I witnessed it gradually unroll from the 1990s. It started with The Learning Annex catalogues of courses where you could attend a local one-day class to “get in touch with your inner child” and to “be your own boss” among hundreds of other courses. It used to be a habit with friends that while at a Village diner having breakfast, we would read the titles to these classes and invariably break down in laughter. There was something entirely amusing, yet absurd, about the plethora of classes with courses entitled “Walking Crosstown” and “How to Do Your Laundry by Hypnosis.” Little did we know that this culture of self-empowerment was just beginning.
From local, in-person courses, The Learning Annex had expanded its offerings to online classes and alongside many other similar businesses. Alongside such learning centers a new class of profession called the “life coach” has also foot into this market. While self-help culture rose in the 1970s, proliferating in the 1980s largely through books such as Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns (1980) and The Power of Now (2004) by Eckhart Tolle, self-help publishing industry expanded massively into the realm of the motivational coach on tour and on television and to the more local entrepreneur who advises business executives how to deal with stress or how to approach public speaking, among many other niche specialities. With new technology, these self-help gurus have moved onto the Internet and into app territory in order to expand their audience while giving the appearance of a one-to-one experience.
Calling himself a “life and business strategist,” Tony Robbins is now one of dozens of celebrity self-help gurus who relies more than ever on new technology for his business. With his Wealth Mastery and Breakthrough apps among many others, Robbins is targeting profits through mobile phones for people on the go. There is no shortage of personal development advice today. From Armand Peri who shares “secrets of success” to career counsellor Barbara Scher, this industry is taking in a whopping $9.9 billion annually in the United States alone. And a huge chunk of the profits are today derived from online and app-based revenue. Even Oprah’s spiritual advisor has cashed in on new tech and offers online courses and lecture series in addition to a guided meditation app. She also announced that she is running for president which might be the biggest claim to glory for this trade.
Why are so many willing to sink money into what was once an industry focussed on interaction with a live motivational speaker for an inspirational afternoon? Given that people come to use apps as a replacement for the workshop experience of learning, I remained skeptical that an app could ever replace the social and live interaction of speaker to audience member? In essence, if I am going to invest in an area of my life that I think I need help in, why would I pay for an app over a local life coach?
Some journalists have written about their experiences using these self-care apps with varying results, most noting that the end goal of better mental health or finances is a bit more complex than any app can undertake. But couldn’t the same be said for the books published on this subject and the lecture tours by the most prominent in this field? Where we expect apps or an online course to “give us motivation” shouldn’t we be seeking more complex solutions that might include a longer-term commitment with a live human being in the form of therapy? In essence, I wonder if we ought not to make a return to psychoanalysis or what is referred to as bibliotherapy (self-help books) given that there is strong evidence in favor of these methods, such as the University of Nevada study which found that depressed people thrived when they read Feeling Good (1999) as much as those in the control group who received cognitive-behavioral bibliotherapy (CBT) for dealing with depression. Can the same conclusions be made of technological therapies through purely computers or mobile phone interactions?
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For depression, high tech solutions are catching on which involve CBT and these apps have been reviewed for their efficacy quite recently in the “Review of cognitive behavioral therapy mobile apps using a reference architecture embedded in the patient-provider relationship.” In this review, Alice Lan et al focussed on upon 35 mental health (mHealth) apps claiming to provide cognitive behavioral therapy. Their conclusion was that these apps did not “enhance the patient-provider relationship, improve patient accountability or help providers support patients more effectively between visits,” noting that there is room for improved mHealth apps which might be better integrated into existing healthcare systems. However, another study last Fall led by Lorenzo Lorenzo-Luaces conducted a “meta-regression analysis” of 21 studies where it was determined that Internet-based therapy platforms effectively alleviate depression. So much for my skepticism on new tech, but the jury is out if these apps work in areas of wellness, other areas of mental health outside of depression, or if these apps might not be creating more anxiety than they alleviate.
Still, the positive outcomes tend to be limited to a very narrow set of criteria and areas of self-development such that there is no evidence to show that self-help apps are useful outside of CBT or certain treatments for depression. Can we learn how to find our inner child with an app? Or is this a search that is meant to be forever “in progress”? Perhaps time and many downloads later we will have better answers. Or, maybe we will simply perpetuate the culture of self-perfection, wanting more, and never being satisfied with the self?
Julian Vigo is a freelance journalist and writer. Follow her on Twitter or send her an email.