In days of yore, if you wanted a self-help book you read The Art of War or the Road Less Travelled. Outside of actual war-mongers, the former was turned to by business leaders and the occasional solitary troubled teen in their Iron Maiden-bedecked room. The latter was for those of us less concerned with organisational tactics/revenge and more concerned with just keeping our s**t together. It worked on the theory that self-disciple equated to self-love. Because of that book, I still panic sometimes that if I've left my bed unmade by 4PM then a mental breakdown must be imminent. But so far, so good; I am still here writing a blog post...
These days, you have the art of absolutely everything, and all the roads you can take to get to things as mundane as boarding an Easyjet flight or using dental floss. If a human can do it- sometimes even if a household pet can do it- there will be an ebook, or at the very least a how-to article, about it somewhere.
With Googling the preferred hobby of most of the connected world, it's not surprising that we're internet-searching things that we probably could have figured out for ourselves, everything from tying knots to squeezing spots. It doesn't matter that we could have worked it out; there's something oddly reassuring about someone else affirming it for us with a brief Youtube video, often with the added bonus of special effects.
And the internet turned everyone's house into a shop, so I guess it was only a matter of time before it turned everyone's life into a self-help tool. The whole 'I-did-a-thing-and-now-I-will-show-you-how-to-do-that-thing' idea isn't exactly a new one; it's just that the accessibility of mass media has made it more prolific in recent years. If it had been around in centuries of yore we could have experienced gems of wisdom like 'how to share a living space with five other families' or 'taking baby to their first public hanging'.
But why write an article about something when you can turn it into a six-week course and flog it for hundreds of dollars instead? For the entrepreneurs out there, there's no life event or human emotion that can't be achieved without a PayPal button and a free introductory webinar. I used to get inundated with emails from a woman who had met her husband (or 'twin flame' as she called him) in her forties and had now devoted her life to helping lonely singletons everywhere find love. And if those lonely singletons were cash-strapped, she had thoughtfully included a payment plan that would allow them to know her secret over eight weeks. I'm guessing it had something to do with luck and chemistry, but what do I know?
Elsewhere I have seen 21 day meditation courses guaranteed to raise your vibration (I guess one way to never have to give someone their money back is charge them for a concept rather than a thing), how to turn your Etsy store into a six-figure business without really trying and how to get the art world to fall in love with your work. As if they've figured an algorithm for the human soul. Existential Google, if you will.
In our more solid, rational moments we can see such modern quackery for what it is. How to find love, how to walk around in a state of perma-bliss, how to create works that speak to the human condition; these are all driven largely by forces beyond our control, not by a bonus workbook. Sure, you can create the top-class dating profile, show up for the muse, sit in lotus for hours on end, but we all know deep down that this may or may not yield the result we want, or even the one we need. Life is more random than that and besides, does anyone know what would really make them happier, anyway?
People trying to exploit other's vulnerability isn't exactly a modern phenomenon, and ultimately you have the choice as to whether you hand over the cash or not, whether you drink the proverbial Kool-aid. What concerns me more about these internet 'gurus' is that they tap into a misguided belief we have in our society that we have the right to be happy round the clock, to earn lots of money, to have a relationship worthy of a film script. It's fuelled by the onslaught of images we see of beautiful people in beautiful homes with beautiful children. Of beautiful couples posing at interesting events, beautifully.
And conversely, for those of us who are still single, or have days when we can't get out of bed or haven't landed that publishing deal, we feel that somehow we've Failed. When the reality is that if you're struggling, you're doing well at being human because that's what being human ultimately is; a series of highs and lows, good days and bad days, beginnings and endings. The serenity comes from how much we can accept where we're at- the good and the bad- and know that it will pass.
By its very definition, happiness can't exist when you think there's something else that will make you happier. We do not have the right to whatever we want, just because a person who claims to be in possession of that thing tells us we do, even when they are discounting it with an early-bird special. At least The Road Less Travelled was a) not so much as a how-to but more reflections on the human condition and b) written by a trained professional after a lifelong career in psychotherapy. The real revolution will come when we can just be OK with not running a six-figure business, or not having a partner or just having a partner who loves us regardless of whether they've bought us a new car for our birthday. The Art of Not Feeling so Bloody Entitled. Now there's an e-course I would pay for...