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Why the Self-Help Industry Is Dominating the U.S.

A brief history of self-improvement

Marshall Corvus
Feb 24 · 9 min read
Credit: Scar1984/Getty Images

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I’ve always been skeptical about self-help and not just because positive self-talk makes me cringe. It’s also not about the online degrees in life coaching I discovered as I typed this article. Mostly, I just never really knew what “self-help” meant. My confusion is perhaps best explained by the late comic George Carlin:

If you’re looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else? That’s not self-help. That’s help! There’s no such a thing as self-help. If you did it yourself, you didn’t need help.

I’ve always thought the term “self-help” was a bit vague. It seemed like a catch-all term for a genre of books that taught “personal development and improvement.” But my own skepticism aside, self-help has turned a book genre into an industry. Now, business is booming: In 2016, the U.S. self-help industry was worth about $9.9 billion dollars, according to a report from Research and Markets. Market researchers have predicted that the industry will be worth $13 billion dollars within the next four years, by 2022.

Today, the self-help industry has a peg in almost every medium available. While books were the main facet of self-help throughout most of history, today’s self-help blogs and TV shows have taken the practice digital. Workshops, seminars, and retreats led by self-help gurus and life coaches can cost self-help junkies up to $3,000 per event, while productivity apps and podcasts have taken self-help on the go.

It’s easy to think of self-help as a simple product with a good marketing team behind it, but self-help is so much more than a product. Today, the self-help industry is an ideology that has more in common with modern religion than the modern car.

A brief history of self-help

Samuel Smiles’ book, Self-help, was published in 1859, the same year as Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Smiles’ book is considered one of the earliest and most successful self-help books in history. It’s also the namesake of the genre.

Portrait of Samuel Smiles, a ‘founding father’ of the self-help genre. Credit: Sir George Reid via Wikimedia

In his book, Smiles promoted the idea of self-empowerment through a “never say die” approach toward life. In doing so, Self-help became a massive success seemingly overnight, apparently outselling both The Origin of Species and On Liberty, according to the BBC. Some histories say that even Charles Darwin was hooked on Self-help and its notions of the self-made man. (Yes, man. Don’t expect any modern progressive thoughts on women in this Victorian-era text.)

The classical liberalism of the 19th century made a perfect home for Smiles’ Self-help. The abolition of slavery, free trade capitalism, and notions of women’s suffrage inspired great change, alongside industrialization and modernization. And despite the great economic disparity between classes, the world seemed more open to those who were willing to help themselves. It is this notion that became the main tagline for self-help according to Smiles: “Heaven helps those who help themselves.”

By the 2000s, the self-help genre had blossomed from paperback beginnings into a full-blown industry.

The liberalism of this time also promoted the freedom of the individual and the realization of one’s own potential. Liberalist statesmen and orators championed the working class and laissez-faire economics. Thus, the working class could finally feel like they had their hands on the reigns; it’s no wonder Smiles’ book became so successful.

Smiles sold about a quarter million copies of Self-help before he died in 1904. Then, Victorian England and the rest of the world swallowed self-help whole.

While Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were scorning the decadence of the Roaring ’20s, French pharmacist Emile Coué was intent on legitimizing the self-help genre. In 1920, Emile Coué wrote Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion based on the research he’d conducted about hypnosis. His book suggested repeating positive mantras to yourself to positively impact your unconscious self.

By the 2000s, the self-help genre had blossomed from paperback beginnings into a full-blown industry.

Positive self-talk might be a punchline of insecurity today, but Coué’s research on positive self-talk was taken seriously enough to legitimize the New Thought movement, which preached the power of the mind over the body. In the 1920s, it was commonplace for self-help periodicals to blend the latest “scientific discoveries” about the nervous system with beliefs from the New Thought movement. The belief that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative experiences (known as the “law of attraction”) was popularized at this time as well, and it became a mainstay in the self-help industry.

When the Great Depression tore through the economies of the newly industrialized world, self-help books responded accordingly. Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich offered a 13-step method for increasing your income. He asserted that desire, faith, and persistence would bring about financial success. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People taught readers to become more likable and manipulative at home and in the competitive job market. This was only the beginning. However, to this day, Hill and Carnegie’s works remain on self-help bestseller lists.

According to a USC history report, the religious boom in post-World War II America gave way for more spiritual approaches to self-help. In 1950s texts such as Pray Your Weight Away and The Power of Positive Thinking, authors Charlie Shedd and Norman Vincent Peale offered a more religious spin to the positivity mindset.

As an interesting aside, Norman Vincent Peale was also Donald Trump’s pastor, which could explain Trump’s positive, uncompromising self-confidence. Photo: Tom Gates/Getty Images

In the face of the Vietnam War, disco, and the ever-present possibility of nuclear obliteration, the 1960s and 1970s were prime time for the self-help industry. New Age spiritual groups, such as Scientology, found their roots; diet and exercise trends like jogging went mainstream; and Eastern rituals like yoga found a spotlight.

The rise of youth unemployment and a growing lack of faith in conventional social structures drove the “Me” generation toward “self-realization” and “self-fulfillment during this time. Countercultures flared, too, giving the self-help industry an opportunity to diversify its practice. So while the “law of attraction” was still promoted at the time, new, popularized pseudoscience myths gained force, too, like the idea that human beings only use 10 percent of their brains. This, coupled with a generation that had a taste for psychedelics, helped give rise to the Human Potential Movement.

