A plague of gratuitous optimism be upon you

Scientists find flaw in self-help philosophy’ ran a headline in The Times last Saturday. I can’t say I’m surprised — but then my congenitally sceptical outlook has been preparing me for this for a lifetime.

Psychologists in Canada have concluded that positive thinking is a dangerous tool in the wrong hands. Chanting mantras such as “I can do it” turns out to do more harm than good for people who can’t do it, and never have been able to do it. It’s fine for people who already have good self-esteem in the first place — they actually believe what they’re saying. Sadly, no amount of telling yourself “I’m a loveable person” is going to help if your starting point is self-loathing.

But my own dim view of self-help books isn’t just to do with my innate contrarianism, it’s also to do with my innate snobbishness. How do I know this? Because I have just been reading Alain de Botton on the subject.

Here is de Botton in The Times: “There is no more ridiculed literary genre than the self-help book. Admit that you regularly turn to such titles to help you cope with existence and you are liable to attract the scorn and suspicion of all who aspire to look well educated and well bred.”

Ouch, that’s me all right. Scornful as well as sceptical.

De Botton blames the lowly reputation of self-help books partly on the way they are packaged by publishers in “sickly pink and purple” jacket designs and then “entombed by booksellers near the mind, body and spirit section”. But he also identifies a more fundamental problem: self-help books these days are written by the all the wrong people. Note ‘these days’.

De Botton reminds us that the history of the self-help book goes back to Ancient Greece. Epicurus wrote 300 of them with titles like On LoveOn Justice and On Human Life. The Benedcitines and the Jesuits added to the genre, along with assorted philosophers down the centuries. Here are some 19th Century pearls of wisdom from Arthur Schopenhauer, who advised in 1823: “A man must swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more disgusting in the day ahead.” (Later, at lunch with his publisher: “Arthur, we really must call this The Toad Less Travelled …”).

Sadly, says de Botton, after the 19th Century the self-help field was “abandoned to the many curious types who thrive in it today”. The problem is, he says, we need self-help books like never before.

The solution? Well, de Botton wants our “serious writers” to embrace the genre. Imagine, he says, what Emerson, Carlyle or Virginia Woolf could have done with it. Or Shakespeare (“Twenty tips from Othello on relationships”).

I suppose it depends on whether you want to receive life-advice from the likes of Will Self or Martin Amis. Personally, I’m sticking to my own life-long life-strategy: Keep your expectations about things and people low. That way you won’t end up disappointed.

And here, if I may be a little immodest, I detect some convergent thinking. De Botton’s big issue with contemporary self-help books is their gratuitous optimism. This is where modern practitioners “are utterly cut off from the spirit of their more noble predecessors”. The self-help gurus of the past knew that the best way to make someone feel well was to get them to accept that things were every bit as bad as they thought they were. And probably worse.



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