By Ray Williams
In times of doubt and uncertainty, many people turn to self-help books, groups or gurus in search of encouragement, guidance and self-affirmation. The positive self-statements suggested in these books, such as “I am a lovable person” or “I will succeed,” are designed to lift a person’s low self-esteem and push them into positive action. Yet, there is considerable evidence that self-help books don’t help people with their problems or aspirations, and may actually do some damage.
Despite their huge sales and continuing popularity, self-help books have faced fierce criticism over the years. Respected psychologists like Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have argued that self-help books will clearly not help people to become thin, rich and well-adjusted; indeed they will probably have no effect whatsoever. Worse, some have claimed self-help books are actually bad for us by promoting ‘false hope syndrome’. More radically, Steve Salerno, author of Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless claims self-help is responsible for the high divorce rate, increasing drug abuse and the end of romance.
At least two of the more than 4,500 “self-help” titles listed on Amazon claim to be “last self-help book you’ll ever need.” One 2016 estimate valued the self-help industry at close to $10 billion. The appetite for advice seems insatiable. The number of self-help books (including diet and fitness titles) in print has more than doubled since 1972 and the genre has expanded into TV with a boom in reality shows that promise body, mind or family makeovers. Indeed, the industry might even be circling back on itself with mocking advice like: “Throttle your inner child” or “Shut Up, Stop Whining, and Get a Life.”
For every conceivable mental problem and for every life choice there is guidance in print: positive thinking; emotional intelligence; how to become engaged in activities as a way in which to attain; if you should stay with or leave your partner; how to fight depression; how to stay sane in a crazy world; how to communicate with your partner; and what you can and cannot change about yourself; and even advice whether it is a good idea to kill yourself.
Steven Starker, author of Oracle at the Supermarket: The American Preoccupation with Self-Help Books, counted approximately 3,700 American book titles beginning with the words “how to”, and this figure is only a gross underestimation of the number of self-help volumes available, because the authors are not restricted to this title. The self-help industry is a goldmine. The genre is prominent in almost every bookstore with a section devoted to psychology in Western Europe and the United States. American self-help authors are also popular in China and the former Eastern bloc in Europe.
Starker mentions four pragmatic factors that explain the success of the self-help books:
- Cost. The costs of self-help books are low compared to a consultation with a therapist.
- The books are easy available and can be read over a lunch or during a sleepless night.
- A written solution for problems offers the opportunity to work on problems without ‘going public’ or having to speak to a doctor or psychologist.
- Self-help books quite often become best sellers and buying and reading such a book gives you the opportunity to became part of an in-group.
Dale Carnegie, a teacher and writer with no formal education in human behavior or psychology, provided self-help advice almost 80 years ago. Carnegie, a wildly popular lecturer in self-improvement right across Depression-era America, is in many ways the originator of the whole self-help movement that, today, is a multimillion-dollar industry, that keeps getting bigger. His 1936 book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, has set the benchmark for the kind of navel-gazing that asked us all to pull up our bootstraps sharpish, and go make something of ourselves. The book has now sold more than 16 million copies around the world, and, in addition to helping legions of the presumably needy, it has also encouraged others to do much as he had done: write a tome about how others can empower and better themselves.
Since the latter half of the 20th century, we have lived in a world dominated self-appointed lifestyle gurus spouting all manner of advice, and whose books, many of which spawn sequels that spawn sequels, sell in the kind of numbers Booker book prize winners can only dream of.
Thousands of books are published each year promising to help people from everything from dating to physical and mental health problems, with most of them not based on any evidential research.
However, clinical psychologist Joseph C. Kobos, who chairs the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Board of Professional Affairs, says, if a particular book has made the top 10 lists, “it’s probably got some substance.” Kobos notes that M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled, has been on the best-seller list for 10 years. “I think people must be getting some value out of it to keep it there.”
The American Psychological Association has no guidelines for self-help books or on how to use them with patients, Kobos says. The APA’s ethical standards does urge professional psychologists who produce materials for the public to “present the material fairly and accurately, avoiding misrepresentation through sensationalism, exaggeration or superficiality. ”
It’s difficult to judge the veracity of self-help ideas because they are hard to define. Does it matter that self-administered materials often are used to treat such limited problems as addictive behaviors? How often do self-help therapies that don’t work get written about? And how often do self-help claims measure against research for validation or accuracy?
