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A New-Age hoax: Why we must be wary of the ‘self-improvement’ industry

Words: Amal Awad.

I’m sometimes mocked for the way I go about improving myself, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m a work in progress. Co-workers sniff at my collection of crystals, I look forward to the Mind, Body, Spirit Festival every year, sometimes I use the word “empower”, and I’m often met with cynicism about the guided meditations I do to bring me into alignment with my higher self. (Or maybe it's just that I talk about being brought into alignment with my higher self.)

When I recently did a Reiki course, a friend ridiculed me, saying I have “magic hands”. I prefer to say I'm an attuned channel of universal love – or a level one certified healer – but whatever. It’s an alternative practice, but for someone like me, who believes in things she can’t see, it works. (I do, however, suspect the investment of the person being "reiki-ed" is as important as the one channeling the positive vibes.)

I kind of understand the cynicism, because I do have a BS quota. Often enough I’m questioning the seemingly odd things people invest in to guide them towards that elusive concept of “happiness” (myself included). We may find comfort in faith, but we still drop buckets of money on courses, books, potions and spiritual practices. I’m all for hiking up your personal wellbeing index, but do we need to spend so much doing it?

Stores are packed with inspirational boards and name-your-discontent gimmicks to make you thinner, happier and wealthier. There’s something to satisfy just about any ailment: from "vitamin" waters (which involve more sugar than wellness) to “natural” supplements and life coaches.

If it’s about living your “best life” and being master of your inner world, it’s not a philosophy isolated to the realm of the spiritual. You don’t need a chakra wand, you just need to want to love yourself. There’s significant overlap between the self-improvement and new age industries, and both are beginning to resemble one never-ending infomercial (minus the free steak knives).

It’s all a roaring success, with the self-improvement industry worth an estimated $11.17 billion in the US alone, and forecasted to grow yearly. Meanwhile, Hay House (established by the mistress of affirmations and positive thinking, Louise L Hay, more than two decades ago) is reportedly the world's largest independent publisher of empowerment books.

According the Huffington Post, for the past 21 years, Hay House’s sales have been increasing, which speaks volumes in an increasingly print-starved world.

Then there’s motivational guru Anthony Robbins, who commands thousands of dollars for a workshop he may not even attend – often, he’ll just video conference it. (His gravelly voice and powers of persuasion does, to some degree, make up for his physical nascence.)

The popularity of such self-styled motivational speakers, new age thinkers and life coaches signals a larger issue. Namely, that we share in a universal currency of personal dissatisfaction, and companies and frauds are capitalising on it.

It used to be reading a crappy horoscope in your Sunday magazine. Now there's a whole lot more to navigate, and you’ve got be wary about ubiquitous sectors that profit off people's sense of inadequacy. We are, essentially, veering into snake oil-salesmen territory.

As Alice-Azania Jarvis wrote in The Independent, we're left with a culture in which little remains off limits.

"Books, magazines, the internet, even television shows (virtually every bit of breakfast viewing contains some nugget of self-improvement); they all promise to show us how to get what we want, how to live life as a better, more fulfilled person. Search hard enough, and there is advice on everything from feng shui to launching your presidential bid. With the right approach, we are assured, we can be anything we want. Well, in theory."

Arguably, at the heart of all new age philosophies is a basic, useful mission: assisting people in how to deal – with bad experiences, lack of self-worth and self-belief or that overwhelming sense of grief that can swallow you whole in times of difficulty.

The hard part is sifting through the junk to find something genuinely useful. For most of us, we’re not subscribing to a lifetime of seeking enlightenment (as my meditation teacher advises us, you’re already enlightened, aight), we just want to feel better more often, without having to manufacture positivity. And while many of us have intuitive capabilities, most “psychics” are about as foreseeing as a cricket bat, still trotting out tired lines about a “tall, dark man” and “travelling over water”.

There’s substance to be found in the self-help and new age markets, and many of us find use in affirmative thinking and aromatherapy oils that fill your home with positive vibes. It’s just that amongst the motivational and spirit guides, it’s sometimes hard to tell where the new age fluff begins and where it ends. 

Amal Awad is a writer and author of Courting Samira.

Lead image via Shutterstock.

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