You Can Heal Your Life

The self-help genre has become a booming American export, and a precarious stand-in for mutual aid and mental health resources.

A few weeks ago, when a student from the university book club asked me to recommend an autobiography by a “successful person,” I immediately knew, without needing an explanation, what he meant. By “successful” he meant wealthy, preferably a Silicon Valley CEO, the likes of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg or sundry other titans of disruption. As with other books that promise to reveal the secrets to fortune, happiness, productivity, and what passes for “success,” these kinds of tech billionaire tell-alls are extremely popular worldwide. But they’re especially well-regarded among the students who attend the university I work at in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and in much of the post-Soviet world. The ubiquity of self-help books—particularly among young people—struck me immediately when I first moved to Central Asia: walking through the halls, eating lunch in the cafeteria, or attending talks on campus, I would hear students eagerly sharing tips they had read on how to optimize their mornings and develop their “soft skills,” to think more positively and set better goals. These students enthusiastically read Rich Dad, Poor Dad and How to Win Friends and Influence People and (yikes) Jordan Peterson books. There’s even a special club devoted to twice-monthly discussions about self-actualization, where students can share tips and compare notes on their favorite self-improvement guides.

American-style self-help books, as any of these students could attest, command an international readership. The first Japanese self-help book, Fukuzawa Yukichi’s 1868 An Encouragement of Learning, quoted from the Declaration of Independence and drew upon the ideas of Benjamin Franklin, whose Poor Richard’s Almanac and The Way to Wealth are often considered early examples of the genre (though it’s worth pointing out that many histories of self-help are beset by Americentrism). In China, the genre’s ascent began in the 1980s and paralleled the country’s move towards liberal economic policies. In Latin America, some estimates put self-help books’ share of the publishing market at 20 percent.

Yet despite the international reach of the self-help movement, much of the writing on the subject focuses narrowly on its instantiation in the United States. Even books critical of the genre—such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided and Steve Salerno’s Sham—focus only on the self-help industry’s impact in the United States. Indeed, many authors go further and assert without evidence that the self-help movement is mainly—or even solely—an American phenomenon, an idea perhaps nowhere more succinctly expressed than in the title of Tom Tiede’s book Self-Help Nation. For many writers on the topic, the key to the industry’s popularity lies in some unique quirk or flaw in what they assert to be America’s national character. In Self Help, Inc., Micki McGee writes that the genre embodies the idea of rags-to-riches self-fashioning that has historically been at the heart of the American mythos. A piece for the Organization of American Historians argues that self-help methods like positive thinking are “distinctly, if not uniquely, American,” linking it both to the “pursuit of happiness” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and to a certain American skepticism of those in power. And another piece in The New York Times dubs self-improvement “a deeply embedded American trait, something other cultures find both admirable and amusing.” For these authors, the notion of college students in Kyrgyzstan devouring The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People would be not just surprising—it would be all but unimaginable.

These authors are certainly not wrong to observe that the genre is booming in the United States—in 2019 alone, the self-help industry raked in some $11 billion in America, largely from a Boomer-age readership. But they err in assuming that America is exceptional in this way. When other countries are brought into the picture, the easy assertions about self-help as a fundamentally American phenomenon quickly become untenable. What also becomes clear is that explanations rooted in generalizations about “Americanness” (which are in any case specious at best) rarely dig beneath assumptions about readers’ values and beliefs to address the material circumstances of the people who buy these books. The United States and post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan might not share the stories of Horatio Alger or the enshrinement of “the pursuit of happiness” in foundational legal documents, but they do share pervasive labor precarity, a lack of social safety nets, and flaws in their democracies that make it understandable for working people to doubt their ability to effect meaningful change in their lives via the electoral process, and to search for more individualized means of improving their lives.

As other authors—including those mentioned above—have noted, self-help (while it precedes the advent of neoliberalism itself) is deeply connected to the way neoliberalism celebrates the individual, lowering readers’ aspirations for the future from system transformation to personal benefit. Steven Covey instructs readers in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “If I really want to improve my situation, I can work on the one thing over which I have control—myself.” Dale Carnegie comes to the same conclusion in How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Everybody in the world [italics mine] is seeking happiness,” he writes, “and there is one sure way to find it. That is by controlling your thoughts. Happiness doesn’t depend on outward conditions. It depends on inner conditions.” Self-help’s emphasis on positive thinking and changes within effectively depoliticizes discontent, instructing readers not to analyze external factors or seek a redress of grievances but merely to adjust their attitudes. Readers might be encouraged to pray, to visualize themselves attaining their goals, but never to agitate, organize, or strike. The cruel flipside of these books’ chirpy insistence that any obstacle may be overcome through changes in mindset or habits is that those who do not ascend the rungs of the economic ladder must have only themselves to blame.

