In a social setting, it’s not unusual to encounter at least one person who name-drops the book that changed their life. Such is the way of the newly enlightened being.
This 'individualised' self-therapy is what the self-help industry relies on, and like any marketplace that trades in people’s vulnerabilities, there is good and bad present.
Full disclosure: I am plugged into the broad spectrum of self-help and new age spirituality. But I have increasing concerns about its spread.
It has become increasingly difficult to figure out where the motivational manifestos end and the crystal therapy begins.
It used to mean reading a crappy horoscope or practical advice on habits and ways of thinking. Nowadays, there's a whole lot more to navigate if you want to improve your life, including admitting that everything you feel stems from guilt, shame, inadequacy and so on.
Self-help, therefore, now involves being exposed to industries that prey on the vulnerable, those seeking a quick fix for something that may in fact require remedies including long-term care and professional guidance.
There is, of course, a basic and useful desire at the heart of new age philosophies: helping people deal with bad experiences and a lack of self-worth and self-belief.
But it has become increasingly difficult to figure out where the motivational manifestos end and the crystal therapy begins. There’s no doubt that many people have found benefit from the wellbeing industry, even as critics quite rightly point out the potential drawbacks.
The ‘happiness’ the self-help industry spruiks can be an elusive concept that involves you “being your best self”, even though people with personal experience point out that depression can’t be cured by repeating an affirmation.
Like sex, self-help sells
But this doesn’t deter a global audience of people hungry for answers. Self-help is big business. In the US alone, the industry is worth upwards of $13bn. Hay House, established by the mistress of affirmations and positive thinking – Louise L Hay – more than two decades ago, is reportedly the world's largest independent publisher of books on empowerment books.
Hay’s mega-popular book, You Can Heal Your Life, is often considered the instigator of the self-help boom but the trend dates back to the ancient Greeks. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was first published in 1936. In 1948, Carnegie gave the world How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Stephen Covey closed out the 1980s with The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
And, of course, there’s Tony Robbins and his booming voice, tuning people into "Unlimited Power" since 1987.
The popularity of such self-styled motivational speakers signals a larger issue: we share in a universal currency of personal dissatisfaction, and businesses – and frauds – are capitalising on it.
More broadly, the wellbeing marketplace that self-help inhabits is swimming in a sea of name-your-discontent gimmicks to make you happier, healthier and wealthier.
The wellbeing marketplace that self-help inhabits is swimming in a sea of name-your-discontent gimmicks to make you happier, healthier and wealthier.
There’s something to satisfy just about any ailment: from “vitamin” waters (which offer more sugar than wellness) to “natural” supplements. And that innovative new self-help book everyone is bragging about? It’s been done before.
Self-help, for all of its expansiveness, actually trades in a limited pool of ideas. That we are broken because of our childhoods; that guilt, shame, regret and fear influence our adulthood, how we behave and our confidence levels.
These times are a rabbit-hole of self-awareness – navigating them without proper scrutiny can be the equivalent of trying to climb your way out of a bucket.
As Alice-Azania Jarvis wrote in The Independent, we're left with a culture in which little remains off limits: “Books, magazines, the internet, even television shows (virtually every bit of breakfast viewing contains some nugget of self-improvement); they all promise to show us how to get what we want, how to live life as a better, more fulfilled person. With the right approach, we are assured, we can be anything we want. Well, in theory.”
What should really concern us is the allure of swapping professional – sometimes medical – guidance for the prattle from ‘experts’ who populate a marketplace without regulation.
While there is undoubtedly some value and substance to be found in the self-help market, it truly is an overcrowded bazaar – and sometimes it’s hard to tell where the fluff begins and where it ends.
So here’s my advice as a non-sceptic: explore what is available, but do so with care – and an enquiring, practical mind.