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Does self-help actually help anyone?

Louise Chunn reports from a seminar that weighed up the pros and cons of self-help

Advertised as a self-help summit, Saturday’s half day seminar, organised by The School of Life in association with Psychologies gave every side of the story of modern day self-improvement. From sceptic Professor Richard Wiseman — “You never see just one self-help book in anyone’s home. People they have masses, which proves they don’t work,” to the intellectual author and self-help advocate Alain de Botton who says: “It’s just snobbery that stops serious thinkers accepting the self-help messages in everyone from Chekhov to Schopenhauer.” And they served smiley face biscuits during the break.

A sell-out audience, many of them readers of Psychologies, crammed into the former council chambers of the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green, curious to know more. Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman was a witty and encouraging moderator, teasing out what was good and bad about what is on offer.

Philosopher/business consultant Robert Rowland Smith and former Anglican priest Mark Vernon evoked the power of the ancient philosophers and Freud to get us thinking about the human pursuit of happiness. They agreed that making happiness a target is not necessarily a good thing and that we each needed to figure out what our own idea of happiness is, and not copy others.

The redoubtable psychotherapist Philippa Perry kicked off her section with an explanation of the formation of the limbic system in a baby’s brain and its effect on our emotions. She reminded us of the importance of relationships with people we can trust, and “good stress” — the motivation to learn new things as a tool in the building of a positive life.

Robert Kelsey is a former journalist and investment banker who had nothing but scorn for self-help books: over-simplifying, over-promising, cheesey, self-indulgent. Right? Then, when his life hit the buffers, he read a slew of them, found they helped, and has now written his own: 'What’s Stopping You?'. For Ed Halliwell, another participant, the turnaround was mindfulness, which he came to when he had given up trying to overcome depression.

A fiery section pitted the scientist Prof Richard Wiseman against sociologist Frank Furedi, and both of them against Nic Marks who runs a centre for Well-Being. This was punchy political stuff with Wiseman pouring scorn on slopply, unscientific writing and claiming that almost all received self-help opinion was bogus, Furedi blaming the government for devaluing our individual decision-making, “as if they know better than us”, and Marks evangelically exhorting us to “connect, be active, take notice, keep learning, and give” in order to live well.

Finally came de Botton in conversation with Burkeman, a great pairing. De Botton explained his frustration with the dry humanities approach to understanding the meaning of  life — “At least Oprah is asking the right questions. We are all vulnerable — it’s not bad, it’s universal.” And what would make self-help more acceptable? “Better writers writing self-help.” Which is the crux of the seminar’s findings— good self-help is valid, empowering and effective; bad self help is not.

One member of the hugely appreciate audience noted that it was a very British event and quipped “I could have done with some more high-fiving”. For me, it was perfectly absorbing, and fun too.