New York : Basic Books, 2006.
Now how could I resist a subtitle like that? Even though I read my share of self-help books, I've always been a bit suspicious of the whole movement. The proliferation of the pathologizing of every human behaviour bothers me. Most recently, an idea proposed by "The Secret" raised my ire; the idea that if you just think the right thoughts you will have everything you want. The logical corollary of this is that if you are poor, ill, or unhappy it is all your own fault, as you must be thinking the wrong thoughts. This book deals with those very issues, among others, and points out the lazy thinking and weak science behind most tenets of the self-help gospel.
The book discusses some broad subject areas, such as Health, Youth & Old Age, Livelihood, Family and Relationship. Pearsall describes what the self-help, or human potential, movement takes for granted in each area, then points out flaws with these assumptions. This is frequently done by elucidating the shortcomings of the studies these assumptions are based on, or by pointing out dissenting studies. Sometimes he just makes a flat statement: in regard to old age, he says "most of the self-help gurus of 'healthy aging' are relatively young. Their fear of what comes naturally with advancing years is evident in their recommendations about how to live longer yet avoid looking or feeling older...We need to reject the notion of an 'ageless body and a timeless mind'. "
I like some of his conclusions. He suggests that research shows repressing and dealing with your anger is better for you than venting, which just weakens your immune system, not to mention aggravating those around you. He also quotes a study which shows that some of the longest living people on earth were distinguishable by their pessimistic outlook; he disagrees with what he calls the "happiology" of the self-help movement, showing that it can slow healing during a health crisis by diverting energy from healing to the mental effort required to try to be relentlessly positive. I find the focus on "happiology" oppressive myself, it's one of the most irritating things for me in the self-help reading I've done. As Pearsall says here, sometimes "there isn't anything wrong with being depressed. Life and its transitions can be sad. Crying, moping and feeling sorry for ourselves when we're any age is not being 'dysfunctional'. It's being human."
His arguments are convincing, although at times they skirt a little close to feeling very personal. His awakening to the flaws in the self-help movement came when he was very ill and found that all the well-meaning self-help platitudes that people offered him were unhelpful and even distressing. Still, his focus on needing solid scientific support for these pop psychology ideas is necessary and certainly welcome for me.
Of course, he is not suggesting that all the psychology and self-help of our culture is useless; he merely advocates thinking deeply and critically about all propositions, including his own, rather than accepting them all unquestioningly as truth. His two primary points are 1) that we need to be mindful in our daily life - this mindfulness will improve our lives in itself and help with our ability to evaluate self-help topics, and 2) that community - interrelatedness - is more vital to a meaningful life than self-actualization. I agree with this to a point, and understand his concerns about Western society developing into a mass of narcissistic individualists. However, his discussion of the topic, especially in regard to the family, veers too close to a Stepford Wives scenario for me to feel comfortable with. I'm sure he does not advocate a return to the condition of female subjugation, but that is how I can imagine his words being seized upon by those unhappy with feminism.
Nevertheless, this was a thought provoking read that put into words some of my inchoate discomfort with pop psychology and the pathologizing of everyday life. I'll have to stop quoting him now, before I rewrite his entire book. But if this subject is of any interest to you, this book is worth reading.