Read yourself happy … the self-help genre can be very useful, says Alain de Botton. Teen angst antidote? … Chicken Soup for the Soul self-help books target the adolescent audience.
Nanjing Night Net

Headmaster of the School of Life … Alain de Botton in Melbourne.

Do you ever find yourself idly perusing the mountain of self-help books at your favourite literary retailer – and wondering whether these books, whose dust jackets promise so much, really work? Do you decide that they probably don’t but then buy them anyway “just in case”?

If so, you’re not alone. There’s a reason that so many of these books are published every year. Self-help is a popular genre. So much so, that it’s made the unlikely leap from page to screen with the recent proliferation of plotless cinematic versions of popular bestsellers such as What To Expect When You’re Expecting – a pregnancy guide – and the upcoming Think Like A Man, adapted from Steve Harley’s relationship manual Act Like A Lady, Think Like a Man.

Clearly, these books speak to a universal urge for auto-didactic success and individual achievement. But self-help, at least in its modern inspirational incarnation, is a relatively recent literary phenomenon that only gained widespread popularity with the publication of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952.

The 1990s saw the expansion of the genre into every possible field of endeavour, while a whole new audience was cultivated with the Chicken Soup for the Soul teen series, the first self-help books marketed directly to adolescents.

In this century, self-help has taken another turn with Rhonda Byrne’s 20 million+ bestseller of 2006, The Secret – get whatever you want by visualising it – and the bible of the overworked and underexercised: The 4-Hour Body – get fit and slender in just four hours a week. Tim Feriss’s follow-up to The 4-Hour Workweek, is subtitled An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman, and already in its eleventh printing since its December 2010 release. Ferriss prescribes ‘hacking yourself’ to become your own life coach, webmaster and personal trainer – all in the name of achieving your genetic potential in just six months. Are these extreme outcomes actually possible or are the books written by charlatans?

Author, philosopher and TV presenter Alain de Botton argues that the genre has an important place in a well-rounded education, but it’s been degraded by exploitative authors hyping unrealistic expectations.

“Most self-help books are written by Americans of the most sentimental and over-optimistic sort,” de Botton tells me.

“They promise their readers, variously, eternal life, untold riches, amazing relationships and an escape from every grubby aspect of being human – all within 300 pages of upbeat, relentlessly repetitive and patronising prose.”

De Botton firmly believes that the problem isn’t with self-help books per se, it’s with the way they are written. He cites philosophers like Epicurus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius as the most adept practitioners of the (broadly defined) genre. And at The School of Life, de Botton’s London-based enterprise offering a variety of programs and services to encourage mindful living (set to launch in Melbourne later this year), there are moves afoot to reinvent the self-help book for a skeptical audience that might not normally read such books.

A good start, suggests de Botton, would be to reverse the genre’s trite formula: instead of relentlessly accentuating the positive, these books would be more useful if they helped readers to accept the negative.

“What unites many modern practitioners of self-help is their fierce optimism, they make the grave assumption that the best way to cheer someone up is to tell them that all will be well,” says de Botton.

“They are utterly cut off from the spirit of their more noble predecessors, who knew that the fastest way to make someone feel well is to tell her that things are as bad as, and possibly much worse than, she could ever have thought. Or, as Seneca put it so well, ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.'”

But would this approach shift books? It may well be that we devour these books precisely because we crave their rich dose of optimism.

Ellen*, an admitted self-help addict, theorises that the genre’s allure rests on its promise of paradisiacal perfection.

“I still regard the type of self-help books you tend to find under that heading in a bookshop as something so absurd and full of fantasy, but raw and coarse and so ridiculously positive about painful things,” she says.

“They are never fully satisfying but endlessly promising and addictive! I used to keep stacks of them under my bed to indulge in when no one was around.”

But whether it’s the promise or the result that attracts readers, de Botton insists that these books have an important role to play in our lives, even for those not seeking existential navigation lessons.

“After all, you only need to achieve autonomy from your parents, find a moderately satisfying job, form a relationship, perhaps raise some children, watch the onset of mortality in your parents’ generation and eventually in your own, until one day a fatal illness starts gnawing at your innards and you calmly go to the grave, shut the coffin and are done with the self-evident business of life. Who needs help with that? It’s simple,” he says.

De Botton’s tone is sardonic but his point is serious. The path of progress is paved with the fruits of self-reflection and self-help provides a practical starting point for a deeper analysis of the life well-lived.

And the philosopher puts his money where his mouth is. As de Botton proudly explains, his School of Life has “produced a set of books to start to address at least a few of these issues; a culture which gives a role to guidance and the self-help book stands a chance of making at least one or two fewer mistakes than the previous generation in the time that remains.”

The self-help books that Alain de Botton turns to:

“I’m deliberately stretching the term ‘self-help books’, because good books are self-help books,’ says Alain.

Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (good for obsession).

Donald Winnicott – Home Is Where We Start From (great on relations with parents and kids).

Theodor Zeldin – An Intimate History of Humanity (puts a lot into perspective).

Philippa Perry – Couch Fiction (a description of psychotherapy in the form of a graphic novel).

*Name changed to protect identity

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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