“I think it’s important to offer out a promise to the reader,” Sutton says. “It’s a kind of quintessentially American thing.” What distinguishes crossovers like Begley is the level of scientific detail behind the promise. The guru has given way to the data set—as explicated by journalists eager to break the constraints of a shrinking medium by pitching their discoveries directly to the masses. And where yesterday’s healers had their Esalen Institute and Hazelden, journalists and scientist-writers have lecture circuits. “TED,” says Sutton, “is sort of like the new Oprah.”
“An increasing segment of the market wants to read about the synthesis of different modalities,” says Loewenthal. What she means to say, probably, is that we are in a new era of mass self-help, wherein the laboratory and the writer work together to teach us how to change ourselves, rather than our world. Take the latest subgenre, Positive Psychology. Like so many movements of the past, it began as the province of professionals pursuing greater knowledge or maybe better policy—until it was brought down to Earth by an enterprising hand-holder. Her name is Gretchen Rubin, and she’s also on Amazon’s self-help best-seller list, with her 2009 book, The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. It’s full of data, but chummily narrated within the framework of a memoir. It bears all the hallmarks of contemporary self-help, including its shyness about the label. (Rubin’s first book was actually a parody of self-help.) But for all its modern pretensions, it focuses, like all the enduring best sellers, on a chronic and incurable American flaw: unhappiness.