psychology might be as a placebo that confirms and provides rituals to enact the reader’s beliefs; in this light, popular psychology is the spiritual self-medication of our times. We know that when animals are placed in helpless positions within a laboratory setting they engage in activities that seem to be associated with a reward or schedule. They engage in this adjunctive behaviour as a way of managing their anxiety.

without putting time into the physical mechanics of tennis, I would have no chance, even if I was the Dalai Lama

The way we assess our lives and the ways we go about finding a cure are in lockstep; the form of the question holds its own answer. While the truth in religion for believers is the word of god, the truth of traditional self-help is locating and then satisfying the desires of the self. Despite its credentials, the new wave of scientific popular psychology is playing the same tune on a different instrument: the power of thought, the importance of organisation, and the reliability of the messenger remain the core messages. The truth now comes in details and data; god has been replaced by the physical universe that science can poke and prod, and the self is now ‘human nature’ to which we are all ineluctably bound. Maybe it is not self-help but rather our hopes of accurate self-assessment that are built around a core of magical thinking: that the will is stronger than the flesh. 

Back on the courts, my head filled with tennis wisdom (‘Don’t judge your mistakes’, ‘Make the tennis ball your whole universe’, ‘Exploit his weakness’), and I was down a set and on match point. I wish I could say that my superstitious desire to win my service was successfully broadcast into the universe, or that I was able to watch the game transpire without becoming emotionally involved. But it wouldn’t be true. The fact is, I might have gained some insight into what the other player’s psychology could be, especially if he’d read the same tennis books as me, but my own play was plagued by the same nagging, insurmountable flaws as ever. Frankly, my strokes are not reliable, I have never had a coach, I don’t work with a ball machine. In short: I don’t practise enough.

In truth, without putting time into the physical mechanics of tennis, I would have no chance, even if I was the Dalai Lama. The basics are always more important, and therefore more time-consuming and rigorous, than the esoteric factors. Maybe we in the US need fewer sensational popular psychology books that feed our notions of the power of the self, and more boring, tedious, how-to manuals. While Prometheus steals fire from the gods, Narcissus just stares at his reflection, which unceasingly enchants but, in the end, teaches him nothing.

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Rami Gabriel

is associate professor of psychology in the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of Why I Buy: Self, Taste, and Consumer Society in America (2013).

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