2009 was a bit rough for me. Indeed, I heard that from a lot of people.
So Gretchen Rubin’s new book The Happiness Project was a welcome addition to my before-bed reading because, well, it makes me happy and gave me new energy to start 2010 off on an upbeat note.
Top pointers from the book include:
• Your family is only as happy as it’s least happy member. If that’s you, start a Happiness Project of your own and raise the happy in your household considerably.
• As a kid, and even through our 20s, we had clear opportunities for “gold stars” — getting good grades, graduations, awards, new jobs, marriage, big birthday celebrations etc. But in your 30s, those gold stars seem fewer and farther between. You do your job, you do your errands, you raise your kids, you try to make time for fun with your significant other… but as you put in so much effort, you feel unappreciated. Where’s your gold star? Rubin advises all of us to make a list, do your stuff and then give yourself a gold star. That’s what being a grown-up is about.
• Be Yourself. I know, it’s clichéd, but Rubin’s description of how she decided to “Be Gretchen” inspired me to be clear about who I am. She writes that learning to be herself means “accepting my true likes and dislikes… I have to face the fact that I will never visit a jazz club at midnight, or hang out in artists’ studios, or jet off to Paris for the weekend, or pack up to go fly-fishing on a spring dawn. I won’t be admired for my chic wardrobe or be appointed to a high government office. I love fortune cookies and refuse to try foie gras.” What does it mean to be you?
The Happiness Project isn’t quite a self-help book — it’s more of a memoir of a year of research into self-help — but even without quizzes and action lists, it does the job of any good personal improvement book: It inspires. Check it out and make 2010 your year for a Happiness Project of your own.
In the weeks since the tragedies at the James Ray self-help retreat in Sedona, Arizona, I’ve written pieces for The Washington Post and The Huffington Post documenting the social psychology of the self-improvement industry. It’s criminal how a motivational leader so misled people seeking personal transformation.
But when readers comment on my pieces, many seem to suggest that those who seek self-improvement are stupid, disorganized or at the end of their rope in life. Indeed, this is the conventional wisdom: That people who seek out self-help books have problems. That self-help readers are the kinds of people who watch infomercials at 3 a.m. while eating a supersized bag of Doritos. That self-help readers are unemployed, in their underwear, drooling on themselves. And because they are so pathetic, they make stupid choices like following James Ray.
Thing is, that’s not true. Self-help is about self-control, and the people who are best at personal control tend to be the affluent, educated and proactive types. And the best of self-help—the virtue- and value-based self-help literature going back more than 150 years, not the cult-like mind-control of James Ray—is geared toward just those Type-A go-getters.
As I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the self-help industry, I found that self-help books are practical advice guides for self-control. Personal change is hard—and it takes a lot of work. Sometimes it’s about controlling personal behavior, while other times it’s about controlling your social life, workplace or romantic situation, but “succeeding” at self-help means attaining fulfillment through self-control.
The people who seek self-control are the ones who value it. And researchers find that self-control is a learned skill that increases with each previous success. But here’s the kicker: Already having self-control is a large factor in gaining more of it.
So who tends to buy self-help books and attend self-help seminars? Those with enough self-control and success to value it—and want even more. Here’s why:
Self-Efficacy: There’s a difference between feeling good about yourself (self-esteem) and feeling proud of successful changes you’ve made in your life (self-efficacy). People who believe they can change are more likely to be able to actually do so, and they will also be happier people, researchers find. And unless you think your goals can be achieved, what’s the point in trying? Self-help readers have a high sense of self-efficacy.
Demographics: Middle-aged, educated, affluent people have the self-efficacy, the social support system, and also the resources to change their behavior. Midlife is a time where people are most in control of various spheres of their life – family, career, financial – so they are free to seek control in other aspects of their lives. (For more on this, see O’Donoghue and Rabin’s contribution on “Self-Awareness and Self-Control” in Time and Decision: Economic and Psychological Perspectives on Intertemporal Choice)
But education and affluence are crucial to self-control: Those who are in an extremely powerless status are more likely to be unhappy and feel directed by forces outside their control. Inversely, people who are equipped with a sense of power and self-efficacy are less likely to feel overwhelmed, even in situations of high demand.
Indeed, studies repeatedly find that children from poorer homes do worse on delayed gratification tests than children from middle-class homes, perhaps because of a less predictable environment among the less well-off, where one thinks in the short term because the long term is too up-in-the-air.
Either you got it, or you don’t: And if that class statement isn’t depressing enough, one of the most frustrating elements of self-control research is that people who demonstrate self-control skills are more likely to be self-controlled in the future. Either you have self-control or you don’t: First, self-controlled behavior builds on previous patterns of behavior, and second, those who have self-control are more likely to value it and seek to increase their abilities. Just as an inability to control one’s life can lead to anxiety and depression, so too does a belief in one’s ability to master events foster an optimistic outlook on the future.
This isn’t to say that self-control can’t be learned, but simply that by the time one reaches adulthood, some people have more and some people have less. Self-help readers tend to be self-controlled people—who want more of it. Commitment to self-control requires cognitive and economic resources, and those who already have some of these resources are more likely to continue with a future commitment–be it through a purchase of a self-help book, joining a group or another level of commitment strategy.
So next time you knock self-help readers as silly or beneath you, think again. If you’re so self-controlled and successful, maybe you might consider some quality self-improvement, too.
What happened in Sedona is not an unfortunate coda to a crazy, fringe event. We have a long history of self-help in America, and to properly comprehend the horror of these deaths, we must first understand the inspiration and guidance that Ray offered. Ray, and many gurus like him, motivate thousands of smart, accomplished adults by borrowing from two very powerful thought traditions — modern psychology and esoteric spirituality — creating a one-two punch that’s nearly impossible to resist. If you had been there, you might be dead, too.
Check out my piece in Sunday’s Washington Post Outlook section–explaining the history and psychology of the Sedona sweat lodge. The horror of this tragedy continues to captivate us, so let’s learn an important lesson: Self-help is NOT harmless.
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