I’m not sure what it says about my personality, or my place in life, but I’m a sucker for self-help articles. No article about improving your life or dealing with a problem goes unclicked by me: loneliness, depression, difficult breakup, anxiety, boredom—I’m there. I guess I feel like people are the most honest and real when they’re in a difficult place. I like empathizing and sympathizing with people, and much of it I can relate to, or could at some point in my life. But after the plethora of stuff I’ve read, I’ve noticed a common theme. There is always a big build up and then a letdown. What I mean is this: the problem is always so wholly and accurately described. Self-help material starts with identifying your problem. It does a great job of this. It lays out all the symptoms and issues and negative side effects. It gets you saying, holy crap, that’s me! Sometimes they’ll bring in letters from other people with the same problems. The letters will describe your life to a tee. Oh my God! That’s exactly me! That’s exactly what I go through! It gets you excited. It makes you think that if the author so precisely knows your struggles, she must have an amazing solution. Wrong.
The solution is the letdown. After building you up, making it seem like the author of the article must’ve been following you around daily with a notepad, the solution is generic, thin, and obvious. There are two directions I can go for why I think this is. One is that there are no answers. And as tempting of a choice as this is for a cynic like me, I don’t believe that. I believe the problem is, we already know the answers. Humans have been around for quite a long time. The mess that is our social relationships, along with every negative emotion imaginable, has been documented and written about since Jesus Christ was thousands of years from being thought of. There’s nothing new under the sun. These problems that uniquely impact us are simply universal struggles, clichés of the broader human experience. We approach self-help material with the question, “What should I do?” We’re looking for an ‘aha’ moment, where we hear the perfect thing, and learn the perfect strategy. It doesn’t exist. There are no secrets to life. There are no magic tricks. Instead of asking “What should I do?” The question should be, “Can I do it?” You know what the solutions are. The hard part is to actually do them.
We all know what articles and books will say about the aforementioned problems. Lonely? Seek out social groups and participate in hobbies; don’t sit on the couch. Depressed? If seriously, seek help. If simply down, help someone less fortunate; talk about your problems to confidants; do things that make you happy; be happy for what you have; understand it will pass. Difficult breakup? Stay busy; pick up a new hobby; don’t shy away from grieving; treat yourself; understand that time helps; know there’s more fish in the sea. Anxious? Pinpoint what’s wrong; make a list of small things to cross off; change your thought patterns when your mind wanders; understand that worrying has never solved anything, but action has. This stuff is all pretty basic, and it probably works. That’s the point. It’s not what to do, but if you can do it. Will you really start a new hobby? Will you really seek professional help? Will you really volunteer to help people less fortunate? Will you really quit your job or divorce your partner if they’re making you unhappy? Will you really change your destructive behavior? Therein lies the hard work that is life.