Who’s Afraid of Self-Help?

A historian defends the squishy science

Mitch Horowitz
Jul 3, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo: SolStock/Getty Images

Self-help has developed a bit of a dowdy reputation. I was recently corresponding with a successful self-help writer who seemed embarrassed by the term.

“I don’t see myself as a self-help writer,” he explained. “I think that most self-help is a sham.” The same writer later sent me a mass-mailing for a “Magic Income Trick.”

I know a bestselling writer of popular psychology who also rejects the self-help label because, she says, “I don’t provide answers.”

Why do good writers flee from a label that obviously belongs to them? Probably because they fear it’s undignified. To some, “self-help” seems naïve or squishy. To others, it’s gauche, or down-market.

I feel the opposite. I believe literate people should embrace the term self-help. I do.

Although I write as both a historian and a spiritual seeker, I wear the self-help label proudly. Some of my books have been about finding a definite aim in life or experimenting with the metaphysical properties of the mind or cultivating personal habits that can produce success. If I’m not a self-help writer — what am I?

The term self-help came into popular use in 1859, when British political reformer Samuel Smiles published his landmark work Self-Help, which celebrated good character, self-education, and accountability. Those ideas may sound tame today, but the profundity of simple ideas is revealed only in their application. An individual’s struggle — or failure — to apply these basic principles can place him before vast questions. Smiles’ book became one of the most influential of its time.

Smiles did not coin the phrase self-help. The term originated in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 lecture, “Man the Reformer,” a work that Smiles admired. “Can we not learn the lesson of self-help?” Emerson asked. “Society is full of infirm people, who incessantly summon others to serve them.”

Emerson was not referring to the destitute, but rather to those who clamor for life’s luxuries even while producing little themselves. By contrast, Emerson asked: “Can anything be so elegant as to have few wants and to serve them one’s self, so as to have somewhat left to give, instead of being always prompt to grab?”

Authentic self-help demands personal excellence, the drive to overcome addiction or crippling habits, and the wish to make life a little better for those who venture near you.

Some of the greatest exponents of self-help include therapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl; Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson; and Emerson himself, who intended his essays as practical philosophy. While the term didn’t exist in his day, Benjamin Franklin can be considered a self-help writer for his popular tracts on good conduct (“Early to bed and early to rise”).

Be wary of mistaking simplicity for triteness. The very act of applying a single principle of self-elevation to your life is dramatically challenging — and filled with possibilities.

For example, I often tell people that one of the simplest and most powerful steps you can take to ennoble yourself and develop a sense of deserved self-esteem is to abstain from personal gossip. When done for entertainment value, gossip and rumor-mongering are poison whose very act engages you in perpetuating falsehoods and half-truths. Spreading or listening to hearsay can degrade us in ways deeper than we might realize: Consider how fitful, anxious, and physically depleted you feel after spending an hour gossiping. You are skittish because you have degraded another while failing to salve your own wounds. The gossiper implicitly — and wrongly — assumes that exposing another person’s problems and weaknesses will dilute his or her own. Instead, you pierce the reputation of another — rarely knowing the full truth — which instigates a sense of guilt, and enacts the same values in you. You become what don’t forgive.

I am not talking about calling out injustices or abuse of others; some “gossip” is beneficial, like sharing salaries to reduce the wage gap or whisper networks that help women keep each other safe from predatory men. Rather, I am talking about our chitchat and media culture, which places a high premium on smears. Consider how much of our entertainment, such as “reality” television, centers on seeing other people humiliated. Desisting from gossip, rather than a noble-sounding bromide, represents a radical break with conformity. It can do more than any other single step to make you stand more fully erect. The anti-gossiper sometimes fears that he or she will grow boring or isolated. But if you try it, you’ll see neither consequence will befall you — indeed, you’ll be more attractive to the right kinds of people. It is a nerve-inducing step.

Personally, I like works of spiritual self-help, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, because they encourage self-change on an epic scale. I am less enamored of books like The 48 Laws of Power, which effectively instruct lowering your personal standards as means to get ahead, including being sneaky, claiming undeserved credit, and keeping colleagues and workmates unsteady. As I’ve written elsewhere, a not inconsiderable number of headline-making studies in cognitive psychology rely on some of the same shortcuts or oversold conclusions that researchers routinely accuse New Agey writers of peddling. This trend has weakened the current crop of self-help books. But, as far as the classics are concerned — by which I mean works that have attained posterity such as How to Win Friends and Influence People and Think and Grow Rich — their practical effectiveness rests chiefly on the passion of the individual seeker.

An Arab proverb goes: “The way bread tastes depends on how hungry you are.” The depth of your hunger for self-change is likely to match the benefits you experience from any legitimate self-help program. This is because the individual’s passion for betterment is a force of deliverance. That is perhaps the most actionable principle of human nature. Use it.

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"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

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