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Trouble in Happy-Land: The Problem With Self-Help Books

In the guise of "self-help," I find that these books, in many cases, actually hurt--reinforcing the exact opposite of what they intend: unhappiness.
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I've worked as a psychotherapist and executive coach for the past 20 years, counseling executives at huge companies such as AT&T, MasterCard and HSBC. I've always tried to keep a must-read list of the latest and greatest self-help books to recommend to my clients. Yet, in the past few years, the "latest and greatest" have been dwindling and more often than not, I prefer to suggest an old-standby such as The Road Less Traveled over the glitzy, heavy-on-happiness, light-on-content tomes that seem to blanket today's shelves. Why? Well, the following vignette has happened far too often:

A client walks into my office, flings down her hefty shoulder bag with a scowl, and flops on to the sofa. Reaching into the overstuffed bag, she pulls out a small stack of brightly colored self-help books, all of which have the trendy word "Happy" in the title, and tosses them on my coffee table. "Ok, Dr. J, I've read all these new books on happiness. I've tried out their five steps, completed their six practices and read about their endless studies of happy people--all to no avail. Why am I still miserable? What's wrong with me?!"

Tough question. But a good one, and by no means the first time I've heard it. With the emergence of the field known as "positive psychology" (a.k.a. the study of happiness), the self-help industry has decidedly tilted away from personal and spiritual growth and begun churning out a surfeit of "don't worry, be happy" kinds of books. Most of these surely intend to make us feel better; however, they are simply book-length motivational speeches. They do well in today's quick-fix, pop-a-pill approach to dealing with life's upheavals but there is one problem: I don't think they work. In truth, it's worse than that. We read them at our peril. In the guise of "self-help," I find that, in many cases, they actually hurt--reinforcing the exact opposite of what they intend: unhappiness. Why?

Consider an analogy. Substantial research has shown that as our culture becomes more and more obsessed with physical appearance and vaults "thin" (downright skinny if you're a woman) and "fit" into iconic territory, incidences of poor self-esteem, low self-worth and even depression associated with physical appearance, in young people particularly, have exploded. As the bookshelves, magazine racks and now Internet sites clog with pictures of sculpted, muscular, six-pack-toting fellows and elegant stick-figure females, the importance we ascribe to beauty and a slim physique actually seems to increase suffering for one reason: Most of us never measure up.

I submit that the same dynamic holds sway in the kingdom of happiness. In a world where the real process of living is more cyclical and replete with constant shifts and upheaval, anchoring ourselves in "happy-land" may be a laudable goal, but its achievement, at least for any length of time, contradicts nature's ways. Just as the beauty of any rose is doomed to fade, so too the bloom of happiness is transient, and any attachment to it being permanent is bound to set up a clinging, anxious longing. Buddhists are clearly onto something. Attachment to and idealization of all things "happy" may actually bring on the very thing we most try to avoid: suffering.

For this reason, the road map for dealing with change--and fear--that I lay out in my new book, Shift: Let Go of Fear and Get Your Life in Gear (GPP Life), is not an upward, straight-line trajectory towards happiness. Rather, I believe life is a cyclical journey with numerous highs and lows. We may arrive at a plateau of fulfillment and happiness--a stage I call realization--but we rarely hang here for long. Inevitably, we round the bend, and just like the seasons, head directly into the next winter of our discontent. Much like those spiritual seekers who head to the East in search of enlightenment only to find themselves back at home one day and in need of a job, we all ultimately must reconcile a more banal truth about life: We are never "done."

The fact that we never settle down into "happy-land" is great news, for it means that some part of our nature--what I call the soul--is constantly calling us forth to grow: to plant and till new seeds of possibility. Here's the hard truth: the work of personal transformation takes us out of our comfort zones, flings us up against our growth edge, and quite naturally, produces emotions--anxiety, angst--that in the movement towards manifesting a "new you" may feel more like traversing the dark side of the moon than sipping pina coladas on a sun-drenched Caribbean beach.

The reason my client finds herself unable to climb aboard the "happiness train" is simple: she is growing, stretching, changing. Her comfortable life has been broken open by a deeply held desire to reinvent herself. Along the way, she will need to release, and grieve the loss of ways of being that no longer serve her. This process, what I call "life-shifting," will carry her into a whole new life filled with deep meaning, joy and fulfillment--and yes, happiness may arrive along the way. But it is really not the point, or the goal, of the journey.

The real work of self-renewal--reconnecting to our passions, ascribing new meaning to our lives, re-inventing ourselves head, heart and soul--requires that we get down and dirty and ask some difficult questions:

  • What is my vision for my life?
  • What is my purpose?
  • What story am I telling about myself that is holding me back?

No easy answers here. No quick fix.

And what's worse (if you are hanging your hat solely on happiness), is that as you dive deep in search of meaning and possibility, you will inevitably encounter that underrated motivator of human progress: fear. Our happiness-obsessed culture would have us relegate this powerful force for change--to the amusement park, the sports arena or the movie theater. Yet, are we really "happy" to just sit placidly and be entertained? To live vicariously through the fearsome adventures of celebrities or sports stars? I think not. We all have the energy of creativity pulsing through our veins. Fear, not happiness, can be the true gift: a reminder to wake up, to live full out, to embrace our talents, step to the edge--and soar!

Funny, it turns out that even psychologists--generally upbeat ones like me!--are not immune to nature's ways. Last week, I was feted by a multitude of friends and family at a launch party for my book. It was a joyful occasion and I was grateful and exceedingly happy to be bringing the dream of this book to fruition. (Oh, and don't think I don't I get the irony--putting out a self-help book that is generally anti-self help books!)

Yet, the very next day, when I received the following text message from a good friend, I just had to cringe: "You must still be glowing with happiness from the great party last night." Not. The truth is that I awoke feeling tired, anxious, and yes, even a little depressed--overcome with the strong emotional pull of that nagging question: "What's next?" Like my client above, a barrage of self-criticism wafted through my mind as I strolled to the shower, assailing me with questions: What's wrong with me? Why can't I just "stay happy?" But then, as I stepped before the mirror, mustering as much self-compassion as possible (this was pre-Starbucks) and gazed at my worried reflection, I felt a deep chortle rise from my belly and a knowing smile formed, as a tiny, yet wise inner voice whispered, "Relax, you're normal."