The entire self-help industry is built on a false idea


The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is the Truth of Suffering. People are biological organisms, and the primary imperative of any organism is survival. Our instincts and deepest intuitions prepare us to survive, not to be happy. 

Many people, perhaps most, recognize that their natural way of thinking causes them great dissatisfaction — not the overt suffering of pain and emotional distress, but a low-grade sense that life should be better than it is. This is what the Buddha was pointing to in the First Noble Truth.

We chase after pleasures and objects of desire only to find that any satisfaction we find there is fleeting and soon thereafter the malaise of dissatisfaction returns. Not knowing what else to do, many people accept their fate and continue on the hedonic treadmill endlessly searching for that magical experience, person, or object that will finally make them happy.

They never find what they seek.

Many others recognize the problem and set out to do something about it. These are the consumers of self-help books and programs. 

Unfortunately, seeking happiness in self-help books is like finding the right diet where people can still eat what the want and yet maintain their ideal (unrealistically low) body weight. People spend loads of money consuming dietary ideas that could never provide the outcome they desire — yet they keep looking.

Happiness seekers generally share the same quest: they want to find the one idea, the special insight, the “key to enlightenment” that will instantaneously and permanently make them happy. 

They never find what they seek.

The entire self-help industry is built on the false idea that one single insight is the only thing needed to be happy for life. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way.

It’s a crazy idea when you think about it. Does anyone think that if they go to the gym one time and work out that they will forever have perfect health and fitness? Other than the desire for it to be true, is there any reason to think happiness should be any easier to obtain that health and fitness?

In truth, there are meditation techniques that will over time and with diligent practice, reduce the emotions that cause the mind to be disturbed. With a regular spiritual practice that includes meditation, negative emotions arise less often, with less intensity, pass away more quickly, and ultimately don’t arise at all.

The problem is that all of this requires work, sometimes very emotionally difficult work, over a long period of time. Unfortunately, nobody wants to hear that. Most people want the quick fix, instant gratification, enlightenment in a pill. Those are the people who buy self-help books and wonder why their life doesn’t change for the better.

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I am Anattā. Not my real name, of course, but that’s the point. I selected the moniker Anattā because in Buddhism, my primary spiritual practice, the term anattā refers to the doctrine of “non-self”. In more practical terms, I chose the name Anattā because by writing anonymously, it’s far easier to be completely candid and honest. Further, there is no danger of my writing becoming tainted by any desire for self-aggrandizement. I write primarily to improve my own understanding of these topics, but my deepest desire for writing on this site is to help others.