Posts Tagged 'guardian'

The Problem with Self-Help

Nothing matters more than this day

Nothing matters more than this day

Carole Cadwalladr has an article in the Guardian about the new trend towards self-help books – old ‘classics’ of the genre are suddenly best or near best sellers, and conferences featuring authors of self-help books, such as the one she visits for this article, are selling out.

One would hope that most people know that ultimately what is in these books is nothing more inspiring than a bumper sticker or Hallmark card, and sometimes even more nonsensical.

Perhaps most of these folks who are making these books best-sellers realize the illogical elements to much of the content, and just need some voice to say ‘be brave’. However, as Cadwalladr finds, there are those who think it’s a much more insidious trend:

When I talk to Ben Goldacre, the NHS doctor who writes the Guardian’s Bad Science column and bestseller of the same name, he says there is evidence that beliefs and expectations can impact on your health, but that self-help is a “pretty seedy world” where writers often overdramatise these findings, and cherry-pick the evidence. He couldn’t comment on the individual authors because “I would literally rather slam my cock in the door than read any more of these books”.

I am inclined to agree with Goldacre (and not just about the door) – even if someone is only hunting for a little agency in a life where they feel things have gotten out of control, isn’t it harmful to read that everything is about ideation, even illness? If one is told that by envisioning item x, they will get it, and then (by magical use of, say, a credit card, or applying themselves) they do manage to acquire what they want, are they not more likely to think that the reason their buddy has cancer is because they just aren’t imagining hard enough?

In searching for a better mood and more control, are they not also exposing themselves to a kind of belief system that eliminates consideration of every other influence?

Cadwalladr speakes to Oliver James: “In my opinion it’s extremely harmful. This is the story that selfish capitalism wants us to believe. That it’s our fault as individuals that this fantastically big fuck-up in society happened, which Reagan and Thatcher caused, and which did not happen in mainland continental Europe. We have twice the level of mental illness as mainland Europe and yet this garbage encourages people to blame themselves and take responsibility, which is just a fucking joke. It makes me furious. It’s very convenient to neo-liberals – meanwhile people like Philip Green have got massively richer while his employees read this crap and he nips off to Monaco in his £1.2bn corporate jet.”

Cadwalladr does talk to people who have found a benefit from the books; one man says “If I hadn’t found this, I’d have let the fear take over.” Obviously, it’s nice that this man can function with his fears. But why must this involve such a total embrace of positive thinking, to the exclusion of, say, doing something about the institutional or environmental causes of things that are making us unhappy?

Rather hoping this fearful man can ‘change his attitude’, should we not be asking what he is afraid of? Does he have a valid reason to be afraid? If not, what is missing from the way people interact with the world that makes them need this positive-self-talk instruction? What is really taking away our sense of agency?

This ‘positive thinking’ also eliminates consideration of consequences. If everything is about imagination, are we not tempting people to believe that they can imagine away debt, guilt, and inconvenience, rather than taking responsibility for their actions and dealing with them?

Everyone wants to be happy, but we should not want this at the cost of our own intelligence. Nor should we ignore the fact that negative emotions often have a real source, one that the negativity is trying to draw our attention to. Happy is good, that doesn’t mean that sad or mad or afraid is bad.

We shouldn’t define happiness as ignorance, of the world or of the source of our problems.


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