Addicted to self-help books? Now the latest one advises you to give them all up
We've seen thousands of self-help books over the years, each one promising the key to a happy, more successful life, writes Suzanne Harrington. But now author Svend Brinkmann of Resisting The Self-Improvement Craze tells us why we should aim low to stay happy.
At last an 'anti-self-help' self-help book. And not just any old 'anti-self-help' self-help book either - this one is by a Danish philosopher and psychologist, a proper academic who has spent years studying the self-help industry and reviewing self-help books for academic papers.
Which resulted in two things - firstly, nobody outside academia was reading Svend Brinkmann's reviews, and secondly, Professor Brinkmann began to really dislike self-help books.
"So I decided to try a paradoxical move and use the genre against itself," he tells me. "A seven-step guide on how to ignore seven-step guides. Because there is no key, there is no solution - there is just life, with all its problems."
So, rather than doing a Tony Robbins, and telling you that you are a gigantic success waiting to happen, or doing what female-centric self-helpism does, and suggesting you constantly put your feelings under a microscope, Brinkmann thinks we should just suck it up. Stoically.
Nowhere in Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze will you find words like inner goddess, inner child, or safe space; you will not be exhorted to follow your bliss, live laugh love, dance like there's nobody watching, shoot for the moon, make lemonade out of lemons, or be told that everything happens for a reason.
There are no trigger warnings, and you will not be told to think positive.
Nor will you be encouraged to believe that you can achieve anything you set your mind on, or that constant self-improvement is the only legitimate way to exist, both personally and professionally.
Which, in our climate of ceaseless self-development, is close to heresy, suffering as we do from Wellness Syndrome, "dependent on advice from lifestyle mentors…. health gurus … coaches, therapists, self-development experts and positivity consultants".
Instead, Brinkmann offers unfashionable tips from the Stoics. Stoicism - basically, the art of accepting life as it is and getting on with it without too much drama - is underrated, he believes. Stoic philosophy emphasises "self-control, peace of mind, dignity, sense of duty, and reflection on the finite nature of life," says Brinkmann.
"These virtues engender a deeper sense of fulfilment than the superficial focus on permanent development and transformation."
In other words, stop trying to constantly self-improve, and instead stand firm. But how, exactly?
STOP NAVEL GAZING
We are advised two things by the self-help industry - follow your gut instinct, and be authentic. Don't do either, says Brinkmann.
"The self does not hold the key to how to live your life," he says. "The self is merely an idea, a construct, a by-product of cultural history."
Stop with the introspection. Since trying to find ourselves became fashionable in the Sixties, he wonders have "four decades of navel-gazing really done us much good? Have we found ourselves? Is it even possible? Is it worth even bothering to try?" Not at all, he says.
Nor is free-flowing authenticity a good idea: "It is better to be an inauthentic Mother Teresa than an authentic [mass murderer] Anders Breivik," he says. Quite.
But Brinkmann is no cynical nihilist. He suggests we exercise self-control as though it were like any muscle, and that we embark on what modern Stoic William Irvine calls "a programme of voluntary discomfort."
In other words, doing something you don't want to - exercise, for example, or skipping dessert - so we can "mitigate the fear of future misfortune" - like ageing and bereavement - by practising discomfort on a minor scale. In other words, by cultivating resilience.
FOCUS ON THE NEGATIVE
Ignore the tyranny of positive thinking, says Brinkmann, and face up to the realities of life - and death. Telling ill people or people in material need to think positive is, according to psychologist Bruce Levine, grossly offensive, and the "depoliticisation of human suffering". Ill health/poverty/misery is not down to a negative attitude or lack of motivation. It might be something bigger, less individual, than that. (The film I, Daniel Blake illustrates this perfectly). Brinkmann also gives Martin Seligman's positive psychology movement - the idea that learned helplessness equals depression, and can be overcome by positivity - short shrift. You cannot smile your way out of poverty, depression, grief, nor can you deny they are part of life, no matter how positive your thinking.
Brinkmann reminds us that life is hard sometimes, it's okay to have a moan sometimes. We cannot always deal with life, but we can get on with it - dealing with it can be insurmountable, while getting on with it is doable. Adopt the Stoic practice of negative visualisation - "better to cradle a screaming baby in your arms than a lifeless one." Such thinking makes a screaming baby less stressful. Counter hedonic adaption - where you take the good stuff for granted - by imagining it all being gone. "Love what we have, in the short time that we have it," says Brinkmann. Like Buddhist teaching, he reminds us of the impermanence of all living things. Make the most of it.
PUT ON YOUR NO HAT
"Saying 'I don't want to do that' conveys strength and integrity," says Brinkmann. "Only robots always say yes."
