Thursday, November 12, 2009

Be Careful How Much You Depend on Self-Help Information

by Richard L. Weaver II

I am an optimistic person, in general, however, what appears to be a pessimistic point of view often appears when I attempt to see negative possibilities. It isn’t that I am not hopeful that good will come out of whatever circumstances I face, but I have discovered that pessimism, fear, anger, and panic can be as legitimate feelings as constant hope. A study at the Harvard and UCLA Medical Schools reveals that hope does not promote healing. Pessimism, fear, anger, and panic are essential emotions — as long as we don’t totally immerse ourselves in a “pity-party pool.” Sometimes it is these precise emotions that help us protect ourselves or deal with adversity. Self-help literature promotes a hopeful approach to life.

Always thinking positively is stressful, exhausting, and limiting. Thinking negatively is actually easier, and it comes naturally. According to Paul Pearsall, “Research indicates that the longest-living people in the world were distinguishable by their pessimistic outlooks.”

Throughout this essay, I am gratefully indebted to Paul Pearsall’s book, The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need (Basic Books, 2005), for his wisdom and insights. His book is based on scientific psychological research, and it opens the gates of consciousness.

I am a hard worker having at some point in my life adopted the Puritan work ethic. Nobody would claim that I am either lazy or that I give up easily. But an essential aspect of being a hard worker is knowing, too, when to give up. Sometimes I just willingly give in and move on even though I realize that giving up has a bad reputation. In college, for example, I gave up a six- year commitment to become a doctor to pursue a major in speech communication. As the song by Kenny Rogers said, “know when to hold them and know when to fold them.” Sometimes when we give up both the striving and the goal, it frees us to think creatively. Self-help literature promotes never giving up and achieving anything you set your mind to.

A valuable thought is that people are what they are, and no amount of positive affirmation will change that. There are unhappy, depressed, and melancholy people in this world, and just as night follows day, we need sad thinkers as much as we need the cheerfully upbeat. Everyone has a happiness set point, and this set point will not be changed by thinking happier thoughts, being number one, getting the top prize, or winning the lottery. Once this is discovered, it frees us to think both creatively and critically and to capitalize on the talents and aptitudes we possess. Self-help literature encourages positive affirmations to achieve happiness.

Speaking of being number one; there can be only one. Rather than always striving to be that person and experiencing the suffering and torment of not measuring up, relax and enjoy being one of the multitudes of people who fall short. One of the best sermons I ever heard was called “Life’s Second Choices,” and it carefully explained how difficult life can be when happiness is linked only to getting our first choices. Self-help literature promotes striving to be number one.

Life is full of unhappiness. Sometimes things just don’t balance out or even work out for the best. Perhaps the worst of life’s unhappinesses is death. Because we live, we die, and because we die, there is a natural, necessary grieving process that human beings experience. Different people proceed through the experience differently. There is no need for grief counseling. Most people grieve well, and they do it relatively quickly. One of Pearsall’s thoughts on death is to “Enjoy the fact that being old means you don’t have to worry about dying young.” Self-help literature aids in developing a “be happy” attitude.

Over 25 years ago I wrote a textbook on interpersonal communication in which I encouraged readers to focus on their interpersonal weaknesses, be realistic about how much personal power they had to change others, and just shut up and listen. Relationships usually fail because of too much communication, not too little. Pearsall says, “Couples who spend a lot of time being quiet together stay together.” Self-help literature suggests more communication; however, more may complicate problems and underscore differences.

Another point I make in my interpersonal textbook is to encourage readers not to look for Mr. or Ms. Right. Having a good life is not a matter of finding the right person; it is a matter of being the right person. Once again, Pearsall makes this point clear: “No one is ever loved the way he or she wants to be loved. Stop looking for love and start showing it. Be more concerned with being love-worthy than being loved. Realize that it is at least as important to be in love with marriage as it is to try to find someone you would love to marry.” Self-help literature encourages finding the right relationship partner.

Regarding the demonstration of anger in interpersonal relationships, there is research by the physician Redford Williams and others that shows that venting — letting it all out — is actually bad for you and those around you. Understanding your anger is helpful, but the hostile expression of it, according to Pearsall “weakens your immune system and literally hardens your heart and the hearts of those around you.” Self-help books suggest that venting is both healthy and cathartic.

Real love is not a feeling but a decision. Romantic love, according to psychologist Robert Sternberg, “is a temporary mental ‘illness’” which “is evolution’s way of seeing that we propagate.” When we calm down and become patient, romantic love always passes, and true love then can grow. Lasting love involves learning to look outward at the world together. It is something you earn, not something you deserve. According to Pearsall, “Worry more about being love-worthy than about your own self-worth.” Self-help literature promotes loving yourself before loving others.

Interpersonal relationships within families prove, according to Pearsall, one essential factor: “The only cure for dysfunctional families is to do away with all families.” Families are simply groups of people irrationally committed to one another’s welfare, and Pearsall’s insight is wonderful: “Being a good family member means being able to enjoy living every day with a group of flakes and failures.” Self-help literature encourages the development of fully functional families.

Some of the advice in self-help books is clearly wrong. There are some comforting and fun ideas, but the best approach to living a good life comes from getting a wide variety of ideas from both the popular and the scientific arenas.

At the Personal Development website, the author of the essay, “Exactly What Value Are Self Help Books,” puts it all into perspective. The general perspective on this website is positive — that self-help books (as opposed to professional advice — can help.

At the Pathway to Happiness website, Gary has an essay entitled, “Self Help Advice - Warning!,” in which he suggests there are far more important ways to change than using self-help books: “To make real changes in your mind and how you feel emotionally begin by not following bad self help advice. In the matters of changing your mind and emotions learning what paths to avoid is as important as learning what will help.”


Copyright November, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

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