The self-help industry is a booming market. According to Market Research, the industry is estimated to grow to $13.2 billion by 2022. The self-improvement market includes a large variety of products from e-books, online courses, coaching programmes, webinars, masterminds, masterclasses and the list continues. You might have attended Tony Robbin’s motivational talk with fist-pumping in the air only to have your enthusiasm fizzle out. Or you might have been intrigued by self-help books only to finish twenty pages of the book. If self-help books and courses are indeed helpful, why do people keep going back to it? Shouldn’t it be self-sustaining? And if you think mindfulness training, the latest in the string of self-development courses to have emerged recently is another self-help course, think again.
The beginning of self-help
To understand why mindfulness training is not another self-help course, we have to understand what is the objective of self-help programmes. Self-improvement began with Samuel Smile’s book “Self-Help“, which taught the idea of self-empowerment and the never-say-die attitude in the 19th century. The main tagline for self-help according to Smiles is – heaven helps those that help themselves.
Self-help in the 20th century
After the Great Depression tore through much of the industrialised world economy, key prominent self-help books of the 20th century emerged. Napolean Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich” offered 13 steps to help you increase your income. Hill said as long as you can suppress negative thoughts and arouse desire, faith and persistence, you can achieve great heights. While Dale Carnegie’s “How to win friends and influence people”, shared tips on how to be likable, win others to your thinking, get out of a negative rut and amongst other principles, to increase your influence. These two books remained the best-selling books of all-time. There is no arguing that the methods do work if the books are thoroughly examined and the methods applied in real-life situations. It is not about questioning the methods as you can always experiment in real-life to prove or disprove the authors’ principles. But rather, as readers of these self-help genres, we need to question our intentions.
The desire for happiness drives self-help
To be reasonable, not everyone who reads self-help books or attends courses applies the methods diligently. Only some are ready to sacrifice the majority of their life to achieve a definite goal, and most highly successful people start young. Most highly successful people are also very focused on a goal to the near exclusion of other things in life. Not everyone is willing to do that. But that is not a problem. We are all free to choose how we want to live. But ALL OF US choose to want to be happy. Happiness is a broad word with big meaning and has been cloaked with material consumerism of the industrial age. To be happy in the 19th and 20th centuries, it means becoming somebody either rich or famous or both. As developed countries’ economies peaked with our well-being and nature’s balance as trade-offs, many are now questioning the traditional route to happiness – evident with the emerging success of nationalistic parties in Europe, as well as Donald Trump in the U.S. With 94 percent of millennials, 84 percent of baby boomers and 81 percent of generation X committed to self-help, why then are we moving more and more towards a volatile world?
Misguided intention towards self-help
Self-help since its beginnings has focused on rejecting negativity. It encourages you to strive beyond what you think you are capable of. If your intention in reading self-help books is to become somebody great and achieve happiness by the mere methods provided, the intention might be misguided. Most highly successful people the likes of Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet do what they do beyond wanting fame and wealth. A mind that strives hard towards positivity rejects negativity harshly – and this produces negativity and self-criticism.
Mindfulness training differs from self-help
Mindfulness as a mental state does not reject positivity or negativity. Mindfulness is aware of the balance between these two states of mind. Positivity cannot exist without negativity just as there cannot be light without dark. Instead of being affected by negative or positive mind states, a mindful mental state is very aware of the trade-off between these two states to make decisions that could balance the two. Also, mindfulness training does not recommend striving as striving inevitably produces stress. Rather, mindfulness encourages discipline without striving. We can have a goal in life, this is not excluded in mindfulness training. Thoughts do produce action which brings about results – such as putting hours of practice to learn how to swim would result in you knowing how to swim. Although there is the goal in your mind to be able to swim, you could go about the action to learn how to swim without needing to strive. This might sound like a really simple concept but it is not easy to do. It does require training the mind for a non-striving mental habit to develop. Mindfulness training thus defers from self-help courses and if practiced with discipline, is self-sustaining.