For some self-help claims, the outcome appears to be the same as those of treatments conducted by some therapist or psychologists, according to a study in Psychological Science. Another study concluded that most self-help consumers are satisfied with the results they receive from their reading but for every study that appears to support the effectiveness of self-administered treatment, there’s another that denies it or raises serious questions.
There is no shortage of self-help gurus who promise to give the formula for success or happiness, and motivate and inspire you. And some of them may do that — for a short period of time. And some of them may have useful behavioral strategies or tips to make changes in your life.
So do ancient philosophers and spiritual leaders. But their books don’t inundate the public.
We can separate the advice and insights some experts provide that can be useful and motivational in life — those who base their ideas on evidential research — from those who have little or no qualifications and base their ideas on anecdotes or personal experience. Unfortunately, far too many people put their faith in the former than the latter.
Psychologist Jim Taylor is critical of self-help gurus. He writes in Psychology Today, “Numerous articles have been written about the disingenuousness and downright dishonesty of self-help gurus and their services and products (just do a web search of ‘self-help industry’ and see for yourself). We hear the outrageous promises of fast and easy change that simply affirm the well-known saying often attributed to P. T. Barnum, ‘There’s a sucker born every minute.’ We hear claims cloaked in scientific language (e.g., the Law of Attraction offered in The Secret is, according to its author Rhonda Byrnes, a natural law as real as gravity). We hear the sardonic commentary that the only people who are being helped are the gurus who are making millions off of gullible buyers of self-help books, CDs, and DVDs.”
Consumers of self-help books are more sensitive to stress and show higher depressive symptomatology, according to a study conducted by researchers at the CIUSSS de l’Est-de-l’Île-de-Montréal (Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal) and the University of Montreal, the findings of which were published in Neural Plasticity.
“Initially, we thought we had observed a difference in participants in terms of personality, sense of control, and self-esteem based on their self-help reading habits,” explained Catherine Raymond, first author of the study. “In reality, there seems to be no difference between those who read and those who do not read these types of books. However, our results show that while consumers of certain types of self-help books secrete higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) when confronted with stressful situations, consumers of another type of self-help books show higher depressive symptomatology compared to non-consumers,” she said.
The Chicken or the Egg?
Does reading self-help books increase the stress reactivity and depressive symptomatology of self-help readers or are they more sensitive to stressful situations? It is difficult to determine the cause of this observation. “Further research will help us learn more,” according to Raymond. “Nevertheless, it seems that these books do not produce the desired effects. When we observe that the best predictor of purchasing a self-help book is having bought one in the past year,1 it raises doubts about their effectiveness. Logically, if such books were truly effective, reading just one would be enough to solve our problems,” said the researcher. For this reason, she encourages people to rather consult books that report scientifically proven facts and are written by researchers or clinicians affiliated with recognized universities, health care facilities, or research centers. “Check your sources to avoid being disappointed. A good popular science book doesn’t replace a mental health professional but it can help readers better understand stress and anxiety and encourage them to seek help”.
What Kind of People Buy Self-Help Books?
There is not much research available to answer this question, but psychologist Steven Starker thinks that self-help is an essential part of American culture. Self-help books started more than 200 years ago with a new conception of society based on what Jefferson called the individual “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. The rigid, fixed-class systems of European countries were replaced by an open system in which “a man could hope to rise in station according to his merits and abilities, and to be judged solely on the basis of his individual accomplishments.” Obstacles to upward social mobility were removed and people felt that they also could be part of the American dream, if only they would know how. Self-help books offered appropriate guidance.
D.W. Rosen and colleagues in their article “Self-help or hype? The science and business of giving psychology away,” published in the book, Science and Pseudoscience in Contemporary Psychology, writes this of self-help books: “Psychobabble is… a set of repetitive verbal formalities that kills off the very spontaneity, candor, and understanding it pretends to promote. It’s an idiom that reduces psychological insight to a collection of standardized observations, that provides a frozen lexicon to deal with an infinite variety of problems.” John Polivy and Philip Herman in their article in the American Psychologist, claim that buying self-help volumes must be part of a false hope syndrome.
Another cautionary remark is that the power of a book to lead to meaningful changes in thinking, feeling and behavior, can also have negative consequences. A famous example is Goethe’s book Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774) that is said to have inspired some readers to commit suicide. According to Rosen, failure to benefit from a self-help book may lead to self-blame and/or the worsening of symptoms. And a new study indicated that people that read a self-help book about depression with minimal help from a psychotherapist, wrongly concluded that they could not be helped at all if they did not profit from the advice offered.
