Is Self Help Actually Helpful?

August 26, 2022

We live in a world full of self-help gurus and products. But are they actually helpful? Do the vast amount of materials, voices, products, and services telling us how to be better and do better actually cause us to live better?

In the off chance that you haven’t noticed, American society is very much a society of “not quite good enough”. In fact, the entire concept of capitalism hinges on the idea that we are not quite good enough as we are. Every product and service we encounter in our society exists for the purpose of improving the life of someone else. While that idea is noble in and of itself, it can take a toxic turn pretty quickly if we’re not careful. And that’s why America has become inundated with self-help products.

From 2013 to 2019, the number of self-help books published increased nearly three-fold.

It seems as if everywhere we turn, there’s someone offering a new inspirational quote, product, or service intended to make our lives just a little bit better.

But is all of the self-help actually helpful? Should each of us be pursuing some higher version of life? Is constant progress really the goal of our lives?

In a broad sense, self improvement is a great thing. Progress and growth are certainly good things in the right context. But in America we’ve become so overwhelmingly obsessed with better that we’ve lost the idea of contentment almost entirely. We’ve also forsaken the idea that who we are and what we do is valuable regardless of how big and important it may seem.

Here’s what happened: the marketplace hasn’t always been this saturated. In the past, our ancestors did the work that needed to be done and they found contentment and joy in the every day aspects of life. Their dreams were to build families and provide a prosperous lifestyle which included having meals on the table every night and clothes on their back and a roof over their heads. But as time went on, And as America grew, in order for the economy to continue to grow, there needed to be more products and more services in the marketplace. In order to do that, the idea had to be sold to the public that more is better.

Having more money makes you feel better and have a better impact with a better legacy. Losing more weight makes you look better and be better accepted by society. Reading more books makes you a better person and a better leader. These ideas had to be sold to the public in order for the market to continue to grow and in order for our Konomi to continue to provide the level of prosperity we enjoy in America.

Now we have a different kind of problem in America. Now we’re facing an identity crisis, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and a list of other negative consequences that have come from making the pursuit of better for the sake of better our primary goal.

According to the American Psychological Association, America is facing a national mental health crisis as levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and more continue to rise at an alarming rate.

Not surprisingly, Americans typically say the number one cause of stress is money. We want more because we’re constantly told we need more.

This also plays a part in making Americans more anxious than ever before. From 2008 to 2018, anxiety nearly doubled among 18 to 25 year olds. Another study found that as of 2018, nearly 40% of respondents said they were more anxious then than they were a year before. Then a global pandemic hit two years later.

Depression has also been on the rise at an alarming rate in America over the past decade, and it’s rising especially fast among teenagers and young adults.

So what’s the antidote to this mental health crisis? Well, of course, it’s extremely complex. But the simple answer might be right in front of us. Here’s why:

Harvard University conducted a nearly 80 year old study to try to figure out what led to healthier and happier lives. What did they find after nearly 80 years of research? They found that the keys to health and happiness are relationships and community, not money or status. Yet we still have a sea of voices yelling at us daily telling us we should be just a little bit better and that happiness is only one self-improvement hack away.

It’s not to say that they’re completely wrong, they’re just not pushing society toward the right finish line. At the end of the day, the finish line isn’t the point. Success isn’t the point. Fame, status, and notoriety aren’t the point. Studies have shown that those are vain pursuits.

The point is to find happiness in the mundane by embracing what actually matters – which is serving and loving one another. 

If self improvement hacks help you do that better, then go for it. But more often than not, we will be just fine without the next trendy self-help book or productivity method designed to sell something. 

Most importantly, it’s time for our mindset as a society to shift from constantly looking for something better to instead learning how to better steward the common and anticlimactic-yet-extraordinary lives that are right in front of us right now. Because if we’re being honest, we’ve gotten much too familiar with the blessings we have.

So let’s get back to serving, loving, and enjoying life in the present. Because at the end of the day, those moments are what matter most, not whether or not you’ve helped yourself attain more.

Posted by Mike P. Taylor

Mike P. Taylor is an author, speaker, and consultant who helps people understand God's goodness in a fresh way. He's the author of the book Grounded Faith for Practical People and he writes at mikeptaylor.com where he helps people rethink religion for a new generation. He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife Sydney and their four kids.