A concoction of f-words, Gen-Z lingo, and the usual ‘hows’ and ‘whys’—the titles of self-help books are eye-catching, much like their vibrant hardbound covers. These hardbacks sell like hot cakes at bookstores. Consider this: according to market data, the estimated worth of the self-improvement market is $16.6 billion in the US alone. Titles like Get Your Sh!t Together by Sarah Knight who is also the author of The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k, or Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck have many takers, with the latter going insanely viral on social media in 2016. Back home in India, with the start-up boom and the rise of venture capitalism, entrepreneurs who shot to fame are now coming up with self-help books to teach young entrepreneurs the ins and outs of scaling a business in the Indian economy.
Case in point: BharatPe co-founder and former Shark Tank India judge Ashneer Grover’s debut book Doglapan, in which the businessman shares his personal experiences as a serial entrepreneur, or Emcure top honcho Namita Thapar’s The Dolphin and the Shark, where the pharma czarina chronicles Emcure’s early days, while narrating anecdotes from Shark Tank India’s sets.
Admittedly, Grover’s Doglapan delivers what it promised—that is, his take on entrepreneurship and life. But it was mostly the controversies he addressed in the book that grabbed headlines and piqued India Inc’s interest as opposed to the business advice he had to offer.
Or consider Do Epic Shit by Ankur Warikoo, yet another Amazon bestseller where a start-up guru shares gyan on business, life, success, failure and the usual humdrum. At what point do self-help books stop being improvement guides and become a brand-building exercise for star entrepreneurs?
More importantly, can self-help books be considered improvement guides in the first place?
To put things in context, BharatPe has sued Grover and his wife, Madhuri Jain, for Rs.88 crore on the charge of swindling the company. How fair is it for super-rich entrepreneurs to advise the working class on scaling business and, perhaps unknowingly, sell them a false hope of upward social mobility? What impact is it likely to have on the mental health of budding entrepreneurs? Mehezabin Dordi, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist, says: “Self-help books are not created equal. Neither do they have the same impact on all readers, all of whom have different personal experiences and ideas.”
Dordi believes that self-help books which help readers tackle mental health issues—for example, Jay Shetty’s Think Like a Monk which claims to help folks become “less anxious selves”—often urge readers to avoid or dismiss their problems. Ideally, they should be addressing the deep-rooted psychological concerns that the reader may have. “Imagine you have a cracked wall which you know needs to be broken down and built again. Self-help books quickly apply a nice coat of paint on it and pretend everything is okay. The reader, too, is convinced, thanks to the placebo effect. Except that after a short while, the issue resurfaces.”
Dordi says, “Suppression of emotions is never healthy. It is important to scientifically validate the advice offered by self-help authors”.
Self-Help And Placebos
Dordi, whose practice is in Mumbai’s Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital, believes the failure of readers to better themselves or meet their own expectations is a double whammy and is likely to worsen their mental health, leading to a vicious cycle.
In fact, a 2015 study on self-help books by the University of Montreal in Canada showed that people who read self-help books may be more sensitive to stress and show higher depressive symptoms. So why do people who read self-help books feel they are moving on the right path, even if that feeling is short-lived? The reason is the placebo effect.
Dordi explains: “A lot of behavioural and emotional challenges that readers face come from severe mental health issues that perhaps go undiagnosed. Some readers do not realise that these challenges require long-term care and they instead go for a quick fix, which seems to work for a short while, thanks to the placebo effect. The reader has the illusion of having things under control, giving them a feeling of short-term accomplishment.”
It’s All About Ethics
Another important concern with self-help literature that warrants a discussion is the responsibility of the self-help author towards the reader and society. After all, advice, if not taken in the right spirit, can be disastrous. Dordi, for one, thinks that readers have a greater responsibility here than the authors.
“The responsibility lies with the reader to check the credentials of the author and verify the sources. It is their responsibility to confirm the accuracy of the advice, use Google search, and read up on the literature available online.” Readers of self-help books must also have a certain level of self-acceptance and self-awareness while setting goals based on self-help books, she says.
Dordi also raised a rather pertinent point on the contradictions within the self-help genre. “One self-help book gives you a recipe of looking at life in a certain way and another one gives you the exact opposite. The reader often ends up even more confused than they were in the first place.”
Hustle Till You Make It!
Beyond the obvious contradictions, self-help books also sell a dream of upward social mobility to the working class, urging them to “hustle hard”, and even promote toxic positivity. How does this impact the well-being of the reader? Dordi says: “Readers of self-help books need to accept that it is okay to make mistakes and that they will not always have answers to all questions.” To put it simply, while reading the self-help book of a millionaire, readers must realise that everyone cannot become a millionaire by reading a book.
