Looking on the bright side
Most people, at some time in their adult lives, would have hit a low point, at which time they might have sighed and, utterly defeated, said: "At least I have my health." That may sound like a way of using a sunny outlook to help defeat a dark mood, but a recent Canadian study suggests that trying to think positively - a philosophy which has formed the backbone of the self-help industry - may sometimes make us feel worse.
The study, carried out by researchers from the University of Waterloo and the University of New Brunswick and published in the journal Psychological Science, found that if you hear something you disbelieve, you're unlikely to suddenly change your position. In fact, you would be inclined to stick to your guns even more. If you feel negatively about yourself on an average morning, the researchers concluded, the smiley-face affirmation Post-it on the bathroom mirror is only going to make you feel more depressed.
Does this mean that Norman Vincent Peale, the author of the 1952 self-help book The Power of Positive Thinking, had it all wrong? "This recommendation, to use positive self-statements, is prevalent in our culture and yet it has never been put to the test," says Joanne Wood, a co-author of the study, in explaining why the researchers decided to challenge Peale's assumption. "We had reason to think they may not work as claimed."
The researchers created two groups from a selection of people scoring in the top and bottom thirds of an esteem questionnaire. "We invited them into the lab and assigned them to a positive statement condition or control. In both, they were asked to write down their thoughts and feelings in addition to a writing task. They were asked to repeat the statement 'I am a loveable person', which we chose because we found it in so many self-help books."
The group with high self-esteem reported a slight increase in positivity, but those with low self-esteem reported feeling much worse after the mantra. "It holds an intuitive appeal to believe that positive affirmations should work. And they do work to a degree for people with existing high self-esteem, which reinforces the widely held belief that they work," explains Wood. "But for people with low self-esteem, they make them feel worse.
"People who have low self-esteem hear contradictory thoughts. They think 'I'm not so loveable' when they repeat a statement that doesn't fit their self-view." Fans of the self-help genre may disagree. Jannicke Hallum, 37, an IT consultant from Norway who lives in Dubai, says that reading Happy for No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out helped her tackle a negative attitude. "I hadn't been feeling very happy and was fed up generally; nothing was working - my job, my relationships," says Hallum. "I was working really long hours and had moved countries. When you do that you become alienated from your friends. The book is about how to be happy. The theory is that your happiness comes from you, not from possessions or other people."
She says her friends had commented on her pessimistic attitude and the book offered a fresh perspective. "You will never be able to live by every rule in every book, but if you pick up two or three and take those with you, then I don't see why that isn't a good thing." Hallum says that since reading The Secret she tries to focus on what she wants, rather than what could go wrong or what isn't working.
"I changed how I think after reading that. I was always thinking about the bad stuff and dreading what could go wrong instead of focusing on what I would like to happen. I think I was living ahead and not enjoying the moment." For Mary Jane Michael, 35, a restaurant manager from the UK who lives in Dubai, reading Dale Carnegie's classic self-help tome How to Win Friends and Influence People 15 years ago has influenced her way of dealing with people ever since.
"There is something in there that has always stuck and I live by this and that is the importance of remembering people's names. In the hospitality industry, if a guest walks into a hotel and you remember their name and their particular preferences, you can make them feel like a VIP. That has helped improve my confidence in my career and I've taught my employees to do that as well." Helen Williams, a counsellor at Counselling Dubai, believes that turning to a book can be a good idea for people who are seeking ways of enhancing and furthering their understanding and self-awareness. However, those who lack discernment in choosing books, or those who may be in denial about their need for psychological or psychiatric help, may find them harmful.
"In some instances our choice of self-help literature can serve to collude with our own denial. While there are numerous excellent and powerful books on the market, there are also many which deal with serious topics in a very trite manner, providing little real help. "There are some excellent books dealing with the topic of self-esteem, especially those that address ideas and strategies for constructing a foundation for building self-esteem and which provide clear messages about our destructive inner self-critical voice. People with low self-esteem tend to have a pattern of very strong self-criticism and when this is adequately addressed, their esteem becomes healthy."
No matter what your view, there is no denying that the industry is booming. According to Michael Seet, the merchandising manager of the Kinokuniya bookstore in Dubai, around three to five per cent of its monthly revenue comes from the sale of self-help books. This percentage does not include business books such as CV doctors or books about self-improvement in the workplace. "Self-help has always been popular, especially if we are talking about the American publishers, where this is a big segment," Seet says. "Even the authors that were popular 10 years ago, like Anthony Robbins or Stephen Covey, are today still a staple of almost any bookshop."
This certainly seems to be the case. Go into any bookstore and even the smallest outlet is likely to have a well stocked self-help section. More likely than not, you will find people turning to advice from Rich Dad, Poor Dad and poring over titles with names like Change Your Life in Seven Days and Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Wood is convinced that is not always a good idea. "It's frustrating because there are all these self-help books out there and they are not based on research. People don't realise that there is little empirical evidence to support them," she says.
Wood continues that books like You Can Heal Your Life aren't based on science or research, and titles such as The Self Esteem Workbook or Ten Days to Self Esteem won't necessarily help people who should really be seeing a therapist or cognitive behaviour specialist. Williams agrees in some part with Wood's theory. "Many people can testify to a life-changing experience through reading a book which really spoke to them. But just repeating positive affirmations when faced with real and distressing circumstances can serve to underline the difficulty of those circumstances and further enhance a person's distance from reality. This is neither helpful nor useful and can produce feelings of hopelessness and apathy instead."