Hi. My name is Kelly and I’m addicted to self-help books.
It’s been a few years now. I’ve read many. At sixteen, I was hooked on Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, making chart after chart for myself to improve various parts of my life each month. “Smile more,” I’d write on a Post-It on my mirror. “Take more time to organize.”
When Rubin’s second happiness-centered book, Happier at Home, was published in 2012, I was 18. I pulled quote after quote focused on altering lifestyle, choosing not to regard the fact that a) I do not have my own home, and b) many of Rubin’s tips and tricks were anecdotal, and perhaps would resonate more with parents and spouses than a single college girl living in a dormitory during the week and with my parents on the weekends.
At nineteen, as I struggled through the aftermath of a bad breakup, I pulled a book of the shelf at Barnes & Noble entitled I Dare Me, written by a local author. I’d assumed it was about taking risks despite feeling stuck or hopeless (it was) and that it would be a good guide to get me out of my own head (it wasn’t).
Psychologists Dan Siegel and Rick Hanson impressed me with Hardwiring Happinessand The Mindful Brain, respectively, and I do credit them for inspiring me to tack a neuroscience minor on to my writing major in college. They take a biological approach to writing about happiness and self-help, introducing official jargon into the mix of more casual manuals—the majority of which seem to be written by unqualified housewives who had heard some life changing advice once and decided to turn a precept into an existence.Mindset, Make the Impossible Possible, Stroke of Insight, Modern Romance, Getting Past Your Breakup, The Breakup Book, The Little Book of Heartbreak, Spirit Junkie, A Course in Miracles… Title after title entered my life through my later teen years, each telling me how to live my life happily, wholesomely. I took notes in each, sometimes going so far as to buy my own copy after checking it out of the library if I felt I needed a copy on my person at all times. I genuinely did listen to each tome, as professional or amateur as it might have been. Some were written poorly and some were excellent reads grounded in biology and precedented behavior patterns, but every one gave me food for thought. And you know what? It turns out I was the amateur. I stillam the amateur, and will continue to be so for quite some time.
See, helping yourself comes with experience, which sounds obvious, right? But what's easy to acknowledge isn't necessarily easy to accept. Humans are inherently impatient, and we long for control over elements of life that we have absolutely no say in. Sure, we can alter our habits, but it takes time and effort. And yeah, we have plasticity working in our favor so that we may adapt, and not have our lives set in stone, but each of our brains has been conditioned to behave a certain way as each of our natures and how we've been nurtured dictate.
I've ceased reading self-help books, at least for a little while. They've overwhelmed me. Time and time again they have caused me to set my already-high expectations for myself even higher, landing me only in a state of disappointment. Habit, to come full circle in this one-sided discussion, has conditioned me to grab a book and use bibliotherapy when I am upset. In reality, this has not been necessary. The ability to help oneself is natural, a product of observation and willpower. Happiness can indeed be learned, but not taught. I truly believe that happiness is inherent and that our only task is to call it out, not create it. No amount of self-help books chronicling lists of changes to make, specific spiritual practices and unwarranted organizational advice can show us that; we need to get our heads out of books that claim to change your life and go out and live it.