What has been brought to my attention lately is how accepting most of us are regarding self-help books and media. It seems that so often we tend to trust in the marketing, but yet we very rarely know or look into, the validity of the claims. I say this on the heels of watching the PBS special, This Emotional Life: Rethinking Happiness.
The PBS special tracks what we have come to believe will bring us happiness, as well as what the science suggests truly does. In the special, it is mentioned that self-help is a 10 billion dollar annual industry. That figure was staggering to me, as it suggests how many of us are seeking contentment and fulfillment in our lives, as well as guidance to achieve it. And, if we are doing it through self-help, that obviously means we are trusting we can do it ourselves, without the physical guidance of another.
The host, Dan Gilbert, sat with the now deceased, Louise Hay, the highest grossing self-help writer of all time. Hay is famous for having cured, as she believes, her cancer through changing her thoughts. She has convinced millions of people that their thoughts, not only contribute to their illnesses but created them. Meaning, if you are constantly looking on the world from a place of negativity, your body translates those thoughts into cellular reactions, causing cancer or other diseases. When Gilbert, the host, asked Hays how she could prove this, she responded, “My internal ding.”
Now, can we say Hays didn’t cure her cancer by changing her thoughts? No. Nor can we say that she did, indeed, cure her cancer by changing her thoughts – because there is no valid evidence. Is her idea compelling? Certainly. And, I believe most of us would agree that stress in the body does lead to discourse, but stating specifically that negative thoughts create your illness, and can cure it, and insisting that would be true for every single person, is quite far-reaching, and, if I may, a bit dangerous. Offering hope like this, which for many becomes false hope, almost seems cruel. Now, I do not believe that Hays, by taking in a few of her other works, was a malicious person; I suspect she thought she was helping people. Yet, not respecting the science of her claims diminishes the quality of heart behind them, as I see it. But we also have to ask, how is it that she was so successful when consumers could have also asked this very question – “What is your proof?”
Alright, so my thoughts on that are… I could triply say, we want to be better and we don’t even care how; “One of these methods has to work!” However, if I’m being honest, I would feel more genuine saying… the reason we don’t care about the validity is that there is a part of us, deep down, that feels unsafe changing. We want ‘better-ness’ to happen for us, in every aspect of our life, and also to resolve all of the possible emotional stirrings, as well as potential conflicts that the change itself might produce… without necessarily having to endure them. That fearful part can be louder than most of us want to admit, and if we appear to follow a spiritual path, or a path lined with self-help books, this means we are trying in the eyes of others, and most importantly, in our own. I know this sounds a bit convoluted. And for some, that may have just brought up a bit of hostility or exasperation… and for that, I must say, it’s alright; I understand.
Stay with me in this tender place for a moment. Many of us fear that making changes to our lives, even the changes we really, really want, will be hard. That in some way we will face a deprivation, like not being able to have sugar, or that we will have to make significant life adjustments to address a habitual pattern- say using our time for cooking healthy meals rather than a run through the drive-through to get home to our Netflix faster. Or that we won’t be invited to as many work lunches when we start holding compassion for all of our co-workers. It’s about intention. The honest intention to face the natural fears we all experience, and challenge them in order to pursue the life we desire.
Gilbert stated, “More than 95% of all self-help books are published without any scientific research attesting to their effectiveness or safety. More than 99% of the internet self-help sites are launched without any scientific research attesting to their value.” As I see it, this only changes when we insist it does.