There’s something about self-help that is fundamentally uncool. Being into coin-collecting or Dungeons & Dragons is an order of magnitude more socially acceptable than having titles like “How to Get People to Like You” and “You Can Be Happy No Matter What!” staring out from your bookshelf.
Somehow it isn’t yet obvious that a persistent interest in self-improvement is probably the defining trait of the interesting and accomplished person. Self-help literature, though, is a particular kind of self-improvement. Turning to self-help is admitting you don’t quite know how to drive a regular human life. It’s like designating yourself with a voluntary “special needs” status.
I don’t think the need for some intentional re-balancing is special though. None of us are born knowing how to drive. It’s probably not unusual to feel like you’ve never been taught quite how to steer a human life competently, but it may be unusual to admit.
I think what makes us most suspicious of self-help is that we’ve all seen people who are constantly absorbing it and not changing a thing. There are self-help junkies out there — people who get high on the feeling that their life is improving simply by reading the book, yet never actually address their habits in everyday life. They get high on the feeling of possibility, and when the feeling fades they buy another.
Their mistake is simple: they’re missing the “self” part of self-help. Insights by themselves are useless without action, which is what changes lives. But you can get the self-help high just by reading, and that high is enough to make you feel (for the moment) that nothing needs fixing.
The self-help junkie habit is obvious and ugly to everyone else, and so the whole genre is reviled for its empty promises, rather than the reader for his total lack of responsibility. Consequently, self-help remains so uncool that even hipsters won’t touch it.
Another reason these books are uncool is that most of them are crap. They tend to be written by psychologists who know a lot about what’s wrong with the reader but don’t have much in the way of charisma or writing chops, which makes the reading experience dry and kind of embarrassing. Their examples are cheesy and long-winded. Aside from being boring and clinical, they’re often just dorks.
There are gems though. Some of them, for me, were pivotal in developing in me a much freer and lighter way of moving through the world. Incorporating the bits that moved me and ignoring the rest, they helped me form a worldview that actually suits the world the way it is, and lets me live in it in a way where joy is normal and angst is the exception. So they should be read without shame.
The big ones:
1) Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (…and it’s all small stuff) – Richard Carlson
I was nearing my own rock bottom around ten years ago when a family member lent me this book. I was struggling in college. I had no self-esteem, a small and shrinking circle of friends, and couldn’t imagine how things could get better. I read it in a couple of bus commutes, and I could feel things lightening.
The whole book is 100 short strategies for dealing with day-to-day stresses and downers. Each one is about a page.
#22: Repeat to yourself, “Life isn’t an emergency.” #4: Be aware of the snowball effect of your thinking. #40: When in doubt about whose turn it is to take out the trash, go ahead and take it out. #76: Get comfortable not knowing.
It was my first exposure to the incredible leverage a person has by learning how to let life happen and respond calmly, rather than trying desperately to control what happens.
Since then I’ve noticed that that’s the basic difference between happy people and sad people: the happy people concern themselves with what they can do on their end. Sad people concern themselves with everything else.
Anyone could benefit from this book.
2) Wherever You Go There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Jon Kabat-Zinn is a stress management expert who has found that the most powerful tool for dealing with daily stress is mindfulness.
Wherever You Go There You Are amounts to an elegant introduction to informal meditation, but a person could get a lot out of it even if they have no intention of ever sitting cross-legged with closed eyes. You can feel your mind slowing down as you read the rough-cut recycled pages, its short passages intercut with Kabir and Rumi verses. Kabat-Zinn keeps it non-denominational and fluff-free.
If you spend a decade reading different people’s accounts of how to be happy, you discover that almost all of them can be boiled down to a few principles, and the primary one by far is to keep your attention in the present moment. That’s what mindfulness is. It is an art, and there may not be a gentler and more readable introduction to it than this book.
If you do check it out, and you like the tree he’s barking up, his later (and much larger) book Coming To Our Senses takes an even deeper look at mindfulness in real life.
3) The Four Agreements – Don Miguel Ruiz
In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz characterizes personal beliefs as agreements, which is right on the mark; nothing is true to you unless you agree that it is. If, in your eyes, you’re no good, you have agreed at some point that you are no good. You will live this truth until you stop agreeing. We typically don’t realize we’re constantly making these agreements, yet they define your personal world, which is the only world you’ll ever live in.
Ruiz advocates identifying and challenging all the agreements you’ve accumulated, and toss them out in favor of agreeing to four commitments:
Be impeccable with your word, don’t take anything personally, don’t make assumptions, and always do your best.
If you make those agreements it’s almost impossible to let yourself down, feel guilt or give in to fear. They short-circuit virtually all self-defeating human behaviors.
These days, rather than trying to be perfect each day with each agreement, I work the agreements backwards when things seem to be going wrong. Any time I feel stuck, it takes about five seconds to identify which of the four agreements I broke to get there. Either I’ve been untruthful in some way, I’m making assumptions, I’m taking something personally, or I’m cutting corners. I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten myself into trouble in any way other than those.
4) The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle
Oprah made him simultaneously popular and uncool in most demographics when she did a whole webseries on A New Earth, the follow-up to The Power of Now. He was attacked by the religious housewife contingent of Oprah’s audience for his “false religion” — which is all nonsense if you read A New Earth or its predecessor — they’re both nonreligious and straightforward. And he’s an extremely nice man.
The Power of Now is an exceptional book. It’s easy to recognize the primacy of living in the moment as an ingredient to happiness, and Eckhart Tolle is by no means the first to focus on it. But he goes further by articulating that it is not only the only path to happiness, but the entirety of the path — there’s nothing else you need to do, because all of our suffering comes from living in thoughts about a badly-remembered past or an imaginary future.
The concept is ancient, and Tolle credits the ancients for it, but he’s one of the first to deliver it in plain language with no religious coloring or mythological allegories. He just tells you how to do it.
5) This is How – Augusten Burroughs
If you still can’t get over your self-help gag reflex, then this is the one for you. Augusten Borroughs set out to write a self-helpful book derides certain self-help standards — particularly the catch-all prescription of positive thinking to everyone, when many help-seekers are people who are experiencing extreme suffering and suicidal thoughts.
A lot of self-help is rather generalized, for people who feel troubled but not quite maimed by serious instances of loss or abuse. Burroughs has had a difficult life, which he shares candidly in This is How, addressing his fellow sufferers of the worst baggage imaginable. The subtitle of the book is Help for the self: proven aid in overcoming shyness, grief, molestation, disease, fatness, lushery, spinsterhood, decrepitude and more, for young and old alike.
He really digs into the ugliness of personal suffering and tells you how to deal. Some of the chapter titles give a clue: How to Feel Like Shit, How to Be Fat, How to Get Over Your Addiction to the Past, How to End Your Life, How to Lose Someone You Love, How to Let a Child Die.
The tone is very different from traditional self-help. There’s no smileyness or pandering. Burroughs is blunt and a bit foul-mouthed, and tells you what’s going to work and what isn’t, if you really do want to get better. The result is refreshing. You feel like you’re being slapped and told how it is, rather than being hugged and told to think happy thoughts.
The way self-help works is by the adding up of poignant bits over time. Reading a great book like one of these can give you the feeling of breaking through in real-time, and it may even leave you different forever. But there are no cures — the rest of your life will always remain ahead of you, so it’s a matter of becoming better equipped to manage it.
Your natural skepticism and fluff-detector will dismiss a lot of what you read, and this is good, but certain aphorisms and skills will stick. Once in a while one will appear in your mind at exactly the right time, and you feel yourself doing something differently. And now a window is open where you didn’t know there was one. Your world has gotten a bit bigger, and a bit lighter.