Self-help books and people who read them are easy to dismiss. Self-help is not only important, but we also need to take it more seriously and do better. Self-help is a big business all over the world. It’s worth $11 billion (£8 billion). A lot of what we think about ourselves and how we live our lives comes from this. The self-help industry not only wants to change how we think, feel, and act, but it also gives us many of the core metaphors we use to talk about our inner lives. At best, these metaphors aren’t very useful. One of them, for example, is that the mind is like a computer that might need to be reprogrammed.
Critics say that the rise in popularity of self-help is part of a neoliberal drive to be more efficient. They think it’s a sinister plan to make us take all of the blame for our own health. There are people who think that self-help makes us think that we are the only ones who have problems and that our failures are caused by a lack of willpower and resilience, when they are caused by the politics of capitalism. But while this may be true of some self-help, the idea of self-improvement has been around for a long time, going back to wisdom traditions from the very beginning of time. Improve yourself is a part of our desire to learn more about ourselves, become better at what we’re good at, and change. It is a desire that has been around for a long time and is part of what makes us human.
And some self-improvement books can help us become better people, as well, which is true. If we make ourselves better, we’re better at paying attention to other people, projects, and the communities of which we are a part. This isn’t a competitive thing.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher who lived from AD 121 to 180, thought that all of our pain comes from our minds. Suffering isn’t caused by things that happen outside of us, but by how we react to them. We make bad decisions and have unrealistic expectations when we react to things. Aurelius says in his Meditations that it’s pointless to worry about things that we can’t change. Our opinions of these events, on the other hand, are completely up to us. If we want to be able to control our minds, we should use all of our mental energy to do that. Because “only a madman looks for figs in the winter,” then, the key to a happy life is to change our expectations.
Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D Burns (1980)
Burns’s book may not be as cutting-edge as it used to be, but its main message is still very important. One that’s more real-world than Stoicism is based on the ideas of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Feeling Good shows how our thoughts affect how we feel. It also has great ways to train our minds to question negative thoughts about ourselves and others.
The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris (2007)
There is no doubt that we are not completely rational. Sometimes, when we try to control our thoughts, they don’t work. Here, an Australian psychologist named Harris talks about how acceptance and commitment therapy works (ACT). Not to control our negative thoughts or unpleasant feelings, but to let them go. To de-fuse with them, to accept them, and then to let them go. That way, we have more energy to do things that are in line with our values.
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
The Tao Te Ching, a classic study of “The Way and Virtue,” is about spiritual self-improvement through the art of letting go. It is thought to have been written in the sixth or fourth century BC. In Daoism, letting go is about not resisting the natural order of things, which is why it is important to let go. It encourages a more sophisticated way of giving up our will to the universe, by accepting what is and letting go of our hopes and expectations for specific results. The Tao says that we can improve ourselves by going back to a simpler, more real, and intuitive way of living. Wu wei, which means “non-action” or “effortless action,” is one of the most important ideas in the book. Wu wei may be best described as a spiritual state that is marked by acceptance of what is and no desire for things for one’s own.
The Power of Now: A Guide Book to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle (1998)
As Tolle says in this best-selling book, “We have nothing to do with the way we think.” In Tolle’s book, he says that most of our thoughts are about the past or the future. Our past gives us a sense of who we are, and the future holds “the promise of salvation.” Both are lies, because we only have the present moment. So, we need to learn how to be “watchers” of our minds, rather than “watching” our thoughts and becoming part of them. That way, we can learn to live in the moment again.
Altruism: The Science and Psychology of Kindness by Matthieu Ricard (2015)
It is the most important moral and spiritual value in many religions and wisdom traditions to be altruistic. In the last few years, psychologists have found that altruistic acts not only help the recipient but also make the people who do them happier. In addition, the French Buddhist monk Ricard says that practicing altruism is the key not only to our own happiness but also to solving the most important social, economic, and environmental problems that we face today. When we act with altruism, we can “connect harmoniously” economic challenges, quality of life, and the environment in the long term. Altruism helps us do this.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
American philosopher Thoreau is known for living in a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, where he tried to live simple and “deliberately.” It was there that he came up with the idea of “life cost,” which is a great way to fight materialism and the toxic Protestant work ethic that so many of us are still enslaved to. This is what most of us do, and we think that productivity and success are signs of God’s grace in the world. Thoreau thought that paid work was a bad thing that we should spend as little time on as possible. His goal was not to work more than was necessary to pay for his most basic living expenses, and to spend the rest of his time doing things that he truly loved.
Grit by Angela Duckworth (2017)
Angela Duckworth, a psychologist, says that grit is better than talent every time. That’s good news for anyone who likes Aesop’s slow-moving tortoise more than the hare’s quick speed. There is one thing that we can do. What we do with it is very different, she says. People who have grit want to improve both their skills and how well they do things by working hard over and over again. Gritty people are always eager to learn and are driven by a long-term goal. These people learn from their mistakes, have a sense of direction, and live more coherent lives because they have these things.
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1308–21)
This 14th-century poem shows how Dante, who is middle-aged and burned out, gradually gets over his spiritual tiredness. He is led by his mentor, Virgil, as he travels from Hell to Heaven, where he is reunited with his beloved Beatrice. The epic can be read as a warning from God or as a long revenge fantasy in which many of Dante’s enemies get their just punishment. That’s not all. We can also see it in the same way as a story of spiritual growth and self-overcome. Dante is re-educated over and over again by his many visits to Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. They show him how not to live and what it will cost him if he does not. In the end, when Dante is rid of his own flaws, he reaches a higher level of spirituality and sees the God.
The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2100–1200 BCE)
Most forms of self-improvement are like a quest story or a heroic journey. As in, they go into a dark wood, an underground kingdom or the belly of an animal in these stories. The hero or heroine is shown going into the unknown in these stories. There, they have to deal with problems and sometimes have to fight against an enemy or an urge. They have come back from their adventures changed and ready to share what they’ve learned with other people. Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian king who was once selfish, returns from the wilderness with the plant of eternal life. This is the oldest story of this kind that we have. Because he doesn’t want to eat the food himself, he gives it to his people.