Chicken Soup for the Soul was my gateway drug. It was the early 1990s, the United States was in the buoyancy of its early Clinton years, and my mother and her sister came home from their maiden voyage to New York with a charming little book of pre-irony optimism: the first of the Chicken Soup series.
The book was a seamless collection of short stories, inspiring, uplifting, appealing to our better selves: stories of people who made the best of bad jobs, entrepreneurial children who set their goals early in life and were now giving back, classrooms of students who became millionaires thanks to one teacher who truly loved them. (There was some emphasis on financial prosperity.) The book had several messages. Set goals for yourself! Practice random acts of kindness! Pay it forward!
At that time, hippyish notions of karma and manifesting your destiny were unheard of in an Ireland where goals were notions and we veered between misery and stoicism. These stories were bingeworthy and hopeful: a prototype of the now endlessly shared Upworthy videos on Facebook. My barely teenage self was hooked.
The first Chicken Soup book was published in 1993, compiled by motivational speakers Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. They now publish more than a dozen books a year. Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul, Chicken Soup for the Beach Lover's Soul, Chicken Soup for the Indian Teenage Soul.
And as their franchise grew, so did my appetite for self-help.
The Secret Library
Underneath my old bed in my family home are cardboard boxes filled with books I have gathered over the years that are far too revealing for bookshelf display. The books have titles that must be said with a rising cadence and an exclamation mark. Find Your Own North Star: How to Claim the Life You were Meant to Live! The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything! Instant Confidence: the Power to Go for Anything You Want! Stop Thinking, Start Living!
These are the sorts of books to be stacked with their spines turned inward, passed furtively among friends. One friend remembers asking her mother to move all her self-help books from the sitting-room shelves when her teenage classmates were coming over. I once saw a girl on the bus reading You Can Heal Your Life and was taken aback that she would do it so openly.
It is hard really to understand the stigma. Is it that you might seem vulnerable, narcissistic, untrusting of your own intuition? Is it that you’re not just ‘getting on with it’? I know that people find consolation in more noble places. You can take comfort in Rilke and Heaney and Didion, in F Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion that “the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness”. In all good literature there is misery and rage and acceptance. But the books under the bed were full of big comforts and exclamations, about fixing and possibility.
I understand the use of a book as a life raft.
A friend who found her mother's copy of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway after she died was heartbroken at the inherent optimism in the pencilled marginalia, that compulsion to write a little "Yes!" or place a firm tick beside a particularly resonant phrase.
In the boxes under my bed, there are books purchased in sheer desperation; The Power of Now, When a Parent Dies, Grief and Loss, all picked up in a time when the words would swim in front of my eyes whenever I opened a page. If I couldn't sit quietly and read any more, by God I could amass books that might help, just to even have them there on the shelf, pack them around me protectively like polystyrene balls. I remember wandering around bookshops for hours, looking for a sentence of explanation; something that might say: "This is what this feeling is."
It turns out a lot of the advice is about breathing and taking a walk, looking at a bit of nature, simply being among trees – that thing that the Japanese call “forest-bathing”.
But sometimes you need to be reminded even of that.
Self-help is so often associated with romance, the pursuit of it and its subsequent problems that despite my varying degrees of success over the years I’m surprised to find I only have two books on relationships, and both came into my possession almost by accident.
When I was a young girl on a train to Dublin with my mother, she pointed out a woman across the aisle bent over a copy of Women Who Love Too Much, frantically highlighting. "Don't ever come crying to me about some mean, useless fella, saying: 'But mammy, I love him,'" she said.
So when I saw an old 1980s pastel copy of the same book on a shelf in George's Street Arcade, I had to buy it because it reminded me of that. And when I opened it up, it too was highlighted, little notes in the margins. Perhaps there are no un-underlined copies. Books such as these, Codependent No More, Men are from Mars, Women are From Venus, even He's Just Not that Into You (dear God), are bought with a wild intent to fix something.
And then one book that I did not buy. After a run of bad relationship luck, a friend turned up on the doorstep of my new home with a house-warming present: a book called Why Men Love Bitches: From Doormat to Dreamgirl. The New York Times bestseller had an alarming looking cover with the title scrawled in lipstick like a Jackie Collins novel. "It was just a joke," the friend said when she saw my face. I told her I would have preferred a plant.
There is also evidence here in the self-improvement book pile of a phase wherein I worried my soul. For this, I blame Oprah. It's hard to know if the hard-selling Oprah of the noughties was acting entirely in our best interests, but she was churning out gurus for those that were so inclined and I was there with my overstretched credit card on hand: Dr Phil for Texan straight talking, Suze Orman for financial straight talking, Gary Zukav and Eckhart Tolle for soothing soul talk. Everything was spoken about definitively, in absolute truths.
