01/10/2013 05:18 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2013

Wishful Thinking

If your goal is to look younger, feel younger, be thinner, smarter, richer, faster, slower, more mindful, more peaceful, to drink less, eat less, worry less, work less, sleep less, to be a better parent, a better spouse, a better lover, a better person, to be better in every way, then I have a book for you.

I'm not talking about Timothy Ferriss' The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman, which claims to show how to lose fat with a few bags of ice, how to gain 34 pounds of muscle in 28 days (in only four hours of total gym time), and how to produce 15-minute female orgasms. I'm not talking about one book, but the many self-help books published and read this time of year. No matter your goal, there's a self-help book to help you achieve it.

I should know; I've been a closeted self-help junky for years. I keep my stash in boxes in the basement, beside the dog crate where our German Shepherd hides during storms. Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, Thomas Moore, David Richo -- an all-star roster. Every so often, when I'm feeling especially blah, I go down to get one. Nothing to be ashamed of, I decide, and up it comes to my office. When I'm not reading it, I put it on the highest shelf where even a very tall person wouldn't likely see it.

There are two reasons I keep them hidden. The first is that self-help books, though they can be helpful, are often filled with treacle, the kind of sentimentality and simplicity I strive to keep out of my fiction. The second is that if people see you reading a self-help book, they will wonder what's wrong with you and why you need help.

Because the narrator of my new novel, The Book of Why, is a self-help author and inspirational speaker, it would be easy to use the ever-ready novelist's alibi -- I read all those books for research -- but my interest in self-help books, my complicated relationship with them, predates the idea for my novel. The hours I spent enrapt watching Wayne Dyer on PBS had nothing to do with research. Neither did the night I drove two hours to hear him speak. Years before I wrote the first words of The Book of Why, my spiritual man-crush on Dyer was the subject of affectionate ribbing from my wife, the only person who knew about my secret reading habits.

The most popular self-help book in recent years, also the most reviled, is Rhonda Byrne's mega-bestselling, Oprah-endorsed The Secret, which claims that positive thinking can increase your health, wealth, and happiness. I read The Secret and similar books -- Ask and It Is Given by Esther and Jerry Hicks, The Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer, You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay -- and tested the so-called "law of attraction" with mixed results.

Every day for weeks I visualized a parking space in front of the building where I lived in Philadelphia, but never found one. After my final failed attempt, I had to park six blocks away, where someone broke into my car. No matter how positive my thinking, I couldn't will the Mets to win the World Series. With unwavering faith I imagined the Steelers winning the Super Bowl, and they did -- three years later. Perhaps more fans of other teams had been thinking more positively than I was.

When I was planning to propose to my wife, I found the perfect engagement ring. Even though it was modestly priced, I couldn't afford it. For months I kept visualizing the ring on her finger. Then one day, quite unexpectedly, I received payment for a short story I'd published years earlier. The magazine had been on the brink of folding, and my agent told me that I'd probably never be paid, but Bruce Springsteen, who happens to be my wife's favorite musician, held two benefit concerts to raise money for the magazine. The amount of the check was almost the exact cost of the ring. My wife and I still joke that Bruce Springsteen helped buy her engagement ring.

I don't believe that positive thinking had anything to do with that check showing up in the mail, but I can understand how appealing it might be to see life as a series of meaningful, interconnected events under our control. To believe that we have control over what happens may be naive, but to admit that we don't takes courage. For many people, it's simply too frightening to give up the illusion of control.

In recent years there has been a backlash against positive thinking. Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America criticizes books like The Secret for encouraging "victim-blaming" and a "flight from realism." Oliver Burkeman's The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking claims to turn "decades of self-help advice on its head" and suggests that we might find happiness by embracing the very things we try to avoid, such as failure, imperfection, uncertainty, and death. Burkeman's approach may be radically different from Rhonda Byrne's -- his book is witty and intelligent and displays an understanding of life's difficulties and complexities -- but in the end he's selling the same thing as The Secret and every other self-help book: a path to happiness (even if that path includes or requires some unhappiness along the way).

I'm certainly not here to defend The Secret -- I find it to be self-serving despite a pretense of spirituality -- but neither am I here to condemn it. What's missing from the discussion about self-help books, especially those that preach positive thinking, is empathy.

I wish it were otherwise, but often it's easier for me to empathize with fictional characters than with actual people. Only through writing about a character who believes in the law of attraction and the power of intention, only through dramatizing the genesis of his faith and his struggle with doubt, was I able to understand that he, like all of us at one time or another, was in such pain and so deeply afraid that he was desperate for answers. His questions: Why do painful things happen to us? To what extent are we in charge of our lives? If we're not in control, who or what is? Writing about this character -- like many of my characters, he has a little bit of me in him -- allowed me to access empathy for anyone hoping to feel happier, even if they may be looking in the wrong places and trying to avoid feelings and experiences they can't and shouldn't avoid. My hope, of course, is that even Barbara Ehrenreich and Oliver Burkeman might feel sympathy for the narrator of my novel, and that Rhonda Byrne and the many followers of The Secret might question their own beliefs and better understand their critics.

Despite my intention to give up self-help books, I know that it's unrealistic. It's unlikely that I'll ever feel quite good enough to relax fully into being me. It's in my nature to want to try harder, do better, be better. I'd like to be more loving, more forgiving, more compassionate, more mindful, more honest, more accepting of whatever life gives me. I'd like to be more patient with my son, more affectionate with my dog. I'd like to spend less time on my computer. I'd like to slow down. I'd like to stop sweating the small stuff. I'd like to be less afraid. I'd like to stop worrying what people think about me.

Then again, maybe my only goal should be to stop trying so hard to be better. That might be wishful thinking, but I'm sure there's a book to help me. It's probably in my basement.