High season for the self-help industry

It's the month for self-improvement – and an avalanche of books is ready to guide us. But the only people to profit from this industry are the publishers, says Alice-Azania Jarvis

So there we have it. 2010: done, dusted, filed away, gradually receding and ready to join 2009, 2008 and all their predecessors in the annals of faded memory. But what of 2011? Fresh as just-fallen snow, the coming year still sparkles with promise. Diaries lie barely leafed,12 ripe months await their picking, resolutions sit unviolated – symbols, for now, of all our best intentions.

So what will you be this year? Thinner? Richer? Less prone to spectacular drunkenness, to stress-induced carbohydrate binges, to a sneaky fag outside the office? More prone to perfecting the work/life balance, to taking your daily exercise, to getting enough fibre and fulfilling your five-a-day?

The resolution, the desire to do better, has become as much part of the calendar as champagne and fireworks. And no wonder: the notion of self-improvement, of altering oneself in some fundamental way, holds profound appeal. Who wouldn't, when confronted with a mirror of their mundane existence, want to change something? And who couldn't, after changing that first thing, find something else – some personality trait, some behavioural characteristic, some environmental dissatisfaction – with which to quibble?

Given the chance, few of us would say no to being richer, thinner, nicer, more punctual, better organised, healthier, more balanced entities. The idea that the power to do so lies in our own hands – that certain goals can be achieved simply through altering our patterns of behaviour – is, inevitably, a seductive one. It was in 1859 that Samuel Smiles published his seminal work, Self -Help. A Scottish social reformer and campaigner for universal suffrage, he advanced the principle that good fortune was not simply a matter of divine will but of hard work and responsibility. With its famous opening maxim that "heaven helps those who help themselves," it became an instant phenomenon, outselling Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and clocking up a quarter of a million sales in Smiles's lifetime.

Following in his wake came a host of imitators, zealots in the practice of self-determination. From Dale Carnegie and his 1937 offering How to Win Friends and Influence People, to Gwyneth Paltrow, whose website Goop instructs us to "nourish the inner aspect," the apostles of self-help approach from every angle. And so the industry grew. And grew. In the United States, the cult of self-help is worth more than $10bn. In the UK, it has earned publishers some £60m in the past five years. Stores peddle potions promising all manner of glories: improved energy, a faster metabolism, shinier hair, a calmer disposition. Magazines proffer advice on everything from health to wealth to improving your sex life.

That most superficial of improvements, the makeover, has become a cultural standard: repeated and recounted ad infinitum on television, at the cinema, in newspapers and magazines. And of course January, with all its medicinal bleakness and post-festive penitence is the high season of self-help. It's now that shops start to push their various diet supplements, that magazines and newspapers pontificate on the new year's new you. A quick glimpse across news-stands reveals a raft of recipes for success: Revitalise Your Body and Style with Vogue, Get Lean Muscle Fast with Men's Health and Have More Cash with Glamour.

Yet for all the advice on offer we don't seem to be achieving an awful lot. Britons are fatter than ever before. We are, various studies have concluded, less happy than ever before. We're less adept at saving, less adept at budgeting, and unable to maintain our relationships. We don't get enough exercise and we drink far too much. We smoke. We buy fast fashion. And, if surveys are to be believed, few of us maintain our new year resolutions beyond the first dismal weeks of January. So why the belief that we can change?

Lindsey Agness has worked in self help for years. Founder of the Change Corporation and author of Change Your Life with NLP (that's Neuro Linguistic Programming), she offers "life coaching" for those who aren't content with what they've got. Over the past decade, she observes, our idea of what constitutes realistic ambition has shifted profoundly: "Books are released with eye-catching titles, promising things we might not even have considered before. We are aware of the possibilities as never before – and believe in them in a way we simply didn't ten years ago."

The result is a culture in which little remains off limits. Books, magazines, the internet, even television shows (virtually every bit of breakfast viewing contains some nugget of self-improvement); they all promise to show us how to get what we want, how to live life as a better, more fulfilled person. Search hard enough, and there is advice on everything from feng shui to launching your presidential bid. With the right approach, we are assured, we can be anything we want. Well, in theory.

