Why is it so hard to find the information you need?
With 20,000+ different self-help books sitting on book shelves somewhere, the biggest problem is finding the book you need! These are the conditions: (1) publishers favor one-topic books, (2) self-help writers often recommend only one or two types of self-help methods, and (3) self-help authors range from untrained in psychology to world-class experts, thus, the quality of information in books ranges from worthless (or even harmful) to the best available. Thus, what you get in a book may be very limited--a small slice of applied psychology. Certainly, the quack and the mystic won't reveal their ignorance on the front of their books. So, obviously, a person seeking up-to-date knowledge about a problem has a problem. Genuine expertise about self-help books is not available, certainly not from publishers or bookstores. No one has read all this stuff. I have read a lot of it and attempted to provide you with summaries. This book cites and recommends the best books I could find, but quickly finding the knowledge you need at any one time is a monumental task that needs solving in this age of information and technology. Most public and university libraries have relatively few self-help books, but through a state-wide, inter-library loan system you can get many books (if you know the author or the title).
So, in case you assumed that some intelligent body (psychologists, publishers, a government agency) was coordinating and insuring the cogent development of personally helpful psychology, disabuse yourself of that good idea right now. While publishers grind out their 2,000 new self-help books every year, they do not print general, broad scope, introductory self-help textbooks for teaching students to prevent or cope with common personal problems. Why not? As we will see, because schools and colleges don't offer personally useful psychology classes (partly because there isn't an acceptable textbook). However, don't forget: amid the junk, there are lots of good specific-focus books available, if you can find them.
My conclusions again are: coping effectively with life in general--and all lives are complex--requires us to know how to handle many ordinary problems as well as knowing how to improve what we already do well. That requires a basic knowledge of useful psychology which can be applied by everyone in almost any situation. Currently, the typical specialized self-help books fail to provide us with generalized self-control, and there is no bibliographic system to help you find the specific information you need for solving today's problem.
There are about 9,000 bookstores in this country, although many of the small ones are being driven out of business by the giant discount chains. Bookstores are just a part of the publishing business--they provide storage bins and advertisement for selected new books. They stock only a fraction of all books in print. The chain bookstores don't even order their own books; they just shelf whatever corporate headquarters ships them. The clerks don't know the contents or quality of the books in stock, and certainly not unstocked books. So don't expect the store clerk to wisely recommend a book for your problem.
Many popular magazines depend on self-help material to increase sales. Notice the featured articles--dieting, exercising, handling stress or the blues, improving relationships, better sex, etc. Many of these short articles are by professional writers who make their living writing anything that will sell; they are not psychologists or therapists. Yet, the short articles are often of interest and reflect some recent work by a psychologist or psychiatrist. Because of the brevity, however, the article usually deals with only one part of a problem and seldom provides detailed instructions for self-improvement.
The major problem with magazine articles is the same as books, namely, how to find what you need. You may stumble upon a magazine article of value to you, but if you were to set out to find an article about your particular problem, your chances of success are very slim. The lasting value of magazine articles is shown by the fact that they are seldom kept more than a few months, even by libraries.
Ten or fifteen years ago, I thought talk shows were the ideal self-help education for adults. The early talk shows were informative and practical, i.e. many dealt with solving common problems. They discussed controlling bad habits, relieving stress or depression, gaining confidence and asserting yourself, improving relationships, etc. When watching the early shows, you might have said, "Wow, that's the way I am. Maybe I should try that approach with my problem." When the shows did deal with abnormal psychology topics, the thrust was on understanding the behavior, helping relatives accept the patient, or helping the patient seek help from mental health agencies. As the years passed and competition among talk shows increased, the topics became more and more sensationalistic. Sadly, now, they are usually a waste of time, unless you are entertained by bizarre situations or behavior. Now, if you watch, you say, "Wow, what a weirdo! Thank God, I'm not anything like that." The great educational potential in talk shows is being neglected because they focus only on the problems, not the solutions (don't blame the shows or the sponsors, they give us whatever attracts the greatest number of us). Heaton and Wilson (1995) say the talk shows distort real life so badly that they harm the mental health of all of us.
