Richard G. Petty, MD

The Changing Landscape of Self-Help

The self-help movement has been through three phases, and we are now entering a fourth phase, which is, I think, the most exciting of all.

The first phase began with those philosophers, both Eastern and Western, who first began to talk about human freedoms and our capacity as humans to use the powers of our minds to influence our emotions, beliefs, attitudes and life circumstances. There is a clear line running from Plato and Aristotle, through philosophers like Marcus Aurelius (the same person who was such an important figure at the beginning of the movie Gladiator), Saint Augustine, Francois de La Rochefoucauld, Emanuel Swedenborg, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Emerson. In the east, both Buddha and Lao-Tzu talked about the way in which our minds construct our reality.

The second phase built on the insights of these good people with the growth of the “Positive Thought” movement, which started rather over a hundred years ago and revolved around the idea that “thoughts are things”, and was buttressed by folk psychology. That is common sense psychology. Names like Ernest Holmes, Charles Haanel, Napoleon Hill and Earl Nightingale were some of the standard bearers of this phase. The trouble with commonsense psychology is that a lot of commonsense turns out to be wrong. Let me give you an example. In recent years there has been a lot written about self-esteem. This remains a poorly defined term in psychological research, but the National Association for Self-Esteem (NASE) defines healthy self-esteem as “the experience of being capable of meeting life’s challenges and being worthy of happiness.”

The theory has been that if you have low self-esteem, that is a bad thing, so boosting your self-esteem must be a good thing. Indeed entire educational systems have been built up around this idea. I lived through a time in Britain when some people tried to ban competitive games on the grounds that competition is bad and that if someone lost, it might damage their self-esteem and cause them psychological damage.

There is a very interesting study that came out in 1989, comparing mathematical competence in students in eight different countries. Korean students ranked the highest in mathematical skills, while those in the United States had the lowest rating. Now the study had an interesting sting in the tail: the researchers asked the students to rate how good they thought they thought they were at mathematics. The American students who did so poorly, actually had the highest overall opinion of their ability, while the Koreans who had the best results had the lowest opinion of their abilities.

I was reminded of that study by watching a few minutes of an early episode of American Idol on which Simon Cowell was skewering some of the contestants, who then protested loudly despite that they were brilliant, despite having just given a lamentable performance. There is good quality scientific research that has shown that self-esteem has little or no effect on personal goals, academic achievement, healthy lifestyles or interpersonal relationships. Indeed, there are several studies suggesting that inflated self-esteem may be dangerous: extremely high self-esteem can make some people narcissistic and is a feature of many sociopaths and some psychiatric illnesses. People who have exaggerated views about their self-worth often become hostile if they are criticized or rejected. It seems clear that boosting self-esteem on its own does not seem to do anything very much. But having it raised by achievement is very valuable.

The third phase of development of the self-help movement incorporated some pop psychology and some experimental work. I am thinking of pop psychology like the false dichotomy of right and left hemispheres of the brain, or the primacy of channeling emotion to get tasks completed. It led to claims that all that was necessary for success was to learn this, or master that, and you would be successful beyond your wildest dreams. We were instructed to live more passionately, to generate a burning desire for something, to have an unshakable belief that we would be successful, to set clear goals, to create a plan of action, to persist, affirm, visualize, give ourselves permission to succeed. The list goes on and on. I am quite certain that each of them was correct and that each has helped a lot of people, but in our changing world, mastering any one of those will not be as effective as using all of them together. We also saw the problems that could sometimes occur when folk took little bits of psychological research out of context and tried to apply it to human problems.

We are now entering a fourth phase, in which sophisticated empirical research is driving a new psychological enterprise. Much of the credit for this new approach must go to Marty Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, who has become the guru of positive psychology. I know that many people have been surprised when I, and others, make self-help recommendations, not based solely on my personal experience, but also rooted in careful research. We are now entering an exciting time, and the challenge is to see which self-help programs really hold water, and to use the scientific method to improve them further.

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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