Earlier this week, I noted quite how many self-help guides are very similar, their short-cuts to wisdom and happiness weirdly interchangeable.
In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale wrote the best-selling self-help book The Power Of Positive Thinking, and, nearly 70 years on, it seems that everyone entering the market has to emphasise positivity.
To demonstrate this, can you match the self-help guru with his or her message of positivity: A) Yoko Ono. B) Noel Edmonds. C) Paulo Coelho. D) The Duchess of York?
i) When you go through a negative situation, don’t think about it. Make it positive.
ii) When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.
iii) Never forget that you have a fundamental right to love and be loved, to be successful and to be happy.
iv) You can choose the kind of day you want.
In her self-help book Finding Sarah: A Duchess’s Journey To Find Herself, the Duchess of York (pictured) tells readers ‘you can choose the kind of day you want’ in message of positivity
The answers are: A i; B iii; C ii; D iv. However, you could be forgiven for matching any of the gurus with any of the nuggets of wisdom: they all mean much the same.
Before she became a duchess, Meghan Markle used to place similarly positive messages on her blog.
‘You need to know that you’re enough,’ she once observed, before explaining this is ‘a mantra that has now engrained itself so deeply within me that not a day goes by without hearing it chime in my head’.
It may sound very reassuring, but does ‘You need to know that you’re enough’ actually mean anything?
Other self-help gurus echo Meghan’s sentiments. ‘Forgive yourself for any judgments that you are holding against yourself,’ says Arianna Huffington in Thrive: The Third Metric To Redefining Success And Creating A Happier Life.
In Tina Turner’s new self-help book, Happiness Becomes You, she flatters the reader in much the same way. ‘Thank you for being you, exactly as you are,’ she writes.
But how on earth does she know who I am? For all she knows, I might be someone highly improvable, like Donald Trump.
Self-help gurus have to juggle with a paradox. At one and the same time, they are obliged to tell their readers that: a) they are perfect just as they are, and: b) they would be so much better if they changed.
Before she became a Duchess, Meghan Markle told readers of her blog ‘You need to know that you’re enough’ and says the thought chimes into her head every day because it is engrained
They tend to start with soothing words of reassurance. ‘The only life that matters is the one you’re living now,’ writes Noel Edmonds in Positively Happy: Cosmic Ways To Change Your Life.
‘When people ask me what the most important thing is in life, I answer: ‘Just breathe’,’ says Yoko Ono.
It would be hard to argue with either piece of advice. ‘The only life that doesn’t matter is the one you’re living now,’ wouldn’t cut the mustard; and ‘Just stop breathing’ could have serious consequences.
Many self-help gurus specialise in aphorisms that sound vaguely true on a first hearing, but in fact mean nothing. ‘When someone leaves, it’s because someone else is about to arrive,’ advises Paulo Coelho.
The most unlikely people have been ready with meaningless words of advice. ‘There can be neither today without yesterday, nor tomorrow without today.’
These words might have issued from the mouth of Sarah, Duchess of York, or Coelho, but in fact they came from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
Japanese musician and artist Yoko Ono (pictured here in Mexico City in 2016) tells her readers ‘When people ask me what the most important thing is in life, I answer: ‘Just breathe’.’
‘If my ship sails from sight, it doesn’t mean my journey ends, it simply means the river bends.’ Who said that? Was it the Dalai Lama, or Yoko Ono, or Laa-Laa from the Teletubbies? None of the above: oddly enough, it was Enoch Powell.
Seeing life as a journey is a must-have symbol for the self-help guru. ‘The lighter you travel, the farther and higher you can go,’ advised the Duchess of York in her classic book, Finding Sarah: A Duchess’s Journey To Find Herself.
Meanwhile, the duchess’s Californian counterpart Meghan Markle offered a different perspective, particularly useful for those negotiating the Birmingham ring-road: ‘Travel often; getting lost will help you find yourself.’
This is arguable, of course: many would say that not getting lost is an even better way of finding yourself.
Oprah Winfrey is less paradoxical in her advice. ‘It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from,’ she says. ‘The ability to triumph begins with you — always.’
As Oprah shows, it’s easy to dress up banality as wisdom. Arianna Huffington is a master at it. ‘Walking’ she observes in her self-help book, ‘is one of the ways we move through our world.’