Self-help: the tip of the happiness iceberg

If you’re reading this blog, it probably means that you’re interested in personal development. Trying to be your best self, being mindful of the way you work and the way you live. Maybe you’ve read some book or listen to some podcasts. You’re not the only one. The personal development industry is valued at $10 billion a year. And I could find ten billion reasons why it’s broken. But let’s focus on ten of them.

Self help

The self-help industry is growing

There are many market segments in the self-help industry, and many of them overlap. First you have personal coaching. The issue is that it’s a very loosely regulated field, and anybody can call themselves a life coach. The International Coach Federation offers a certification which is supposed to be the gold standard of coaching, with strict prerequisites, but many clients are unaware of it and it’s not considered necessary to have this certification in order to practice. You also have motivational speakers—many of them who are also coaches. It’s estimated that the 5,000+ motivational speakers in the U.S. generate more than $1 billion per year combined, with the top 9 making about $200 million.

Another area of public speaking are personal development seminars. The three major personal development seminar companies in the U.S.—Skillpath, Fred Pryor-CareerTrack, and National Seminars Group—all operate under the umbrella of non-profit universities. Workshops and seminars are also offered by training institutes. There are about 16 of these in the U.S., attracting about 156,000 people per year.

Beyond personal coaching and events, many products have sprung out of the personal development industry. Of course, you have self-help books. These books are often an important cornerstone in the strategy of personal coaches and motivational speakers. Self-help books are estimated to generate about $800 million a year, and it’s fast growing segment. And that doesn’t account for self-help audiobooks, which are a $769 million market.

Now that we’ve established that the self-help industry is thriving, let’s look at some of the issues I have with the way it works.

Self help

10 reasons why the self-help industry is broken

I want to preface this by saying that I don’t think the self-help industry is bad in itself. What I think is that there needs to be higher standards when it comes to helping people live better lives. More science, more ethics, more accountability.

  1. The incentives are not aligned. The self-help industry is similar to the dating industry. If you find true love on a dating app, you usually uninstall it as you don’t need it anymore. When it comes to self-help, a good product that works means that you won’t need to buy any further self-help product, content, or service. This leads to a contradiction: self-help needs to work just enough to keep you hooked, but not enough to see you leave.
  2. Usually not based on science. Very few self-help strategies have been scientifically validated. Research shows that journaling, meditation, mindfulness, and gratitude do have positive effects, but there are lots of dubious claims made in the self-help industry that would not stand the test of a solid research study. Neuro-linguistic programming is one such example of pseudoscience that many people believe in, and that is used by life coaches with clients despite the lack of evidence.
  3. Not personal enough. Despite the 1:1 approach, many coaches use rigid frameworks. For example, it’s common for coaches to use the SMART goals framework (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely). Why always focus on relevant goals? What if you’re a sales person who wants to learn how to code? The one-size-fits-all approach is often not adapted to the complex needs of each individual.
  4. Self help can be a form of avoidance. It’s much easier to read content or watch personal development videos than to actually change one’s behaviour. Many self-help products do not help people put insights into practice. They encourage an endless cycle of learning and accumulating knowledge, rather than pushing people to act. This gives customers the perception of change rather than creating real change.
  5. The messaging often creates unrealistic expectations. Most of self-help marketing will promise future clients massive changes that will make their lives 10x better. Similar to the weight-loss industry, self-help case studies are based on extraordinary results that are rarely replicable. As a result, people who don’t get similar results feel ashamed and disappointed in themselves.
  6. Self-help is a contradiction. Give a person a fish, and you feed them for a day. Teach a person to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime. While self-help should be about acquiring the tools and knowledge to be able to help yourself, many life coaches and services bank on the fact that you will always need their help. It’s about being a crutch rather than helping you to walk on your own.
  7. Not designed by experts. Many so-called experts in the self-help industry have no credentials at all, no psychology or neuroscience background. What they do is extrapolate their personal experience to create programmes other people in similar situations will pay for. But everyone is different, and personal experience does not equal expertise.
  8. Sturgeon’s law. “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” And it’s also true of the self-help industry. There is currently no way for potential clients to know whether a service or product is valid and result-driven. Finding the right kind of support is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack.
  9. Short-term strategies. Lots of self-help content will focus on “hacks”, as if there was a magic bullet to happiness. As a result, people may temporarily feel better, but will soon go back to their normal state. Personal development should be about long-term improvement and built on a deep understanding of how the brain and the mind works, not on quick fixes that won’t have a lasting impact.
  10. Not sufficient. Finally, self-help experts fail to acknowledge that personal growth requires a holistic approach. No one strategy will allow someone to feel their best. You know how you should eat healthy, exercise, drink water, sleep enough? Well, there’s no way you’ll feel your best if you apply something you read in a self-help book without getting the basics right first. But most authors present their strategies as all encompassing and standing on their own.

The good news

Not everything is bleak, though. First, many academics are getting into the self-help space and sharing science-based strategies for personal development. Dan Gilbert and Brene Brown are just a few that come to mind. There is also more and more science-based information available online for people who take the time to look around. Again, it’s still hard to differentiate between what’s evidence-based and what’s bullshit, but it’s getting better.

As someone who is interested in personal growth and want to help people be the best version of themselves, my commitment is to focus on science-based, practical, and realistic strategies, while acknowledging the fact that I don’t have any magic bullet and that it takes more than applying one to a specific area of your life to get beyond the tip of the happiness iceberg.

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