From self-help advice to living in a McMansion

Two authors looking at patterns in self-help books suggest they provide readers with aspirations and dreams of living in McMansions:

Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer are dedicated to finding answers to those questions. They are the authors of “How to be Fine: What We Learned from Living by the Rules of 50 Self-Help Books” and the hosts of the “By the Book,” a podcast in which they both follow the rules of one self-help book for two weeks...

On the aspirational nature of self-help books and their authors

Meinzer: A lot of these books are setting themselves up, or setting the authors up to be who we should aspire to be. We should be as exciting, as entrepreneurial, as organized, as worldly as this person selling dietary supplements and living in a McMansion.

Maybe some of us don’t want that. Maybe there are a lot of other ways we can be, and we can all be very content living what works for us.

And unfortunately, a lot of the self help books we’ve lived by do somehow create a world view that this is the one single way to be.

From The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952 to today, Americans seem to enjoy looking for reinforcement regarding getting ahead and becoming successful in life. And it is not an accident that this often connects back to the suburbs. I take the reference above to “living in a McMansion” to be a reference to achieving the American Dream, often defined as living with a nuclear family in a suburban single-family home in a attractive neighborhood or community. This is a powerful ideology reinforced by decades of government policy, American values, race, and religion.

A lot of this came together in the 1950s: with postwar prosperity and change, numerous social forces – including self-help books – promoted a suburban lifestyle. This was not without its critics attacking the suburban good life from numerous angles, ranging from urbanists promoting city life to clergy decrying the abandonment of cities, but they could do little to stem the tide. (See James Hudnut-Beumler’s book Looking for God in the Suburbs has the best academic treatment of this subject.) After this, the American Dream was sealed: it was not just about getting ahead or making a better life but rather involved a successful suburban life.

It is also interesting to consider why a McMansion is a potent symbol of this suburban good life through self-help. Is it because it is a relatively new home? Is it because the external features of the McMansion – architecture, square footage, impressive facade – are meant to impress? (Critics of McMansions would argue that these are exactly the problems with McMansions: they appeal to particular tastes and hide all sorts of deficiencies.) Are there people who follow self-help principles, become successful, and buy tasteful older homes or live in mid-century modern suburban homes?

A sociologist argues younger generation need self-help messages

After researching self-help books, a sociologist argues that Millennials need the messages of classic self-help books in order to navigate modern relationships:

When assistant professor of sociology Christine Whelan, 33, set out to study the rise of the self-help industry ten years ago, she was skeptical. But after reading hundreds of books, writing her doctoral dissertation on the subject at Oxford, and then teaching more than 400 students, Whelan, now at the University of Pittsburgh, realized that several self-help classics had a lot to teach a generation of people who are expert at texting and other sorts of online communication, but ill-schooled in the art of face-to-face communication and self-presentation…

Whelan got the idea to start teaching self-help classes, which she framed as the sociology of self-improvement. She was surprised to discover how eager her students were to absorb the lessons taught in books like Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People, first released in 1937, M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled from 1978 and Stephen Covey’s 1989 The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. “They were raised in a therapeutic culture,” she notes. “That separates this generation of job-seekers from others.”…

After putting hundreds of students through her course, Whelan says she came up with some lessons that combine 20th century common sense with 21st century lives. She combined them into a new self-help book aimed at Millennials, Generation WTF. I asked her to boil down the points most salient to job seekers, and illustrate them with some anecdotes. Notes Whelan, “nothing in this is rocket science. But it’s new to them and it works.”

The six steps that are then laid out seem fairly obvious but perhaps Whelan is right about the need to teach this material. There does seem to be a lot of articles floating around these days that talk about the crazy things that people interviewing for jobs do.

So what exactly goes on in a “sociology of self-improvement” class? While it sounds odd when you first hear about it, it could end up being an interesting course about human interaction. I wonder if there is any critique of the self-help movement.