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Self-Help in America: A Project for Moral Perfection
I recently had lunch with a friend who teaches high school—a self-described “butch lesbian” very active in progressive politics. Every time Donald Trump came up in conversation (and it happens a lot in progressive circles), she smiled beatifically, closed her eyes, and said, “I LOVE that guy!” By the fourth time, I had to ask: What gives?
My friend had decided to follow the recommendations of a host of “positive psychology” researchers who have argued in both scholarly and popular forums that an optimistic, upbeat perspective on life is a predictor of improved physical and mental health. Reframing negative events as positive and practicing gratitude rather than criticism, they suggest, lowers blood pressure, relieves insomnia, and improves mortality rates. My friend (like many left-of-center folks) had found herself depressed and anxious following Trump’s election in the fall. Now, she said, she was feeling better; she had learned that smiling and making positive assertions about Trump each time she thought of him released a flood of dopamine in her brain, and she planned to use positive psychology techniques “to stay high on Trump for as long as he’s in office.”
My friend was using a self-help technique that is distinctly, if not uniquely, American: the power of positive thinking. What other nation has enshrined as a right not merely “life” and “liberty” but also “the pursuit of happiness”? Positive psychology is only the latest in a centuries-old tradition of self-help techniques intended to help average Americans exercise that crucial right.
An American Tradition
“Self-help” is a generic term that, at its most basic, describes any program for improvement that originates with the individual seeking improvement rather than with the help of an outside “expert.” Every advanced society has etiquette guides, conduct manuals, and philosophical/religious teachings that offer adherents a better life. But self-help culture has been particularly robust in the United States because it aligns so neatly with both our skepticism about authority and with our faith that individual initiative is the key not only to personal advancement but also to a healthy democracy.
Benjamin Franklin enshrined those ideas in his Autobiography (1818). What he called the “Project for Moral Perfection” listed a range of desirable character traits and detailed his daily work to attain them. By his own account—and the reckoning of most historians—he was successful. He died prosperous, influential, respected, and, it seems, happy. We might write a bit of that off to white male privilege, but Franklin’s own efforts at self-improvement seem deserving of praise.
In part because of Franklin’s storied example, American culture has offered many ways for people to follow in his footsteps. The mercantile libraries of antebellum New York were founded so that young clerks could study after work and help themselves advance in a competitive new economy. Reconstruction-era African American women’s clubs worked for social justice while also promising individual and collective “betterment” to their members. More recently, the popular instruction series Idiot’s Guide to… and …For Dummies guide readers through complex social and technological issues. By offering individuals the opportunity to improve and grow through their own initiative, more or less along the lines Franklin modeled, all of these institutions meet the baseline criteria for “self-help.”
In this day and age, however, people rarely think of libraries, social clubs, or how-to books when they hear the term “self-help.” Instead, the term has come to be associated with popular psychology, particularly theories and practices that offer insights into—and remedies for—the complex stresses of modern life. As the nation began to urbanize in the antebellum period, those stressors included the changing nature of personal space and responsibility in the modern city, increased contact with strangers, and persistent financial uncertainty. Early on, experts addressed these issues in conduct manuals aimed at the new middle classes. Etiquette, however, emphasized controlling the body—shaking hands or using a handkerchief properly in order to signal your understanding of the social order and your place within it. But as new forms of spirituality and medicine entered the growing marketplace of ideas, the interest in bodily control gave way to interest in controlling the mind.
Nervous in the Gilded Age
The belief that the mind can control or manage reality was popularized first in New England. Spiritualists associated with creeds as diverse as Transcendentalism and Christian Science embraced a philosophical idealism—broadly stated, the belief that reality as we know it is a construction of our minds and therefore open to manipulation by them. For Transcendentalists, idealism became a touchstone for abolitionist activism and utopian community building, both of which would improve a debased world and bring it closer to the higher one that existed at the level of thought. Several decades later, Christian Scientists took a decidedly more practical tack: the body and its ailments were material, they argued, and therefore less real than prayer and subject to be changed by it. Physicians, move aside.
Christian Science spawned a host of offshoots commonly called “New Thought religions” (to distinguish them from “old” theological Christianity). Many of these focused on using the power of prayer to promote bodily healing, but were not above harnessing the same power for other kinds of personal improvement, including financial. God offered what New Thought leader Emma Curtis Hopkins called “Divine Supply”—an infinite reservoir of resources that believers tapped into through right living.
