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Are You a Self-Help Skeptic?

When faced with big complicated problems, rugged individualism doesn't work.

Having just released Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success, I’ve been very pleased to see the response, especially after The Globe and Mail published a 4,000-word excerpt. People who posted comments (and there have been plenty) were waiting for someone to tell them that meditation, a yoga mat and a macrobiotic diet were not going to change their lives forever, no matter what the self-help industry (think Gwyneth Paltrow) wants us to believe. While I loved the feedback, what was really weird was that anyone who posted a comment that argued that they were a self-made success, a rugged individual who created his or her own luck, was pounced on by the other readers. This was new territory for me where my books tend to draw comment but seldom a loyal fan base willing to defend my honor. I’m touched, if only for the recognition these posted comments bring to the people who educated me about the dangers of rugged individualism. The skeptics of self-help appear to be a silent majority.

Let me first settle the claim that self-help helps. If it did then why are health statistics so abysmal? Whether it's rates of obesity (hovering at over a third of Americans) or our excessive use of drugs to treat depression and anxiety, or days absent from work, all the statistics except one (the rate of divorce is going down, but only because so few people are getting married) are telling us that changing ourselves seldom produces long-term sustainable benefits to our mental or physical health.

So what does work? Personal motivation to change has to be matched by a world that changes around us at the same time. It is quite a simple, yet profoundly moving idea that is well-grounded in science. If you have a bad work situation, with a toxic boss, or colleagues who bully you, no amount of personal reflection or watching Youtube videos is going to solve that problem unless you change jobs. If you can’t change workplaces (and many of us can’t because of mortgages, health care coverage, or family commitments), then we might be able to make a horizontal move, asking for reassignment to tasks that take us away from the most toxic of our relationships on the job. It’s much the same kind of problem-solving that is characteristic of every chapter in Change Your World. Need more exercise? Change where you park your car and you will walk more. Need more support from a spouse or to feel loved by your kids? Forget about thinking positively and try cooking a meal that draws the family together at least three times a week. If everyone puts their smartphones in a drawer before they come to the table, even better.

These examples might seem a little trite, but there is an abundance of research that shows that there are at least twelve things we can do to ensure the world around us increases our capacity to cope when stress is unusually high. Among my favourite on the list are: maintain routine; find someone to whom you matter (forget all encompassing love—too difficult and fickle); seek out spaces and places where you experience fair treatment; do something to celebrate your culture; hang out with people and in places that give you a powerful identity, life purpose and a sense of control. Studies of resilience are very clear that long-term change requires us to not only change ourselves, but to also change the world around us. These external changes create a positive feedback loop that ensures any personal transformations we make are sustainable.

Resilience research also shows that no matter how many self-help books you read, or meditation tapes you listen to, the changes you make will last no longer than a few weeks after you stop the intensive work it took to make the change in the first place. Changing your world, on the other hand, opens up vast resources which reinforce personal change. It’s these external resources that both propel us forward and prevent us from sliding backwards.

This is especially true when we face big problems. There is a terrible myth that rugged individuals can succeed on their own, when we know that resourced individuals do much better when problems are enduring and complicated. This is the real shortcoming of the self-help industry. It tells us we can change our world without ever putting our challenges into context. How can the same strategy for success be just as useful for the mother of three who is living with an abusive husband making ends meet with a minimum wage job, and whose mother is struggling with Alzheimer’s, and a senior executive of a large tech corporation who is in a loving relationship with her wife and has no kids to worry about?

Here, then, is what I’ve learned from people all over the world (many of them, it seems, commenting on that newspaper article in The Globe and Mail).

1. Change yourself, if you can. Do the work. Look for ways of changing your thoughts, journal your emotions, and seek the help you need to adapt to the stress you experience. Diet. Elevate your mood by watching funny videos. Spend your time breathing. Sleep more. Each a little chocolate. Have sex (though that may take a change to your world, but give me a moment, I’m getting there). These changes all rely on us to do the work, mostly alone. They can get us started, but don’t expect change to endure unless your problems are small and manageable and you already have a rich world of opportunities and resources to fall back on.

2. Make the best use possible of the resources that are available. This second strategy is a great way of increasing the odds that we will succeed if we are a reasonably well-resourced individual. Have an ailing parent? Look for help from a local health care clinic. Use your vacation time strategically. Reach out to your siblings. If you are retiring and you are not coping well with the transition (most people don’t), look around for opportunities to continue to use your talents, volunteer, or return to a hobby that you may have long ago been shelved.

3. Find new resources. The bigger the problems you face, the more likely it is that you are going to need new sources of support. If your job is truly awful, you may want to look into new training and the financial support that you’ll need to develop new credentials. Problems with your spouse? Divorce may be a reasonable adaptation, especially if you can find other people and financial supports to help you through the transition. There are few challenges that can’t be overcome with the right network of supports to help us through a crisis.

4. Change your expectations. In Change Your World, I tell the story of a young man who wanted to become a doctor and tried over and over again to write the MCAT exams to qualify for admission to medical school. He failed each time. The real shame of the story was that he came from a well-resourced family who could have helped pay for any post-secondary training he wanted to pursue. He just had the wrong goal. In a case like this, the best solution can be to admit that our goal is the problem and even, sometimes, unattainable. Our world remains stubbornly the same. It won’t change. If that is the case, we have to start again. Change our goal, then look for opportunities that bring out our best.

I’m beholden to the many self-help skeptics who got fed up with being told “Just breathe and your troubles will go away." They are a silent army of protesters who know better. Until the world around us changes, we might make small adaptations in stressed environments, but they won’t last. Changing the world around is the real secret to success.

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