Similarities and Differences with Psychotherapy
A comparison with psychotherapy research can help to get a more complete view on the possible effects of reading self-help books. A useful distinction in psychotherapy research is the difference between specific and non-specific effects. This distinction was made because of the unexpected fact that very different schools of psychotherapy (psychodynamic, humanistic or behavioral) tend to yield the same treatment outcomes.
This effect can be explained by common factors in psychotherapy, like the personal resources and life circumstances of the client (which explain 40% of outcome variance), the emotionally charged relationship with the therapist (30%) and placebo, hope and expectancy (15%). The specific techniques and models of the treatment may explain 15% of treatment variance.
Hope, Placebo and Expectancy
Steven Starker compares the effect of self-help books with a placebo effect for drugs. He quotes psychologist Linnie Price of the University of Plymouth: “If the pharmaceutical industry were to produce a drug which was as reliable, of such wide-ranging applicability, and with a record of efficacy as impressive as that of the placebo effect, it would be no doubt be proclaimed a miracle panacea.” The belief that one can improve is a powerful factor in actual improvement, and cannot easily be dismissed.
This inspirational message comes with a risk. Active coping can lead to frustration if it is impossible to control a stressor. It may inspire persons to blame themselves for things that occur to them outside their responsibility. Sometimes acceptance may be a better way out than active coping, and sometimes cultural change may be necessary instead of individual change.
Rosen points to the fact that the inspirational message can lead to unsubstantiated and exaggerated claims. He takes a book by the noted psychologist Arnold Lazarus as an example. On the jacket of his book In the Mind’s Eye, it is claimed that the book will help to “enhance your creative powers; stop smoking, drinking or overeating; overcome sadness and despondence; build self-confidence and skill; overcome fears and anxiety’” This is quite a claim for an untested book and not in line with the American Psychological Association’s (APA) ethical standards : “Psychologists do not make (…) deceptive (…) statements concerning (…) the degree of success of, their services.
Another danger of overly optimistic messages is that readers will take a lighthearted attitude to meaningful changes. In psychotherapy it is commonly recognized that effort is necessary for improvement and/or relapse prevention. The self-help message that the wisdom of an author guarantees heaven on earth may inspire daydreaming, but not hard work and perseverance. For example, it has been shown that women who fantasized about size 6 dresses (the current American average size is 16–18) that they would reach with the latest diet, actually gained weight, if they didn’t pay proper attention to all the obstacles on the way and didn’t realize how much willpower they would need in order to stick to the diet.
Starker thinks that the enormous variety of self-help books and the haphazard way in which they are selected represents the greatest single problem with the genre. A well-advertised book that is endorsed by a celebrity will find a larger audience than a better book from a small publishing house. The danger that the mismatch between a reader and the technology offered in a self-help book has negative consequences is probably greater if the book is highly prescriptive and if the author presents a closed philosophy that discourages the reader to look for corrective information.
Sociologist Micki McGee says that the modern self-help explosion mirrors an increasingly unstable work and political environment. In her recently-released book, Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life, McGee tracks and defines our obsession with self-improvement — and why it has less to do with being self-absorbed than with belabored workers that feel they must constantly re-invent themselves to survive in a competitive job market. According to McGee, fixing what ails us as a society is not “something that we can do by organizing a more hectic schedule or getting the most recent smartphone.”
Self-Help: Shattering the Myths
In the spirit of pioneers, we’re concocting our own remedies and salving our own wounds. But is it good medicine? Once the preserve of charlatans and “psychobabblers,” self-help has undergone its own reinvention, emerging as a source of useful information presented by acknowledged authorities. Often, the messages of self-help books tend to be vast oversimplifications, misrepresenting a part of the truth for the whole, as the following list of popular misconceptions and distortions demonstrates.
The antidote — the “good” kind of self-help, grounded in research — is also available to those who help themselves. Just keep in mind that even the best self-help may be too simplistic to manage complex problems, and that research, with its emphasis on straight science, may not always offer a clear course of action.
Examples of Distortions or Myths Advanced by Some Self-Help Books
- Vent your anger, and it’ll go away.