Integrity, which he defines as "true internal control", means being able to adhere to your values, recognise obligations and duties, and say no to "much of the accelerated culture" which "deserves to be renounced." In other words, if your boss wants to send you on a personal development course, try saying no thanks, you're fine as you are. If this would get you fired, have to hand - as well as a no hat - "a maybe hat, a doubt hat and a hesitation hat." Wear them all, not just your yes hat. Ignore your FOMO, or of being perceived as rigid. You're not.
"Doubt, worry and hesitation are virtues," writes Brinkmann, citing philosopher Simon Critchley's book How To Stop Living And Start Worrying, which advocates resistance to the 'Yes Culture', so that we stop flinging ourselves headlong into projects and instead pause to see if we aren't just doing things for the sake of it, to tick meaningless boxes. And breathe.
SUPPRESS YOUR FEELINGS
In an age of authentic emoting at any cost, this is radical. "Adults should choose dignity over authenticity," says Brinkmann. "You have to learn to harness your emotions - especially the negative ones - and sometimes you have to suppress them completely."
In previous eras, emotion was unhealthily suppressed, leading to Freudian neuroses caused by swallowed rage, sublimated sexual desire and more.
Today, we have the opposite, and the result is that most contemporary condition, depression. We are encouraged to express ourselves to the point of emotional exhaustion, to pursue passion, to cram it all in, to be super authentic all of the time: historian Richard Sennet calls this the tyranny of intimacy.
Share, share, overshare. Sometimes we need to do the opposite, and keep a lid on it - not in a harmful, denial-type manner, but just so that we can get on with civil interaction without screaming or crying; in his book The Fall of Public Man, Sennet argues that wearing a mask - that is, not always blatantly showing your rage, grief, disgust, lust, whatever - is the essence of civility. Or as film maker John Waters says, "If you're angry at 20, you're sexy. If you're angry at 50, you're an a**hole."
SACK YOUR COACH
While Brinkmann has nothing against life coaches as individuals - they are, he imagines, good people who genuinely want to help others - he objects to the commodification of human relationships. And it's not like this is a you-go-girl lady thing - George Bush, Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev have all been coached by Tony Robbins.
"I kid you not," says Brinkmann, adding that Robbins' definition of success - "doing what you want, when you want, where you want, with whom you want, as much as you want" - resembles a definition of psychopathy or antisocial personality disorder. Like Donald Trump.
But this is not what most irks Brinkmann about our dependence on professionals to big up our lives. It's how the coach or therapist "has virtually replaced traditional friendships." Plato and Aristotle both recognised that as well as family and sex partners, the role of friendship is fundamental to the human condition - and in our bid to be ever better, ever more successful, ever improved, we have outsourced this precious commodity to paid strangers.
READ A NOVEL
Read a novel - not a self-help book, and not a biography. "Novels," says Brinkmann, "Enable you to understand human life as complex and unmanageable. Read at least one a month." Novels are especially useful after you've sacked your coach and are in self-help withdrawal; you may be drawn to the self-help genre, but such books, says Brinkmann, "create infantile, dependent adults who think that the truth lies within them."
Far better to read something fictional about the genuine messiness of life, rather than bullet points on how to organise your own personal chaos. Novels provide insight into the human condition; Brinkmann's favourites include Dickens, Nabokov, Murakami, Foucault, Cervantes, Michel Houellebecq, Cormac McCarthy, Karl Ove Knausgard - he insists all are better for the mind and soul than self-help. He is of course entirely correct. Art and literature are the ultimate self-help.
DWELL ON THE PAST
Do dwell on problems - this is not about ruminating morbidly. However, in our accelerated future-oriented culture, being mindful of our past and its patterns remains essential, so that we do not make the same mistakes over and over, in different guises. As anyone in 12-step recovery knows, acknowledging the past frees us from dragging it forward into our present. Or as Mark Twain put it, a clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.
Brinkmann also urges us to stay connected to living traditions - music, family life, artistic endeavour - so that we remain connected to our history. Or as Stoic philosopher Seneca said: "The mind that is untroubled and tranquil has the power to roam into all parts of its life; but the minds of the engrossed…cannot turn and look behind. And so their life vanishes into an abyss."
Don't be that guy, urges Brinkmann. Follow these simple steps and you will never feel the need to pick up another self-help book as long as you live. But don't get too smug about it either. "The idea is to stand firm on what you have, and accept that others may have different world views," he says. "This is called tolerance." With anti-self-help such as this, small wonder Denmark is the world's happiest country.
- Svend Brinkmann's book Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, is out on March 27 via Polity Press