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Help for Those Who Help Themselves
Self-Help Books

Help for Those Who Help Themselves
  • The Constitution of Man Considered in Re... (by )
  • Emerson's Essay on Compensation (by )
  • Self-Help; With Illustrations of Charact... (by )
  • As a Man Thinketh (by )
  • As a Woman Thinketh, A Comedy (by )
  • Works and days (by )
  • Cicero's Three Books of Offices; Or, Mor... (by )
  • Ovid : The Art of Love (by )
  • The Herodes : Or Epistles of the Heroine... (by )
  • Cicero's L‘Lius on Friendship, With a Vo... (by )
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As of 2016, the self-help movement comprised an unregulated, $9.9 billion dollar industry in the United States alone. (That number does not include the amount spent on medications.) Self-help experts have become household names: Tony Robbins, Marianne Williamson, Wayne Dyer, Stephen Covey, Deepak Chopra, Zig Ziglar, and more. Reading such books as Men Are From Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) by John Gray, Ph.D. to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) by Stephen Covey, DRE, people seek to improve both their personal and professional lives.

This industry builds a hefty profit on the misery of its customers. The premise of the self-help industry manipulates unhappy people with hope and the promise of quick, easy fixes. Certified Life Coach Matthew Jones acknowledges this irony and posits that the self-help industry all too often focuses on the wrong thing: happiness from without. The process of happiness begins from within.

The ancients understood that, although they didn’t necessarily call what they did “self-help” or “self-improvement.” Such work most commonly fell under terms such as codes of conduct and moral instruction.

The earliest examples of self-help can be traced to Marcus Tullius Cicero’s On Friendship and On Duties, handbooks referred to through the centuries. Ovid tackled romantic relationships with Art of Love and Remedy of Love. In Works and Days, Hesiod used a hammer of morality to beat self-help instructions into his readers. In the early 1800s, George Combe revolutionized the self-help industry with his publication of The Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects (1835). Six years later, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Compensation” intrigued people seeking to improve their relationship to the world. Finally, in 1859, Samuel Smiles called it like he saw it with his book, Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character, Conduct, and Perseverance (1859), and attributed poverty to irresponsible habits rather than divine assignment.
Evolving from moral instruction and more or less spiritual philosophy, James Allen launched the power of positive thinking into the self-help arena with his landmark book As a Man Thinketh (1913). Not to forget the other half of humanity, Edith F. A. U. Painton wrote a self-help parody titled As a Woman Thinketh (1914). Dale Harbison Carnegie linked self-help to personal profit with his book How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936). The following year, Napoleon Hill published Think and Grow Rich (1937) which also capitalized on the financial benefits of self-improvement.

Emphasis on individual effort to community support grew with the understanding--not necessarily corroborated by the scientific method of research--that having others hold one accountable contributed to long-term success. This led to the popularization of such self-help processes as the 12-step program (1939) made famous by Alcoholic Anonymous.

By Karen M. Smith

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