“Punch a pillow or punching bag. And while you do it, yell and curse and moan and holler,” advises Facing the Fire: Expressing and Experiencing Anger Appropriately. “Punch with all the frenzy you can. If you are angry at a particular person, imagine his or her face on the pillow or punching bag, and vent your rage physically and verbally.” Experts says that pillow punching, like other forms of vigorous exercise, might be helpful for stress management, but recent studies suggest that venting anger may be counterproductive. “Venting anger just keeps it alive,” says Brad Bushman, Ph.D., a psychologist at Iowa State University. “People think it’s going to work, and when it doesn’t, they become even more angry and frustrated.” In addition, several studies show that the outward expression of anger leads to dangerously elevated cardiovascular activity, which may contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease.
Bushman put the so-called “catharsis hypothesis” to the test, deliberately inducing anger in a group of college students by marking nasty comments on essays they had written. Those who slammed a punching bag afterward were more, not less, aggressive to people they subsequently encountered.
A better strategy, says Bushman, is to do “anything that’s incompatible with anger and aggression.” That includes watching a funny movie, reading an absorbing novel, sharing a laugh with a friend, or listening to music. Given time, your anger will dissipate, and then you’ll be able to deal with the situation in a more constructive way. Other studies have concluded that sustained strenuous activity might indeed release anger and improve mood. And non-traditional exercise programs like tai chi, yoga and stretching may not only dissipate negative feelings such as anger but make people more conscious of their mood states, paving the way for them to do something constructive about them.
- When you’re down in the dumps, think yourself happy by focusing on the positive.
“Close your mental doors behind you on unpleasant circumstances or failures you have experienced,” commands Napoleon Hill’s Keys to Positive Thinking. “Use your brain for controlled, optimistic thinking. Take possession of your mind and direct it to images of your choosing. Do not let circumstances or people dictate negative visual images.”
But research shows that when we’re anxious or stressed — in other words, exactly when we need a mood boost — our minds become unable to provide one. That’s because we’re so preoccupied with our troubles that we don’t have enough brainpower left over to suppress negative thoughts. And when we try to distract ourselves, pessimistic notions are the only ones that come to mind. “If you’re really under stress, putting yourself in a good mood by thinking positive thoughts becomes not only difficult — in fact it backfires, and you get the opposite of what you want,” says Daniel Wegner, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Virginia.
In an experiment, Wegner asked a group of people to put themselves in a good mood — which they did, fairly easily. But when they were also told to keep a nine-digit number in mind, they actually felt worse. The energy they had available to control their mood was reduced by the effort of remembering the number. “You have to enlist the help of other people,” Wegner says.
“Talk to friends or relatives or clergy or a therapist, or anyone else who might be able to help you think about other things.” Or go to a place where people are enjoying themselves, like a party or the park or the mall, and you’ll soon feel your spirits lift. Finally, if you know in advance that you’re going to be upset or anxious about something, make a list of positive things that you can refer to when you need it most: your five favorite memories, say, or three occasions to look forward to.
- Visualize your goal, and you’ll help make it come true.
“Hold the image of yourself succeeding, visualize it so vividly, that when the desired success comes, it seems to be merely echoing a reality that has already existed in your mind,” suggests Norman Vincent Peale in his book Positive Imaging: The Powerful Way to Change Your Life, and of course, The Secret.
Sports psychologists have shown the power that visualization has on improving performance, but simply imagining that you’ve achieved your goal won’t bring it any closer — and might even put it further out of reach. Shelley Taylor, Ph.D., a psychologist at UCLA, has reservations about visualizing your goals. “First of all, it separates the goal from what you need to do to get it. And second, it enables you to enjoy the feeling of being successful without actually having achieved anything. That takes away the power of the goal”— and can even make you complacent, unwilling to work hard or take risks to get what you already have in your daydreams.”In addition to picturing your goal as a fait accompli, “you should figure out what the steps to get there are, and then mentally rehearse them,” says Taylor. In an experiment, Taylor asked some students preparing for an exam to imagine their happiness at having received an “A” on the test, and others to picture themselves sitting in the library, studying their textbooks and going over lecture notes. Those in the second group performed better on the test, and experienced less stress and worry. For short-term goals, Taylor recommends running through the steps you’ve laid out once a day; for bigger dreams, you can revisit your plan every time you make some progress, and see if it needs adjusting.
4. Self-affirmations will help you raise low self-esteem.
“Write affirmations on paper and put them in places you will see them — on the bathroom mirror, next to your bed, on the car dashboard,” recommends Life 101: Everything We Wish We Had Learned About Life In School — But Didn’t. “You can also record them on endless-loop cassette tapes and play them in the background all day (and night).”
