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Why you just can’t help yourself

SO THERE we have it. 2010 is done, dusted and filed away.

Fresh as just-fallen snow, the coming year still sparkles with promise.

Diaries lie barely leafed, 12 ripe months await their picking, resolutions sit unviolated — symbols, for now, of all our best intentions. So what will you be this year? Thinner? Richer? Less prone to drunkenness, to carbohydrate binges, to a sneaky fag outside the office? More prone to perfecting the work/life balance, to taking your daily exercise, to fulfilling your five-a-day?

The desire to do better has become as much part of the calendar as champagne and fireworks. And no wonder: the notion of self-improvement holds profound appeal. Who wouldn't, when confronted with a mirror of their mundane existence, want to change something? And who couldn't, after changing that first thing, find something else with which to quibble?

Given the chance, few of us would say no to being richer, thinner, nicer, more punctual, better organised, healthier, more balanced entities. The idea that the power to do so lies in our own hands is, inevitably, a seductive one.

It was in 1859 that Samuel Smiles published his seminal work, Self-Help. A Scottish social reformer and campaigner for universal suffrage, he advanced the principle that good fortune was not simply a matter of divine will but of hard work and responsibility. With its opening maxim that “heaven helps those who help themselves”, it became an instant phenomenon, outselling Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.


Following in his wake came a host of imitators. From Dale Carnegie and his 1937 offering How to Win Friends and Influence People to Gwyneth Paltrow, whose website Goop instructs us to “nourish the inner aspect”, the apostles of self-help approach from every angle. And so the industry grew. In the US, the cult of self-help is worth more than $10bn. In the UK, it has earned publishers some £60m (€70.6m) in the past five years. Stores peddle potions promising all manner of glories: improved energy, a faster metabolism, shinier hair, a calmer disposition.

Magazines proffer advice on everything from health to improving your sex life. That most superficial of improvements, the makeover, has become a cultural standard, repeated ad infinitum in the media. And January, with all its postfestive penitence, is the high season of self-help. A glimpse across news stands reveals a raft of recipes for success: ‘Revitalise Your Body and Style’ with Vogue, ‘Get Lean Muscle Fast’ with Men's Health and ‘Have More Cash’ with Glamour.

Yet for all the advice on offer, we don't seem to be achieving an awful lot. We are, various studies conclude, less happy than ever before. We're less adept at saving and budgeting and unable to maintain relationships. We don't get enough exercise and we drink far too much. We smoke. And, if surveys are to be believed, few of us maintain our resolutions beyond the first weeks of January. So why the belief that we can change?


Lindsey Agness, founder of the Change Corporation and author of Change Your Life with NLP (that's Neuro Linguistic Programming), offers “life coaching”.

Over the past decade, she observes, our idea of what constitutes realistic ambition has shifted profoundly: “Books are released with eye-catching titles, promising things we might not even have considered before. We are aware of the possibilities as never before — and believe in them in a way we simply didn't 10 years ago.”

The result is a culture in which little remains off limits. Books, magazines, the internet and TV shows all promise to show us how to get what we want. With the right approach, we are assured, we can be anything we want. Well, in theory. The reality is more complicated. To observe that we aren't much better off than we were in the first place is not to say that it doesn't work. In many instances it might: go on a diet, stick to it and you will lose weight. But while the tools to achieve certain goals are within our reach, the broader aim of general wellbeing, of fulfilment, remains just out of sight.

“There is a danger of being sold the dream,” agrees Agness. “People get bombarded with suggestions for how they can do better, and end up with an endless wish list of vague aspirations, with no focus on any particular thing.” Such diffusity of ambition can be the undoing of many a self-improver.


What’s more, the apparent availability of so many aspirations ensures that, if we do manage to tick something off our todo list, something else is waiting in the wings. Got the dream job? Congrats. Now shrink a dress size so you can buy a new suit. Organised your diary? What about your closet, too? There is also the possibility that certain ends are simply unattainable through selfhelp.

In 2005, Micki McGee, a lecturer in sociology wrote Self- Help, Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life. She highlighted the individualistic nature of most self-improvement literature — in assuring readers that they can achieve anything, the self-help authorities lay the blame for failure at the feet of those who suffer it.

With this in mind, it's not hard for our ameliorative ambition to backfire. As McGee puts it: “Much of the selfhelp industry contributes to the insecurity that it is trying to assuage. There is the idea, not only that life could be better, but also that it ought to be better . . . The idea that we are in control of our own lives offers up ideals which are unattainable. When we don't achieve them there is a sense of dissatisfaction, desire and envy.”

Self-improvement, then, is a self perpetuating beast — lop off one arm and two grow back. Fail to lop off that arm and feel guilty, inadequate and compelled to try again.

And so to 2011, and the hope that it might work. For some of us, it certainly will — those in the business of profiting from its propagation. For the rest of us? Well, don't bank on it.