The self improvement industry
by Marcus Loane
20th Dec 2009, edited 14th Aug 2010
There is a whole industry devoted to helping people improve their lives in some way. This is especially popular in the USA. The products on offer come in the form of books, videos, training courses and web sites supported by advertising. There are two broad categories of this material. There is the “how to be rich and successful” and the “how to be happy” types. Some people think these two things are practically synonymous but that is certainly not the case. The self help industry does not have a great reputation and is often regarded with scepticism.
I first became interested in self improvement by accident. I noticed a book in my local book store named “Stop thinking, start living” by Richard Carlson and I bought it on a whim. I had very little previous interest in such material but this book struck a chord with me and has actually made a noticeable difference in my life. It taught me how to avoid negative thinking and it encouraged me to do further reading on happiness and psychology. I truly enjoy nearly every day now. I would also recommend Richard Carlson’s “Don’t sweat the small stuff” and “Don’t sweat the small stuff in love”.
In exploring this type of material online and in book form I discovered there are some dubious ideas being promoted which have an almost supernatural flavour attached to them. These would include “The Secret”, “The Law of Attraction” and the idea of “Manifesting”. However there is also some very good material which is backed by scientific experiment. The study of happiness is becoming popular in academic and scientific circles. Psychologists have conducted experiments on small groups of people and there have also been surveys done on large numbers of people in different countries. Some studies have been done over many years or even decades. The results from these are very valuable and cannot easily be dismissed.
In the past psychology has been prone to fashionable theories without any scientific backing but this is changing with much more emphasis being placed on hard scientific data to back up theory. One example of an evidence based practice is that of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help alleviate or cure mild to moderate depression. It has been shown to be effective.
When evaluating any claim made by a self help guru or a psychologist you can ask yourself the question how do they know that their claim has any truth in it. Is it science based or is it folklore with only anecdotal evidence?
Returning to the two broad categories of self help material, the people in the best position to teach you how to be happy are people who are happy themselves who also value evidence-based research (so what they say is not just what happens to work for them). How can a psychologist teach you how to be happy if they are not happy themselves? Perhaps they can but without the benefit of really understanding it from inside. Similarly if you are interested in being successful then the best teachers will be those who are already successful. (I would be tempted to rule out those who are only successful at telling others how to be successful but are not successful in any other field. There is a strange recursion in getting rich telling others how to get rich eg. Get rich by writing books how to get rich). I remember reading the get rich type of books when I was a teenager and a lot of them in those days were promoting direct mail marketing. In the present this has been replaced with get rich quick schemes through the internet.
I would make a rough estimate that about 40% of the how to be happy type material is of a good quality and by that I mean it is supported by scientific experiments and surveys. I would recommend this site http://www.centreforconfidence.co.uk/pp/
I have not read much of the how to be successful literature since I was a teenager so I cannot make any recommendations on that. I think it is more important to be happy first and then you could work on success later if you like, rather than thinking that success (financial) is the route to happiness.
In creating my own articles on happiness on this web site I have tried to make them as general and applicable to anyone as I can. I do realise that there will be some bias. I have my own life situation. I live in the comparatively rich western world. I am a 41 year old man married to my wonderful wife Katharine. We do not have the worry, and joys, of having children and we are both employed. I realise that men and women have different issues to deal with and I realise that our priorities shift as we get older. I am especially aware that advising young people to “live in the present moment” is advice which could easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Future oriented thinking and goal setting is especially important when we are younger but as we age we can ease out of that mindset a little and pay more attention to the here and now. As we get into old age, appreciating the present and to some extent the past becomes more important and it may no longer make sense to plan twenty years ahead. Having said all that, the main thrust of the material is that circumstances are much less important than attitude and perspective in being happy. You can change all sorts of things in your visible outer life but still be unhappy if you have the same thinking habits which make you discontent, gloomy and anxious. Becoming happy is an inside job. It is possible to change your inner world and while nothing much has changed yet in your outer world and visible circumstances, your experience of it is transformed into one of gratitude, contentment and joy in living.
To sum up, just because there is some dubious material in the self improvement genre, does not mean there is not also good evidence-based, life-changing material available too.
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