ELLEN WRITES: I spent the first month of 2010 looking for self-help books that had something to say. Self-help, unfortunately, has a rep for stating the obvious, and there's nothing in the current crop that tells me it's time to revise that low opinion. But occasional insight emerges from the murkiness.
Here's my bottom-line for self-help: It needs to enlighten, not just prescribe. Knowledge is power. The books listed below not only gave me helpful information, but also -- not so coincidentally -- all come back to a central theme: self-control. Americans have grown indulgent of late. Today's youngsters may be healthier and savvier than those of old, but research shows they also have less self-discipline. Maybe they've been learning by example: As we now know, our decades-long spending binge has given us everything we needed -- except financial security.
Success in any venture, whether it's losing weight or healing relationships, requires the ability to -- dare I say it -- just say no. OK, that may be too much of a bumper sticker. But the need to control emotions and actions is a theme that, not so coincidentally, is also found in wisdom literature, East and West. Impulse control applies to food, sex, family, even our relationship with God. So, with a nod to a Greater Power, here are five books that I touted on TV to help anyone get a grip on her (or his) life.
1. You On a Diet: The Owner’s Manual for Waist Management,” by Michael F. Roizen, M.D., and Mehmet C. Oz, M.D. The authors of this bestselling, highly readable and entertaining series, one of them host of Oz of “The Dr. Oz Show” on TV, tell you the same thing you’ve already heard: Changing your diet and getting some exercise are the only way to slim down. But their strategy is to show you how the body’s metabolism works so that you’ll know too much to chug soda or potato chips. According to them, waist size, not weight, is what counts. Ideal size for women: 32 ½ inches. Men: 35.
2. “The Procrastinator’s Guide to Getting Things Done,” by Monica Ramirez Basco. After you’ve become an expert on your body (above), grab this little tome to figure out your psyche. Basco, a psychologist, uses cognitive behavior therapy to help people get off the dime. It’s not a question of laziness or irresponsibility, she says: It’s your process that isn’t working. Are you overbooked? Disorganized? Unaware of how to do the job? Take her test to assess the reason and then try her ways of getting around them. And get rid of the idea that you shouldn’t do something if you can’t do it well. Doing your best is good enough. Just DO.
3. “Stop Getting Ripped Off: Why Consumers Get Screwed, and How You Can Always Get a Fair Deal,” by Bob Sullivan. Like the rest of us, Sullivan is ticked off by what he calls the “asymmetrical transactions” of modern society, the kind where the guy who is selling you a product or service – say, a home mortage – knows more than you do and gets you to buy that which you can’t afford. Here’s the answer: Become a skeptic. Bone up on your financial literacy. Adopt a back-to-basics approach to managing your money. Don’t expect the government to protect you, he says – as credit options have exploded, it has gone MIA in the name of less government regulation. The world wants you to spend more than you have. Show ‘em who’s boss.
4. “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children,” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Parents and society operate on certain assumptions about the best way to raise kids, and this book sets out to debunk a whole bunch of our current favorites. Start with the issue of self-esteem, which has been completely overdone (as in “You’re so smart, you’re so clever”). Research shows that it’s much better to praise children for their effort, not their innate abilities. The authors also underline the need to teach your kids (and yourself) the benefits of delayed gratification. This is a myth-buster book that’s worth a young parent’s scarce reading time.
5. “Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents,” by Christine Clark. OK, so now that you know how much you’re doing wrong as a mom (or dad), here comes a recipe for doing things right. But the best thing about this book is that its advice is relevant to people of any age. Clark, a sociologist at the University of California Berkeley, asserts that happiness is not born, but made. We can cultivate in our children (and ourselves) the positive emotions and behaviors that make us feel and live better. Learning gratitude and forgiveness isn’t like putting on a new pair of shoes, however. It starts with -- dare I say it again -- SELF-DISCIPLINE. Force yourself to smile, to think about what's good in the world. Then try to make good things happen.