An opus of self-help has always been around, emerging throughout the centuries in various configurations: allegorical plays, philosophical treatises on love and wealth, and religious tracts have always been available to guide us on our way. But the existentialism characteristic of the 20th century seems to have engendered a veritable genre of non-fiction explicitly concerned with instructing us on how best to conduct our lives.
These are the books we deride in public and buy on the sly; and while some people swear by their efficacy, others quickly consign them to collecting dust. Here is our take on six of the most influential self-help tomes to date (in no particular order).
1. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray (1992)
John Gray explains away romantic discord on the blush-inducing basis that men and women have such different psychological profiles that we routinely misinterpret social cues and unwittingly alienate one another (the author favors extended metaphors).
The essence of Gray’s theory is that men and women are very very different, and have different expectations in the context of amorous relationships: he recommends that they speak regularly to ameliorate the tensions this discord occasions. In addition to being something of a (pseudo-ironic) cultural touchstone nowadays, the book has sold over 50-million copies since its publication, presumably making John Grey, M.D. a very wealthy Martian.
2. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey (1989)
Covey’s famous take on ‘how to get ahead’ reduces success – particularly success in business – to the formula P/PC, where ‘P’ loosely signifies success, and ‘PC’, the act of nurturing the elements necessary to this success.
Essentially, Covey’s jargon-rich manual contends that positive outcomes are the sum of incremental actions, in the retrospectively comical language of ’80s self-help tropes: ‘Sharpen the Saw’; ‘Synergize’, and the ‘Emotional Bank Account’ all feature.
Covey’s edicts are personality-centric: he encourages his acolytes to cultivate a persona that’s conducive to success, while also managing their interpersonal relationships in keeping with his revolutionary notion that that not everybody sees things the same way – unless they’ve read The 7 Habits, perhaps. Bill Clinton was reportedly a big fan of the book during his presidency, and Covey’s imperious monograph remains one of the best-selling business books to date.
3. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… by Richard Carlson (1997)
If you were born in the somewhere in the 1990s, to middle class parents with a home in the suburbs, then your father has a copy of this book. The late Richard Carlson’s compilation of latter-day mantras and stress-reducing insights – “Thinking of someone to love each day keeps your resentment away!” – seems to have provided a foil to the manic culture of productivity emergent in the ’80s and ’90s.
As alternative titles, I would recommend: Take a Deep Breath, Buddy, or Get a Grip: Here’s How. Carlson emphasized the psychological importance of ‘down-time’, and is credited for making “don’t sweat the small stuff” a familiar part of the American vernacular. The book spawned countless spin-offs (DDTSS for teens, for moms, for couples), was USA Today’s bestselling book two years in a row, and spent 101 weeks on the New York Times’ ‘Best Seller List’. Carlson died in 2006 from a pulmonary embolism.
4. The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (2006)
The Secret still maintains a cultish following, and for a time everybody seemed convinced that they could control their fates with their thoughts. Australian Rhonda Byrne’s Secret was originally released as a film, in the same year as its publication; the author’s esoteric rhetoric espouses the Law of Attraction, by means of which Byrne claims that some prominent historical figures cogitated their dreams into being. In sum, no goal is beyond your reach, if only you “ASK, BELIEVE, AND RECEIVE.”
5. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936)
Dale Carnegie is the undisputed father of the self-help industry as we know it, and How to Win Friends and Influence People is probably the most influential of all the books that feature on this list.
Carnegie initially made a living by doing corporate training and self-improvement courses, which were consolidated into book-form on the advice of publisher Leon Shimkin in 1934. Read today, How to Win Friends is nostalgically naïve, citing smiling, remembering people’s names, and avoiding conflict as some of the main constituents of popularity.
The book sold tremendously well from the outset of its publication, which bespeaks our timeless desire for clearly delineated guidance. It is regarded as one of the most influential books in the history of American publishing, and more than 100,000 copies of Carnegie’s primer are still purchased every year – although one hopes that, at this stage, it’s coveted for its appeal as a cultural touchstone, and not for the decidedly acquiescent strategies it recommends.
6. You Can Heal Your Life by Louise L. Hay (1984)
Louise L. Hay was at the forefront of the New Thought approach to self-help, and You Can Heal Your Life is her magnum opus. Written at the dawn of her 60th year of being, Hay expounds on her long-held belief that physical ailments are often manifestations of mental ‘dis-eases’, especially the twin demons of stress and grief. In sum, according to Hay, if you change the way you think – by means of daily affirmations and “mirror work” – you can actually effect changes on your body.
To her credit, Hay’s central premise is neither entirely nonsensical nor entirely novel, as the idea that the body mirrors the mind has been endemic to most human societies, in one form or another, throughout recorded history. On the other hand, Clay made some specious claims about how confronting her childhood trauma cured her of allopathically ‘incurable’ cervical cancer; and, irrespective of the veracity of the anecdote, I personally find it unsettling that sick people might infer that they should forego medical or surgical interventions, in favor of visualization exercises.
You Can Heal Your Life was translated into 30 different languages; and, by 2008, it was estimated that over 35 million copies of the book had been sold worldwide.