Nature of Man and the Billion Dollar Self-help Industry

“But in the whole of our social life, man is overlooked. Man is taken simply as a word, the label for a particular kind of being (the kind of which we belong ourselves), and nobody stops for any serious consideration of what the word means. We proceed immediately to consider how to make the creature happier without ever asking what the creature is. It should be just the other way around. When some new proposal is made which affects the way men live our immediate reaction is always to ask, Will it make men happier? But this should be the second question, not the first. The first question should be, Does it fit the nature of man?” – Frank Sheed, Society and Sanity.

The self-help industry is booming. 9.9 billion dollars in 2017 and projected to grow to 13 billion dollars in 2022. I ask myself the question – does this mean man is becoming helpless by the day or is the nature of man evolving that man himself cannot keep up with that evolution?

It seems like a long shot to say that we are becoming more helpless. In fact, we live in a world that is at its very best when compared to the last few thousand years. When we say ‘in these uncertain times’ – how exactly does that differ from ‘those uncertain times’ of the past? The people that suffered through the great wars, black death, famines and diseases of history surely have a greater claim to helplessness than us in 2021. Time magazine reports in its December 2019 issue, that close to 90% of the world has electricity, more than 92% of the world population has safe drinking water, global literacy rates are reaching 90%, globally 90% of young children are getting an education, gender gap in primary schools is closing and we are living past 70yrs when a couple of thousand years ago life expectancy was only 35! How do we accomplish such feats being helpless? Yet we have a 10 billion dollar self-help industry that tells us we are helpless, demotivated, depressed, anxious and weak-willed.

Are we evolving as human beings to a changing nature? Would that be a reason for this apparent helplessness? I believe the first question we need to ask is ‘What is our human nature?’ Maybe we have forgotten who we are. Although I love the humor of W S Gilbert, I think we can safely disagree with him when he says “Darwinian man, though well-behaved, at best is only a monkey shaved!” We have come a long way from there if we were ever ‘there’ to begin with.

I have become quite aware of the fact that many of us seem to confuse human nature with personality. In my view, one aspect of human nature is the collective of personalities. I think it is because of our nature that we have the ability to thrive or suffer from unique personalities. Human nature enables us to create or settle into whom we want ourselves to be. Depending on whom you ask, the question ‘what is human nature’ will generate a plethora of answers – according to that personality. Some will say human nature is protective of its young, caring, has a need to connect. Another might say human nature is evil, selfish and greedy. Yet another can say it has an unconscious urge to be one with the universe. So what are these answers? Each one describes a personality.

How does this connect with the apparent need for all the self-help? I would like to posit that the very charismatic and entrepreneurial of us are trying to change our personalities en masse. Is it necessary? Maybe. More agreeableness and more emotion regulation are not bad things. However, what we like to think of as ‘good’ traits may be too high a standard for most of us. Maybe there is a very good reason why only 2% of us reach and accomplish the ‘self-actualization’ stage in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We have to ask the questions – is it really necessary to be positive all the time? Is it required of us to be happy? Do we need a purpose to live? Do we have to learn to live in the moment yet have goals for the future and plans to achieve them? Does rumination and daydreaming need to be cured? Who decides on where to draw the line between sanity and insanity or between high self-esteem and narcissism or low self-esteem and introversion?

Studies have raised concerns about the potential benefit of some self-help techniques. For example, traditional Cognitive Behavior Therapy self-help seems to be of no help at all to those who ruminate. A double blow for deep thinkers – first there is self-help and then there is evidence it’s a failure. Both steps have established rumination to be a disease that needs to be fixed. It is important we make a clear distinction here, that this is about ‘self-help’ and not professional help. To the layman, rumination is rumination. There is no assessment of severity or professional diagnosis of maladaptive behavior. Similarly, it is easy for the introvert to think of herself as having low self-esteem rather than look at the strengths of introversion. Self-help is capitalizing on our natural tendency to think the worst. We are born hard-wired with negative bias. Not only do we react more strongly to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli, and not only do we remember traumatic events more than positive ones, some of us even have a tendency to judge ourselves negatively rather than positively in this social-media flooded world. Hence, we need only to see the offers of self-help on our screens to ‘realize’ we need help.

Before we take out the credit card and pay for that webinar or workshop on positivity, motivation, thriving, mindfulness or self-actualization, take a step back and think for a moment. If you are unhappy with yourself, can a new routine or life-style change it? Discontent and unhappiness are not life-threatening. These are side-effects of some of our past decisions. Most of us have the capacity to look back and see where we derailed. You do not need to spend a single penny to figure out where you went wrong. But some of us do need help. Real help which comes from professionally trained mental health workers. They are people who will show you if you are really an addict or simply a healthy person who is disobedient to a cultural or religious rule. A professional can show you evidence that you are not really bipolar but going through a tough time in your life. A trained counselor is able to shed light on whether your child is dyslexic or just a slow learner.

Educating ourselves is money well spent rather than ‘fixing’ ourselves of non-existent problems.


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