It is easy to dismiss self-help books and those who read them. But not only do we need serious self-help, we must also take self-help more seriously. Valued at $11bn (£8bn) worldwide, self-help is a major global industry. It both reflects and generates many of our prevailing ideas about the self and about the cultures in which we live. The self-help industry not only seeks to shape the way in which we think, feel and behave, but also provides many of the core metaphors on which we rely to talk about our inner lives. Many of those metaphors, not least that of the mind as a computer that might require reprogramming, are at best unhelpful.
Critics of self-help believe that its current popularity is part of an all-pervasive neoliberal imperative to maximise efficiency. They see it as a sinister plot to direct all responsibility for our wellbeing back upon ourselves. Self-help, they feel, casts all our problems as personal, and our failures as owing to a lack of willpower and resilience, when they are in fact caused by the politics of capitalism. But while this may be true of some self-help, the idea of self-improvement has a long and rich history, extending back to ancient wisdom traditions. The wish to improve ourselves is bound up with our need for self-knowledge, for mastery and for transformation. It is a timeless desire and an essential part of what makes us human.
And some self-improvement literature really can help us to become better people. I mean better not in a competitive but in an ethical sense: the improved self is more able to direct attention outwards, towards projects, other people and the communities of which we are a part.
1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–180) believed that all suffering is in our minds. Suffering is caused not by external events but by our reactions to those events – by faulty judgments and unrealistic expectations. Given that most external events are beyond our control, Aurelius argues in his Meditations that it is pointless to worry about them. Our evaluations of these events, by contrast, are completely within our control. It follows that all our mental energies should be directed inwards, with a view to controlling our minds. The key to a happy life, then, lies in adjusting our expectations, because “only a madman looks for figs in winter”.
2. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D Burns (1980)
The science underpinning Burns’s book may no longer be cutting-edge, but its core message remains a powerfully relevant one. A more down-to-earth version of Stoicism, it is based on the premises of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Feeling Good illustrates how our feelings are shaped by our thoughts, and contains some great techniques for training our minds to question negative thinking about ourselves and others.
3. The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris (2007)
We are, of course, not purely rational creatures. Sometimes our attempts to control our thoughts can become counter-productive. Here, Australian psychologist Harris explains the principles of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). He invites us not to try to control our negative thoughts or uncomfortable feelings, but simply to de-fuse with them, to accept them and then to let them go. That way we have more energy to commit to value-based action.
4. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
Spiritual self-cultivation through the art of letting go is the central theme of the Tao Te Ching (the classic study of “The Way and Virtue”, usually dated to the sixth or fourth century BC). In Daoism, letting go centres on the idea of offering no resistance to the natural order of things. It promotes a sophisticated form of submitting our will to cosmic forces, by accepting what is and loosening our attachments to our desires and expectations of specific outcomes. The Tao suggests that we can improve ourselves by returning to a simpler, more authentic and intuitive way of life. A key concept is wu wei – “non-action” or “effortless action”. Wu wei can perhaps best be described as a spiritual state marked by acceptance of what is and the absence of selfish desires.
5. The Power of Now: A Guide Book to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle (1998)
We are not our thoughts, argues Tolle in this bestselling book. Most of our thoughts, Tolle writes, revolve around the past or the future. Our past furnishes us with an identity, while the future holds “the promise of salvation”. Both are illusions, because the present moment is all we ever really have. We therefore need to learn to be present as “watchers” of our minds, witnessing our thought patterns rather than identifying with them. That way, we can relearn to live truly in the now.
6. Altruism: The Science and Psychology of Kindness by Matthieu Ricard (2015)
In many theologies and wisdom traditions, altruism is the highest moral and spiritual value. More recently, psychologists have shown that altruistic acts not only benefit the recipient but also lead those who perform them to be happier. Moreover, practising altruism, the French Buddhist monk Ricard argues, is the key not just to our personal happiness but also to solving our most pressing social, economic and environmental problems. Altruism enables us “to connect harmoniously the challenges of the economy in the short term, quality of life in the mid-term, and our future environment in the long term”.
7. Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
The American transcendentalist philosopher Thoreau famously withdrew to a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, where he sought to live simply and “deliberately”. It was there that he developed the intriguing notion of “life cost” – the perfect antidote to unthinking materialism and the toxic Protestant work ethic to which so many of us are still enslaved. Most of us find it normal to trade our life time for goods, believing that productivity and success are secular signs of grace. Thoreau saw paid work as a necessary evil to which we should dedicate as little time as possible. His aim was not to work a single minute more than was necessary to cover his most basic living expenses, and to spend all his remaining time doing what he truly cherished.
8. Grit by Angela Duckworth (2017)
According to the psychologist Angela Duckworth, grit tops talent every time. That is music to the ears of anyone inclined to identify with Aesop’s plodding tortoise rather than the effortlessly speedy hare. “Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another,” she writes. Here grit is a drive to improve both our skills and our performance by consistent effort. Gritty people are always eager to learn and are driven by an enduring passion. They learn from their mistakes, have direction and live more coherent lives.
9. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1308–21)
This 14th-century poem chronicles the gradual overcoming of the middle-aged and burned-out Dante’s spiritual weariness. Guided by his mentor Virgil, he journeys from Hell to Paradise, where he is eventually reunited with his beloved Beatrice. The epic can be read as a cautionary Christian tale or as an extended revenge fantasy in which many of Dante’s personal enemies get their gruesome come-uppance. But we can also read it as an archetypal story of spiritual growth and self-overcoming. The doubting Dante is systematically re-educated by his many encounters in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. The inhabitants of Hell show him how not to live his life, and the costs of their bad choices. In the end, purged of his own weaknesses, Dante reaches a higher spiritual plane and glimpses the divine.
10. The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2100–1200 BCE)
Almost all forms of self-improvement resemble a quest narrative or a heroic journey. Such narratives show the hero or heroine venturing into the unknown – a dark wood, an underground kingdom or the belly of a beast. There they encounter obstacles and often have to battle with an enemy or a temptation. Having overcome these challenges, they return from their adventures transformed and ready to share what they have learned to help others. The oldest surviving narrative of this kind recounts how the formerly selfish Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh returns from the wilderness bearing the plant of eternal life. Rather than eating it himself, he shares his boon with his people.