“The expression ‘self-help’ comes from a book of that name, published in 1859 by the great-grandfather of the modern movement, one Samuel Smiles. (I kid you not.) These days, the phrase is so commonplace that we no longer hear the ideology implicit in it. But there is one: We are here to help ourselves, not to get help from others nor lend it to them. Unlike his contemporary Charles Dickens, Smiles was unmoved by appalling social conditions; on the contrary, he regarded them as a convenient whetstone on which to hone one’s character. As a corollary, he did not believe that altering the structure of society would improve anyone’s lot. ‘No laws, however stringent, can make the idle industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober,’ he wrote. ‘Such reforms can only be effected by means of individual action, economy, and self-denial; by better habits, rather than by greater rights.’
“Smiles was Scottish, but it makes sense that his ideas received their most enthusiastic and enduring reception in the United States: a nation founded on faith in self-governance, belief in the physics-defying power of bootstraps, and the cheery but historically anomalous conviction that we all have the right to try to be happy. But this now-ubiquitous model of self-help might do an injustice to both the source of our problems and their potential solutions. We are social creatures, and we function (and dysfunction) in context. All of us know that we are notably different from one environment (Grandma’s assisted-living facility) to the next (Pyramid Club, East Village, 3 a.m.). What none of us knows is who we would be—or could be—if our context were altered in crucial ways at critical times. It’s entirely possible that socioeconomic background and current community exert a more powerful influence over us than our ostensibly independent inner selves. In that case, the best self-improvement effort would be to better society.
“The larger point is this: God knows we all need more help, but possibly we need less self.”
—Kathryn Schulz, “The Self in Self-Help,” New York Magazine (6 January 2013)