Dozens of self-help books are published annually, and another batch of them hits the shelves this week — including one from Pope Francis. The sheer volume of such books on the market makes the category “self-help” a bit of a misnomer — anyone looking for direction is now swimming in a sea of contradictory philosophies.
According to booksellers in the United States, the number of titles in the self-help genre rose nearly threefold between 2013 and 2019 from 30,897 to 85,253. There has been no sign since of that growth slowing.
For an individual reader, this creates a dilemma: How do you know you’re picking the right book? Should you develop The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck or, alternatively, Think Like a Monk, to quote but two best-selling titles? Is there a way of judging which self-help advice is best?
In an ideal world, one could test each “mind, body, spirit” theory against the criteria of success it sets for itself. For example, does Dale Carnegie’s programme of self-improvement really win you friends and influence people? Let’s look at the data.
Oh, hang on, there is none! Self-help theories are not scientifically tested.
So how else can we judge their merits? A claim to authority is one way. Is the author, for example, a recognised expert or uniquely qualified? This works for many fields of inquiry but for the “art of living” it is much more problematic. Is a celibate octogenarian clergyman, for example, more qualified to dispense life-hacks than a greying Canadian academic?
Apologies but it has become almost impossible to talk about popular psychology without referencing Jordan B Peterson. He has worked his way into modern discourse about the meaning of life in the same way no conversation about God could be held a decade ago without somebody bringing up Richard Dawkins.
Peterson’s skill as an orator and his ability to turn the attention of young men has not gone unnoticed in organised religions. Barely a week goes by without an article from some Christian commentator about what the church can learn from Peterson’s shtick.
Pope Francis’s book A Gift of Joy and Hope arrives, then, at an opportune time. As an insight into the leadership of the Catholic Church today, it is extraordinarily lacking in judgmentalism. The pope’s humble tone is far removed from the finger-wagging impulse of both the old patriarchy and the new culture war combatants.
Under Peterson’s neo-Christian philosophy (the psychologist has voiced an affinity for Catholicism), a considerable amount of energy should be directed towards blaming. The “woke”, environmentalists, feminists and the makers of Disney movies are among his prime targets.
Moreover, the outlook is pessimistic. According to Peterson, the rejection of tradition has brought us to “the brink” of something catastrophic. We are at risk of tilting “towards a very serious end”, he told an audience in Dublin this month.
The main words of blame in Francis’s book are directed internally — towards the church’s institutions and its curia where moral failings are evident. Hope is hailed as a cardinal virtue. The book opens with a reflection on the merits of smiling and ends with St Thomas More’s Prayer of Good Humour.
On the question of authority, Francis exudes a learned wisdom, gleaned from his life journey from arrogant young priest to kindly father-figure who washes and kisses the feet of prisoners. To Peterson’s credit he has frequently shown a deep-felt concern for the mental health of young men.
Still, pointing to a person’s CV, even if it says “God’s representative on Earth”, is hardly sufficient grounds for swallowing their philosophy whole. One has no choice but to read self-help advice while at the same time trying to discern its internal logic. One must ask in each case: Does it all add up?
A Gift of Joy and Hope includes a sampling of ancient truths, for example:
1. Helping others is good for you: “If we do not give of our time ... we will end up wasting it on things that, at the end of the day, will only leave us feeling empty and confused.”
2. A sense of wonder is key to flourishing: “An education is not complete if it does not know how to shape people into poets.”
3. When faced with a challenge stick in there: “In my country, a saying goes, ‘When you’re riding a horse and have to cross a river, please, don’t change horses in midstream.’ ... Moments of crisis demand perseverance and silence; you need to stay put, be steadfast.”
What ties it all together, of course, is faith. And while you may not accept this conclusion, there is much to be taken from the book, which is marketed as a primer “on how to find joy in challenging circumstances”, drawing on nine years of papal speeches and pronouncements. Several passages explore the nature of religious experience and the value of retaining a youthful imagination lest one slip into “spiritual Alzheimer’s”.
The idea of giving your life meaning by focusing on a goal is not original to Catholicism but the pope expresses it in an urgent fashion. Some Christians, he writes, “deceive themselves by saying, ‘Look, I am walking.’ No, you’re not walking; you’re going around in circles!”
The idea of starting on a course and sticking with it happens to be one of Peterson’s key messages — the Canadian warns young people not to delay taking on responsibilities. He differs from Francis, however, in adding a layer of indignation towards those in society whom he claims are infantilising young adults or otherwise standing in the way of our march towards meaning.
That layer of blame appears to be highly effective in reaching young audiences. Certainly, it generates more noise on social media than Francis’s underlying ethic of forgiveness. “Mercy is the very heart of God!” the pope declares.
Returning to the question of what self-help book to choose, this column wishes it could give you definitive advice. But you’ll have to fall back on your own critical faculties, as people have been doing since someone first stood on a soapbox proclaiming to be a prophet.
If it helps, the pope gets four stars from me.
* A Gift of Joy and Hope by Pope Francis (translated by Oonagh Stransky) is published by Hodder and Stoughton (£16.99)