can one achieve happiness? It’s the eternal question. From
Aristotle to Al-Ghazali, Thomas Aquinas to Arthur Schopenhauer. The
answer, we’re told, is to look within. These days, we’re told
repeatedly by our modern philosophers, Oprah Winfrey, Srikumar Rao,
Tony Robbins, Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra and other corporate
happiness monitors that prosperity and fulfillment come through
deep introspection and mindfulness—just pay for more inspiring
books, videos, retreats, seminars, and classes!
prescriptions, while ostensibly useful in the short term for
answering personal questions or alleviating stress, all fall within
the genre of self-help. The trouble is, on the whole, they’re not
very helpful at all. The self-help industry is predicated on the
ever-American and thoroughly capitalist concepts of rugged
individualism and personal responsibility, arguing that if you have
a problem, it’s invariably up to you, and only you, to fix it.
Meanwhile, it imparts the appearance of virtue and legitimacy with
hollow, cherry-picked references to Christianity, Buddhism,
Hinduism, and psychology.
recent years, there’s rightfully been a new crop of criticism
leveled against the self-help industry, with books offering
“anti-self-help” alternatives for improving one’s life, calling for
people to relax and stop placing so much pressure on themselves.
Still, many of these critiques embrace the same form of
individualism as the media they decry, ignoring the reality that
the best way to ‘help’ people is to ensure their material
needs—like housing, food, and healthcare—are
this episode, we’ll chronicle the development of modern self-help
culture, from its 19th-century protestant, capitalist roots to its
modern ambassadors; analyze how self-help culture promotes the
values of neoliberalism; examine the ways in which modern
mainstream critiques of the self-help industry fall short,
embracing the same reactionary principles they should be rebuking,
and dissect the profound institutional incentives that compel us to
prioritize solipsism over solidarity.
guest is political economist and author William