The Happiness Industry: There Are Big Profits in Claiming to Make People Happy. but Are Those Who Seek Well-Being from Therapy, Drugs and Self-Help Books Being Ripped Off?

By Gunnell, Barbara | New Statesman (1996), September 6, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Happiness Industry: There Are Big Profits in Claiming to Make People Happy. but Are Those Who Seek Well-Being from Therapy, Drugs and Self-Help Books Being Ripped Off?


Gunnell, Barbara, New Statesman (1996)


We know that money doesn't buy happiness. But the search for happiness is certainly enriching a lot of people. The feel-good industry is flourishing. Sales of self-help books and CDs that promise a more fulfilling life have never been higher. This month, One Happy Movie--a cinema documentary thatincludes interviews with 400 Americans about their happiness--comes out in the US. There are already more counsellors than GPs in the UK. And life coaches will certainly outnumber dentists. Indeed, a disillusioned dentist might be advised to take up life-coaching, given that people seem readier to pay up to [pounds sterling]100 an hour to talk to unqualified strangers about how to transform their lives, relationships and careers than they are to pay a trained dentist.

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Self-help books, it is estimated (it depends what you include in the genre), generate roughly [pounds sterling]80m a year in Britain. In the more established US market, they were worth more than $600m in 2000, or roughly 6 per cent of the entire book market. Look on the bestseller lists on either side of the Atlantic and you will nearly always see at least one book offering a blueprint for happiness, and raking in the cash as it does so.

Here, Change Your Life in 7 Days, a book and CD by the television hypnotist Paul McKenna, has been at or near the top of the non-fiction bestseller list since the beginning of the year, selling more than 200,000 copies at [pounds sterling]7.99 each. If it follows the course of the most successful examples of the genre it will make millions for its author and publisher. For example, in the US, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1989, has become a mini-industry. FranklinCovey, the public company formed by the author Stephen Covey, recorded sales of $333m in 2002. Spin-offs have included lecture tours, seminars and further 7 Habits titles, including The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, itself a bestseller, from Covey's son Sean.

The latest blockbuster is Rich Karlgaard's Life 2.0, on the traditional theme of Americans reinventing themselves (in this case "finding the where of their happiness"). Now 22 in the top 100 bestselling US books, it will doubtless reach Britain soon.

The sheer dottiness of these titles (and their content) may be entertaining, but their sustained popularity in the rich world suggests a serious gullibility among their mainly well-educated, middle-class readership. Did the 30 million predominantly female readers worldwide who bought John Gray's bestseller really find illumination from his thesis that Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus? And why this insatiable demand for books offering comfort (Chicken Soup for the Soul), support (Susan Jeffers's Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway) and transformation (The Little Book of Happiness or The Little Book of Bliss)?

Yet, lucrative as it is for gurus, bibliotherapy (as it is sometimes known) is still a relatively cheap option for would-be self-improvers, compared with life-coaching. This mushrooming, unregulated field adds charlatans with no qualifications (but good publicity skills) to the already crowded and poorly regulated world of psychotherapy.

In the past, the talking therapies were used mainly to resolve depression, neuroses and anxiety--in other words, to ameliorate negative aspects of people's lives. Now, the fastest-growing sector is positive psychology, which "aims to increase well-being, to put people in charge of their lives", according to Ilona Boniwell, a research psychologist and the first chair of the European Network of Positive Psychology. Boniwell is a qualified practitioner, and one of 350 psychotherapists who attended the most recent European conference on the subject in July this year. But she is alarmed by the growth in numbers of people offering "happiness coaching" on the basis of reading one book about neurolinguistic programming. …

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