Was it Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink that started it? Can it be traced back to Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life? Or shall we just call it a slow-burning trend that dates all the way back to Aristotle? Take a look at the self-help section of your local bookshop this new year, and for every cliché-ridden guidebook promising to fix all your problems in ten seconds flat, there’s one written by a diehard rationalist with a PhD, dispensing scientifically proven facts on how to feel better or achieve more.
You can choose between Columbia University neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer, who’ll teach you when to rely on your gut and when to think things through with his book How We Decide; psychology professor Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science, or, forthcoming this January, Help! by Oliver Burkeman, the journalist who’s spent the last five years trawling the self-help industry for tips that actually work. Guides to personal development aren’t just for the gullible and the delusional any more—they’re for all of us.
The School of Life, a quirky adult learning centre in Bloomsbury, deals in the same mixture of soul-searching and fact-finding as many of these books and, in mid-January, it’s organising a one day course taking a look at whether the self-help industry is making anyone happier. De Botton, a faculty member of the School, is one of the speakers, as is Burkeman, who explained his views to me over the phone.
“There’s a group of people, who I used to belong to,” he said, “who feel as though all that self-help stuff is just embarrassing and ridiculous. But if you approach it with a sort of sceptical, but not cynical, mindset, you’ve got a good chance of changing for the better. I don’t think that we should surrender the whole world of self-improvement to gimlet-eyed, grinning positive-thinking gurus.”
He counselled making small changes, rather than going for a total life overhaul come January 1st, and said that will power is a finite resource that can run out if we try to do too much (his own book is subtitled, modestly, “How To Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done.”) Online resources he recommends include sites by Gretchen Reuben, Merlin Mann and Jonah Lehrer, and says that one of the techniques he’s come across that has worked for him is a “gratitude journal.”
“It sounds corny,” he said, describing a book in which he notes down everything for which he’s thankful, “but the fact is that there is proper, bona fide research that it makes significant impact on mood, and even on physical health.” Help! is full of practical tips like this that make self-help seem as straightforward as bike maintenance, and Burkeman’s obvious discomfort at recommending something that sounds so trite seems like a good reason to trust what he says.
Of course, there’s more than one way to get motivated to make a change in the New Year. One option, counselled by another participant in the School of Life’s Self-Help Summit, is just to get lost in a good novel.
“I genuinely think that you can get a lot more out of reading Anna Karenina than reading a self-help book,” Ella Berthoud told me, pointing out that “you live another life while you’re reading a novel; that helps you learn about how to deal with different situations.”
Berthoud offers a service called bibliotherapy. After a consultation about the client’s literary tastes and personal life, Berthoud offers a prescription of eight life-changing novels. It sounds much more fun than sitting through a motivational seminar or learning about your brain’s wiring, although it’s more likely to be helpful when making grand life plans, rather than helping with the nitty-gritty of getting more work done or being a bit nicer to people.
Whatever inspiration you use to help you become a bit better, there’s no excuses for failing to keep a New Year’s Resolution in 2011. This new wave of self-help books transforms the topic of personal development from brainless cheerleading into a science project you can geek out on. Even ultra-rationalist Prospect readers should be able to get into that.