Drowning in Self-Help Culture

I think it would be fair to say that we’re drowning in a self-help culture that is actually self-hurting. I recently pulled Alain de Botton’s book, The Consolations of Philosophy, off my shelf and re-read the following passage about Epicurus, which inspired this mini-essay.  “The task of philosophy was, for Epicurus, to help us interpret our indistinct pulses of distress and desire and thereby save us from mistaken schemes for happiness.”

Happiness is certainly of utmost importance; however, we seem to be more confused about the topic than ever. The percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “happy” has not increased since the 1950’s. It’s worth noting that the typical person’s real income has also doubled in that same period. Clearly, it appears that absolute improvements in our wealth don’t improve our happiness, nor do all the other absolute improvements in our lives. Many of us seem to base our happiness on our relative position in life. In other words, we suffer from status anxiety. Here’s what seems to be the bad news: life isn’t fair. Here’s what seems to be the good news: that doesn’t mean that you can’t be happy.

All of this unhappiness has paved way for the emergence of a booming and lucrative self-help industry. This industry has become so big that it now hosts a wide variety of sub-genres as well. There is no shortage of people willing to give you advice on how to become happier. Ironically, this advice often comes from people who are unhappy themselves. One important question remains: is any of this self-help advice actually working?

The School of Life’s post titled “Oliver Burkeman on Self-Help” suggests that we call self-help what it really is: philosophy.

Even much sincerely motivated self-help advice simply doesn’t work. A manufacturer of washing-machines that made clothes dirtier wouldn’t remain in business long. Yet evidence is accumulating that “positive thinking”, for many people, has a negative effect. Such counterproductive advice has persisted for so long surely partly because self-help exists in a ghetto, separated from philosophy, experimental psychology, and psychotherapy. The ancient Greeks and Romans wouldn’t have recognised such distinctions. Philosophy was self-help, and vice versa. Why expend so much effort defining the right way to live, then fail to put it into practice?

I must say, I wholeheartedly agree.