The self-help book is ubiquitous, filling the shelves of bookstores and offering to solve the problems of your life. From happiness to loneliness to overeating, everything can be solved with a ten step plan. In the digital age, a cottage industry of self-help websites have sprung up, with similar promises and even less scientific backing. Self-help books are the world’s best selling genre. They demonstrate both our dissatisfaction with our lives and the all pervasive nature of the ideology which underpins them.
The best starting point to the popularity of self-help is Andrew Carnegie’s 1937 tome, Think and Grow Rich, which sold more than 100 million copies worldwide by proposing a 13 step program to grow rich through the power of the mind’s desire. Readers may recognise the formula from 2006’s The Secret, which sold 20 million copies by slimming down the formula to just three steps. 1984’s You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay sold more than 50 million copies by proposing that disease could be healed through positive thinking. This kind of claptrap is common, but often mysticism or pseudoscience is included to make the graft less blatant. Marie Kondo follows this pattern by implying Japanese mysticism in The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up, which was the 4th top selling book on Amazon in 2016. When selling to the gullible business community you can skip the magic and just use a brand name or corporate success as the hook, as Tom Rath has demonstrated with StrengthsFinder 2.0, which maintained position within the top 5 on Amazon from 2011 to 2016. Self-help books are not always so transparently nonsense, but many do conform to these notions of confidence tricks, mysticism and pseudoscience together with homespun “common sense” wisdom. These books are so incredibly popular because they tap into the latent dissatisfaction we have with our lives. It is no coincidence that Carnegie had his success in the wake of the Great Depression. We see that life is a bit shit, and look to those who offer solutions.
But all the solutions offered are to change ourselves as individuals.
Society is a great unexamined, unchangable monolith. Indeed society is perfect; the problem must be with me, as the unexamined ideology of omnipresent advertising tells us. We are so accustomed to the isolated view that any larger scale systemic problems cannot even be seen. The same pervasive individualism which drives us to political superheroes also works to limit the scope for improvement. If those rich folks on TV are doing fine, then the problem with my life must be me. This restriction of vision means that any problems with society are left unexamined, with change only possible at the individual level, which is rarely the actual cause. With this narrow (dare I say it, neo-Taylorian) view it is easier to conceive of healing illness through mindfulness than by implimenting a universal health care system. Easier to conclude that you are poor because you don’t have the willpower than because of the entrenched power of capital. In reality, none of these problems can actually be solved without considering the entire context for them at a societal level. Even in the most charitable case of building one’s confidence, this is still only treating the symptom rather than the root cause of a society which treats confidence interchangably with ability.
The individualist ideology which underpins these books also helps to sell them. By working entirely within these individualist confines with which the customer is aware and offering solutions which are “common sense”, the customer’s thought is not challenged. They don’t actually learn anything, instead just having their existing prejudices reinforced. This may help someone who wants to be more decisive, but will only paper over the underlying problem. It shouldn’t be surprising that these types of books are particularly popular in the business community, whose narrowly individualist ideology and insistence on decisiveness over considered judgement make for an ideal target market.