This imagery of the deity as a giant cash machine accessible through meditation and visualization is hardly a coincidence. New Thought exploded during the Gilded Age, a period marked by a vicious cycle of economic booms and busts. Both financial precarity and conspicuous consumption became facts of middle-class life. New Thought spirituality, Beryl Satter notes, “helped Americans manage the conflicting impulses that were roused by the transition from producer capitalism (with its calls for self-denial and strenuosity) to consumer capitalism (with its encouragement of spending and self-gratification).”
These new spiritual movements focused on the power of mind evolved alongside (and were often in dialogue with) new science focused on the brain. American medicine as a whole was fairly disreputable in the late nineteenth century (that was one reason for the interest in mental healing), and physicians who claimed to understand the brain were among the sketchiest of the lot, dealing in disorders with ambiguous and often invisible symptoms. But they were adroit at using the language of science—which was increasingly powerful if not widely understood—to advance their theories.
Consider, for example, the case of “spermatic conservation,” an issue discussed in countless books, pamphlets, and magazine articles during the last decades of the century. Influenced by laws of physics and theories of market economy, this “medical” doctrine argued that all men had finite amounts of energy, which manifested itself as sperm. Since energy—like capital—needed to be invested optimally, sperm should always be put in the service of reproduction, rather than squandered in casual sex or, worst of all, masturbation. Many of the same techniques that were used to access “Divine Supply”—visualization, affirmations, meditation—could be used to reroute errant “energy” and conserve sperm. The mind, in other words, when properly trained could control the matter of the body.
And learning such control was becoming particularly important. By the turn of the century, nervous system failure among the white middle class seemed to be reaching epidemic proportions. The accelerating pace of modern life (embodied in street cars and electric lighting), the fear of falling in a fragile economic order, and the incessant demands placed on men and women to fulfill rigid gender roles all combined to create nervous diseases that cried out for treatment. Corralled under the term “neurasthenia,” this combination of depression, anxiety, and malaise became a national sensation—“the…disease of America,” according to McClure’s magazine. Concern for individual suffering was real, but the problem was larger than that. Because neurasthenia compromised the proper reproductive and sexual functioning of both men and women, if left untreated it was likely to zero out the already declining birth rate among native-born whites. In the ensuing “race suicide” the nation would be overrun by immigrants and philistines.
Highly credentialed physicians treated neurasthenia among the elite with elaborate rest cures designed to reinvigorate their overtaxed nervous systems. But in such a hysterical climate, self-help could really flourish, and the vast majority of sufferers sought help from popular writers—some MDs, some clergy, some straight-up con men—that promised to teach them how to control their mental restlessness and/or malaise. These publications blended the latest “science” of the nervous system with New Thought “mind power” teachings. They often mixed in ideas about diet and exercise, and frequently dressed up their insights with allusions to Eastern religion. In addition to publishing books, authors lectured at venues like the YM- and YWCA, penned advice columns in popular magazines, and frequently corresponded personally with their followers.
If it all sounds a bit like Oprah Winfrey’s media empire showcasing contemporary “mind-body” gurus, it is. Turn of the century self-help, like today’s, was facilitated by the presence of a robust media culture the served the anxious white middle class. By 1910, Steven Starker estimates, nearly a hundred periodicals disseminated mind-cure ideas and related lifestyles. And the nascent bestseller lists of the period were replete with self-help titles that would be at home on Amazon.com today—Annie Payson Call’s Power through Repose (1891), Ralph Waldo Trine’s In Tune with the Infinite (1897), and Emile Coue’s Self-Mastery through Autosuggestion (1922). All of them, as their titles suggest, instructed harried readers how to turn inward, away from the material world, and tap the natural connection they had to the divine.
Self-help has evolved somewhat since the Gilded Age. Browsing the shelves of the local bookstore reveals many titles that reflect new psychological understandings of the self, changing ideas about the importance of family, evolved perspectives on sexuality, and advances in our understandings of the brain. Such books bear witness to American culture’s move beyond the Victorian norms of decorum that prohibited the recognition—much less the frank discussion—of sexuality, interpersonal violence, addiction, and even grief. Self-help today owes much to the insights of post-Freudian psychology and the counterculture of the 1960s, both of which helped (for good or ill) to redefine ideas of personal freedom in directions that Ben Franklin might never have thought of.
