The politics and psychology of self-help

Samuel Smiles - Self Help

The self-help movement has its fair share of nonsense, but its more modest claims are now being confirmed by psychologists. 

There is always a self-help book on the bestseller lists. In one of the most popular books in Norway at the moment, Erik Bertrand Larssen claims that you can “become best with mental training“. Larssen argues that it’s the many small choices you make every day that determine whether you reach your long term goals. Inborn talent and environment may give you a good start in life, but real success comes from controlling your thoughts. You are stronger and more resilient than you think you are. You can take more.  You can do more.

The unending cheerfulness of mental coaches and self-help authors tends to bring out the pessimist in me. I once listened to the motivational speaker Randi Skaug, who has climbed tall mountains, and now goes around to dull corporate seminars to share what it feels like to be at the top of the world. It feels awesome, she says. Stand up, she commands us, and roar out in search of that feeling in yourselves! I remember standing there with people roaring all around me, everyone cheering on command, thinking: But I don’t want to feel awesome. Too much confidence makes me behave like an idiot. I need my doubt and pessimism in order to function. Leave me alone.

Many of the ideas that circulate among mental coaches and self-help authors are nonsense, and anyone who has been to a few revival meetings will recognize the style at motivational seminars. The best that can be said for some of these people is that they believe their own bullshit. The worst, that they don’t. But I do have a lot of respect for the readers of self-help books. These are people who recognize that there are parts of their lives that need improvement, and then search for a plan to make it happen.

This is a humble and courageous thing to do, and more people should be doing it.

Unfortunately they are often rewarded with bad advice. Millions of people have learned from The Secret that the universe listens when you think happy thoughts. In the years that follow, the universe then teaches them otherwise. These people deserve better.

The wrong question

Other self-help books answer the wrong question, or they help you achieve the wrong goals. If you happen to weigh a few kilos over the norm you’ll easily find books that will help you to shed them, (at least temporarily). But perhaps what you really need to read is a book that will tell you that a little overweight isn’t dangerous, and that exposing your body to regular crash diets is a lot worse. Instead of encouraging your dangerous goal of looking like a model, dieting books should tell you to be physically active and eat differently because it makes you happy and healthy, and never mind the weight.

Perhaps books on getting rich should remind you to spend more time with friends and family, and books on being efficient should tell you that you’re working on too many projects, and should abandon some of them. And any book that tells you it’s possible to live without pain should come with the label “Warning: Does not apply to our reality.”

The self-help movement wants to help you reach your goals, but what if your goals are harmful to yourself or the people around you? The murderous cult leader Charles Manson learned how to “win friends” and “influence people” from Dale Carnegie’s self-help course.

Priests and moral philosophers, predecessors of today’s mental coaches, were less timid. They told you which goals to have as well. They talked about duty and sacrifice. People today choose their own goals. They just want help in reaching them. Is your goal to make the world a better place? We can help you with that, says the self-help movement. Or is your goal to become rich and famous? We can help you with that as well. Pick the book that fits your goal.

Implicit individualism

Self-help is a non-political and individualistic idea. When everyone thinks only about how to improve their own lives, political reform movements are unlikely to follow.

One of the roots of self-help is Stoicism. Roman Stoics like Epictetus were read throughout the Middle Ages and almost up to our own time. They taught that you should seek happiness not in what is outside of you, but in your own thoughts and choices, because these are the only things you are in full control of. As long as you are conscious of the power of choice, nothing that comes from the outside can upset you. Others may harm you, but it is up to you whether you bear it or break down.

Stoicism will be of help to you if you suffer injustice, but it will not motivate you to do anything about its cause. Stoics are not radicals or revolutionaries. They are too content.

And when Samuel Smiles published Self-Help in Victorian Britain, introducing the modern use of the term, his message was explicitly liberal, almost to the point of laissez-faire. He saw self-help as an alternative to politics, an alternative to placing your faith in systems, nations and great leaders. He argued that all good things in society come from individuals with good habits and good character. If we create an overly active state it would replace character building with institutions, thus undermining its own foundation.

Self-Help consists of inspirational biographies of great scientists, engineers and artists, who made up for their often humble origins by cultivating good habits and good morals, by being hungry for knowledge, and by working patiently towards worthy goals. Smiles’ heroes were threads in a social web, not modern individualists, but today’s self-help books are written over the same template: Look to great people and learn from them. And don’t wait for political reforms to save you.

The dark side of life

It’s not surprising that those who have more faith in political reforms than in character building are skeptical of the self-help movement, particularly that segment of it that tells you that anything is possible if you sit down quietly and think very positive thoughts. It’s not working? Hope harder.

When Barbara Ehrenreich got breast cancer she found herself instructed by a unanimous breast cancer community to look at the bright side of cancer, and think positive thoughts. She objected. She couldn’t find a bright side of cancer. The experience was actually pretty awful.

