Image edited by Web Investigator – Believe in better… Photo by Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty
Millions believe that pop psychology can change their tennis skills, their love life or their moods. Are they all wrong?
‘Double-fault!’… ‘Ju-ust out!’ Generally a calm man, I throw my tennis racquet against the thick green court curtains with disgust… Akh, the torture of tennis.
I make a dejected approach to shake hands with my supercilious nemesis on the occasion of another easy victory. Maybe he feels sorry for me this time so, while towelling off, he reveals his secret: he has been reading tennis self-help books and ‘hasn’t lost a set since’. I feel outraged: it’s like he was doping, but with ideas.
I never read books that purport to help those who read them to help themselves. Pardon my ivory tower accent, but with a psychology PhD and classes full of (admittedly, glazed-over) undergraduates to teach, there is no way I am going to read a self-help book; those books are, well, ahem… slightly beneath me.
At least that’s what I thought walking home that afternoon but, after yet another loss the following weekend, a slightly different consideration entered my mind: if these tennis books are bestsellers, then is there a chance that all the players who defeat me in my local club league have read them too? Nah, not possible – don’t all self-helpers live in California where they unlock their chi energy and eat chia seeds? The guys at the tennis club don’t ‘talk feelings’ – it’s unlikely they would entertain such drivel.
It was after my fourth consecutive 0-6 loss that I drove directly to a used bookstore and went native. My name is Dr Gabriel, and I used self-help.
How does a person assess that something is not working in his or her life? And how does that person decide on the best way to fix it? In our secular age, there is a plethora of choices, from ancient wisdom (religious) traditions and New Age wish-fulfilment brochures to scientific popular psychology books by bona fide psychologists. On the surface, these three avenues seem very different, but are they all just forms of magical thinking?
When brain scientists and analytical philosophers retreat from the public sphere into their complex and mostly incomprehensible journal literature, there is a danger that the role of wise man falls to the charlatan and the demagogue, in other words, authors of self-help books. The world of ‘knowledge’ is split between an academy that does not acknowledge the soul – or the importance of falling in love – and a publishing industry that offers whatever emotional solace gets books sold. The contrasting knowledge industries offer differing visions of control: academic psychology is Promethean, seeking to explain the human condition by the virtues of rational and empirical truth-seeking, while popular psychology has Narcissus as its model, providing superstitious rituals that depend upon the purportedly limitless power of the self.
I turned to tennis self-help because I was anxious about the efficiency of my game. Ultimately, I wasn’t even sure why I was pursuing this torturous pastime at all. I knew there was something wrong with the way I played (duh!), and I wanted to believe there was a way to fix it. I sought wisdom and, in buying the books, I believed I’d found a way to help myself. Looking back, I think I achieved some control over my game by believing in its controllability. Perhaps this is the clue.
Based on the bestsellers list, our aspirations constellate around becoming more efficient, falling in love, and making tons of dough
Self-help – including popular psychology – is a genre of books (not to mention seminars and videos) containing practical and ethical strategies for changing our behaviours and mental habits. They deliver principles that – with the requisite hope, practice and belief – promise to deliver control over our minds, which in turn helps us to achieve our aspirations. The self-help movement is, in many ways, a continuation of – and maybe a contemporary substitute for – ancient traditional wisdom. These books inspire and educate millions of people with personal anecdotes that read like profound moral fables. From this literature, we get formulas both prescriptive (‘you ought to stop picking your nose on first dates’) and descriptive (‘look how great Tony Robbins is, he never picks his nose’). In our post-Gladwell age of publishing, they increasingly include smatterings of statistics to keep the narrative grounded.
Recurring themes in popular psychology include: the utopia of therapeutic recovery; the importance of positive thinking; the attainability of happiness; and the possibility of transforming the self (I wonder if Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s estate gets royalties from the industry?). The goal of this literature seems to be a miraculous attainment of one’s sought-after aspirations – and, of course, a blissed-out, sustained, state of happiness. Along with my colleague Sean Victory, I undertook a review of 40 traditional self-help bestsellers in the United States, with a focus on books published since 2001; previous eras are well-covered in Steven Starker’s Oracle at the Supermarket (2002). If one were to make a blanket statement based on consulting the bestsellers list, our aspirations constellate around becoming more efficient, falling in love, and making tons of dough…