Are you depressed? In need of fulfillment? Do you feel like life is passing you by? Like you’re watching all your friends move forward, climb the ladder of success and accomplish the things you wish you could?
We’ve all felt like this at some point. The feeling that we can’t get control of our lives is universal, but that doesn’t make it any less painful. Then one day, you see a book. It boasts that the secrets to success, happiness, and personal growth are all inside. Do you buy it? I know I would. And I have. Time and time and time again. Flipping through those pages excitedly only to return to my unfulfilled state once no more pages are left.
Millions of us are drawn to the world of self-help because we’re looking for answers. But does this endless stream of advice, speeches, seminars, and products actually help us? Or is self-help ruining our lives?
In the 18th and 19th Centuries, U.S. and European entrepreneurs marketed and sold snake oil liniment as a cure-all drug. In reality, though, all they were selling was mineral oil, sometimes mixed with household herbs and spices that contained no snake-derived ingredients whatsoever and would, in fact, not cure any diseases.
Today, a snake oil salesperson describes someone who advertises or sells any product that promises the world and fails to deliver. Sadly, that’s the story of self-improvement, at least as it is today. Because while it might seem like a new trend, the idea of self-help dates back to early philosophers like Seneca and Socrates.
In the 5th century BC, Socrates spoke about the “constant improvement of your soul.” He insisted that practices like meditation, fasting, prayer, and exercise could feed your soul and, therefore, improve your life. Plato, Epicureans, and Pythagoras followed in his footsteps, professing that working on yourself is a path to enlightenment.
Hundreds of years later, in the 1970s, the New Age Movement arose and preached a philosophy of personal transformation and healing. The movement revolved around accessing our spiritual energy through yoga, meditation, tarot card readings, and astrology. This idea that we could elevate ourselves and all of humanity has persisted.
But, like most things in the West, once people found out just how much money they could make, self-improvement shifted from being a guide for those who needed it the most to a product reserved for those who could afford it.
Deepak Chopra, a prominent figure in the New Age Movement, has emerged as one of the most critical self-help gurus in the world. His philosophy tells us that our mental health can determine our physical reality. That we can think ourselves into being healthier and happier. After his ideas were popularized by none other than Oprah Winfrey, Chopra became an international sensation. He used his platform to spread his message and sell his books; he’s written 49 in total. He held seminars and became a spiritual adviser to celebrities like Michael Jackson. Needless to say, lost souls worldwide have made Chopra a very wealthy man.
Tony Robbins, one of the most popular and controversial self-help figures, runs a multibillion- dollar business. Exclusive membership to his program can cost as much as $85,000 a year. And although he’s been wrapped up in accusations of harassment and hostility, and is notorious for requiring his employees to sign nondisclosure agreements, he still manages to sell out auditoriums for his speaking engagements.
One of the biggest problems with self-help is that, just like snake oil salespersons, self-help ‘experts’ claim to be able to heal the world with their speech. In reality, whether you’re Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, or one of the hundreds of other ‘experts,’ you can never be a therapist for everyone.
Personal mental health professionals like licensed therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists listen to individuals, understand their needs, and offer unique solutions. Whereas self-help gurus use their personal stories to convince followers that they have all the answers - without recognizing the nuance of each individual’s situation.
Not only are these gurus convincing us that their solutions are one-size-fits-all, but a vast majority of them don’t even have the qualifications to be discussing mental health in the first place.
We can all agree that what causes us stress, pain, or depression isn’t the same for everyone. And the way our stress shows itself is different too. Some of us might spend days on the sofa watching reruns of Friends, while others might go out partying every night. We can’t judge or offer solutions without engaging with each person individually and trying to understand their motives.
Self-help gurus peddle magic solutions to make you, their audience, believe they have some elusive secret that you won’t find without them. This is how they turned self-help into a $13 billion industry littered with books, speaking events, and mentorship programs.
But these books and events rarely address the actual issues in your life. They promise easy fixes that are nice to hear but often fall short of helping you develop actionable ways to help yourself.
One study, which reviewed over 100 cases, found that self-help treatment plans are hard to follow and easy to misinterpret. And frankly, this is what the industry wants. Because if you could actually help yourself, who would buy their books or attend their coaching sessions?
The goal of this endless stream of books and speeches is not healing. It is to make you feel good for a moment, but eventually, to feel miserable again so you can pick up their next book. If this isn’t the case, explain why you need 49 books written by the same author to teach you how to help yourself.
Many self-help gurus do more than just write books. They have speaking engagements, YouTube channels, paid newsletters, and personal coaching sessions. The harsh reality is that you’re ultimately more valuable to them when you’re unhappy and discontent, so why would they teach you how to help yourself?
The endless cycle of self-help content triggers the dopamine system in our brain, which is the same system that regulates or succumbs to addiction. When we read a chapter of a self-help book, we get a flood of dopamine and feel motivated to take on life's challenges. But when that dopamine wears off, we’re left craving more, and we turn back to where we got it from… the self-help content. That’s why we feel a strange combination of excitement and inadequacy after watching a TED talk about living a more fulfilling life.