As a result of self-help’s focus on individual happiness and individual gains, the social world they lay out is one of competition instead of collaboration. Many books of this type uncritically embrace the accumulation of wealth, laying out instructions for readers on how to get rich and gain power over others. Carnegie instructs readers to smile, to drop the name of their interlocutors into the conversation as frequently as possible, to let others do the majority of the talking—all in the name of being more persuasive, likeable, and professionally successful. Here, social interactions are reduced to eerie games of influence, and autonomous people become prizes to be won. In giving instructions on how to join the elite rather than critiquing the inequality upon which the idea of an elite is premised, self-help books serve only to normalize existing unjust power structures.

The neoliberal ideas these books mirror have been shipped to Kyrgyzstan like so many copies of The Secret, propagated by the bevvy of pro-business development agencies that have set up shop along the avenues of central Bishkek since the fall of the Soviet Union. Viewed in this context, the self-help guides so popular among young people here serve as apologias for the economic policies and political restructuring for which these agencies are advocates—and which the United States promotes abroad for its own gain. 

Prior to the breakup of the USSR, those self-improvement books and pamphlets that were available to Soviet citizens focused on the cultivation of traits such as industry and self-sacrifice, values seen as crucial to the project of building communism. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a commercial publishing industry emerged that was no longer governed by Soviet aesthetics, ethical principles, legal strictures, or censorship codes. Private publishers began favoring light, poppy, entertaining reads, the kinds of books that would fly off the shelves and turn a profit. Interest in positive thinking and pop psychology began to shoot up (so too, interestingly, did interest in magic and faith healers). When How to Win Friends and Influence People was first translated into Russian in 1989, it quickly sold out. 

But the embrace of a recognizable “self-help” genre in the post-Soviet world owes itself not just to ease of reading: at a time of profound upheaval and uncertainty, such books promise a sure, straight path to a brighter future. More to the point, they also claim to provide solutions to problems engendered by the very transition to capitalism itself. In her research into the popularity of self-help literature in post-Soviet Russia, sociologist Suvi Salmenniemi argues that part of the appeal of these pop psychology books lies in the fact that they are far cheaper alternatives to conventional mental or physical healthcare after the collapse of the Soviet health system. In addition, she suggests, the desire to turn inward and change the self may reflect a deep pessimism at the ability to change the system. This idea points to the fact that self-help is neither an American genre nor a global phenomenon but specifically a capitalist one.

Art by Skutch

In a similar manner, the ideas espoused by many self-help gurus intersect not only with individualistic ideas in general but specifically with the kinds of neoliberal policies (privatization, deregulation, and the slashing of government spending) that have hobbled the public sector in the countries they are professing to aid. But while many critics have noted the way in which neoliberal ideas of individualism have been adopted by the self-help industry, the opposite phenomenon—whereby institutions that promote neoliberal economic policies take on self-help jargon—has garnered little attention. Yet traces of the vocabulary and logic of the self-help genre can be seen in the writing of aid and development programs that work in Central Asia and elsewhere. Words like “self-sufficiency,” “maturation,” “prosperity,” “resilience,” “entrepreneurship,”—even the concept of “development” itself—echo the kinds of language one might find in a self-help guide. Indeed, USAID has been referring to its projects abroad as “self-help” since the 1960s. These could not function as catchy buzzwords if the self-help industry and its logic had not already won popular acceptance among the donor class and those who work in the “development” sector.

A closer examination of many of these development programs reveals that self-help words and phrases are deliberately used to make pro-privatization agendas more appealing. In 2018, USAID announced that it was adopting the “Journey to Self-Reliance” as one of its core principles. One tenet of this journey, USAID’s website reads, is “collaborat[ion] with the private sector to co-create and co-design market-based and enterprise-led development approaches…. Given the growing and vital role the private sector has in solving global development problems, private sector engagement is essential to building resilient and lasting self reliance.” Expanding upon this last point, USAID Administrator Mark Green writes of the organization’s commitment to “market-based approaches across all areas of our work, from economic growth, power, agriculture, and global health to humanitarian assistance, women’s empowerment, education, and addressing crisis and conflict” in order to “provide greater opportunities for American businesses.” A look at USAID’s “roadmaps” to self-reliance reveals that countries are assessed and ordered based on categories such as “business environment” and “trade freedom,” while metrics for things like wealth inequality are left out.

USAID is not the only such organization to adopt the language of self-help for the promotion of what are essentially neoliberal programs. Multiple World Bank research papers write in praise of so-called “self-help groups” that provide microloans and are often run by and for women. As a number of economists critical of such programs have pointed out, in addition to being of questionable efficacy in the long run, microfinance institutions are ultimately premised upon the idea that bettering one’s quality of life is an endeavor to be undertaken at the level of the individual entrepreneur rather than through collective struggle—the very same logic undergirding so many self-improvement regimens. What’s more, here and elsewhere, using the language of “self-help” erases the role of development organizations themselves in pushing certain agendas and working towards certain goals, instead putting everything on the communities themselves. When projects are framed as self-help, the implication is that their success or failure depends solely on the local people involved, with no mention of the international actors involved or the overarching economic systems in which they exist.

