Post Christmas, it’s not just us that’s feeling a little sluggish, our media organizations are too. And with columns and airwaves to fill over the holiday period, it’s so much easier to plump for the same old resolution type stuff (usually a quick dusting down of last year’s output). Turn on your radio or TV or read your paper and you will find the same (rarely changing) presenters exhorting us to shape a new body, find a new job, work on a new attitude… Google “new year, new you 2017” and you will get 702 million results.
New Year resolutions may have long ago origins (way back to the Babylonians) but today they feel more like an artifice, a saying rather than a doing. So we make them and then, easily, break them (most don’t get beyond the first month). This weakness in our willpower has long been exploited (world religions know all about this) but in less spiritual times it has spawned a whole new ethos; we call it – “self-help” (how Britons became suckers for self-help).
As we speed through the 21st century; more technologically advanced but less connected as humans, we’re seemingly not very happy with our lots (the UK currently ranks 23rd in these worldwide stats). So we turn to our shelves for practical, no-nonsense advice from those nannying/bullying self-help books; probably including the classics; Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1953), M Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled (1978), and Susan Jeffers’ Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway (1987). Now worth a reported $11 billion a year in the US (including books, coaching, seminars, stress management) today self-help is very much the kind of business what we call big.
Publishers have long known supplied our need for straight-talking gurus but there has been a sea-change in tone. Perhaps it was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert that did it, the 2006 memoir of self-discovery that trips around Italy, India and Indonesia. Now readers are seeking succour of a more personal or literary nature; from memoirs and narrative non-fiction (like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found and Caitlin Moran’s How to be a woman), to business life-writing (the other Sheryl, Sandberg’s Lean in and Karren Brady’s Strong Woman), and even classic novels (like The Alchemist, Paul Coelho, or for consumerists Brave New World, Aldous Huxley and for the selfie generation, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde).
The film world, though, prefers us to see the funny side of modern angst. From Sex and the Single Girl (based on the controversial 1962 book of the same title by Helen Gurley Brown which included chapters like “How to be Sexy” and “The Affair: From Beginning to End,”) the film starred Natalie Wood, Lauren Bacall and Tony Curtis. To it’s update, Down with Love in 2003 with Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor and Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (based on a 1969 self-help guide by psychiatrist David Reuben). But perhaps the most fêted of the lot is Mean Girls – the career breaking film for Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdam and Amy Poehler. Adapted by Tina Fey from the high school self-help book, Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughters Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman, it was released in 2004 (before Facebook! The film is now revered as an iconic representation of teen life before social media). Laughter then (even the cruel kind) is offered as therapy for our neurotic failings.
Perhaps though, there is new pretender to the self-help throne (and a greater threat to self-help book sales) – the ever increasing production of self-help podcasts. A nudging, needling or cajoling voice in your ear (that’s not your own), now isn’t that the thing that could really going to make a difference to your life? Like having a hundred expert friends helping you live, at a time convenient to you. Surely the revolution is coming…
However you like to take your self-help – on film, book or audio – it’s worth keeping a record. As the archives show, over time our “guru du jour” offer us a certain cultural insight that’s worth appreciating. At the very least, self-help books give us a snapshot of a place and time, and the way that we then handled important issues. From feminism to fat-ism, to bullying and dating, via sexism and stress, these human manuals serve to remind us who we were—or, at very their best, who we are.
READ: If you’ve read the above or are seeking something more philosophical, try these:
WATCH: Don’t fancy a comedy, then try one of these for a more serious take on how to help yourself;
The Thought Exchange . A 2012 doc based on the book by the same title. Billed as “a simple yet profound way of looking at the world, that allows us to understand and experience the truth about who we really are, where we really live, what we really want, and how to have that all the time.”
I am (2010) Director of Pet Ventura and Bruce Almighty, Tom Shadyac, speaks with intellectual and spiritual leaders about what’s wrong with our world and how we can improve both it and the way we live in it.
Peaceful Warrior (2006) Starring Nick Nolte in an inspirational tale; this is the story of how a chance encounter with a stranger changes the life of a college gymnast.
The Shift (2014) A Movie Made By a Movement. Join the movement – from your Inner SHIFT to the outer SHIFT – and share your SHIFT story with the world. The top two voted stories, voted by you and your friends are filmed by a professional crew and included in the final film.
Here’s a list of US-based recommended podcasts (downloaded all over the world)
TED RADIO HOUR – Simply Happy: – Based on Talks given by riveting speakers on the world-renowned TED stage, each show is centered on a common theme – in this hour, finding happiness may be simpler than you think.
BBC R4 – Thinking Aloud. Laurie Taylor wonders if his scepticism about self-help books and self-improvement programmes is well founded.
BBC R4 – Heal Thyself: A history of self-help