by Svetlana Grobman
Originally published by the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

“God helps those who help themselves” — Algernon Sydney

Feeling tired? Lonely? Experiencing post-holiday blues? You’re never alone. Whatever disappointments plague your life, there are people out there eager to help you. Commercial and not-for-profit organizations and institutions offer self-help programs and groups, TV channels broadcast shows with experts of every stripe, and book publishers flood shelves. In fact, the tag for the self-improvement and positive psychology industry has reached $9.6 billion, and many self-help gurus have long become household names. Who hasn’t heard of expert on spirituality and mind-body medicine Deepak Chopra; master of relationships, weight loss and whatever-have-you “Dr. Phil” McGraw; financial experts Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman; sex expert Dr. Ruth; best-selling author Stephen Covey; author and pastor Joel Osteen; or relationship consultant and author John Gray?

Let’s take a look at a small sampling of recent self-help titles. What better way to start the new year than to get rid of the old? “The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential” by blogger Leo Babauta (Hyperion, 2009) and “Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life” (Springboard Press, 2009) by life coach Gail Blanke advise readers to identify essentials in their lives and clear physical and mental clutter.

Sandra Felton and Marsha Sims present strategies for quickly completing daily tasks and leaving time—and energy—for more significant projects in “Organizing Your Day” (Revell, 2009). The book includes quizzes, bulleted lists and fill-in charts.

Women who want to regain self-control will be interested in B. J. Gallagher’s “Why Don’t I Do the Things I Know Are Good for Me?” (Berkley Books, 2009). Gallagher says that small changes can have a big impact on readers’ lives, and she advises avoiding “quick fix” traps.

Scott Haltzman and Teresa DiGeronimo describe strategies for creating happy families, regardless of cultural and ethnic identification, in “The Secrets of Happy Families: Eight Keys to Building a Lifetime of Connection and Contentment” (Jossey-Bass, 2009). The strategies include sticking together, establishing values and making time for fun and rituals.

The main message of “AgeEsteem” (Morgan James, 2008) by Bonnie Lou Fatio is feeling good and confident at any age, as well as aging with vitality and purpose. “Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World” (Alfred Knopf, 2009) by Rabbi Harold Kushner offers a place of comfort and hope amid the worries of life in the 21st century.

No article on the self-help genre can omit books on dating and relationships. “Get Over Yourself!” by Patti Novak and Laura Zigman (Ballantine Books, 2008) employs a tough-love approach to these delicate subjects. “How to Date Like a Grown-Up: Everything You Need to Know to Get Out There, Get Lucky, or Even Get Married in Your 40s, 50s, and Beyond” by Lisa Daily (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2009) provides guidance on speed dating, online dating and more to middle-age women. Also, Noelle Nelson presents to readers of any age a 35-day plan for overcoming relationship obstacles in “Your Man Is Wonderful: How to Appreciate Your Partner, Romance Your Differences, and Love the One You’ve Got” (Free Press, 2009).

There also are books written specifically for men. “The Man’s Book: The Essential Guide for the Modern Man” by Thomas Fink (Little, Brown, 2009) is organized by topic and includes diagrams of hairstyles, instructions for building a treehouse, and descriptions of wine and spirits. “The Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide: Recovering the Lost Art of Manhood” by Frank Miniter (Regnery, 2009) teaches the reader how to be a survivor, provider, athlete, hero, romantic, cultured man and philosopher.

The burgeoning genre of self-help memoirs includes Beth Lisick’s “Helping Me Help Myself” (William Morrow, 2008), Jennifer Niesslein’s “Practically Perfect (in Every Way)” (Putnam’s Sons, 2007), and Cathy Alter’s “Up for Renewal” (Atria Books, 2008).

The ultimate goal of the self-help movement is to help us be happy. Caroline Miller and Michael Frisch provide a bridge between research on happiness and its practical applications in “Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide” (Sterling, 2009). The book features exercises, quizzes and a place to make your own “bucket list.”

With a multitude of books teaching us to stay positive — well-covered by the media, from positive Oprah Winfrey to ironic Jon Stewart — you’d think we should be one happy nation by now. Not so. On the contrary, we seem to need more and more help. Why? Is something wrong with “The Law of Attraction,” the concept expressed by Rhonda Byrne in “The Secret” (Atria Books, 2006), or with modern positive psychology, as described by its father, Martin Seligman, in “Authentic Happiness” (Free Press, 2002)?

Yes, says Barbara Ehrenreich in “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” (Metropolitan Books, 2009). Ehrenreich points to a cottage industry of life coaches and motivational speakers who strongly imply that any shortcomings are the result of not thinking positively. She believes that Americans have succumbed to a cult of cheerfulness and left themselves vulnerable to chicanery, and she warns against a “reckless optimism” that causes individuals — and nations — not to plan for inevitable downturns and disasters.

Ehrenreich is not alone in her crusade. Also on her side are Micki McGee, author of “Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life” (Oxford Press, 2005), and Stewart Justman, “Fool’s Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology” (Dee, 2005).

In the end, with all the emotional and contradictory arguments, what are we to do? How do we separate the good from the bad? Well, as the old Yiddish proverb goes, “Seek advice, but use your common sense.” It’s good to be positive, but it is not good to be self-delusional. The ultimate censor is you — for no matter what retailers tell us, no size fits all. Also, keep in mind the words of Thomas Edison: “The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.”

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