There are a couple of ways these books, even when authored by sincere people with good intentions, can set you up for unhappiness, explains Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
“A book that provides you with an image of ‘how life should be’ creates a situation where anything in your life that diverges from that image actually makes you feel worse,” Burkeman explains. When you compare your current situation — which has likely motivated you to buy a self-help book — with the image of happiness and fulfillment conveyed by the author, or you compare yourself with that smiling, got-it-all-together author, you may feel that you come up miserably short.
Then there’s the bummer that can arise when you try to put the advice into practice. “These books naturally sell the idea that you’re going to make a completely fresh start,” he says. “You’re going to transform your life in a pretty simple and easy way, and it’s not going to be a long and arduous process — which, according to all evidence, real psychic change actually is. If you are feeling bad, and the nine-week program to make things perfect doesn’t work, you’re not only still feeling bad, but you’ve added the feeling of being a failure at self-improvement.”
Ultimately, he suggests, the frustration that self-help failure generates may be rooted in the very concept of self. “You yourself decide what your problem is and buy a book that addresses that problem,” he explains. “But what if you think you need to become more productive but are actually a workaholic, and if anything, you need to be less productive — or at least less work-obsessed — in order to be happy and to improve your relationships?” Psychotherapy, he points out, exists to find and address the problems that you don’t see.
If you don’t want to abandon the genre, Burkeman suggests, look for authors who are honest about their own imperfections and struggles, “people who are more like companions than gurus.” Be easy on yourself, understand that real change is slow, and consider talking to a therapist if something seems intractable.
This originally appeared as “I’ve been reading a lot of self-help books lately, and now I feel overwhelmed. What’s up with that?” in the April 2019 print issue of Experience Life.