The talk shows do not showcase psychological knowledge well. Often the "expert" is given only a few minutes near the end of the show under terrible circumstances: "OK, doctor, now instantly cure these very long-term, disturbed subjects who have been whipped into an emotional frenzy for 45 minutes." It is common for the talk shows to also have a critic on the show to attack whatever the "expert" says. It seems carefully planned to demean the value of psychological knowledge. Certainly the public doesn't end up clamoring for more useful knowledge (unless they are in a crisis and desperate). We as a society don't need more titillation by aberrant behavior, sex, or shrill arguments; we need more insight into human behavior and feelings, more honest useful facts, and more practical research about effectively handling common, ordinary problems. We need to be able to separate the informative shows from entertainment based on someone's rare, abnormal, and pitiable behavior. (We also need to confront our own compelling, unquenchable thirst for entertainment.)
Except for a few public television series, television has given us very little practical psychological education. Useful information has not been made and probably can't be made interesting enough to draw our attention away from the romantic glamor of the soaps, the intrigue of a murder mystery, the thrill of a chase, the sexual excitement of a seduction, or the humor of a comic. What does this mean? Are we doomed to the hell of eternal psychological ignorance? No. I think it means we have to change psychological education, perhaps using the soaps as a way of describing solutions to problems as well as describing the innumerable conflicts of humans. This means self-help specialists should be writing soaps. Most importantly, as the effectiveness of psychological knowledge is proven, I think the general public will give up some of its mental masturbation via entertainment TV and turn to more worthwhile and informative programs. We are learning to eat healthy food instead of high fat junk food and desserts, so we can learn to absorb healthy information instead of TV junk. Put on helpful shows about attracting a good mate, overcoming bad habits, handling anger, tactfully asserting yourself, or having orgasms and people will watch. Changing our TV viewing habits will take some intentional coping, however.
Since churches teach religious beliefs and morals, it is possible that they could also teach useful psychology to help us cope. While the relationship between religion and psychology is generally quiet, there is a reserve and distrust between the disciplines that interferes with many ministers actively endorsing applied psychology. For one thing, many preachers are not well trained in psychology or counseling, although some are very well trained. The most likely inter-disciplinary barrier is that self-help psychology believes you should think for yourself. This carries the risk to religion that you might even question the dictates of your religion. Most churches would be uncomfortable with that much individual freedom of thought. Religions are authoritarian organizations preaching "the truth," rather than searching for scientific laws and "the truth" through science. Religions tell you how to live and condemn living any other way even though a majority of their members actually "stray," e.g. having premarital sex and using birth control. This conflict over who should be in control of individual lives would interfere with many churches advocating self-help psychology to improve your life.
One would think that schools are the perfect place to give away all the useful knowledge science has found. But that doesn't happen. Why not? In the case of self-help, there are many reasons. There are no special advocates for psychology in schools (no clinical psychologists work in public schools). Schools fear having even more responsibilities, especially with very limited budgets. School schedules are filled and other disciplines don't want self-help psychology to take part of their class time. Neither psychology nor education has prepared teachers to handle a class in which students learn to direct and change their lives. In fact, only 50% of high schools offer psychology (the watered down, easy-to-teach academic kind) and only 50% of those high school psychology teachers have a background in psychology. Teachers who would help children actually practice self-improving need to be highly qualified and experienced (well trained school counselors might be good choices). Such training would require at least a four-year college program leading to teacher certification in "self-help psychology," which doesn't exist at this time. As mentioned above, there isn't even a comprehensive textbook that all students could use to plan self-improvement projects. Our public education system can't be prepared to teach useful psychology at the jr high and high school level until 2020, at the earliest.
University psychology professors yearn to publish research with the brightest graduate students, but most would abhor intimately teaching personally useful courses to ordinary undergraduates. Community college teachers and counselors might be more interested in teaching useful psychology. Most professors are in academia precisely because they are untrained and/or uninterested in helping with personal problems. The list of barriers in education could go on and on. Yet, there could be great advantages to individuals and society in the future from teaching personally useful psychology in schools; some advantages are listed at the end of this chapter.