In New York magazine, Kathryn Schulz explains why self-help programs are so popular … and why they are so difficult for most of us:
In The Age of Anxiety, W.H. Auden observed that we human beings never become something without pretending to be it first. The corollary is more prosaic but, regrettably, at least as true: We humans never become most of the things we pretend we will someday be. Nevertheless, last Monday, you and I and several billion other incorrigible optimists raised our glasses and toasted all the ways we will be different in 2013.
It’s easy to understand why we want to be different. We are twenty pounds overweight; we are $20,000 in debt; we can’t believe we slept with that guy; we can’t believe we didn’t. What’s harder to understand is why transforming ourselves is so difficult. Changing other people is notoriously hard; the prevailing wisdom on that one is Don’t hold your breath. But it’s not obvious why changing oneself should present any difficulty at all. And yet, demonstrably, it does.
The noted self-help guru Saint Augustine identified this problem back in the fourth century A.D. In his Confessions, he records an observation: “The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted.” I cannot improve upon Augustine’s insight, but I can update his examples. Say you want to be skinny. You’ve signed on with Weight Watchers, taken up Zumba, read everything from Michael Pollan to French Women Don’t Get Fat, and scrupulously recorded your every workout, footstep, and calorie on your iPhone. So whence the impulsive Oreo binge? [. . .]
This is where the cheerfully practical and accessible domain of self-help bumps up against one of the thorniest problems in all of science and philosophy. In the 1,600 years since Augustine left behind selfhood for sainthood, we’ve made very little empirical progress toward understanding our own inner workings. We have, however, developed an $11 billion industry dedicated to telling us how to improve our lives. Put those two facts together and you get a vexing question: Can self-help work if we have no idea how a self works?