How have neoliberal international development agencies “self-helped” Central Asia? Attempts to make Kazakhstan’s education system “more efficient” in the 1990s led to the closure of thousands of preschools and smaller, “inefficient” schools in the countryside. In one of the areas of Tajikistan most affected by the country’s Civil War, the introduction of a steep new fee system for medications left many who were already barely surviving on aid unable to afford direly needed medication. And in Kyrgyzstan, which has adopted more of these types of policies than anywhere else in the region, the privatization of what were formerly collective farms after the Soviet Union’s collapse decimated rural economies and spurred a massive exodus of laborers from the countryside to the capital in search of work. Meanwhile, Bishkek’s move from building social housing to high-rise apartments has forced many of these poor migrants to build their own make-shift homes on the city’s periphery, sometimes adjacent to health hazards. Viewed in this context, self-help books’ exhortations to “think positive” and “practice gratitude” seem like paper swords in a fight against massive and systemic problems. 

Far from revealing the fundamental flaws in self-help dogma’s uncompromisingly individualistic approach, the current pandemic has in many cases only strengthened people’s faith in the ability of such methods to tackle problems. “Let’s stay positive,” my Russian teacher says to me at the end of each Zoom lesson, or “Sending you positive thoughts”—even as cases in Bishkek skyrocket, reports come out of patients dying outside hospital doors because there aren’t enough beds, and calls for the government to reveal what they have done with the millions in emergency aid they received have gone unanswered. In the worst instances, this embrace of positive thinking goes beyond a search for comfort and becomes actively harmful: a friend of mine who works as an English teacher recounted the story of a pupil who laughed off the threat of the virus because she believed her inexhaustible reserves of optimism rendered her invulnerable even as the incidence of infection spiked. 

In an ever-growing crisis such as this one, it’s understandable when people cast about for any philosophical plank to keep themselves emotionally afloat. But these modes of thinking exist within the same moral ecosystem that has fostered the conditions for the pandemic in Central Asia. They have created an environment in which contingent workers—some indebted due to high-interest microloans from “self-help groups”—must forego social distancing and continue working to put food on the table for their families, and in which many living in “illegal” peripheral settlements lack access to hospitals

The self-help genre’s narrow-minded focus on the individual contrasts with traditional Central Asian models of community betterment. In Kyrgyzstan, the concept of ashar (known as assar in Kazakhstan and hashar in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) denotes communal mobilization of resources and labor, either to help individual community members (by pitching in to erect a home, for instance) or to create public utilities such as irrigation channels. While these terms are sometimes rendered in English as “self-help,” they differ markedly from the narrow individualism usually associated with the term and might more accurately be rendered “mutual aid.” It’s a concept that has survived despite the major upheavals in Central Asian society over the last century, from the forced settlement of nomads by the Soviets to mass internal migration in more recent years. Without romanticizing the practice or positioning it as a cure-all to modern social ills, we might see within ideas like ashar some inspiration for modes of life improvement that decenter the individual and avoid monetizing social goods.

In 1989, a movement calling itself Ashar arose in Bishkek to combat housing discrimination against migrants from the countryside, who were primarily ethnic Kyrgyz and non-Russian speakers at a time when the city had a Russian (and by extension Russophone) majority. In solidarity with migrants unable to obtain land or housing through official channels, members of Ashar seized land in the south of the city and squatted, setting up their own encampment. Today, the legacy of Ashar’s squat lives on in the neighborhood of Kok-Jar, about twenty minutes’ walk from where I live, which in the intervening 30 years has transformed from an informal squat to an officially incorporated part of the city. Now its residents not only have housing but have also gained access to municipal utilities and services and won the right to vote in city elections. These victories would not have been possible without the Ashar movement’s dedication to collective—and not merely individual—betterment. Kok-Jar is a reminder etched into the fabric of the city of the improvements that can be gained not through positive thinking or goal visualization but struggle—and an invitation to consider how the Kyrgyzstan of 30 years from now will look if that struggle for a better collective future continues.

There are many who stand to profit from the success of self-help philosophy in Central Asia, readers not included. But as I listen to students talking about the latest pro-productivity tome they’ve read over our weekly Zoom book club meetings each Saturday, the difficulty of pushing back against the individualism that these books have helped inculcate in Central Asia’s young people hits home. When these students graduate, when they pack their things and return to Tashkent, to Dushanbe, to Osh, to Kabul—what ideas about the world, about what constitutes a just society and what we owe our neighbors, will they bring back with them? If self-help books are premised upon the idea that the only thing we have the power to change is ourselves, perhaps as educators our first step in the fight against the pernicious influence of How to Win Friends and Influence People might be fostering the imagination that these authors lack: the imagination needed to understand the emotional and material needs of others, to link effect to structural cause, and to create a brighter future together.

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