Do you really want to help yourself? Well, avoid self-help books, says the author of this powerful attack on consumer society
Renata Salecl: 'The idea of choosing who we want to be and the imperative to "become yourself" have begun to work against us.'
Several years ago, an American magazine editor named Jennifer Niesslein decided to iron out all the imperfections in her life. Using only the advice contained in a stack of self-help books, she set about cleaning her home, losing weight, becoming a better partner and parent and generally cultivating a more serene approach to existence. After two years of trying, she found that she was less contented, not more, and started suffering from panic attacks.
The Tyranny of Choice, in which this anecdote is recounted, has the outward appearance of a self-help manual. It is written in clear, user-friendly prose, conveniently subdivided every few pages by topic and it's short enough to be read in one sitting. It resorts to the odd generalisation to keep its argument on track. But that's where the similarities end. Salecl, a Slovenian sociologist, rubbishes the idea that a set of tips in a book, let alone a whole marketplace of books offering radically conflicting tips, can make us happier. The author casts an eye over the culture that has given rise to self-help books (they existed as early as the 17th century but their time is very much now) and points a finger at the ideology of choice, which, she believes, is at the root of modern discontent, and the industry that has grown up around it. "The idea of choosing who we want to be and the imperative to 'become yourself' have begun to work against us, making us more anxious and more acquisitive rather than giving us more freedom," she writes.
In a society geared towards the individual, and dominated by consumerism and celebrity, we are constantly encouraged to choose a better life for ourselves. The weight of each choice and the super-abundance of options can cause crippling anxiety and we defer to others to make the right choices for us. When we do get what we want, fulfilment is swiftly replaced by dissatisfaction and desire for a better option.
Salecl charts the effect that this consumerist approach to our lives has had on relationships, parenting and mental health. She argues that capitalist society uses the ideology of choice to keep the wheels turning and also to safeguard its very existence: if we're wrapped up in our own private desires, we have no time to think about choosing a new, improved way of structuring society.
She does offer a few constructive tips of her own in the final pages after digesting some lessons from Lacanian psychoanalysis. It's not the sort of advice that will guarantee you instant happiness, but by casting a clear light on our choice-saturated lives, it might just help alleviate some of that creeping anxiety.
Philosopher Renata Salecl: 'Capitalism Is Humanity's Neurosis'
Is too much choice stressing us out?
Freedom is a good thing, isn't it? Not always, argues Slovenian philosopher Renata Salecl. The liberty to choose from an unlimited number of career options or coffee brands ultimately becomes a burden. Our modern capitalist society is ruled by a "tyranny of choice."
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Salecl, at the fast food chain Subway we have to make half a dozen decisions before we can finally enjoy our sandwich. Is that what you mean when you speak in your lectures about the "tyranny of choice?"
Salecl: I try to avoid places like Subway, and if I end up there I always order the same thing. When I speak about the "tyranny of choice," I mean an ideology that originates in the era of post-industrial capitalism. It began with the American Dream -- the idea of the self-made man, who works his way up from rags to riches. By and by, this career concept developed into a universal life philosophy. Today we believe we should be able to choose everything: the way we live, the way we look, even when it comes to the coffee we buy, we constantly need to weigh our decision. That is extremely unhealthy.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?
Salecl: Because we constantly feel stressed, overwhelmed and guilty. Because, according to this ideology, it's our own fault if we're unhappy. It means we made a bad decision.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And if we make the right choice?
Salecl: In that case, we constantly feel that there's something even better hiding behind the next corner. So we are never truly content and are reluctant to settle on anything.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: "Don't let the common man decide. He's not smart enough." That argument has been used by autocrats for centuries. Do you mean to say they are right?
Salecl: No. I don't criticize political or electoral freedom, but capitalism's perversion of the concept: the illusion that I hold the power over my own life.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But I do have that power. I can decide for myself what I want, even if the thought stresses me out.
Salecl: Not at all. A friend, who's a psychologist, told me about a patient once: a woman who was well educated, had a good job, a house and a loving husband. "I did everything right in my life," said the woman. "But I'm still not happy." She never did what she herself wanted, but what she believed society expected from her.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So we need to be better at pursuing our personal happiness?
Salecl: Even that is an illusion. Happiness has become a bar we measure ourselves against. The world is full of women's magazines that strive to tell us what will make us happy. It's filled with Facebook status updates, telling us how much other people are making of their lives. There are even indexes evaluating how happy certain nations are. "Be happy" has become a societal imperative. If you aren't, you have failed.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the motto also tells everyone that they can make their own choices. That gives people greater control over their lives.
Salecl: Yes, but that's only partially true. We still can't control the consequences our choices will bring. That's the next step. Not only do we want freedom of choice, but we also want a guarantee that whatever we choose will be exactly as we envisioned it.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why are we so afraid to just go with the flow?
Salecl: Because every time we decide for something, we lose something else. Buying a car is a great example. A lot of people not only read ratings before they buy their car but they continue afterwards -- to make sure they really made the right choice.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: If I have no choice, because I can't afford anything, will that make me happier?
Salecl: Paradoxically, no. One of the greatest gains of capitalism is that even the proletarian slave feels like a master. He believes he has the power to change his life. We are propelled by the ideology of the self-made man: we work more, we consume more and in the end we consume ourselves. The consequences are burnout, bulimia and other lifestyle diseases.
SPIEGEL ONLINE.Why do we treat ourselves so poorly?
Salecl: Sigmund Freud already discovered that suffering gives us pleasure -- in a strange masochistic way. The tyranny of choice exploits that weakness. Consumer culture exhausts us. We suffer. We destroy ourselves. And we just can't stop.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But we aren't really the victims. After all, we created this system ourselves and as long as we keep consuming, it will continue to exist. Ultimately, capitalism only mirrors human nature.
Salecl: That's true. Freud also said we choose our own neuroses. Capitalism is the neurosis of humanity.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: There are other ways. There's a restaurant in London that only serves one dish and people are lining up outside to try it. And a company in Berlin sells T-Shirts without showing them to customers first.
Salecl: That's a clever marketing strategy. With children you can see the same thing. If you ask them at a movie theater what they want to see, they will likely be overwhelmed. On the other hand, if you say shortly before, "let's go see James Bond," they will probably say, "No, mommy, anything else, but not that." If there are no boundaries, we make our own.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will we ever be truly free?
Salecl: No. But we can live a more relaxed life. We can accept that our decisions aren't rational, that we are always conditioned by society; that we lose something every time we choose something else, and that we can't truly control the consequences of our decisions.