You might date the final triumph of New Thought over mid-century pragmatism to the relocation of Harper & Row’s venerable religious division. In 1977, the old Protestant imprint moved to New Age–soaked San Francisco, land of Esalen, yoga, est, and Human Potential. Nine years later, it partnered with the Hazelden clinic to publish Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More. Suddenly, the jargon of AA became the jargon of the USA. Linda Loewenthal, who led self-help beacon Harmony Books, calls the recovery boom “my awakening to the power of naming something.” And, actually, “recovery” named everything, defining every problem as a personal illness to be conquered—toxic parents, women who love too much, obesity, excessive shopping, and above all “codependency,” which could potentially encompass any human relationship.
Recovery-inspired self-help replaced doctors, priests, and therapists (and maybe even parents, senators, and teachers) with public personalities who gave names to the problems of millions. In the insecure nineties, these Martin Luthers translated elite (and expensive) knowledge into news Americans could use. Suze Orman had worked at Merrill Lynch before ending up a financial counselor to the recently laid off. Then she pitched a book to Esther Margolis, the head of self-help publisher Newmarket Press. Now Orman’s the preeminent adviser to a downsized middle class. Deepak Chopra was a doctor at Tufts and Boston University who turned to meditation. He went to Harmony Books with his 1993 breakthrough, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old. In one soothing voice, East met West, the mind met the body, and the aging boomers met their age-defying guru.
The more the healers (and their “conditions”) proliferated, the harder it became for customers to figure out where to focus their limited time, money, and attention. It made sense that by 2000, our biggest guru wasn’t a writer but a new pope, Oprah Winfrey, whose brand lay in the power to ordain others. Like that other millennial guide, Malcolm Gladwell, she was a curator rather than a creator. But every one of her favorite things reflected her glow, from the corniest health program to the strangest New Age manifesto. Eckhart Tolle’s metaphysical The Power of Now had an initial printing of 3,000 copies in 1997. Five years later, around the time Oprah named it a personal favorite, it became a best seller. So did equally esoteric The Secret, a magical-thinking throwback to New Thought. Even the novels she selected, from The Corrections to The Road, instantly became not just blockbusters but launching points for discussions about relationships and personal growth—howtos with an aesthetic kick.
Oprah helped create a landscape in which anything can be self-help—so long as it isn’t the narrowly defined howtoism of old. Greg Brandenburgh, an alumnus of Harper San Francisco, once made a staple of illness primers. “What you’re looking for is to publish on conditions that are chronic and incurable,” he half-jokes. But where recovery books pathologized the public, current best sellers target what Heather Jackson, an editor at Harmony, calls “the worried well looking to optimize, to make their lives that much better.” Jackson saw this coming when she took on Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek. His life-hacking manifesto aims to cure not a sickness but something we used to consider a fairly natural state—inefficiency.
The self-made Ferriss notwithstanding, the peddlers of the new efficiency don’t much resemble the gurus of old. More often, they present themselves humbly as journalists or social scientists exploring new research frontiers for our benefit. “Somebody’s gonna kill me for saying this,” says the editor Caroline Sutton, when asked what kicked off the trend of essayistic self-help. “But I think it was The Tipping Point,” Gladwell’s 2000 argument for the power of social connections, which made it safe for techies and business types—and, more generally, men—to read about bettering themselves. “The whole idea of showing that there is a counterintuitive way of looking at information, to make you understand yourself in a completely different way—that’s been game-changing,” Sutton says.
You could argue that the marriage of self-help and social science began a few years earlier with Daniel Goleman, a bridge between self-help’s New Age past and its journalist-driven, label-defying present. A Harvard Ph.D. and a science reporter for the New York Times, Goleman had also co-written a book on meditation with psychedelic pioneer Ram Dass. For a book subverting the importance of IQ, he went to editor Toni Burbank, a veteran self-help guru at Bantam Books. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ spent more than a year on the Times best-seller list—its general rundown, not the ghetto of “Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous.”
It was Goleman who introduced Loewenthal, now an agent, to the science journalist Sharon Begley. Her book, which she wanted to title Train the Mind, Change the Brain, touted fMRI scans showing that meditating Buddhist monks could literally reshape their brains. Loewenthal sold the book to Sutton, then at Random House and now arguably the reigning queen of “Big Idea” self-help. Sutton publishes the Penguin imprint Hudson Street Press, putting out at least a dozen titles per year explicitly focused on “nonfiction with a strong takeaway.” Sutton eventually suggested changing Begley’s title to Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and with those two pronouns, a 2007 self-help best seller was born.