My Weird Run-In With the Self-Help Industry

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I was at a conference where people paid a lot of money to convince the media to write articles about them. I sat at a booth in a giant conference room while marketing people waited in line to approach me like peasants shivering before a queen.

"What would you say if I told you only 20 percent of therapy patients improve from therapy?” a therapist shopping his book asked me.

“I’d ask how you got that number,” I replied.

“The New York Times or something,” he answered. “I don’t know. That’s not the point. The point is, I’ve come up with a new therapy. It’s been tested, and it helps 100 percent of patients.”

Since there was a less than 100 percent chance that the sun would rise again, his therapy must really be something special. But was it special enough? He was something like the 20th self-help author to approach me. That would have been great if I worked for a self-help magazine, but I write about sustainability, a fact that was clearly emblazoned on the sign behind my head. Nevertheless, marketers are a determined people. So far, I’d talked to dozens, none of whom said anything about the environment (although one New Age author did try to convince me that she taught “sustainability of the soul”).

That's probably because being a self-help author is a great gig, for those who can get it. The self-help industry is valued at nearly 10 billion dollars a year (to put that in perspective, the EPA gets 6 billion). And you don’t need a PhD, license or even basic listening skills to write a self-help book.

“So, what’s the therapy?” I asked the therapist.

“It would take days to explain it,” he answered.

“If you could sum it up in a sentence.”

“You dig up your harmful thoughts and get rid of them.”

“Like cognitive behavioral therapy?” I asked. Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most popular therapy for psychologists at the moment. It’s basically about examining your thoughts and changing them.

“No. It’s completely different. You go into your unconscious thoughts and change them.”

“So ... How is that different than cognitive behavioral therapy?”

“You know, I don’t actually know much about cognitive behavioral therapy,” he said. A flicker of fear rippled through his face for a split second, but he extinguished it quickly, presumably by changing his unconscious thoughts. “It’s weird, because I know pretty much everything about every kind of therapy.”

It was indeed weird. A therapist saying he’s never heard of cognitive behavioral therapy is like a telemarketer saying she’s never heard of phones. Perhaps his methods had filled him with too much self-esteem to notice his own ignorance. After extolling his method for another few minutes, he once again permitted me to speak.

“I really only cover the environment,” I said. I’d been waiting all afternoon for someone to tell me about a sustainable toaster or something.

“It connects to the environment. It connects to everything. Even quantum mechanics, I can prove it.”

My personal bouncer gave the therapist a warning look. (The conference provided each journalist with a bouncer to get rid of people who talked too long. It was glorious.)

“So, will you write about it?” the therapist asked.

“Probably not.”

His face fell, and he walked away.

“Weird how people always throw in quantum mechanics,” my bouncer said.


Then I noticed that the next marketer in line, an older woman with a kind face, was listening to us.

“Sorry, I hope you’re not here to tell me about quantum mechanics,” I said. She laughed.

“I’ve been recycling since the 80s,” she told me. I perked up.

“But I’m actually here to tell you about a new therapy I invented,” she continued. “You search out your negative thoughts and turn them into positive ones.”

It's not just New Agey or self-proclaimed "therapists" who are jumping onto this bandwagon. Governments and businesses are working to figure out how to keep their employees and citizens happy through advances in science and technology. And not everyone is convinced this is a good thing.

“The risk is that this science ends up blaming — and medicating — individuals for their own misery, and ignores the context that contributed to it," writes sociological theorist William Davies in his book, "The Happiness Industry."

Davis thinks that, while plenty of self-help and positive psychology techniques are useful, people should take a closer look at the industry as a whole.

“The mood-tracking technologies, sentiment analysis algorithms and stress-busting meditation techniques are put to work in the service of certain political and economic interests," he continues. "They are not simply gifted to us for our own Aristotelian flourishing."

Simply put, Davies says that businesses need their employees' minds, not just their bodies. Depressed workers hurt profits. But unequal societies focused on money and competition create miserable workers. It's a catch-22. Self-help, meanwhile, tells workers that the problem is in their minds.

"Psychology is very often how societies avoid looking in the mirror," Davis wrote.

I had to admit, I was indeed feeling a bit suspicious of the industry during the conference. The number of self-help pitches was overwhelming. I heard at least another dozen of them over the next couple hours. Just before closing, a squat, balding man approached me, and I braced myself for yet another Surprising Secret To Happiness.

“I was a terrorist,” the man told me.


He grew up in a Middle Eastern country and trained to be a suicide bomber. Then he freaked out and shot himself to avoid actually bombing anyone.

“I went into a downward spiral,” he told me. “I got into drugs and alcohol. But I discovered something.”

I leaned in.

“I realized that the secret to happiness was all about creating meaningful personal connections,” he said. “Anyone can turn failure into success. I wrote a book about it ...”