Despite its various makeovers through the decades, self-help never really left the advice of its founder, Smiles: “Heaven helps those who help themselves.”

The Human Potential Movement suggested that human beings had untapped, extraordinary potential lurking in their minds. This movement gave rise to a new generation of self-help gurus: Rather than teaching people how to excel in the world, the Esalen Institute taught its followers how to tap into their own human potential. Founded in Big Sur, California, the Esalen Institute utilized a blend of New Age spirituality, Eastern religion, and Western psychology to teach self-mastery. The Institute continues to offer instruction on these topics to this day.

In other parts of the country, Werner Erhard’s Erhard Seminars Training (marketed as “est”) included two weekend-long intensive seminars that promoted “transformation, personal responsibility, accountability, and possibility.” It was loosely based off of Zen Buddhist traditions.

Photo: Jim Spellman/Getty Images

During the 1980s and 1990s, the self-help industry jumped into television sets. Tall, tan Tony Robbins delivered self-help with a shiny white smile in his late-night programming. Using his salesperson charm, Robbins promoted his books, tapes, and seminars about the law of attraction. With flashing lights, audience participation, and loud music, his seminars sometimes seem more like a rock concert than a TED Talk.

Later, Oprah Winfrey grew to become one of the biggest TV self-help gurus of all time. By covering a range of lifestyle topics, the Oprah Winfrey Show became a hub for daytime TV viewers to learn more about self-help trends.

By the 2000s, the self-help genre had blossomed from paperback beginnings into a full-blown industry. Despite its various makeovers through the decades, self-help never really left the advice of its founder, Smiles: “Heaven helps those who help themselves.”

Self-help today

Millennials today are doing the best they can to help themselves. According to Forbes, 94 percent of millennials reported making personal improvement commitments in 2015, compared to 84 percent of baby boomers, and 81 percent of generation X.

Social media platforms, which tend to bombard users with a near-constant parade of others succeeding in impressive contrast, are used by 75 percent of millennials. This, coupled with a 24-hour news stream can leave millennials with feelings of increased anxiety, depression, and FOMO (fear of missing out). And it is this feeling of inadequacy that the self-help industry, as always, has an answer for.

Millennials reportedly have some of the highest workplace expectations in history. Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Workweek fits right into this trend. Like Carnegie and Hill, Ferriss promises his readers the keys to success. However, instead of offering tips for overcoming the Great Depression, Ferriss offers an opportunity to combat the workaholic nine-to-five routine and to join a working elite.

Launched seemingly in response to our highly consumerist society, organization consultant and author Marie Kondo’s KonMari method has also become a symbol of self-help today. Based on Shinto tradition, the KonMari method recommends that people declutter by asking themselves if the objects they own really “spark joy” in their lives.

I’ve always been a skeptic about self-help books. After over a century of books and experts on the topics of“personal development and improvement,” one would think the human species would be made of super humans and enlightened Buddhas. Given the current state of affairs, this doesn’t seem to be true just yet.

But don’t lose hope: The self-help industry always has a solution. If you (like me) scoff at the law of attraction or cringe at positive self-talk, the self-help industry has built a genre for you as well: The anti-self-help self-help. This is a self-help genre designed for people who dislike self-help, a statement that contains about as much logic as taking a tequila shot to stay sober.

The anti-self-help self-help movement remains skeptical of self-help. Thus, the majority of its writers suggest an alternative approach to its traditional methods, including: Be negative, accept you’ll always be mediocre, and simply just stop giving a fuck.

For over a century, self-help has meant self-improvement. Perhaps this time around, self-help should mean self-acceptance.

These anti-self-help authors have taken notes from the stoics of the past, and they recommend that we stop striving. Rather than striving to be exceptional, you should just learn to accept the circumstances of your life. Instead of positive self-talk, Oliver Burkeman, the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, suggests focusing on the downers in life, like the inescapable suffering we endure and the ever-present reaper. Instead of striving for success, Mark Manson, the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck, suggests that we accept mediocrity.

As Manson describes his thoughts in true stoic fashion: “The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.” To summarize his viewpoint: The practice of self-help only highlights the qualities and things you don’t have, thus making you more miserable. On the flip side, accepting the fact that you’re not successful allows you to be happier with your current state.

Manson’s bell curve graph. Credit: Mark Manson

Manson argues that exceptional performers — like Albert Einstein, Michael Jordan, and Elon Musk — make up only a small portion of the human population. The overwhelming majority of us are average performers.

And I believe he has a point.

For over a century, self-help books have compiled a wide array of solutions and keys to improving almost every aspect of the human experience: losing weight, being more productive, achieving success, building stronger relationships, and even finding happiness.

For over a century, self-help gurus and life coaches have preached the idea that humans can always improve, and then they’ve sold the keys to success to those who felt inadequate as well as those who want to be exceptional.

For over a century, self-help has meant self-improvement. Perhaps this time around, self-help should mean self-acceptance.

Marshall Corvus

Written by

Paris-based. Video Journalist. Photographer. Videographer. Always trying to “figure out” what’s next.

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