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Project Management for the Soul

There’s a divide that runs through the self-help market. On the one side there’s all the emotional, caring stuff—relationships, self-esteem, and healing. On the other, there’s all the macho business stuff, aimed at the gladiators of the executive boardroom. Split down loosely gendered lines (self-help delivered from Venus and Mars, respectively), there’s seemingly little crossover. But a new strain of self-help literature is helping bridge that divide—not by concentrating on either emotion or business, but by turning emotions into business.

“Do you want to improve your chances of promotion?” asks the spine of Daniel Goleman’s Working with Emotional Intelligence, just one of a raft of new books with titles like Psy-Q or Emotional Brain that help you with “managing emotion to make a positive impact on your life & career.” In the same way that the language of “targets” and “results” has infiltrated the worlds of education, psychology and healthcare, emotional self-help has undergone what we might call a managerial revolution. Life—once a journey—is now a project.

There’s something chillingly instrumental about this genre. The books of motivational guru Paul McKenna are just one example of a breed of self-help peppered with checklists and personal targets in order to make us happier, thinner, and richer, often within the space of a few weeks (life transformations require tight schedules). The subject of Karyn Hall’s The Emotionally Sensitive Person must get around to “Learning Effective Decision Making” to realize his or her inner sensitivity. Gretchen Rubin calls her spiritual quest a Happiness Project (“Money can help buy happiness, when spent wisely” the cover blurb trills), while in Tim Sanders’s Today We Are Rich, even the marital bedroom feels like a skills-based focus group (“I looked across at my wife, Jacqueline, who always believed in me and was willing to wait for me to grow into my potential”). A reader may wonder if he or she is allowed to feel anything without first submitting an emotion for team feedback.

But perhaps “emotion” is the wrong word to use here. Feelings in these books are described more as resources, or tools. Daniel Goleman, the CEO of “Emotional Intelligence Services,” talks of feelings as a “competency” for better brand engagement. “The most effective employees were adept at emotional intelligence competencies,” he tells us, while Paul McKenna suggests we turn “useful” social paranoia into “pronoia,” because social paranoia is apparently a good thing when it’s productive.

This is an entrepreneurial, by-your-bootstraps approach to feeling, perfectly suited to our neoliberal times. It’s an approach that personalizes potentially social problems like isolation, stress, depression, and makes the sufferer “responsible” for curing themselves. Just as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy encourages the patient to take a “proactive” role in his or her own improvement, the checklists, personal targets, and memos in these books are mostly left blank for the reader to fill out. (McKenna publishes so much white space that the reader would presumably end up writing more of it than the author.) The macho imagery is pervasive, with titles that talk of “mind gyms,” “brain workouts,” tools for honing the emotional self into a competitive entrepreneur. Lengthy therapy is rejected for quick fixes; why examine underlying causes when we can just hit the Reset buttons on our psyches?

And if anything can claim to be such a button, it must be the widely downloaded Headspace app (a “gym membership for the mind”), which promises to transform a person with just ten minutes’ practice a day by drawing on “mindfulness,” a Buddhist meditational technique. Such effective—or rather, costeffective—stress reduction techniques haven’t gone unnoticed. While meditation might popularly evoke scenes of joint-toting hippies, it’s the glass canyons of Wall Street that have been getting mindful recently; the military and the World Economic Forum at Davos have also been signing up for this “McMeditation.”

In the same way that results-based self-help colonizes the emotional self in the service of the spreadsheet, secular mindfulness is a results-based version of mysticism—a kind of “extreme relaxation” where overstressed workers interrupt a fourteen-hour adrenaline-fuelled day for ten minutes of meditative peace. Never mind all the fluffy spiritualism of programs like Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” training for workers; this branch of self-discovery is made to fit right in with the corporate machine. Oprah’s Book Club, which has always emphasized personal growth, is now seeing competition from Mark Zuckerberg’s Year of Books, which emphasizes corporate achievement.

This is all rather ironic. After all, is it not the “results-based” economy—with its insecurity and punishing targets, and its ruthless “efficiency”—that has largely made such interventions necessary? The more harassed we feel, the more we feel the need for self-help. Despite all the emotional intelligence being taught and hawked, work-related stress is now estimated to cost U.S. businesses $300 billion per year.

No wonder everyone’s looking for a quick fix. Now, breathe in….