But scratch the surface of much contemporary self-help, and the governing idealism of the Gilded Age is still alive and thriving. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936; 30 million copies sold), Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grown Rich (1937; 100 million copies sold), and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952; 5 million copies sold)—all mega-bestsellers—drew on organizational psychology to update the late nineteenth-century power of mind message. As work in complex and hierarchical organizations became the norm for increasing numbers of Americans, concrete tactics for managing people’s behaviors and impressions became more important; Carnegie, for example, stressed the importance of using people’s names in conversation in order to make them feel special. But skills on their own cannot determine outcomes. Mental energy is the deciding factor. Peele advised readers “never [to] think of yourself as failing… That is most dangerous, for the mind always tries to complete what it pictures. So always picture success no matter how badly things are going in the moment.”
Nineteenth-century idealism was similarly present in two multi-million copy bestsellers from later in the century, Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life (1984; 35 million copies sold) and Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love (1992; 3 million copies sold). Hay, a former fashion model, was a minister in the church of Religious Science, a New Thought denomination founded in 1927; Williamson was an interpreter and instructor of the spiritual teachings called A Course in Miracles. Both women ministered to the gay community during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when modern medicine seemed helpless in the face of the epidemic. They brought spiritual healing—the power of forgiveness, affirmation, divine light-visualization—to patients whom physicians had told simply to go home and die. Their books offered a similar message to larger audiences faced with bodily and mental health issues, financial difficulties, and relationship problems that seemed beyond the reach of real-world interventions. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” Williamson argued, “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Channeling that power would drive out fear and suffering, replacing them with love and health.
The continued—resurgent—popularity of idealist self-help in our own information-saturated time seems odd, until you consider that many historians have referred to the turn of the twentieth century as a Second Gilded Age. As in the twilight of Victorianism, the end of the last century saw an explosion of new technologies that fueled a volatile economy and a chaotic information environment. After a period of strong governance (the Civil War and Reconstruction; the New Deal and the Great Society), government had come to seem ineffectual and corrupt. The American landscape was riven by racial and class inequality, rules about gender and sexuality were hotly contested, and an enormous influx of migrant “others” fueled suspicion and paranoia among native-born whites. The pace of modernization—and its costs—seemed out of control.
For Americans, schooled to look within for solutions to their problems rather than to class or social structures, an embrace of self-help seems a logical response to such conditions. And idealist paths, in particular, circumvent a host of problems by elevating the mental realm over the material one. When financial, technological, governmental, and scientific realities become too complicated to understand and/or to impact through rational means, the appeal of visualization, affirmation, and images of a divine supply that will flow to us if we just think about it in the correct way seems perfectly understandable. By the end of lunch with my friend, I, too, had started to say “I LOVE that guy!” whenever the president’s name came up.
That said, we actually know very little about the way people put self-help teachings to work in their lives. Empirical studies of that sort of thing are difficult to design and execute, and we should not assume that Benjamin Franklin’s self-reported outcomes are generalizable to a larger sample. What we do know is that vulnerable people facing the stresses of modern (and postmodern) life often require assistance of some kind.
In both the late nineteenth and the late twentieth centuries, the pop culture market provided that assistance in the form of teachings that devalued working to change material conditions and elevated imagining plenitude, harmony, and security. Would self-help be so popular in America today if the selves in question felt less embattled? This may be a question for sociologists rather than historians. But it can prompt us to think about what might happen if, as a nation, we turn from visualizing accessible healthcare, affordable housing, and full employment and start creating policies that will materialize those things on the ground. Such a project might not qualify as “self-help,” but it might be a path to a lasting “Moral Perfection.”
TRYSH TRAVIS teaches in the Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women's Studies Research at the University of Florida, where she specializes in the history of gendered popular and therapeutic cultures. She is the author of The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey, and the co-editor, with Timothy Aubry, of Rethinking Therapeutic Culture. Her short form work has appeared in diverse venues, including American Quarterly, Inside Higher Ed, and Bitch: Feminist Responses to Popular Culture.
 Thomas Augst, The Clerk’s Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in Nineteenth-Century America (2003). Cynthia Neverdon-Morton, Afro-American Women of the South and the Advancement of the Race (1991). Ruth Graham, “Dummies for Dummies,” Slate, April 4, 2016.
 Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830–1870 (1986).
 Beryl Satter, Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement, 1875–1920 (1999) 8.
 Edward Wakefield, “Nervousness: The National Disease of America,” McClure’s Magazine, Feb 1984, 302–06.
 Thomas Lutz, American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (1991).
 Steven Starker, Oracle at the Supermarket: The American Preoccupation with Self-Help Books (1989) 34.
 Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1952), 13. Emphasis in original.
 Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love (1992), 190.
 See, for example, Glenda Gilmore and Thomas Sugrue, These United States: A Nation in the Making, 1890-Present (2015).
 See, for example, Wendy Simonds, Women and Self-help Culture: Reading Between the Lines (1992).