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The Perils of Self-Help

personal development Jul 19, 2018

“Have I done something for the common good? Then I share in the benefits. To stay centered on that. Not to give up.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.4

The bookstore and library have a Self-Help section, but not a Help-Others section.


Humans are inherently social and collaborative beings. There's an evolutionary imperative for this. In the beginning, we were neither the strongest nor the fastest creature scuttling about the landscape and there were stronger and faster creatures out there eager to turn us into lunch.

It was banding together that enabled us to survive. This led to language which led to the development of our neo-cortex. And this all led us from being frightened furballs hiding in caves to becoming the hairless apes that dominate the planet.

Fast forward to today. We've discovered that living and working with others boosts not just our productivity and success, but our mental, physical, and spiritual health and happiness. There's plenty of scientific evidence for this.

So why all the selfish self-help books, workshops, and movements?

Blame dopamine. Psychologically, engaging with self-help through any kind of media makes us feel good even without doing anything with the information. For our brains, thinking does simply "make it so."

And there's additional bad news. The "dopamine high" doesn't last long which leads to more selfish, even addictive behavior. Think that's an overstatement? Dopamine is released every time we hear our cellphone ping or buzz. How much time do you spend away from it?

Time to dump the dopamine peddlers and their delivery systems!

Collaborative activities, on the other hand, release oxytocin. Living with and serving others releases oxytocin which leads to long-lasting feelings of well-being, tranquility, and equanimity that encourage selflessness and empathy.

So, what's it going to be today? Are you going to feed yourself selfish self-help stuff or engage in selfless help-others action?

Let’s keep flying higher together!


Speaking of collaborative activities. My friend and Stoic mentor, Donald Robertson, features me and my "adventures" with Marcus Aurelius in a recent short interview.

“I will do nothing selfish, but aim instead to join them, to direct my every action toward what benefits us all and to avoid what doesn’t. If I do all that, then my life should go smoothly.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10.6

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