Here it comes, the avalanche of brain-training books, following the leaps and bounds made in research in recent decades. As we learn about the brain, the self-help industry is following the neurons to a happier, healthier you. Also with a better memory.
A book called Train Your Brain to Get Happy crossed my path recently, so I picked it up. (Actually, I got a press release and requested a review copy from the publisher.) It’s not bad. It seems designed to appeal to people who like tinkering under the hood.
It starts by presenting theories and research on neurological feats of wonder, such as how memories come together; and the brain under the influence of anxiety and happiness. (Take the quizzes for your own enlightenment but the assessments basically tell you that however happy you are, it’s not enough.)
Then it has you pull out the wrenches and start tinkering, with tools such as basic cognitive-behavioral techniques, mindfulness techniques, ways to derail repetitive unhelpful thoughts, various brain-centric prescriptions for things that enhance happiness: fun, sex, food, sleep.
It’s a fine book, written by a neuroscientist and a specialist in biofeedback and meditation. It’s crunchy rather than touchy-feely, packs in practical techniques, and lends itself to skimming as well as reading, which is my favorite way to read self help books. (OK, at one point it does resort to urging us to “turn that frown upside down,” but these things happen.) It has lots of info-boxes, lots of white space, it’s solid as an issue of Popular Mechanics, though it is clearly aimed at women, who buy most self-help books.
Is this book better or worse than what’s out there already? I have no idea, although it does have the benefit of being brand new in a fast-changing field. It’s a solid book with useful information, and I know a friend who will like it so I’m going to pass it on.
Here’s the deal with self-help books: Except for a rare few that are worth keeping around for emergencies, (The Road Less Traveled, Getting the Love You Want, anything by John Gottman), they’re like comic books—you read ‘em and let ‘em go. Sometimes you get one piece of useful knowledge to incorporate in your life—if not forever, at least for the time being—and you hang on to that and give the book away.
Sometimes I buy self-help books, sometimes they drift through my life. I browse through them if I find them at friends’ houses. They turn up in vacation rentals. I riffle through a few when I’m in bookstores. And, of course, friends read them and pass them along.
Self-help books come in fads; today it’s brain training and mindfulness. This particular book is a tributary of the books-on-happiness fad, as positive psychology grows in prominence.
Some pundits see self-help as the downfall of everything. This is how Publisher’s Weekly describes the book SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless.
You! Yes, you! Are you addicted to self-help books? Do you require “empowerment” to reverse your “victimhood”? If so, relax—you’re far from alone. The Self-Help and Actualization Movement (the titular SHAM) is, according to Salerno, an $8-billion-a-year industry that depends on legions of repeat customers. Salerno presents a carefully researched—and devastating—exposé on SHAM’s predatory and fraudulent practices and its corrosive effects on society.
I haven’t read the book (I probably should) but that seems a little overheated to me. Books don’t kill people. People kill people. Few self-help books are dangerous. At worst, they’re ineffective, dull, or dumb. Sometimes a book will change your life, or maybe just one corner of your life. And not because it’s the best book ever, but because for whatever reason, it said something you needed to hear at that moment.
Best not to take self-help books too seriously, but no need to dismiss them altogether. And if you want to learn “The simple program that primes your gray cells for joy, optimism and serenity,” you can pick up Train Your Brain to Get Happy. You’ll find some good stuff in there. And then you can pass it along.