It is often said that people can become addicted to anything, though few would include the self-help industry. Can you really become addicted to self-help? Can it really be part of the problem? The answer seems to be that for some, yes it can. Occasionally, people cease to process the actual advice and become addicted to the idea of being saved instead.
The History and Appeal of Self-Help
The phrase “self-help” is vague and needs clarifying. Like many popular phrases, it has come to mean different things to different people. Obviously, the idea that people can improve their lives by listening to the advice of others is nothing new. Even two thousand years ago, the Stoic philosophers of ancient Rome were teaching people to cope with life’s traumas. One of the first modern books written on the subject is in fact titled Self-Help. Published in 1859 by the Scottish-British journalist Samuel Smiles, it is divided into chapters with headings like “Energy and Courage” and recommends determination, thrift, and so on.
The self-help industry as we know it today, however, would dazzle someone like Smiles. Indeed, some estimate it to be worth over $12 billion dollars a year! And this includes everything from assertiveness seminars and motivational speakers to therapists, life coaches, and, of course, self-help books themselves. As for the origins of the industry, the American Declaration of Independence, with its claim for the fundamental right to pursue happiness, is a strong contender. This idea has deeply influenced American culture and, thanks to America’s huge influence, much of the world.
People are drawn to the self-help industry for a variety of reasons. Some merely wish to alleviate pain or correct a particular fault. For others, however, it represents a gateway into a shiny, better world where, at last, they will be happy. To be fair to self-help authors, many are aware of this and will stress how fragile and impermanent such happiness really is. Take therapy, for example. Many people will go to a therapist not to address some specific concern, or to increase their resilience to stress. Instead, they expect their therapist to simply make them happy in exchange for money. Even Freud, arguably the founder of modern therapy culture, once said that the best his patients could expect was to “transform neurotic misery into common unhappiness.”
There is nothing wrong with trying to help yourself. On the contrary, if you have a problem, trying to find a way out is healthier than wallowing in misery or expecting others to solve things for you. So how do people become addicted to something so positive? First, it must be remembered that addictions often serve a purpose. Whether he is addicted to gambling, sex, alcohol or drugs, the addict is usually seeking escape. He wants to place some kind of barrier or buffer between him and the hard, unforgiving world, or between him and his emotions.
The compulsive, grasping nature of many addictions comes from fear. To slow down and take your foot off the gas would mean facing reality again – like slowing the car and having to once more take in the dreary view. Self-help addicts do not become addicted to good advice or even to improving their lives; they become addicted to an idea. Put another way, they are comforted by the idea of being comforted! Regardless of the advice offered (much of which is of course very sensible and very good), the addict sees the self-help industry as a symbol for the escape from suffering: somehow, no matter what happens, there will be an answer. And yet the brutal truth is that life is painful and short. Yes it is filled with beauty and happiness as well, but ultimately everyone we love will age, suffer and die, as will we. The true self-help addict cannot accept such facts.
Others become addicted from a fear of missing out. This fear has been intensified by social media, with its endless photos of friends and relations enjoying perfect lives. If everyone else is having a perfect life, people reason, and yet here I am lonely and bored, stuck in a hateful job and an unfulfilling relationship, then I’m clearly doing something wrong. They must know something I don’t. With this in mind, they then hit the self-help books, searching for that one, magic piece of advice that will help them catch up.
The average citizen of the information age is caught between a rock and a hard place. Twenty four hour news convinces people that dreadful events are about to engulf them, from terrorist attacks to global warming, while Facebook convinces them that others have found the answer and live in a fixed heaven of good relationships and sunny vacations! Both are nonsense.
Living in the Present and Straining After the Future
Self-help addicts are trapped in the future. Again, it must be said that many self-help writers are aware of this danger and encourage their followers not to strain after illusory goals. But the true addict is not interested in advice. They are addicted to the process itself. Counsellors, for example, often find that long-term clients, especially those with a healthy income, cease to listen to what is being said and instead become addicted to the ritual of therapy. Just showing up, sitting in the same chair, fixing next week’s appointment, etc. is enough.
The very fact that someone is immersing themselves in self-help books and attending “positive thinking” seminars, or whatever it may be, reinforces the belief that “I’m not happy here and now” or “things are not as they should be here and now.” If you believe yourself to be addicted, begin by asking how unhappy you really are. Just as a gambler or drug addict will convince himself that he cannot do without his fix, that life would be intolerable without it, so the self-help addict is convinced he isn’t good enough as he is. But is that really true? Instead of yearning for some illusory future, take a moment to look at what you have here and now.
A sense of lacking something is usually at the bottom of a self-help addiction. Ask yourself whether you aim too high or are comparing yourself to the wrong people. Not everyone was meant to be a rockstar or head of a multinational company. Real happiness will only ever be found here and now. And one’s happiest moments tend to revolve around life’s trivial pleasures: laying in a hot bubble bath with a good book, sharing a pizza with a friend, watching the snow fall. Instead of straining after perfect fulfilment, truly savor the small, daily rituals and joys.
Salvation comes in many forms. People assume that before the arrival of therapists, websites, and self-help books, everyone floundered in darkness and neurotic misery. But this is clearly untrue. Before TV and the Internet, they made more of an effort to socialize. The British novelist Anthony Burgess, for example, once said of his childhood in the slums of 1920’s Manchester, that life, though hard and poor, was also more vibrant and alive. People did not spend their evening slumped in front of the TV. Instead, they went to the local pub, gathered around the piano and sang songs. Or, as we would put it today, they bonded.
Literature and the arts have also been a traditional source of comfort and help. Referring to Shakespeare’s plays, James Joyce wrote that you find there a “superabundance of worldly wisdom,” and that his collected works were “the happy hunting ground for all those whose minds have lost their balance.” Even the natural world can soothe and heal a troubled mind, as can exercise. Certain people would benefit more from a regular walk by the sea or up in the mountains than they ever will from a self-help book.
Obviously, the majority of people do not become addicted to self-help books or therapy. And for many these really can be transformative. It would also be foolish to look back with nostalgia and imagine that people in the past spent all their time singing songs and reading poetry. In many cases, they repressed their pain and lashed out in drunken rages instead. Trying to help oneself out of a spell of pain and unhappiness is generally a good thing. That said, self-help addiction does occur and is worth keeping in mind – especially as we move ever-deeper into the information age.