Defining ‘Help’ in the Self-Help Industry

An antithesis to Philosophy.

Philosophy is an activity of wander. It is not a remedy to constantly make you feel happy every time one engages with it, or worse, to sugar-coat the truth. Without a doubt, this idea doesn’t sell in the self-help industry. On the contrary, self-help literature is there to help the reader by motivating him or her with positive reinforcements and ‘resilience’. That is not philosophy, that is instant gratification. A proper act of philosophical inquiry is when you are objectively assessing a situation from your current state. Self-help ‘philosophy’ on the other hand, is a make-believe practice of imagining that the world can always be turned for the better with a flick of a finger. 

Philosophy won’t always end on a good note; It challenges you, highlights patterns of thought, and most importantly, it transcends your way of perceiving the world. Self-help literature projects a unified perspective of your future self who can be a ‘bad ass’ when adversity hits the fan, always knowing what to do. It is also repetitive, constantly letting the reader know (in different ways) that he or she can always find a way to transcend a problem or situation. The literature is written in a way that pleases the reader with positive encouragements, an illusion of reality. The only way self-help books can be valuable is if it leads you to philosophy, that is, the act of wandering about a particular thought or reality that is troubling you either in a good or bad way. The motivating factor in doing so ought to be the inquiry itself, the determination to seek answers which are objective, irrespective if they are bitter or sweet (or a bit of both). As for reading a self-help book, the motivating factor is to end up ‘feeling good’ about yourself after finishing the literature, and not to help you realise that you might be the problem with what you’re experiencing. For example, the author makes it clear, either in blurbs or in its marketing efforts, that upon completion the book will help you with:

  1. Feeling more resilient!
  2. Surpass people who mistreat you!
  3. Elevating your mindset!
  4. Loving yourself more!

These are all examples portrayed in this kind of self-proclaimed philosophy. Therefore, the reader is hooked on reading self-help to acquire the promised axioms. This is not the promise of philosophy though. One doesn’t read philosophy over a set of presuppositions. One can disagree with the philosopher, criticise them, present alternative arguments, or even be negatively influenced by their outlooks. The latter doesn’t seem attractive to a lot of people, especially since there were individuals in history who perpetuated malevolent philosophical ideas. Moreover, an individual who doesn’t have a background of philosophical understanding will be more inclined to seek self-help instead of academic philosophy for instance, as the former may promise a happy ending. 

It is a transaction, in which the customer (reader) has been sold the idea of instant gratification by reading a few sets of chapters. The reader may feel encouraged to change aspects of his or her life after reading self-help, or they may see the world differently in some areas, yet it is not a long-term investment and activity. The reader may feel like a beginner again after some problems re-emerge, or when new ones occur. As for philosophy, it offers the search for truth and a possibility to make a difference, whatever that could mean to the individual. A philosopher ought to speak the truth even if it is difficult to adhere. Authors in the self-help industry coat the truth by making it appealing, tempting to read, and even important if one seeks to emancipate themselves from their problems.  

The self-help industry often goes hand in hand with popular psychology. The latter has popularised philosophical understandings such as ‘resilience’ or ‘self-awareness’, intending to perceive such terms as definitive or absolute. For example, one can read and inform oneself on resilience by reading such literature which proclaims the “7 tips to be more resilient in life”. This kind of information elicits a sense of scarcity in the reader, in a way that he or she may lose out on important tricks of life if they don’t read what the ‘informed’ author has to say. This ‘help’ which is being promised upon subscribing to such literature is relatively ripe in terms of context, that is, the origin of ‘resilience’ in this case. Such buzzwords have their roots in philosophy and philosophical inquiries, yet they are portrayed as the be-all and end-all in popular psychology. The Stoics for instance talk extensively on how one ought to face adversity and suffering through ‘courage’ (ranging from the 1stcentury up until modernity through neo and contemporary Stoicism), which has been converted into ‘resilience’ in pop-culture, as the latter appears to be ‘more digestible to the layperson’, or as it is sold.  

The problem here is that one is very restricted (and often misled) when reading pop literature on a subject that has been significantly written and researched in primary and secondary philosophical texts. Ironically, some self-help authors claim to quote philosophical texts in their literature, aiming to solidify and credit their arguments. They quote, reinterpret, or even argue such works, yet with the end goal of pleasing the reader, and not to practise philosophy. It is a disservice to the philosopher to be monetised in such a manner. 

If one’s goal is to read self-help or pop-psychology to find comforting solutions to one’s problems, then go ahead and do so. If one seeks to transcend from this point, aiming to philosophise and challenge his worldview by reading what philosophy has to offer, then this is the honest ‘help’ you ought to look for in literature. 

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