An estimated 2,000 self-help books are published annually, a $10 billion industry that swells in size right around this time every year, as resolutions are made and broken.
The genre feeds on Americans’ drive toward perfection, enunciated clearly by that great self-improver Benjamin Franklin, who wrote “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” Franklin kept a chart with him at all times on which he recorded his performance in 13 virtues (including temperance, industry, frugality, moderation and cleanliness), working a week at a time on each.
Most of these books suggest something similar: Pick a goal, set a time limit and keep good records.
While there is nothing new under the sun of human potential, there are new ways to describe the old. Here are a handful:
“The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well,” by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield
Listen folks: Odds are you’re not going to become a tennis champion, negotiate a hostage crisis, cultivate a good bottle of wine or win the Indy 500. So reading step-by-step instructions from Brazilian race car driver Helio Castroneves on making it to the front of the pack in Indianapolis is likely to fall somewhere outside the realm of “self help.” On the other hand, reading about those who have mastered their worlds, including dog whisperer Cesar Millan and “Freakonomics” co-writer Stephen Dubner, is an entertaining way to eavesdrop on excellence, with the hope that some of it may rub off.
Quotable: Damian Kulash, lead singer of rock band OK Go: “(E)ither it’s the day job or the rock band. You can’t do both.”
“Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending,” by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton
The gist: More money doesn’t buy happiness, but spending the money you have on unique experiences actually will, according to co-authors Dunn and Norton.
Though we long for the bigger house or the nicer car, the authors contend that investing in others (through philanthropy), maximizing your time (say, through a direct flight upgrade) and making the occasional costlier purchase a special treat (rather than a regular routine) will all contribute more to well-being.
Quotable: “If you think money can’t buy happiness, you’re not spending it right.”
“The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More,” by Bruce Feiler
The prolific Bruce Feiler, a biblical scholar who most recently examined his own mortality with “The Council of Dads,” turns his eyes toward his growing family and, predictably, finds a way to write about it.
Quotable: “Eating together every night is not as important as so many people say it is. Second, what you talk about matters even more than what you eat.”
“Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions,” by John C. Norcross
Norcross is the Billy Beane of personal change gurus, using reams of psychological studies the way a sabermetrician uses baseball statistics. He’ll be the first to tell you that this scientific approach beats magical thinking. “I deplore the insulting, anti-scientific fare of most self-help books.” Norcross breaks down the process of change into five steps and demonstrates how each step requires different skills, from the record-keeping and observation of the “psych” stage to the self-reward (and self-punishment) of the “perspire” stage.
Plentiful checklists, bullet points and quizzes spur the dedicated changeologist along.
Quotable: “From chronic addictions to minor habits, the range of behaviors we can change is vast but the process of change is the same.”
“The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t; What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does,” by Sonja Lyubomirsky
A professor of psychology at the University of California, Lyubomirsky writes persuasively about the paradoxes of happiness, and about our obliviousness to the mechanics of bliss.
She cites Harvard professor Dan Gilbert, who pointed out in a popular speech that two groups who would seem bound for different experiences of happiness – those who win the lottery and those who lose the use of their legs – report the same levels of happiness a year after these life-changing events.
The reason: “hedonic adaptation” causes any extremely pleasurable new condition – say, an extra $300 million – to become part of our emotional background very quickly, therefore losing its charm. On the positive side, our “psychological immune systems” protect us from adversity and stress in ways that we fail to appreciate or understand.
Lyubomirsky argues for a rational rather than intuitive pursuit of happiness – what she describes as “Think, don’t blink.”
Quotable: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”
“May Cause Miracles: A 40-Day Guidebook of Subtle Shifts For Radical Change and Unlimited Happiness” by Gabrielle Bernstein
Young, blonde and glamorous, Bernstein has a popular video blog on Huffington Post and an active social media presence and seems poised to become the Barbara De Angelis of the new century. Based on insights from the popular “A Course in Miracles,” Bernstein encourages readers to let go of fear, cultivate forgiveness and develop gratitude. She leads them step by step through a host of exercises for each day of the 40-day improvement cycle, admonishing readers, “Try your best not to skip ahead or practice more than one exercise a day.”
Quotable: “Want to achieve these groovy results? Join me on the journey of new perceptions.”
“The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets: A Self-Help Memoir,” by Jeffrey Skinner
This drolly-titled, sometimes hilarious instruction manual could be considered the least useful and most valuable of the bunch. Impractical if you’re not a poet, Skinner’s suggestions nonetheless provide acerb commentary on the creative life and the crossroads where spirit, emotion and language smash into each other.
Quotable: “I would not tell anyone to throw a life away on such an unprofitable venture as poetry. But hedging your bet won’t work. When you get lost in poetry, you don’t get to take a GPS.”