How to Help Yourself

According to this great piece from Christina Whelan, public perception of the self-help demographic is all wrong.  Evidently we tend to assume that folks buying self-help literature are helpless, but in fact people who buy self-help materials already have a high measure of self control, and want even more:

[W]ho tends to buy self-help books and attend self-help seminars? Those with enough self-control and success to value it–and want even more. Here’s why:

Self-Efficacy: There’s a difference between feeling good about yourself (self-esteem) and feeling proud of successful changes you’ve made in your life (self-efficacy). People who believe they can change are more likely to be able to actually do so, and they will also be happier people, researchers find. And unless you think your goals can be achieved, what’s the point in trying? Self-help readers have a high sense of self-efficacy.

Demographics: Middle-aged, educated, affluent people have the self-efficacy, the social support system, and also the resources to change their behavior. Midlife is a time where people are most in control of various spheres of their life –family, career, financial–so they are free to seek control in other aspects of their lives. (For more on this, see O’Donoghue and Rabin’s contribution on “Self-Awareness and Self-Control” in Time and Decision: Economic and Psychological Perspectives on Intertemporal Choice)

But education and affluence are crucial to self-control: Those who are in an extremely powerless status are more likely to be unhappy and feel directed by forces outside their control. Inversely, people who are equipped with a sense of power and self-efficacy are less likely to feel overwhelmed, even in situations of high demand.

Indeed, studies repeatedly find that children from poorer homes do worse on delayed gratification tests than children from middle-class homes, perhaps because of a less predictable environment among the less well-off, where one thinks in the short term because the long term is too up-in-the-air.

This all seems really obvious, but maybe that’s just resonance because it’s right.  I didn’t realize that people’s perception of the self-help demographic presumed them to start from a helpless place.

I love Whelan’s distinction between self efficacy and self esteem.  The idea of self esteem tends to assume a “jumping off” point at which someone begins with an already-amassed degree of confidence.  Pursuing self efficacy, on the other hand, presumes only that someone own their strengths and weaknesses and go forward determined to improve.

And, to illustrate the self control impulses, here’s the test we’ve all read but is worth a gratuitously adorable look:


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