The news is often so bad, guidelines on how to survive it without sacrificing your sanity have been popping up like ditch lilies on a Vermont back road: Everywhere at once, but fleeting, a stark reminder that summer is brief and the days are already getting imperceptibly shorter. Generalized advice comes and goes often because the minute it’s issued, circumstances change and the relevance it once enjoyed goes out the window. It’s like conservatives derisively regurgitating “Woke” for instance: A sure sign the meme is technically “over” — void of all relevance.
Though many of us felt things couldn’t get much worse after the 2016 election, the emergence of COVID-19 substantially changed the equation, reinforcing the incompetence of the previous administration whose bumbling response all but guaranteed the worst possible outcome. Six months into the pandemic’s third year, it feels like the backdrop for a national performance of “A Long Day’s Journey into Night” as we brace for the next impending threat.
While optimism may be in short supply, advice is abundant, sometimes even free of charge and generally worth every penny. The CDC, which dismantled the pandemic vaccination-testing-contact-tracing infrastructure in a fit of unwarranted exuberance, adds to the confusion by making very few recommendations at all. How could they? Without testing sites, we have no idea who’s infected at any given time and with another, more easily transmissible, omicron subvariant predicted to spread rapidly this fall, we could be in for another long, hard winter.
More people are admitting they’re overwhelmed by a world seemingly heading for World War III, according to the American Psychological Association, with large majorities feeling an almost constant stream of crises. Worries about gas prices, inflation, housing and basic survival found people seeking solace in alcohol and drug use along with overeating, with pandemic weight gain averaging well over 20 pounds. These responses were recorded just prior to another series of mass shootings, numerous climate change disasters, and the Supreme Court’s flirtation with theocracy, accelerating our emotional unraveling.
Enter the burgeoning self-help industry, worth more than $10 billion five years ago, well before most of our current troubles began. While the APA endorses logical alternatives such as stretching, yoga, aerobic exercise, mindfulness and spending time in nature, the feel-good industrial complex represents a manipulation empire, offering gems like “Invest in a joy practice,” an obvious update of “following your bliss” and every bit as vapid.
Largely associated with the “New Age” movement of the 1970s, the self-improvement revolution dates back more than two centuries to Benjamin Franklin’s essay “The Way to Wealth” offering bromides like “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” which worked to perfection for Franklin, earning a fortune for the unlikely guru. His subsequent autobiography contained 13 “virtues” he followed religiously and tracked on a daily calendar, theoretically building positive habits, which has become a self-help template.
Considered a milestone in the art, Franklin’s autobiography, according to Tom Anderson in Blinkest Magazine, was incredibly specific and “actionable” with readers able to “make similar improvements in their own lives” with a couple going on to create their own self-improvement tomes. Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey authors respectively of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People,” two of the best-selling books of the genre in the 20th century, were both influenced by Franklin.
Taking into account our vulnerability during these ominous times, it’s not mysterious why we would be ready to grab a self-help Uber and ride into a future with our coping mechanisms finely tuned; where we calmly deal with whatever comes our way; and become our “best selves” despite any obstacles. But the problem is that the more desperate, depressed or hopeless we become, the more likely we’ll be enveloped by the toxic stew of largely unscientific, often useless, advice that will end up making us feel even worse than we did before.
While a small percentage of the estimated 6,000 self-help books published annually may help some people, some of the time, they land on library shelves with little scrutiny, exaggerated claims and a one-size-fits-all premise prompted by profit incentives rather than anything approaching scientific credibility. This is a big industry with zero quality control and a tendency to overpromise and under-deliver with unrealistic expectations of its adherents who often fail to reach overly-ambitious goals, reinforcing their despair and perceptions of inferiority.
The main concept peddled by legions of messianic self-help zealots is that you’re just not good enough, fundamentally flawed in some way. You’re not tough enough to endure; you’re not in touch with spirituality; you don’t exercise six days a week; you’re not chasing your dreams; you aren’t trying very hard; you’re lazy, you’re wasting your life away; and so much more. All carefully designed to have you first dwell on your multiple problems and then find a coach or guru, or author to help you find a solution, usually depicted as straightforward and as easy as whipping out your debit card.
As research points to self-help and the endless quest for personal happiness more likely to make us miserable, one Danish psychologist thinks we ought to quit being so self-absorbed and drop our obsession with looking inward, which he claims makes us less equipped to be a human on the outside. In “Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze,” Svend Brinkmann points to self-help not necessarily being so helpful. “Before this constant self-optimization existed, there was still depression and anxiety.” Part of the human condition, it’s rational to feel anxiety when there’s something to fear or depressed when awful things happen. “The organism’s way of withdrawing and perhaps metaphorically recharging the batteries.”
More to the point is George Carlin: “If you’re looking for self-help, why would you read a book by somebody else?”
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.