Ehrenreich’s observations deserve to be understood and appreciated. Unfortunately, there’s a huge commercial market in positive thinking, so her insights face an uphill battle. Judging by the comments left on YouTube (e.g., “This seems like an incredibly shallow and nonsensical analysis”), the hill is quite steep. Read more
My favorite chapter in Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is “Career Counselling.” Here he discusses the modern idea that work should make us happy, along with the assumption that work defines our identity and the belief that it is work that makes our existence meaningful.
De Botton arranged to observe a career counsellor, Robert Symons, as he interacted with his clients (after obtaining the clients’ permission). (You can get a sense of Symons, who is also a psychologist, from the title of his unpublished book: The Real Me: Career as an Act of Selfhood.) Here are some of de Botton’s observations. (emphasis added)
On missing one’s true calling
[Symons] remarked that the most common and unhelpful illusion plaguing those who came to see him was the idea that they ought somehow, in the normal course of events, to have intuited – long before they had finished their degrees, started families, bought houses and risen to the top of law firms – what they should properly be doing with their lives. They were tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed out on their true ‘calling’. Read more
I’ve wanted to read more about the history of self-help for years now. I’ve started Micki McGee’s Self-Help Inc. several times and always been distracted by something that seemed more pressing. I knew that if I read about self-help I would want to write about it, and I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to do that at The Health Culture.
I have written there about happiness and the positive psychology movement. I wrote several posts on a book I really enjoyed: Pascal Bruckner’s Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy. Although I never got around to writing about it, I’ve repeatedly recommended a great article by William Davies called The Political Economy of Unhappiness. It’s about the responsibility of Britain’s National Health Service to keep workers happy, not for the benefit of employees, but to improve corporate efficiency. While these were not directly on the history of self-help, they were on the fringes.
Below I’ve compiled a list of books that I’ve either read, want to read, or want to refer to (even if they’re not worth a close reading). I’ve divided them into two parts. This first group contains books I feel confident recommending. Read more
The 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. Read more
[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. (Boris Kachka)
I’m interested in self-help for the same reasons I’m interested in healthism. “Self-help is the psychiatric equivalent of healthism,” I once wrote. Healthism is an anxious preoccupation with one’s physical health, encouraged by those who profit financially from inducing anxiety. Self-help is an anxious preoccupation with one’s psychological self, encouraged by an abundance of self-help literature, personal seminars, and tell-all TV shows. (More fundamentally, of course, the proliferation of self-help advice is the result of a profound twentieth century change in how we understand ourselves, which is the subject of this blog.)
Both healthism and self-help assume that individuals are ultimately responsible for their problems, whether medical or psychological. Personal responsibility relieves society of the expense and inconvenience of creating healthier, more equitable lives for its members. Robert Crawford pointed this out in 1980. That early glimmer of a potential trend has done nothing but escalate. Read more