So yes, I bought some of Tolle and Zukav’s books and sought to “unearth my authentic power”.
And while there was undoubtedly some wisdom in Tolle’s ideas of not identifying with your negative thoughts, I lived in a constant anxiety that I was not yet in fact my authentic self, that I was currently stuck in one of the more outer Russian dolls of my own being, that I still had a long way to go.
And in these books, there was an early nod to believe-it-and-you-will-see-it manifestation that would culminate with that big bestseller, the Fifty Shades of Grey of the self-help world, The Secret.
By the time The Secret rolled around and boiled the whole thing down to a children's storybook version of all that came before, I was done with my self-help library (maybe, probably). I had been reading about manifestation and the law of attraction for years. I'd visualised the living daylights out of things I wanted. At a particularly low moment, I'd actually got into the car and driven to Woodies to buy a corkboard upon which to pin magazine cut-outs of my hopes and dreams.
And it does work, in a way; simply because it makes you name the thing that you want, when so often you cannot.
In more recent years, self-help has altered its guise. We are no longer dieting, we are clean eating, and we aren't sweating like pigs at aerobics, we are a pilates-performing fitfam. Anecdotal aphoristic wisdom with no scientific basis is no longer palatable. Starting in the noughties with books such as The Tipping Point and then Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about thinking counterintuitively, putting what was still essentially self-help in a more acceptable journalistic style – a little more New Yorker, a little less Oprah. You didn't have to hide it on the bus.
The terrifyingly titled Smarter, Faster, Better: the Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg is one of the more recent best-sellers to avail of this style. Jonah Lehrer and Elizabeth Gilbert wrote best-sellers about the creative mind. Jon Ronson made us search for our inner psychopaths and question our attitudes to shame. People liked their psychological insights with a side of data, like a Ted talk – a book with a juicy "take away".
The non-fiction market is now rife with science and journalistic writing accompanied by uplifting anecdotes, epiphanies backed up by research: Chicken Soup for the Scientist's Soul.
The reassuring thing is, regardless of the books that line your shelf, or lie in hiding under your bed, you will change.
"Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they're finished," says Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling Into Happiness and star of many a Ted talk.
He was speaking of his experiment “The ‘End of History’ illusion.” Nineteen thousand people aged 18 to 68 were asked about their personality traits, values and preferences in things such as food and music. The participants were asked to estimate how much they believed they had changed in the past decade and how much they would change in the decade to come.
They all played down their potential changes in the future. We grossly underestimate our capacity for change. "Believing that we just reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good," Dr Jordi Quoidbach, Gilbert's research collaborator, told the New York Times. "The 'I wish that I knew then what I know now' experience might give us a sense of satisfaction and meaning, whereas realising how transient our preferences and values are might lead us to doubt every decision and generate anxiety."
The only concrete facts we have are from the past, so we're more inclined to work with those, but neuroscientists have made discoveries about the plasticity of our neural pathways. Life experience causes physical changes in the brain and so change is inherent to who we are. Or as Tony Bennett says in the glorious Amy Winehouse documentary Amy: "Life teaches you really how to live it, if you live long enough."
Amid all the exclamations and often-dubious exercises of many of these books, there is sometimes one bright line that people hold on to forever and it is surely wisdom itself to accept wisdom wherever you find it. Recently, after a chat with a friend about New Year anxiety, she sent me a picture of a page from an old self-help book with just one half-phrase underlined: “Wait, and expect good things.”
Some of the best:
1: The Road Less Travelled
Published in 1978, M Scott Peck’s stern bestseller identifies the two neuroses of the world: those who feel responsible for everything that goes wrong and those who deny all responsibility and blame others. A staple on many a bookshelf, it focuses on discipline, delaying gratification and accepting responsibility.
2: The Last Lecture
Based on a 2007 lecture given by Randy Pausch before he lost his battle with pancreatic cancer, this book was written by the computer science professor as a guide for his children, and focuses on achieving your childhood dreams and helping others to achieve theirs.
3: The Power of Positive Thinking
First published in 1952, its title is now a statement we hear on a regular basis. Norman Vincent Peale's greatest work stayed on the bestseller list for two years and has sold more than million copies. It was one of the first books to lay the theory for books such as The Secret: the idea that how we think determines what we get from life.
This home-grown 2011 bestseller by psychologist Maureen Gaffney tells us that just 10 per cent of our happiness is owed to our life's circumstances and sets out practical steps to nurture our instinct to be the best we can be.