Hard work, all this heart searching: Self help books

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The Independent Online
There aren't many selves that couldn't use a little improvement. But the energetic boom in the market for life-enriching how-to manuals is nevertheless remarkable. You have only to line up the pile of recent publications to feel almost dizzy with wild hopes for better things. Most of them are born in the United States, which is why the authors have names such as David D Burns MD or Gerald G Jampolsky MD or Hyrum Smith. But the market here has obviously been persuaded that the British self needs h elp, too.

Where it needs help in particular is with core values and interpersonal communication skills and weird things called productivity triquations. Anyway, here they come. Getting What You Want: Powerful Persuasion Techniques to Use in Any Situation; Change Your Mind, Change Your Life; Lust for Satisfaction; Life's Little Instruction Book; The Power of Inner Peace; Creating Confidence: The Secrets of Self-Esteem; Total Confidence; Make the Right Decision Every Time - Confidently; The Feeling Good Handbook; Y ou Can Always Get What You Want: Your Starter Package for Personal Success; The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management: Power Strategies for Increased Productivity and Inner Peace.

There. Feel better?

Is it a poignant sign of a depressed society, all this urgent aspiring - a touching index of a widespread desire for a better life? Or merely the symptom of a greedy one? On the whole, the books make avid connections between wealth and happiness. One of

them illustrates the importance of a sense of fun by citing Charles and Minnie Steen, who prospected in the Utah desert for years, keeping their spirits up with plucky humour. In the end, we are told, Steen succeeded. "He struck uranium on a claim that in three years produced $70m worth of ore." Good for him. But it's a bit rich to suggest that he struck gold as some sort of reward for cracking so many jokes. They must have been absolute belters.

The books differ on the thorny issue of how hard anyone should work. They are in thrall to the go-for-it idea that shackles need to be flung off, that liberation is the key. But they are also anxious not to sound like miracle-working quacks. "Do you rea l ly believe that hard work," says one, sneering at suckers who merely labour, "is what makes people rich?" Another notes: "Never forget that if you really want to achieve excellence, you will have to work very hard, like Stephen Hendry." Stephen Hendry?N o offence: fabulous with sticks and balls, but a truly inspiring role model?

A title that pretty much covered the field would go something like: Self-love: The New Science of Getting Everything You Ever Dreamt of While Still Having Plenty of Time to Watch TV, with a Banana Daiquiri if You Feel Like it, What the Hell. And the com m on argument runs, roughly: feel good about yourself and make lists. But actually these books are rather strange and intriguing in the way they plunder the history of Western thought for glamour, potted wisdom and a sense of universal depth.

Inevitably, they are steeped in the reflexes of psychoanalysis (though sometimes this emerges in a fairly uncomplicated way. "You must begin by forgiving yourself," one book urges. "Then forgive your parents.") The biggest influence, though, is the New Testament. The books hum with homilies and parables, and offer themselves as - what else? - bibles for the new religion of self-improvement. They offer soul-searching and the path to revelation. "Faith," as one of the books puts it, "is an important partof the formula".

They are also keen on spiritual exercises - mainly questionnaires and quizzes. "Every evening," we are instructed, "run through all the events of the day in your mind." It sounds like a restorative jog in the park, though for some readers it will be nothing more than a quick route to insomnia. "Write down all your positive attributes and read the list every day," we are told. "For extra impact, recite them on to a cassette tape."

On another level, the books are anthologies of quotations ("Nothing great is ever achieved without enthusiasm" - Emerson; "The important thing is not what they think of me; it's what I think of them" - Queen Victoria) and proverbs ("The strongest trees in the forest aren't the most protected"; "Give more and you shall have more").

It is alarming to see grand religious paradoxes reduced to mere tactics, just as it is sad to see confidence defined as just a trick. But in their own way the books are almost endearing as guides to modern follies. Take the case of the man who asked fiveclassrooms of students to guess his height. He posed first as a student, then as a demonstrator, and finally as a professor. The professor was a clear two-and-a-half inches taller than the student. What you see isn't always what you get, not by a long chalk.

Stories such as this sound apocryphal, of course; suburban myths. But then, even the conversations reported in these books seem too good to be true. "I've been at conventions with the salespeople from Tip-Top Saunas," one says. "And they're great people."

It is not surprising, given that so many of the books offer themselves as short cuts to undreamt-of success, that the prevailing metaphors come from finance: there's an awful lot of accounting in the ledger-like souls that get searched here, an awful lo t of credits and debits. "Decisions are painful," one work says, "because a loss (price) has to be measured against the gain."

But the more arresting imagery comes from new technology. It has often seemed that one of the key psychological gifts of information technology is not so much that it would rival human intelligence, but that it would suggest new ways to describe it. The books talk of the "persuadable brain" as if it were a computer, as if self-esteem were programmable. "Most of our decisions," one argues, "are made through a series of automatic brain programs."

In this world, you don't have ideas; you "put your imagination to work." You don't try harder; you tap your inner resource. No doubt you can reboot your sense of self-worth when it crashes. It's as if we can buy the software for happiness (which in this world means winning) and download it into memory, right down into the hard disk, the one between our shoulders, the one that aches from hunching over the computer screen so much. One of the books is even called Neurolinguistic Programming: The N e w Art and Science of Getting What You Want. It's the new age: Ich bin ein data processor.

But through the filter of these metaphors the immediate goal remains well-defined. One book begins by getting straight to the point: "There was once a bright young man who wanted to get rich." And guess what? He succeeds. It's not very inspiring, really .

But one recent book certainly is going down a storm at Independent's dramatic new perch in Canary Wharf. How to Implement Change in Your Company - So Everyone is Happy with the Results! The exclamation mark must be for added impact!