Self-help from Norman Vincent Peale to the new Oprah

surreptitious-self-helpThe quotation at the start of the last post — “[W]e are in a new era of mass self-help, wherein the laboratory and the writer work together to teach us how to change ourselves, rather than our world” — is from an excellent article in New York Magazine. Boris Kachka describes what self-help has become. Though he writes mainly about how self-help has changed the publishing industry, his analysis of how this relates to cultural history — the shift from pragmatism and self-reliance to being personally responsible for self-regulation — is spot on.

Kachka refers to a “new kind of self-help,” by which he means: “These days, self-help is unembarrassed, out of the bedside drawer and up on the coffee table, wholly transformed from a disreputable publishing category to a category killer, having remade most of nonfiction in its own inspirational image along the way.”

Here are some passages from the article that I particularly enjoyed (emphasis added):

This new kind of self-help could never thrive in a vacuum. Or rather, it thrives in a particular vacuum—the one left behind by the disappearance of certain public values that once fulfilled our lives. Strains of self-help culture — entrepreneurship, pragmatism, fierce self-reliance, gauzy spirituality — have been embedded in the national DNA since Poor Richard’s Almanack. But in the past there was always a countervailing force, an American stew of shame and pride and citizenship that kept these impulses walled off, sublimating private anxiety to the demands of an optimistic meritocracy. That force has gradually been weakened by the erosion of all sorts of structures, from the corporate career track to the extended family and the social safety net. Instead of regulation, we have that new buzzword, self-regulation; instead of an ambivalence over “selling out,” we have the millennial drive to “monetize”; and instead of seeking to build better institutions, we mine them in order to build better selves. Universities now devote faculty to fields (positive psychology, motivation science) that function as research arms of the self-help industry, while journalists schooled in a sense of public mission turn their skills to fulfilling our emotional needs. But since self-help trails with it that old shameful stigma, the smartest writers and publishers shun the obvious terminology. And the savviest readers enjoy the masquerade, knowing full well what’s behind the costume: self-help with none of the baggage. …

The New Age was really a revival of what had once been called New Thought: a religious movement spawned in the primordial soup of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sigmund Freud, and William James that preached the flip side of the Protestant work ethic: faith above works and a belief in one’s unlimited capacities on Earth. The new New Thought was the perfect religion for the Me Decade, a reality-show version of spirituality in which the meaning of life is to unleash the inner superstar. …

And, actually, “recovery” named everything, defining every problem as a personal illness to be conquered—toxic parents, women who love too much, obesity, excessive shopping, and above all “codependency,” which could potentially encompass any human relationship.

Recovery-inspired self-help replaced doctors, priests, and therapists (and maybe even parents, senators, and teachers) with public personalities who gave names to the problems of millions. …

Oprah helped create a landscape in which anything can be self-help—so long as it isn’t the narrowly defined howtoism of old. … “TED,” says Sutton, “is sort of like the new Oprah.” …

[W]e are in a new era of mass self-help, wherein the laboratory and the writer work together to teach us how to change ourselves, rather than our world.

More reading on self-help and the self

Kachka’s essay is the first in a series of articles on self-help in this particular issue of New York Magazine. I especially enjoyed Kathryn Schulz’s essay, The Self in Self-Help: We have no idea what a self is. So how can we fix it?

Also of interest: Rebecca Tuhlus-Dubrow discusses yet another type of new self-help – the self-help memoir – in an essay in The New York Times Book Review:

[I]t’s time to christen a new subgenre: the self-help memoir, a kind of long-form personal narrative fused with life coaching. … The resulting books cater at once to our mania for self-improvement and our gluttonous appetite for first-person narrative.

Examples include Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and A. J. Jacobs Drop Dead Healthy.

Tuhlus-Dubrow provides a good example of how self-help has moved, as Kachka puts it, from the bedside drawer to the coffee table:

Conventional self-help books are embarrassing. Better to be seen on the subway with “No Cheating, No Dying” than “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last,” by John Gottman, Ph.D. Not only does the latter broadcast your vulnerabilities; it may also offend your sensibilities. Some readers would no sooner pick up self-help than a Harlequin romance, even if both hold content they would appreciate in less stigmatized forms.

Related posts:
Self-help as psychological healthism
The history of self-help: Some books to read

Image source: CNN:


Boris Kachka, The Power of Positive Publishing: How self-help ate America, New York Magazine, January 6, 2013

Kathryn Schulz, The Self in Self-Help: We have no idea what a self is. So how can we fix it?, New York Magazine, January 6, 2013

Rebecca Tuhlus-Dubrow, I Change, You Change, The New York Times Book Review, January 18, 2013

Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project

A. J. Jacobs, Drop Dead Healthy


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