The world of experimental psychology can be a dry place: all those ethics committees, control groups, and cautiously expressed findings. Not so the world of popular psychology and self-help, where stunning breakthroughs in the quest for human happiness seem to tumble out of every new book. “Two years ago,” writes Joe Vitale in Zero Limits: The Secret Hawaiian System for Wealth, Health, Peace and More, “I heard about a therapist in Hawaii who cured a complete ward of criminally insane patients—without ever seeing any of them.” Lest anyone doubt Vitale, note that he has a PhD—and not from some stuffy traditionalist university, either, but from the University of Metaphysics in Arizona.
Outlandish tales like Vitale’s fuel widespread cynicism about the multimillion-dollar global self-help industry. The hostility from people who think of themselves as smart and non-gullible is entirely understandable. But it’s also unfortunate. In dismissing self-help, we risk surrendering a hugely important topic to some of the sketchiest people around—and missing out on some real wisdom hiding amid the nonsense.
Here are two self-help success stories: Feeling Good by David Burns, a layperson’s introduction to cognitive-behavioral therapy, has been shown to have an effect comparable to medication or therapy; some credit it with saving them from suicide. Susan Jeffers’ best seller Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway embodies an anti-positive-thinking message that has found clinical support. These are far from isolated examples.
Researching the world of popular psychology, it soon becomes clear that a syrupy, Oprah-esque manner of expression isn’t necessarily an indicator of bad advice. Keeping a “gratitude journal” can be an effective means of combating the natural tendency for the good things in our lives to stop delivering pleasure. Mindfulness meditation, though too often advertised using stock photographs of impossibly serene-looking women sitting cross-legged on tropical beaches, is a useful technique for improving focus and becoming less easily thrown off course by negative moods.
Meanwhile, many of the techniques emerging from the online culture of “lifehacking”—anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever way—offer modest but beneficial ideas. Forget 10-step techniques and secret Hawaiian systems; have you tried addressing procrastination by getting a kitchen timer and using the Pomodoro Technique—timed 25-minute bursts of work followed by 5-minute breaks? It’s a one-off tip, unrelated to any grand philosophy of happiness. But perhaps this gets at something profound: Modest, effective tools may be far more valuable than seductive grand philosophies.
Yes, the sweeping promises made by celebrity gurus rarely deliver—and can sometimes make things worse. But this need not mean there’s no wisdom lurking behind those lurid covers. Reading skeptically, picking and choosing, and deciding what works is surely self-help in its truest sense. The self-help urge—the urge to discover how to be a better human—is a noble one, too important to be abandoned to cynicism or gullibility. Scared to step into those parts of the bookshop you’d dismissed as beneath you? Feel the fear. Do it anyway.