Thomas Hobbes was probably on to something when he wrote that life was “nasty, brutish and short”. Having said that, in his day they didn’t have Cable TV, Lazyboys and Crispy Kreme Donuts so we probably have an advantage in the 21st century. For most of my adult life I’ve been trying to get some clarity around what makes a person happy and confident because surely this state, if achieved consistently, self help can really support excellent communication skills.
In the last 30 years the Western world has been trying to remedy this by becoming fully paid up members of the self-help industry. I wonder how these modern thought strategies have shaped our well being especially our happiness and confidence.
This is a very complex subject that would need much more than a blog to explain but I’d like to point out two strands of thinking that live inside this world. Steve Salerno in his critical book ‘Sham”‘writes:
“The self-help movement still divides, roughly, into two camps. There is Empowerment—broadly speaking, the idea that you are fully responsible for all you do, good and bad. And, in contrast, there is Victimization, which sells the idea that you are not responsible for what you do (at least not the bad things).”
Victimization and Empowerment represent the Yin and the Yang of the self-help movement. It is likely that this schism will always exist, no matter which guru or message becomes the flavour of the day.
Obviously, both of these states have a certain amount of validity if only because a “can do” mindset is useful and not everything that happens to us is necessarily our fault.
HOWEVER! To buy wholesale into either of these ideas is dangerous because there is a risk that one can become wedded to a meaningless belief/mantra on the one hand or take no responsibility for life on the other.
There is something scarily absolutist about modern self help that likes to paint a complicated life with black and white simplicity that is simply inadequate for meaningful growth. For a little bit of fun, I’m going to use the X-Factor as an example:
Some contestants are empowered!! They believe they can do it . They believe they are chosen. It’s all about the can do, the “I am”. This mantra must surely be going through their heads in the weeks and days before they go on the show.
With other contestants, it’s all about the tragic back story. It’s about all the bad stuff that has happened so the audience is manipulated into feeling sorry for them and then rooting for their success. The show’s underlying message is a childish one that “belief trumps everything”. The key thing to understand is that both of these mindsets have been exaggerated for our entertainment (maybe that is what Hobbes was talking about).
Mankind will always struggle to understand what makes us happy in this 24/7 world of high pressure and expectation. But I think a good start would be the observations of Professor Richard Layard who has conducted a great deal of research into well-being and happiness. His conclusion is that there are 5 things we can do with our lives that can make us happier:
- Noticing what is going on around you.
- Forming meaningful relationships.
- Staying fit.
- Giving to others.
- Learning new things!
I think that this way of finding happiness is much more sustainable than a self help quick fix.