Of course, one cannot deny the push that self-help books receive from capitalism, which can be best described as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The moment readers start seeking emotional fulfilment instead of success, capitalism steps in and renews their desire to transcend their social class and climb up the ladder. Dordi agrees with the notion that the desire to acquire wealth and materialistic things can push one towards self-help literature.
However, she also thinks that self-help books by billionaires should not all be painted with the same brush. “There are, obviously, self-help books which get it right, books which inform and educate readers. Some of them are written by rich entrepreneurs.” On a parting note, Dordi adds that self-help books are self-enhancement tools, not self-replacement books. “We need to take self-help books with a pinch of salt.”
- In India, with the boom in start-up culture and the rise of venture capitalism, entrepreneurs who shot to fame are now coming up with self-help books to teach young entrepreneurs the ins and outs of scaling a business in the Indian economy.
- Pertinent questions to ask are: How fair is it for super rich entrepreneurs to advise the working class on scaling business and, perhaps unknowingly, sell them a false hope of upward social mobility, and what impact is it likely to have on the mental health of budding entrepreneurs?
- A 2015 study on self-help books by the University of Montreal in Canada showed that people who read self-help books may be more sensitive to stress and show higher depressive symptoms.
- Self-help books receive a push from capitalism: the moment readers start seeking emotional fulfilment instead of success, capitalism steps in and renews their desire to transcend their social class and climb up the ladder.
A couple of continents away, London-based self-help author and psychotherapist Charlotte Fox Weber talks about her book What We Want: A Journey Through Twelve of Our Deepest Desires, which takes readers on a journey of self-discovery and seeking the purpose of life. Asked about her thoughts on self-help literature, Weber said: “Self-help is a category that should also be called self-destruction—it helps us get better if we understand the darkness within us [and destroy it]. Confronting the dark side of human beings is essential for understanding how we can live richer lives.”
Being a psychotherapist, Weber acknowledges the need to address negative feelings and make space to discover them first and eventually accept them. “Being honest about gratitude, for instance, requires facing the ways you don’t feel grateful. Cultivating playfulness and creativity and love means looking at the opposites—the writer’s block, the loss, and the sorrow. Making space for darkness is more comforting and is therefore needed to move towards betterment,” Weber says.
Asked about which self-help books one should avoid, Weber says, “Books that promote instant fixes end up wasting time. Avoid them.” On billionaires lecturing the working class on “hard work” and “hustle”, Weber says: “It’s a form of deception when someone immensely privileged overlooks the factors for opportunity. It’s punishing to suggest that it’s each person’s responsibility to determine life’s fate. What’s equally harmful is oversimplifying possibilities and suggesting that hard work determines everything to come in life.”
On the self-help books one could read, Weber says: “Books that are honest and illuminating about suffering as well as joy can uplift far more than self-help books that push for reductive approaches.” She, too, recommends books which are honest and provide long-term solutions.
The Saving Grace
Beyond billionaires, motivational gurus and start-up honchos whose self-help books are popular in the Indian subcontinent, many self-help books overseas are playing a key role in helping people manage their lives better, sans the toxic positivity.
Sallyann Beresford is a UK-based publisher and a self-help author who writes books which support pregnant women and enable them to have a positive birthing experience. An antenatal teacher by profession, Sallyann Beresford’s self-help books Labour of Love and The Art of Giving Birth aim to educate couples to help them feel more confident about their ability to conceive naturally while also urging women to take ownership of decisions surrounding their pregnancy.
Beresford is aware of her limitations as a writer. “My birth planning journals help by looking at mindset and physical abilities to maximise the chance of achieving a natural birth. This might not suit all pregnant women,” she says.
Reaching full potential
Elaborating on the nuances of the self-help genre, Beresford says: “Some self-help books may be internalised by the reader and they could feel overwhelmed by the recommendations given. Inevitably the purpose of self-help books is to recognise what you might need to change in order to reach your full potential—but that potential will mean something different to each reader.”
Back home in India, Chintan Girish Modi, a journalist and book reviewer, thinks self-help books might be beneficial, after all. “Some readers want to learn how to manage stress, others want to get over their social awkwardness. Some want to learn a new skill but don’t have the money to sign up for it. So they go for self-help books.” “I prefer to see self-help in this light,” he says, “rather than assuming that all of them promote toxic positivity, hustling or productivity. People who pick them seem to have a genuine desire to transform their life circumstances or at least their approach to what life throws at them. They are willing to try new strategies and ideas instead of giving up on life.” His empathetic take on the self-help conundrum is based on the belief that everyone needs support, and that support can look different for each person. “Whether it’s going to a therapist or a life coach, having regular meetings with a mentor, nurturing a spiritual practice, or applying what one learns from a book that seems beneficial.”
Deepansh Duggal is a writer based in New Delhi. He writes on cinema, culture, and mental health issues.