Psychologists say this technique may not be very helpful. Changing how we feel about ourselves is a lot more complicated, explains William Swann, Ph.D., of the University of Texas-Austin. “Self-esteem is based on two components: first, our sense of how likable and lovable we are, and second, our sense of how competent we are” at our jobs and at other activities that demand talent and skill. On those scores, we’ve been hearing from other people — parents, teachers, bosses, siblings, friends, romantic partners — all our lives, and their opinions of us continue to reinforce our notions of ourselves, good or bad. Self-affirmations, even when endlessly repeated, don’t make much of a dent — and when they fail to work, they may leave us even more demoralized.
What’s more, people with low self-esteem may be especially unpersuaded by self-affirmations. Preliminary research by Swann’s colleague at UT, Robert Josephs, Ph.D., indicates that those with poor self-images simply don’t believe the statements, because they don’t value their own opinions very highly. In Josephs’ experiment, high self-esteem people were able to pat themselves on the back for solving a set of problems, while “lows” had to hear praise from someone else before they would credit it.
The only way to change your self-esteem — is to change what goes into making it — feedback from other people. “If you find yourself in bad relationships where your negative self-view is getting reinforced, then either change the way those people treat you by being more assertive, or change who you interact with,” says Swann. “If you’re in a job where you’re getting denigrated, insist that you be treated more appropriately, or change jobs. Try to do your job better than you’ve done it before.” Surround yourself with people who think you’re great, and tell you so. Do your best to live up to their high opinions. And be patient. Self-esteem is the sum of your interactions with others over a lifetime, and it’s not going to change overnight.
5. “Active listening” can help you communicate better with your partner.
“The technique of ‘active listening’ ensures that you not only hear, but really understand what your partner is trying to tell you,” reads Going the Distance: Finding and Keeping Lifelong Love. You do it by “paraphrasing your partner’s words, then repeating in your own words what you believe your partner is trying to communicate to you.”
There’s only one problem with active listening: hardly anyone does it. Although the technique has been promoted by therapists for over three decades, research shows that actual couples — including the long-lasting, lovey-dovey ones — completely ignore it when they argue. “It just doesn’t happen,” says Sybil Carrere, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Washington who’s been leading a six-year study of how newlyweds interact. “Intuitively it does make sense, but the fact is that when you look at happy couples, they’re not doing it. They’re being affectionate, they’re using humor to break up tension, they’re indicating interest in what their partner has to say — they’re doing a lot of positive things. But they’re not doing active listening.” In fact, one of the few studies that has been conducted on the effects of active listening shows that it does nothing to help couples in distress.
According to Carrere, couples should focus their efforts on three other areas. First, women should try to present their complaints in a calm way: Research shows that men are more likely to listen if their partners tone down hostility and avoid contemptuousness. Second, men need to really listen to their partners, taking their feelings and opinions into account. And third, both sides should do what they can to keep the male half cool and collected. “Men have a tendency when they get into conflict to get physiologically aroused, and then they tend to withdraw from the conflict in order to soothe themselves, which only makes the woman more angry,” says Carrere. If the two of you can work together to head his anger off at the pass — by throwing in a joke, maybe, or offering a hug — you’ll both be better off.
If You Have to Read Self-Help Books, Follow These Tips
Dutch social scientist Ad Bergsma and author of “Do Self-Help Books Help?” in the Journal of Happiness Studies explores what we do and do not know about whether “bibliotherapy” really works. Bergsma concludes that it can, but likely only when the following criteria are met:
- When the book is problem-focused. While the themes of self-help literature run the gamut from improving relationships to becoming more productive, Bergsma says they can be roughly categorized into two types: problem-focused and growth-oriented. Problem-focused self-help books offer advice on how to overcome specific issues like insomnia, stress, addiction, anxiety, and depression. Growth-oriented books focus on broader, more holistic topics like finding happiness, discovering your purpose, setting goals, developing your career, and improving relationships. In the case of problem-focused self-help books, empirical evidence does exist which demonstrates their efficacy. For example, in a meta-analysis on bibliotherapy’s effectiveness in treating depression, researchers concluded that reading books on the subject can be just as effective as individual or group therapy. Similar studies have found that there are similar benefits to reading self-help books in order to treat anxiety and mild alcohol abuse. When it comes to growth-oriented self-help books, however, no empirical research (amazingly enough) has yet been done on their efficacy. That doesn’t mean they don’t work, but as Bergsma says, you have to look at other, more tentative pointers — outlined below — in order to assess whether reading a particular book is likely to have a positive effect.
