Poor Me

In a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Americans stated that they were "happy" to "very happy" with their lives, a statistic which has proven exceptionally stable for decades. Why, then, has the self-help market grown so rapidly in recent years? In 2008, the industry is projected to reach a worth of $11 billion, a $2.5 billion increase from its worth in 2003. With the development of the publishing industry and communication technologies, "self-help" has been made available for purchase through infomercials, mail-order catalogs, books, audio cassettes, motivational speaker seminars, personal coaching, and self-management programs—all promising to increase your satisfaction with life. Similarly, the pharmaceutical industry is booming with sales of mood-altering medications created to carry consumers closer to euphoria. But somehow we never quite reach it.

This is perhaps because we were never supposed to. American history is littered with empty promises and unattainable ideals. Since our nation's inception, the American Dream told the world that here, anything is possible, that every citizen here is entitled to happiness and fulfillment. Our culture over time has defined happiness within a construction of normalcy. Yet, a minimal level of awareness disproves the existence of any lifestyle anywhere close to ubiquity. It is the work of the "self-help" market to prevent the public's realization of this truth.

Working within the larger machine of our culture, markets promoting therapeutic means of self-improvement strive to make truth of the allegation that if you do not live in a constant state of contentment, there must be something fundamentally wrong with you. You are not normal; you are the victim of a disorder, a disease, a dysfunction, and for three easy payments of $19.99, we can help you help yourself to fix that. And therein lies the paradox.

Are you truly helping yourself if you must purchase a book, attend a seminar, or follow steps in a program? If you are seeking help from a source outside yourself, is it really "self-help"? If you manage to truly improve yourself, you were never in need of help.

Still, the market thrives, the desperate effort toward contentment is so deeply entrenched in our society. In Atlanta alone, there are at least 84 anonymous support groups meeting weekly for persons experiencing supposedly abnormal emotions. You can find support for Adolescent Girls Coping With Stress, Codependents Anonymous, Stay-at-Home Moms, Relationship Addiction Recovery, Love Addicts, and even the relatives, friends and families of Love Addicts. Apparently, people have a spectrum of feelings. Apparently, that fact is a point of concern.

I would be surprised to meet a stress-free adolescent girl, and I'd dare to suggest that addiction to various types of relationships is indeed what makes us human. In recent decades, disease treatments have been developed for everything from excessive eating, sleeping, and smoking to excessive working, stealing, forgetfulness, television watching, and premenstrual tension.

When we promote conditions that are truly normal to the status of disease, we suffer the consequence of gravely reducing the significance of afflictions that have causes truly beyond an individual's control. There is a significant distinction between the victims of circumstance or status and those who are victims of their own behavior. There is a significant distinction between chemical imbalance and the natural sting of anxiety, heartbreak, or frustration.

A certain beauty exists in our struggles with sorrow. This blind obsession with some fantastical version of happiness could mean the death of creativity: the death of images, words, and sounds which evoke our most personal and visceral emotions and keeps us believing in something more profound.

You do not need a book, a video, or an audio cassette to help yourself. You cannot purchase your velocity toward satisfaction. And if you can, you don't need it.