Her response was to write Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, an indictment of the excessively positive thinking that characterizes much of the self-help movement. She traces it from the Christian Science movement, which believed that disease could be cured with the power of thought, to Enron, who fired the pessimists who could have prevented their fall, and positive psychology, the great psychological trend of the 2000s. Ehrenreich argues that positive thinking does not liberate people, but tricks them into thinking that there are no political solutions to their problems.

Self-helpers and political reformers are actually not quite as bitter enemies as one might think. They both believe that man can, and should, be improved. For a long time psychology seemed more interested in proving that you were doomed to remain as you were. If you were born into the wrong race, you were doomed to be genetically inferior. If your head was the wrong shape, you were doomed to become a criminal. And to the conservative aristocracy, self-help and political agitation were equally distasteful, because they encouraged low-born people to rise above their station. Self-helpers and reformers thus have a common enemy, and share a common belief: That people can, and should, aim high in life.

The conflict between them is over where to draw the line. Which kinds of improvements are the responsibility of individuals, and which of society? This conflict has usually been won by the political reformers, who have steadily increased the extent of what the state is meant to help you with. This has made the road to a good life easier, and less dependent on character. Smiles would have been appalled.

The things you can’t redistribute

But perhaps the reform project has now reached its zenith. It can’t go any further up. Society can achieve much by building good institutions and redistributing wealth, but we can’t redistribute the health benefit of being physically active, or the knowledge you get from reading a book.

We can build libraries, or attempt to even out the socioeconomic factors that increase the likelihood of reading books, but unless you take the time to actually pick up a book and read it, none of this will benefit you. Our hospitals can go to great expense to fix your body when your life of laziness catches up with you in a couple of decades, but you would be much better off if you could muster up the motivation to get off the couch right now and start moving.

Society can’t help you with these things. Only you can do that, and if you must resort to annoyingly cheerful self-help books and mental coaches to achieve this, then so be it.

And, interestingly, psychologists have begun to confirm many of the more modest claims of the self-help movement. They’re now following in the footsteps of Stoics and Victorian character builders, and are rediscovering dusty ideals like willpower, good habits, and good mindsets.

The power of will and habit

Willpower is your ability to sacrifice short-term goals in order to reach long-term goals. People who have this ability do better in life than those who don’t. According to one theory, willpower is like a muscle, it gets tired with use, but can be strengthened with training. The psychologist behind this theory, Roy Baumeister, sees this as a vindication of Victorian character building.

There are some problems with this theory, particularly the claim that willpower can be replenished by eating. Other psychologists find that willpower is not a limited resource, but that it depends on your attitude – you have the willpower you think you have.

In any case, the most important thing you can use your willpower for is to build good habits, as Charles Duhigg covers in The Power of Habit. Habits are all those things you do without thinking. Habits are triggered by a particular cue – a time of day, an emotion, an event – and then you respond to that cue by doing what you normally do, without thinking much about it.

Habits are often formed unintentionally, but it is also possible for you to deliberately create or change habits. This requires a lot of effort and willpower in the beginning, but once your new habit is in place, it will be easier to follow it than it will be to break it. A good habit thus gives you many good things in life almost for free, while bad habits can destroy you.

Growth-oriented mindsets

There is also a lot of interesting research into the power of mindsets. In her book Mindset, the psychologist Carol Dweck divides people into two groups: Those with a fixed mindset, and those with a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are something they simply have, and can’t do much to change. They may believe that they “are” intelligent, and thus do not need to work very hard to reach their goals. And if you “are” intelligent, and somebody criticizes you, you’ll interpret it as an attack on your core identity, not as useful feedback. Or they may think that they “are” stupid, and that there’s no point in even trying to learn difficult things.

Growth oriented people believe that all abilities must be cultivated, and that they can learn almost anything with a bit of effort. They believe that you become good at what you work hard to achieve, and it is never too late in life to learn something new. When they meet failure or criticism, they ask if there is anything they can learn from it.

According to Dweck, people with growth mindsets do better than those with fixed mindsets in most areas of life. Also, their view of the mind happens to be correct. Not everything in your mind is changeable, but with effort and motivation, surprisingly much is.

Dweck says that parents should never praise their children for being smart, but for working hard. This will teach them the right mindset.

Back to start

New psychological research should always be read with caution. Much of it may not survive a decade or two. But it’s interesting to observe that many psychologists now agree with what the more modest self-help books have recommended since the start: Build your character with good habits and effort, and you’ll be well prepared to reach your goals.

And what about Erik Bertrand Larssen, the bestselling Norwegian self-help author who claims you can become best with mental training? I like his book. It deals with many of the same themes – habits, willpower, long-term thinking. But it’s too oriented towards management and sports for my taste. Carol Dweck’s Mindset fits me better.

And I rather like Samuel Smiles’ old tribute to the heroes of the industrial revolution. I prefer self-help authors who say that not all goals are admirable, and that it is more important to have character than to “become best”.

[Translated from Aftenposten.no, August 7, 2013, Å tenke seg bedre.]