In reality, people who consume self-help books have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and are more likely to have symptoms of depression. When we’re in the moment, our brain tricks us into thinking we’ve accomplished something when in reality, we’ve done nothing to move ourselves forward.
The world of self-help comes in all shapes and sizes. Some gurus focus more on helping your career, others on giving you spiritual enlightenment. But they all have one thing in common: they all claim to have the secret to turning you into your ‘best self.’
Recently, one of the running themes has been ‘hustle culture.’ This is the idea that if we work like hell, put in an 80-hour workweek, and are productive every second of every day, we’ll achieve career success. But anyone who’s actually attempted an 80-hour workweek or tried to survive on 4 hours of sleep a night in the name of productivity can tell you that the hustle is the opposite of glamorous.
Yes, you might make some money, but you’ve worked so hard that you have no time to enjoy with family and friends. You work so hard and push yourself so far that you burn out. Soon, negativity sets in, and now you feel worse than before.
What do you do? Do you listen to your body and rest? Or do you pick up a book or hit play on a podcast about happiness, fulfillment, and positivity? They tell you that your negative emotions aren’t real and that if you just focus on the good things in life, you’ll get through it. This is toxic positivity, an attempt to dismiss negative emotions and respond to distressing situations with false reassurance. “There is no war in Ba-Sing-Se.”
You may have heard catchy phrases like ‘no bad days’ or ‘everything happens for a reason,’ which are meant to make us dismiss any notion that our lives aren’t amazing. Toxic positivity can ultimately come across as if we lack empathy toward ourselves and others and that we ignore important emotions instead of accepting them. Because the truth is, avoiding our negative emotions only makes us feel worse later.
If maximizing productivity and positivity isn’t the brand of self-empowerment you’re seeking, you might turn to guidance on self-care. The idea of self-care started in the 1980s when the Black feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde (aa-druh lord) proclaimed it a political act; sadly, it has since been co-opted and thoroughly misused by the internet.
Over the past five years, searches for self-care have nearly tripled. Almost 70 billion Instagram posts include #selfcare, and on TikTok, #selfcare has racked up over 30 billion views. Whether the advice comes from a wellness guru like Gwyneth Paltrow or from a 22-year-old influencer, self-care can go too far. This self-help practice, like toxic positivity, can pull us away from the reality of our lives. Often, a reality that we need to deal with.
Self-care and hustle culture are on a collision course in one specific area of the self-help world, multilevel marketing companies. MLMs are popular and controversial businesses that sell products through a network of nonsalaried salespeople who get commissions from the many other people they recruit to the job. MLMs claim to empower their workforce and help them find meaning in their lives.
If you work for an MLM, you’re not just selling their product but the lifestyle that’s tied to it. The head of the company becomes a guru, a motivational speaker with an inspirational back story you can connect to. Like most other self-help companies, MLMs have conventions, seminars, robust Facebook groups, and even books written by their founders. All meant to convince you that you’ll be happy and healthy with their magical product. Oh, and if you bring three people who bring three people, you will be wealthy. MLMs have proven even more insidious than typical self-help companies because they convince their distributors that their fortunes are just around the corner.
The unsuspecting victims then invest so much of their money into these snake oil products, only to end up with an overflow of items they can’t sell, financial debt, or even worse, anxiety and depression. And the problem is more widespread than you might think. 1 in 4 Americans report that their social media feeds have been hijacked by MLM distributors.
This proliferation of social media has taken the warning signs of self-help into a whole new territory. The gurus are no longer household names like Chopra and Robbins. Now, thousands of influencers are self-proclaimed gurus, offering mental and physical health advice through short captions and images that are never enough to unpack deep, psychological understanding.
And since many of us spend too much time scrolling on our phones, we’re so busy consuming content about self-help that we don’t actually do anything with the information. Instead, we overanalyze ourselves and end up convinced that there’s something deeply wrong with us that we’ll never be able to dig ourselves out of. The enlightened, happy person we always hoped to be might be unreachable.
The truth is not all self-help is bad. The key to it, like anything in life, is balance. Sometimes watching a motivational video or reading a chapter of a self-help book can give us the boost we need to perform that real-life action. The key is knowing how to sort out the helpful content from the cheap moneymaking schemes.
Look for content that doesn’t oversell a mission statement and applies a practical approach to self-help. An example is the popular book Atomic Habits by James Clear, which offers specific adjustments we can all make to form better habits. Of course, the trick here is that once you read it, you need to make those adjustments in your daily life.
Because self-help is never about the words you hear someone else say but the actions you can convince yourself to take. The key to a good life is not hidden in some book or a $3,000 seminar. In fact, everything you need to know about living a good life can be written on a Post-it note. Work hard, eat healthy, exercise, and focus on building healthy relationships.
Sadly, Post-it notes don’t turn into multimillion-dollar book deals.