The reality is rather more complicated. To observe that, for all self-help's blossoming, we aren't much better off than we were in the first place is not to say that it doesn't work. In many instances it might: go on a diet, stick to it, and you will, in the short term at least, lose weight. But while the tools to achieve certain goals are within our reach, the broader aim of general wellbeing, of fulfilment, of satisfaction with one's lot, remains just out of sight.

"There is a danger of being sold the dream," agrees Agness. "People get bombarded with suggestions for how they can do better, and end up with an endless wish list of vague aspirations, with no focus on any particular thing." Such diffusity of ambition can be the undoing of many a self-improver. More than that, though, the apparent availability of so many aspirations ensures that, if we do manage to tick something off our to-do list, something else is ready and waiting in the wings. Got the dream job? Congrats – now shrink a dress size so you can buy a new suit. Organised your diary – what about de-cluttering your closet, too? Or detoxifying your relationship? Or helping yourself to health? All, incidentally, suggestions to be found in a bookstore near you.

And of course there is the possibility – probability, even – that certain ends are simply unattainable through the narrow channels of self-help. In 2005, Micki McGee, a lecturer in sociology at Fordham University, New York, published Self-Help, Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life. She highlighted the individualistic nature of most self-improvement literature; in assuring readers that they can achieve anything they set their minds to, the self-help authorities lay the blame for failure at the feet of those who suffer it, irrespective of chance and circumstance.

"It forecloses social context," argues McGee. "The entire construct is based on a fiction that the individual is self-contained. It is a profound hubris. In fact, we exist within an environmental setting." Taken to extremes, this individualism can be highly dangerous. When the Australian television producer Rhonda Byrne published The Secret in 2006 it – with the help of an endorsement by Oprah Winfrey – went straight to the top of bestseller lists. Byrne advocated positive thinking as a means of achieving one's goals, blaming negative thoughts for lack of success. In an appearance on Larry King Live, one of the book's "gurus" Joe Vitale suggested that the nine-year-old murder victim Jessica Lunsford had "attracted" her fate; shortly afterwards another of the book's cheerleaders claimed that the inhabitants of Darfur were suffering a manifestation of their negative thoughts.

With individual responsibility thus emphasised, it's not hard for our ameliorative ambition to backfire. As McGee puts it: "Much of the self-help industry really contributes to the insecurity that it is trying to assuage. There is the idea, not only that life could be better, but also that it ought to be better." The psychological pressure of failing to achieve this is not a million miles away from the pressure felt by women when confronted by a barrage of perfect-looking women in fashion magazines and billboards.

"The idea that we are in control of our own lives offers up ideals which are simply unattainable. When we don't achieve them there is a sense of dissatisfaction, desire and envy."

Perhaps this is why, in 2009, scientists concluded that far from improving one's state of wellbeing, self-help can be actively detrimental; those suffering low self-esteem were, found researchers at the Universities of Waterloo and New Brunswick in Canada, likely to feel worse about themselves and their circumstances after attempting to self-help. Particularly futile was Byrne's "positive thinking"; instead of bolstering the mood of downcast participants, it simply served as a kind of ironic slap in the face, highlighted how little there was, in fact, to be pleased with.

Quite aside from the psychological disturbance that the failure can cause, there is the fact that the more we remain unreformed – the more our attempts to improve fall by the wayside – the more susceptible we are to the promises of the self-help shelf. Unless our failure to achieve simply confounds us – and the spiralling sales figures of improvement literature suggest that's unlikely – then every stumbling block becomes another reason to seek further renovation. To wit: the endless stream of sequels churned out by best-selling authors. If Stephen Covey's lauded Seven Habits have yet to make you a Highly Effective Person, why not try his follow-up thesis, The Eighth Habit? And if Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking doesn't quite do the trick, what about his Easy Way for Women to Stop Smoking? Or The Only Way To Stop Smoking Permanently?

Self-improvement, then, is a self perpetuating beast; lop off one arm, and two grow back. Fail to lop off that arm and feel guilty, inadequate and compelled to try again. In an age when advice spills from every quarter – from celebrities' newsletters and magazine editorials – it is a formidable force, and one which is only likely to get more formidable.

Interest in self-help is at its highest in times of economic uncertainty; without a cushion of collective wealth to keep us afloat, we start grasping for a lifejacket of our own construction. And so to 2011, and the hope that it might work. For some of us, it certainly will – those in the business of profiting from its propagation. For the rest of us? Well, don't bank on it.

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