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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Language, Literature and Humanities

Kristina Graaff

Adapting into Un/Happiness: Psychological Adjustment in 1930s U.S. Self-Help Culture

I understand self-help as a narrative mode found in different types of mass media that serves as a catalyst to introduce, circulate and consolidate discourses. My habilitation project investigates how, during the Great Depression, self-help popularized the discourse of ‘psychological adjustment’ on a national scale. To this day a research tool in psychological science that intends to measure individuals’ mental health in relation to adapting to changing conditions, psychological adjustment emerged as an epistemology in the 1920 and was introduced to a mass audience via self-help by the 1930s.

‘Adjustment’ is framed both as a process and technique to manage social, economic and political realities, as well as a successful outcome at the end of which stands the “promise of happiness” (Sara Ahmed). In my intersectional analyses of self-help books, advice columns and call-in radio shows of the Great Depression that were addressed to Black and white audiences of different social backgrounds, I examine the suggested tools of adjustment and un/happiness scripts.

I intend to put self-help’s psychological adjustments tools – including mental hygiene, relationship counseling and narrative introspection – in dialogue with Critical Happiness Studies to investigate questions such as: What mental and behavioral standards were brought into existence through self-help at the time? What ways of being were dis- and encouraged in line with the era’s economic shift from producer to consumer capitalism? How did self-help addressed to Black recipients trouble white narratives of happiness? How did (and does) the discourse of psychological adjustment foster exclusions, e.g. through racialization, ableism, heteronormativity, classism and ageism?