Go on, help yourself

There's a fortune to be made out of America's irony-free quest for happiness. By John Carlin
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The Independent Online
If a prize existed for the most fatuous bestseller ever written, Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach would have to rank among the leading contenders.

A shopping list of spiritual insights presented in diary form, Simple Abundance aspires to soothe the burdens of women who fret and toil and cannot sleep. It is a guide for those who seek their own true path towards a state of grace, a celebration, as the blurb on the back of the book has it, of "the mystical alchemy of style and Spirit".

A lot of Americans appear to be hungry for this stuff. So far 2.2 million copies have gone into print. On the US bestseller list for a straight 70 weeks, it has spawned a lucrative little industry of calendars, audio tapes and assorted merchandise.

The first entry in what Ms Ban Breathnach calls her "gratitude journal" comes under the heading "January 1: A Transformative Year of Delight and Discovery": "New Year's day. A fresh start. A new chapter in life waiting to be written ... Take a leap of faith and begin this wondrous new year by believing. Believe in yourself. And believe that there is a loving Source - a Sower of Dreams - just waiting to be asked to help you make your dreams come true."

From inauspicious beginnings Simple Abundance descends into uncharted depths of guff. Here is "August 2: The Gentlest Lessons Teach Us the Most". Our heroine is at the beach with her husband and child. "One afternoon there was a surprise activity for the children: a ride on an elephant around the hotel parking lot. Katie was delirious with excitement. That night, as my husband and I tucked her into bed, I said, 'Life is always full of wonderful surprises if we're open to them. Some mornings you wake up not knowing what will happen during the day and you get to ride an elephant!'"

The book's hackneyed moral, regurgitated 365 times, is that if you dwell on the good things of life instead of the bad you will discover contentment and inner peace.

As a piece of writing, as an exercise in psychology, as a work of philosophy, Simple Abundance is excruciatingly trite. Ms Ban Breathnach, who markets herself as an ordinary "home-maker", is either a charlatan or a buffoon. Or perhaps a bit of both, an idiote savante, for her labours have made her a wealthy woman.

Why has the book done so well? The short answer is that it has received a number of free plugs on Oprah. In March last year Oprah Winfrey invited Ms Ban Breathnach to appear on her show as one of a blessed group of "People I'd Like to Have Dinner With". Three weeks later the book was number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Encouraged, Ms Ban Breathnach quickly rattled off an even more vacuous sequel, The Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude, another sensational commercial hit.

Suggesting that the author is not quite as dumb as she looks, the dedication to the second book read, "For Oprah with Love and Thank You". Oprah, who you would think might be more resistant to such blandishments, responded with yet another invitation to her show. Now it seems that half of America's women are aping the Ban Breathnach style and filling out their own diaries, chronicling the small mercies for which they should be truly grateful. According to Time magazine, which carried a remarkably straight-faced article on the home-maker-turned-maharashi (the book is published by Time Warner), men are catching the disease too. Bill Cosby is among the throng who make lists at the end of each day to remind themselves that life is a state in which little is to be endured and much to be enjoyed. "What we've started, honey," Oprah exclaimed last month to her favourite author, "is a national movement!"

National colossus that she is, America's priestess of popular psychology is claiming a little too much. At most she has been the catalyst for something that lurks deep in the American heart. In no other country in the world do books that teach people how to behave sell on such an exuberant scale. You may toil all your life at a novel and never earn a penny, no matter how talented you are. But should you hit on a variation of the eternal American theme of how to turn the dross of your everyday life into gold then, no matter how humdrum the nature of the contribution, chances are you will make good money.

Not all self-help authors are phoneys. Some undoubtedly deliver new and valuable insights into the human predicament. But what they all have in common, the good and the bad, is that they provide for contemporary Americans the services witchdoctors do for African tribesmen. Instead of potions, they concoct books to ward off evil spirits and deliver love, health, money, peace of mind - whatever the heart desires. These are the titles of some of America's most successful books: The Rules: Time-tested secrets for capturing the heart of Mr Right; Recreate your Life; How to Win; How to Win Friends and Influence People; Eight Weeks to Optimum Health; The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; The Seven Habits for Highly Effective Families; The Seven Habits for Highly Happy People.

It is no accident that the clever marketing people behind the self-help branch of the publishing industry hit repetitively upon the number seven for their titles. They are tapping into the powerful religious strain in the American collective. Seven, as in the horsemen of the apocalypse, is the Lord's lucky number. Except in the niche satanist market, you would never find a book listing the six methods to achieve perfect felicity for that would be to risk evoking commercially disastrous associations with the anti-Christ.

The Bible of course is the most successful self-help book of them all. Where the secular and the religious meet in America is in the national core belief - shared by atheists, Muslims and Christians alike - that the pursuit of happiness is not only desirable, it is a national obligation. That most sacred of American texts, The Declaration of Independence, defines it as an "unalieanable right".

Under enormous pressure to achieve happiness, also known as success, most Americans feel that in one or other department of their lives they have fallen short. Some go mad and shoot up McDonald's hamburger stores, or blow up buildings in Oklahoma. Others join cults, commit mass suicide, seek salvation in a flying saucer. Most try and try again - with an earnestness not found in any other modern culture - to achieve perfection in the here and now.

Optimism is the characteristic that chiefly defines America. Another is its adolescent spirit. That is why, unburdened by the sobering lessons of history, Americans remain so attached to notions of personal growth and self-improvement, why they are forever reinventing the wheel. They are not a resigned people and they are not, therefore, wise. Irony is not a word in their philosophical lexicon. For an ironic habit of mind requires first an awareness of limitation and in America they even deny death: how else to explain their eternal quest for the elixir of eternal health?

In an environment of such boundless possibility they send people to the moon and space ships to Mars. The free market prospers, as does belief in aliens and Simple Abundance. No matter that the homespun wisdoms have peppered world literature since Homer; in America everything is new. Package it right and you will find a buyer.

In the business of selling books, America's self-help market is as close to perfection as you will get. So long as Americans insist on believing that earthly strivings are not necessarily doomed, the demand will remain insatiable for books purporting to provide answers to life's tragedy.

The clamour is for words that simplify and soothe, while nourishing the American impulse to look on the bright side. Like these from Ms Ban Breathnach's diary entry for 15 September. "Authentic success is knowing how simply abundant your life is exactly as it is today. Authentic success is being so grateful for the many blessings bestowed on you. Authentic success is living each day with a heart overflowing."