Self help books are no doubt useful in many ways. They give some order to our lives, some meaning , and some direction. But they are also limiting – and in this respect may even do us more harm than good. This is because they tend to take a single value and encourage us to organize our life around this value alone.
If we apply reversal theory to an analysis of such approaches, we see that they relate to the eight motivational values discerned by the theory. The problem is that each approach tends to fix on just one of the eight, whereas to live a full life, one rich and varied in experience, we need as many of the eight as we can manage.
If we look at each major self-help approach we find that it relates to one or another motivational value.
A good example is the kind of life advocated by Rick Warren in his massively best-selling book “The Purpose Driven Life.” This puts the value of accomplishment to the front and center. Being aware of your ultimate purpose – for Warren a religious one – is of the greatest importance. In reversal theory terms this means that the value is that of achievement. The state that embodies this value is the serious state. But it is just one state.
In fact there is an opposing state, the playful state, with the value of immediate fun. The currently fashionable idea of mindfulness is a good example of the application of this value: Be in the moment. Do not be distracted by possibilities far in the future. Now is all there is. Try to apply this to all aspects of your life. For many writers on Buddhism this is also the key value and should be applied to all aspects of life.
A third value is that of conforming, and in this way being virtuous. All regimes that value doing the right thing extol this value: submitting to God (Islam), following your food regime, completing a ritual. Self-help books based on religion of any kind make much of this value, especially in the form of having faith.
The rebellious state of mind is opposite to the conforming state and supports the value of freedom that underlies most Bohemian lifestyles. It is advocated in many books that encourage creativity and innovation and “thinking outside the box.”
The mastery state of mind is all about the search for power. Anthony Robbins is a self-help guru who takes the search for mastery and control as of central importance. Self help books about leadership, and that see life as a struggle, typically fall into this category
The opposing value in the sympathy state of mind is that of love. Most religious, especially Christian, tracts naturally emphasize this value. We find it in the writings of Scott Peck among many, many others.
The self-oriented state has the value of self-development, of putting yourself first, of not having to feel apologetic for being selfish. A primary exponent of this value was Ayn Rand with her popular philosophy of “Objectivism.” All self-actualization self help approaches, such as those stemming from Maslow, can be seen as involving the self-oriented state.
The opposite other-oriented state means putting others first and being willing to sacrifice oneself for others – friends, families, charities, and so on. The value is that of transcendence, meaning going beyond oneself. Again we find this in many Christian writings.
These eight values fall into four sets of opposites so that you cannot be in both members of a pair of such opposites at the same time. For example, you cannot be thinking of the future and thinking of the present moment at the same instant. Again, you cannot put someone else first and yourself first at the same time, especially when you are competing with them. But you can do all these things if you spread them out over time. And of course you have to pursue each value at the right time. A funeral service is probably not the place to be in the playful state of mind, the other-oriented state is not the best place to being while playing football, and so on.
In these terms, the well lived life is a life of plenitude, one in which pleasure is derived from every state at the right time and in the right way. For example, the pleasure of achieving an important goal should not mean that one cannot also (and should not also) enjoy the fun of life from moment to moment. The pleasure of dominating someone or something should not mean that one cannot also enjoy the intimacies and vulnerabilities of caring.