by Paul Pearsall
Basic Books, 2005
Review by Christian Perring on Feb 5th 2008
Paul Pearsall's antidote to self-help books is both refreshing and disappointing. Pearsall is very critical of the self-help industry, including the hundreds of self-help books available in bookstores and also media figures such as Dr. Phil who dispense advice about how to that not only lacks scientific backing, but is also more often than not simply wrong. He then goes on to provide his own view of the world that goes against the sorts of ideas most commonly advocated by self-help authors. Unfortunately, Pearsall often lapses into making claims that are just as lacking in scientific justification.
Pearsall is described on the book cover as an "internationally recognized neuropsychologist." (His website lists his current employment as "Clinical Professor, Department of Nursing, University of Hawaii at Manoa" although his name is not listed on their website.) His long list of books are clearly aimed at a popular readership however, with titles such as Super Marital Sex: Loving for Life, The Ten Laws of Lasting Love, and Toxic Success: How to Stop Striving and Start Thriving. It's not entirely clear whether he really believes that people should stop reading self-help books, but it seems from his publishing record and from most of what he says that he does think it is possible to help oneself psychologically by reading a book. He main point is that the advice given by books should be based on scientific facts rather then psychological myths. Further, he argues that the evidence shows that most of the assumptions are contradicted by the findings of scientific psychology.
In order to make his point, he gives a sweeping characterization of self-help books, lumping them all together. Yet his characterization does match at least a portion of the self-help movement. He says that self-help books assume
· humans repress traumatic memories that need to be uncovered
· self-esteem must always be promoted because it is essential to a good life and mental health
· feelings of guilt are always inappropriate and unhealthy
· it is possible to become addicted to practically any activity, and that such addictions must be treated with 12-Step programs
· negative feelings are always not just psychologically unhealthy, but likely to cause physical diseases
· one must never give up hope
· all dependency on others is bad
He further criticizes both theories of grieving that suppose that grief must occur in stages, and also the phenomenon of grief-counselors who are called in to help people after witnessing murders and disasters.
Pearsall's solution to self-help approaches is not just to use scientific psychology, but also to embrace a mindful approach to life with a contrarian consciousness. This seems partly based simply on the idea that we should approach the world rationally and with an open mind, and also on Eastern ideas of living in the present and savoring life. Furthermore, we should not try to develop our own personal potential but rather try to help those around us. He was inspired to deliberate on these issues and finally arrived at his own position after going through cancer treatment during which be believed he would die. He had spent months of time spent in hospital observing other patients, staff, nurses, doctors, and pondering the well intentioned attempts of his friends to help him by giving him piles of self-help books. He concluded from his experience, despite being told the opposite, that loss of hope was a natural part of the illness and that he should not be made to feel bad for having such feelings. Further, he saw that his doctors were often unable to enjoy their jobs, while people with more menial jobs seemed to at least sometimes be able to take more pleasure in their contact with patients.
Many of Pearsall's claims are both comforting and provocative. He argues that long lasting relationships do not require the couple to be in love, and furthermore, they don't even need to speak to each other much. He argues that we don't need to love ourselves before we can love other people: on the contrary, we should love other people to make ourselves more lovable. He argues that all families are dysfunctional, and that's how it should be, because families are where we have to be accepted. He also points out that coming from a dysfunctional family does not necessarily make us dysfunctional. He does not think that children are our most precious resource, but instead suggests that families should be places where people should care for each other. He claims that too many people, especially old people, are diagnosed with depression when their sadness is just a natural reaction to their circumstances. He spends some time arguing that we should not fight aging but embrace it, and value old people for what they have to contribute rather than expect them to try to be youthful. And so it goes. Most of the book is taken up with views that challenge self-help orthodoxy.
Quite often Pearsall's scientific support of his positive claims about how to get the most out of life is very thin. One obvious indication of this is the speed with which he goes through so many diverse topics, throwing out proposition and referring to at most one or two scientific papers to defend them, without defining his terms or giving sustained argument. Furthermore, Pearsall makes no careful distinctions between the empirical facts and the values he endorses; even if he can find scientific support for his claims, they are not going to prove his evaluating ideas of what counts as a good life.
So Pearsall's book works best as a piece of provocation or a challenge, showing how readers can read self-help books critically and require scientific evidence to support the claims these self-proclaimed experts make. This gives readers ammunition to assess Pearsall's own positive suggestions. For example, he recommends that those over 70 should ignore those who tell them to change their lifelong eating habits, because if they have got to that age, they must be doing something right and they could be doing more harm than good by changing their diet. Yet he gives no evidence that this is true. If we were going to assess such a claim, we would have to look for studies that compared the health of those who did change their eating habits late in life for health reasons with those who did not. In all likelihood, no such studies have been done. Indeed, except for some rather straightforward health risks, it is likely that very few scientific experiments have been performed that can be directly applied to ordinary life. Life tends to be far more complicated than the experimental conditions in labs. Most ideas about how to make one's life better are inherently speculative, and Pearsall's own claims illustrate this well.
Nevertheless, The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need is written in an accessible breezy manner with plenty of self-disclosure, and was far more pleasurable to read than most other self-help books. If you are ever tempted to take a self-help book seriously, Pearsall's own book will help you see sense.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.