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How "Self-Optimization" Books Reveal the Values and Priorities of Our Time


In the January 2018 issue of the New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz surveys a handful of what might be termed “anti-self-help” guides, which examine and critique the recent popularity of books about “optimizing” the self. Schwartz asserts that “self-help advice tends to reflect the beliefs and priorities of the era that spawns it”; based on the dominant self-help trend of today, ours is an era that prioritizes individual adaptation to harsh and unjust social conditions, rather than the collective transformation of them. Here’s an excerpt from Schwartz’s piece:

Self-help advice tends to reflect the beliefs and priorities of the era that spawns it. A decade ago, the reigning champion of the genre was “The Secret,” published in 2006 by an Australian, Rhonda Byrne. Like Norman Vincent Peale before her, Byrne combined a literal interpretation of select verses from the Christian Bible—notably Matthew 21:22, “Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, ye shall receive”—with the acquisitive gospel of positive thinking. If you sent a wish out into the universe with enough faith, she told her readers, it could come to pass. Want to find a husband? Clean out a closet for the man of your dreams and imagine him hanging up his ties. Want to get rid of your glasses? Picture yourself acing your next vision exam and kiss those progressive lenses goodbye. In retrospect, “The Secret,” which sold more than twenty million copies worldwide, seems a testament to the predatory optimism that characterized the years leading up to the financial crisis. People dreamed big, and, in a day of easy money, found that their dreams could come true. Then the global economy crashed, and we were shaken violently awake—at least for a time.

In our current era of non-stop technological innovation, fuzzy wishful thinking has yielded to the hard doctrine of personal optimization. Self-help gurus need not be charlatans peddling snake oil. Many are psychologists with impressive academic pedigrees and a commitment to scientific methodologies, or tech entrepreneurs with enviable records of success in life and business. What they’re selling is metrics. It’s no longer enough to imagine our way to a better state of body or mind. We must now chart our progress, count our steps, log our sleep rhythms, tweak our diets, record our negative thoughts—then analyze the data, recalibrate, and repeat.

Image: Carl Cederström and André Spicer, authors of Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement (2017). Via