Donald NorfolkAny industry which caters for a basic human need is bound to flourish. This applies to the film business and fast food restaurant chains, and also to the self-improvement industry, which is reckoned to be grossing over $10 billion a year in the United States alone. At one time we had no need for these commercial activities, for we could satisfy our need for self enlightenment and growth through communion with our family and friends and by tapping into the freely available stockpile of ancient folk wisdom which dates back nearly five thousand years.We are the only animal species capable of transmitting knowledge from generation to generation. This education was originally done by word of mouth, and later was written down in the form of adages, aphorisms and dictums. One of the earliest collections of these maxims was the Old Testament book of Proverbs, which offers tit bits of advice which were probably culled from ancient Egyptian teaching. Children were encouraged to be industrious: ‘In all labour there is profit.’ Young men were advised not to taken in by feminine wiles and coquetry: ‘Neither let her take you with her eyelids.’ Older men were warned not to be conned by unfamiliar people: ‘He that is surety for a stranger shall smart for it’. Here too was practical advice on handling emotions. ‘A soft answer turns away wrath.’ ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.’ ‘A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.’

Some centuries later, in ancient Greece, the Sophist philosophers developed these precepts and travelled from town to town teaching the art of successful living. Those who followed their instructions achieved not only health but also wisdom and influence. Through their sophist training they became well rounded human beings, and therefore merited the accolade of being classified as ‘sophisticated’ individuals. Nowadays the main emphasis of health promotion is on physical fitness. To stay in tip-top condition we’re led to believe that we’ve got to watch our diet, exercise, maintain a good posture, keep slim, quit smoking and reduce our alcohol intake. We are what we eat, we’re constantly being told. This trite saying overlooks the fact that, to an even greater extent, we are what we think. That was the focus of the New Thought Movement, which flourished in America during the latter part of the nineteenth century. According to this teaching the way to happiness and success was ‘right thinking’. This meant adopting positive thoughts of optimism, courage, cheerfulness and love, and eliminating negative feelings of doubt, worry and fear. Some adherents of this school of thought – such as Phineas Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy – went so far as to claim that all sickness originates in the mind.

Since that time umpteen books have been written on self-improvement. Many have been runaway best sellers, like Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937) and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which is still in print and has gone on the sell over 50 million copies. This has led one wag to claim: ‘The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one.’ Well over forty years ago I tried my hand at writing a self-help book called The Habits of Health. It sold pretty well, but can’t have served its reformative purpose, for some of the second hand copies available on the web today – at prices ranging from £35 to under a pound – are described as ‘Like new, unread’ and ‘This copy has no sign of use.’ I’ve just been reading the introduction to this book and find that my views about the self-improvement process haven’t changed one iota. To achieve your full potential you don’t have to become a fitness fanatic or health bore. There’s no need to pump iron, or go on a macrobiotic diet. All that’s necessary is to adopt a healthy life style, which means adopting the habits of health. The rationale for these self-help principles, and the simplest and surest way of putting them into practice, is becoming clearer every day, through the advances of medical research. This is the information we’ll be relaying to you on this site every day.

To benefit from this on-going process of self-enlightenment, all you need to supply is your wholehearted commitment and co-operation. No public health measures, no legal reforms, no acts of Congress or Parliament will make you healthy, joyful and brimming with enthusiasm and vitality. Tomorrow’s high-tech hospitals may save your life if you fall victim to a serious disease, but they can’t advance your life in the ‘here and now’. No hospitals, drugs or therapies will make you well. This was the priceless lesson I learnt when I read my first self-help book, a copy of which was given to me my father while I was still in short trousers. The book was the highly influential Self Help by Samuel Smiles, which opens with the line: ‘Heaven helps those who help themselves.’

Print This Page