Christmas is over and we are now officially in the “self-help season” of January, when almost half of all personal-growth-and-development book sales occur. While, as with anything, there are great, good, bad and terrible examples of the genre, what most of these books essentially promise is a happy new way of life via a better body, healthier habits, more satisfying relationships, increased income, more positive thinking, greater professional success or a calmer, more zen-like disposition. All this can be yours for seven-odd quid and just a few hours of your time while it pisses down outside.
Admittedly, I’m a natural sceptic at best, spiritually bankrupt at worst. But I’d be lying if I said self-help hasn’t sometimes appealed to me, too. I’ve read heaps of the books, for both work and pleasure, done lots of the exercises in earnest, and I’ve even raved about a couple of them – at least for a while. But, ultimately, when the initial enthusiasm has waned, and the lightbulb moment has dimmed, they’ve mostly left me a little further along a continuum of thinking self-help is basic BS.
To be clear, I’m genuinely happy for someone having an epiphany over anything, from the binning of clutter and the pairing of socks, to the learning of Mandarin or the juicing of kale (less keen on the pinning of worthless million-pound cheques to the ceiling in the deluded belief they’ll one day not bounce, but hey, whatever floats your chakra) – acquiring skills is a generally good thing. And, while very many self-help principles have been discredited (proper scientific and psychological research shows that, in fact, the suppression of negative thoughts – a self-help linchpin – isn’t just unhelpful in the pursuit of happiness, it’s downright harmful), it’s bound to be the case that some people must find them lastingly meaningful. Good for them.
For me, the problem with self-help books lies not so much in all their unproven hokum, but in their overarching view of life as a problem to be fixed, a chronic condition to reverse
But, for me personally, the problem with self-help books lies not so much in all their unproven hokum, but in their overarching view of life as a problem to be fixed, a chronic condition to reverse. This is especially alien to me now, at an age where I finally accept my flawed self and life. It’s a state of grace in which I no longer need to find perfect, unendingly powerful happiness. Life will always be a bit shit. I just need to try to get through it all intact, alongside people I love and who love me. That’s a realistic goal and, frankly, a huge one, when so many are forced to leave life early.
Increasingly, I believe that perpetually chasing a whole new us isn’t self-help – it’s self-harm. Because it’s unrealistic, inauthentic and setting us all up for a gigantic fall. A 50-year-old mother of three is not going to be the size 10 she was as a teenager, she’s unlikely to become catatonically chilled after a lifetime of anxiety and she’s not going to adopt an entirely new way of thinking and suddenly find herself in some untainted mental nirvana.
People are convinced by the self-help movement that everything can change from January 1st onwards and, when it doesn’t, they feel even worse. Feeling dismayed that our negativity has spoilt things again, we buy into yet more lucrative programmes of transformation. I worry that this perpetual search for a heightened state of happiness ultimately encourages the avoidance of engaging with a real life littered with happy, sad, terrible and joyous moments (something psychologists call “analysis paralysis”). Like diets, if self-help books worked, there’d be no more of them.
Personal growth is naturally unending. My refusal to give another penny to self-help is not a sign of some arrogant belief that I’ve realised my full potential, or even contentment, as a person. And I’m certainly not so entrenched that I’m closed off to new experiences – far from it: the older I get, the more obsessed I am with gathering new and varied memories, and I positively relish the infinite learning still ahead of me. Intentional change, like a new hobby or friend (rather than just circumstantial change, like a promotion or pay rise), is proven scientifically to be beneficial to overall happiness.
I won’t be ditching food groups, or auditing my relationships... I’ll be doing the same tiny, proven things I try to keep up all year round
But I’m done with trying to force a square peg into a round hole via some commercially motivated belief system that understands nothing of my life or experiences. I can learn far more about myself and the human condition by reading a great novel and realising how many of my irrational feelings, faults and neuroses are shared with other humans. I simply don’t crave greater transformation or any major life-changing realisations, because it’s taken me this long to understand that who I am is just fine, whether or not some self-appointed LA life coach or motivational speaker agrees. Especially when s/he is guaranteed to possess a different, but equally imperfect, set of faults herself. I’m comfier with mine, thanks. As long as I, my kids and my true friends still like who I am, then I’ll assume I’m doing OK.
And so, this January, I won’t be ditching food groups, or auditing my relationships, and I’ll be rearranging neither my chakras nor my feng shui. I’ll be doing the same tiny, proven things I try to keep up year round. Each day, I’ll type out a short list of things I’m grateful for (a scientifically sound exercise to increase happiness); I’ll leave the house and move around a bit, even if I don’t feel like it, because I know it invariably improves my mood; I’ll try not to ignore nice people online in order to pointlessly challenge the arseholes; I’ll leave my phone upstairs from dinnertime onwards; I’ll pay compliments whenever they naturally occur to me. I’ll try not to be a dick to anyone, and not obsess over those being a dick to me. Nothing major, nothing transformative – just helpful tweaks to a life that has already got me this far.
The only firm New Year’s resolution I do have is to never buy another self-help book. You simply must try it – it’s life changing.