Self-help

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one I did on self-help.

When did self-help books became bestsellers in the US? Why? What were the first self-help authors who made their way to the top?

The term ‘self-help’ was first used by Samuel Smiles in Scotland in 1859, but it was in the US that the idea of self-help books really took off in the twentieth century. Perhaps the first major self-help authors were Dale Carnegie in the 1940s (How to Make Friends and Influence People), Norman Vincent Peale in the 1950s (The Power of Positive Thinking) and and Thomas A. Harris in the 1960s (I’m OK, You’re OK).

What have been the preferred topics of self-help books?

There have been two major ideas in self-help books. The first idea is that people are in control of their own destinies and can improve themselves and their lives by thinking more positively and changing their attitudes. This is the empowerment message in books like The Power of Positive Thinking, and the 1980s bestseller The Secret.

The second major idea in self-help books, which conflicts with the first idea, is that people cannot help their troubles and that the problems we have are due to bad situations we have been through. For example, I’m OK, You’re OK, and many other books, blame toxic parenting for the difficulties that people have in life. These kinds of books have been called victimisation self-help books.

Do you think that these topics have altered over time? Do you think that there are changes in self-help topics in different decades?

There are definitely shifts in self-help books over time. The empowerment books were popular up until the 1960s, then the victimisation books became much more popular as people began to suspect that there weren’t such easy answers to their problems. However, there was a backlash against that in the 1980s with a return to books which promised people that they could control their own destinies and improve themselves.

In recent years, there has been a move towards positive psychology books which focus on how people can be happy and successful through using various psychological techniques.

However, there have also been a few books (like my book and the books of Oliver Burkeman) that have criticised self-help books for focusing too much on the individual rather than the social situation that they are in. It is damaging to suggest that all people’s problems can be fixed by thinking differently if there are real reasons for their problems (like poverty, unemployment, and discrimination). Also it is often the messages that people receive from the world around them (like the mainstream media) that make people feel worse about themselves. So perhaps we should focus more on changing the world than on changing individual people.

Some people suggest that books of popular science devoted to help people to improve their lives can be considered self-help too. What do you think about this?

I like the idea of broadening out self-help to include popular science books, social science books which address the social reasons for people’s problems, and also more spiritual books about how to live ethically and compassionately. The popularity of mindfulness is something that I have been writing about recently, finding that people are increasingly drawn to meditation practices and compassion-based approaches to self-help, which hopefully also help them to relate better to other people and to the world around them.


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