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Self-help Tip: Question Authority

Seven Keys to Unlocking Your True Destiny:

• You are destined to be happy and successful: Don’t let circumstances, situations or people tell you otherwise. See obstacles as challenges instead of impossibilities.

• Become the person you already are: Find and cultivate the real you instead of conforming to the expectations of others.

• Don’t look back and don’t look forward. Look around instead: Take time to enjoy the present moment and appreciate the places and people that surround you.

• Your relationships reflect who you are: Improving relationships begins with improving yourself and valuing others.

• Find hope and trust in the source of life that is within you and greater than you. Let it empower you and be your strength during difficult times.

• Be a gift to others: You are unique and no one else can offer what you can.

• Give me money: Great gains involve sacrifice. Reset your priorities and demonstrate that you are not bound to material wealth. You will be blessed with an abundance of it in return.

The above points are rubbish. I created this list in five minutes before I could even finish the drink in my big red plastic cup. The above “keys” are similar to strategies presented in self-help books and workshops (and in some religious groups, too) and, as such, they should be viewed with a critical eye. And since many will look to purchase or enroll in self-help programs as part of a New Year’s resolution, I offer my self-help guide to avoiding self-help guides.

Check the qualifications of the author/teacher

Many self-help authors and teachers are not qualified or have dubious qualifications — not recognized by academic institutions (they are often self-proclaimed experts). Or they may have a college degree, but in an unrelated field. My degree in religion does not make me an expert in astrophysics or culinary arts. I teach the study of religion, and therefore may be familiar with fantasy and belief makers, but I have no idea how to teach people to be happy. In fact, loved ones tell me I have a knack for making people unhappy. Many readers already know this.

Don’t mistake experience for expertise

Many self-help books are published without any scientific evidence to support their assertions (the same holds true for religious claims), thus an emphasis on personal experience is used to compensate for this. The qualifications of self-help authors and teachers are often little more than they are happy and joyous people filled with a positive spirit or attitude. One should not mistake experience for expertise. Surviving food poisoning doesn’t qualify one to become a chef.

Resist the lure of quick solutions to long-term problems

Self-help books and classes often have titles with catch-phrases such as Practical Guide for … or Steps to … or How to find … happiness, love, better relationships or whatever the desired outcome may be. They promise simple, quick and easy ways to a better you. Most self-help products fail because complex issues can’t be resolved through quick solutions. Moreover, the solutions offered in the books and classes are often not solutions at all, but mere common sense couched in clever, pseudo-scientific or feel-good sayings and reflections. (See my list of “keys” above.) Don’t be fooled. There is little there that you didn’t already know before purchasing the book or enrolling in the class, and once the warm-and-fuzzy feeling wears off, you are left in the same situation you started with. Seek guidance from a qualified professional instead. Some religious leaders are qualified. Others are not. Check to see if yours is.

Self-help books and programs offer hope

Why, then, do people continue to invest themselves and their hard-earned money in self-help products? Indeed, the majority of clients are repeat customers. What the self-help movement and religion have in common is they offer hope. Change is possible. Simply buying a book or enrolling in a course or joining a worship service makes people feel better because they give the impression they are taking charge of their lives. As such, self-help products and religious groups in this vein like to toss around words such as empower, inspire, equip and hope. However, the momentary boost of inspiration will fade for the reasons described earlier.

There is little in terms of scientific evidence that indicates self-help books and programs actually work, or at least that they work better than doing something else or even doing nothing at all. But with such a large number of people buying self-help products, the law of averages tells us that some are bound to experience some degree of success, even if it is only temporary or imaginary. Often, those who have invested time and money into a product or religion in hopes of improving their personal situation will convince themselves that their investment was worth it, even though to most observers no significant change is evident. Instead — buyers will claim — an unintended, better than hoped for benefit was gained through the experience.

In short, self-help books and programs are like Las Vegas casinos. The sheer volume of them tells you all you need to know: It’s not the consumers or gamblers who are getting better or richer.

Repeated attempts at self-change through religion and self-help products despite a record of failure are a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit. They also underscore a troubling cycle associated with self-help programs and religious groups that peddle similar ideas.

First, self-help products and religions convince you that you should desire a better life.

Second, there is an initial burst of exhilaration and motivation at the thought of creating a new you.

Third, the momentary boost fades because the teachings don’t work.

Fourth, the consumer or follower is blamed for the failure — not enough dedication, faith, desire, etc., leaving the teacher or religion absolved from responsibility.

Fifth, a self-help product or religion convinces you that you ought to have a better life.

Repeat cycle.

While the sheer volume of self-help books and programs available may seem impressive, their very popularity undercuts their efficacy. If self-help products actually worked, there wouldn’t be a need for so many. Simply put, self-help guides don’t help. My self-help guide is proof of this.