- Consider the source of the information. Many self-help books keep parroting advice that has become embedded in the popular culture, but has in fact been disproven by recent research. Does it come from a professional with training and research in human behavior? Beware of materials written by fellow sufferers who are laypersons.Experiencing a problem doesn’t automatically confer the ability to help others. And what works for one may not work for all. The problem that’s addressed has to be one that is amenable to change. Psychological states that are genetic, like manic-depressive disorder, are extraordinarily difficult to change. So are those that are at the core of what we think or do, such as sexual orientation. more responsive to deliberate efforts at change, and panic disorder and issues of sexual performance more susceptible still. The material must provide both facts about and specific strategies for dealing with the psychological concern. It’s important that the information review the symptoms of any condition, and ideally a self-diagnosis questionnaire should be provided.Quality information also takes into account individual differences among readers. Most helpful is an array of techniques for tackling the problem. The more specific the problem-solving strategies., the more useful. And all of the strategies presented should be based squarely on science or professional practice. When the book’s advice correlates with empirically-proven routes to happiness. There’s no empirical evidence to back the general efficacy of growth-oriented self-help books in achieving greater happiness, but there is empirical evidence to back the efficacy of certain behaviors and aims in achieving greater happiness, and when a book espouses these behaviors and aims, it is more likely to have a positive effect on the reader. As Bergsma explains: If a self-help author recommends seeking happiness in a higher income, that advice is unlikely to work out well for most readers, since research has found little relation between happiness and income . . . If, however, the advice is to optimize personal relationships, an effective book has a good chance to enhance happiness, because good relationships appear to be an important condition for happiness.
- When the book recommends looking not just at dreams but obstacles. Part of the potential efficacy of self-help books is the way in which they impart the message that anyone can change, anyone can get better. They’re a hedge against the paralyzing passivity of learned helplessness. As psychologist Steven Starker observed in his book Oracle at the Supermarket: The American Preoccupation With Self-Help Books: “Of what value is an inspirational message to those in need of health, beauty, happiness, success, and creativity? In general, it lifts the spirit, engenders and supports hope, and keeps people striving towards their goals; it also fends off . . . hopelessness, despair, and depression. This constitutes [self-help books’] greatest service.” Yet the potential boon of hope that self-help books offer can also backfire, if this optimism is overly rosy and pie-in-the-sky, and not tempered with an honest, realistic assessment of the effort and obstacles that are required to reach one’s goals. Research shows that people who only concentrate on their dreams, and their attendant rewards, are apt to give up once they face some resistance en route to them. A good self-help book is thus one that both pumps you up, and splashes you with cold water.
- When you’re already self-motivated. While research has shown that problem-focused self-help programs and books can be effective, that’s only the case when people actually implement and stick with the given recommendations. As Bergsma reports, “Self-help has greatest success with people with high motivation, resourcefulness, and positive attitudes toward self-help treatments.” This is incredibly unsurprising, but self-help advice of every kind only works when put into practice. If you’re already motivated to make a change, self-help books can give you an extra boost and some needed direction, amplifying a trajectory you’re already on. But if you’re turning to self-help books for motivation, they’re unlikely to deliver; you’d probably be better served by seeking external help — with its accompanying layer of accountability — than trying to do things entirely on your own.
- Be discerning in the books you choose. Pick self-help books that are written by experts or drawn from the research of experts, espouse principles and aims that actually lead to happiness, and temper optimism with realism.
- Manage your expectations. A lot of self-help books make exaggerated claims about their benefits: “Learn THE secret to losing weight and keeping it off forever!” “Increase your confidence overnight!.” “Never be distracted again!” That’s good marketing copy, but not realistic. Most personal change is slow and hard. There will be setbacks. Also, most personal change requires a multi-faceted approach. There are no silver bullets. When people read a book that promises amazing results, but then fail to achieve those results, it could result in demoralization and learned helplessness. They start to think, “If this amazing book didn’t work, nothing will.” For this reason, Bergsma recommends that as you read self-help books, you do so with realistic expectations. Don’t expect you’ll find an insight that will change your life overnight because that’s not how change happens.
- Pick and choose what you implement; experiment. One of the flaws of self-help books, Bergsma says, is that they often take a one-size-fits-all approach to personal improvement. General advice doesn’t map neatly onto people’s varied particularities. It’s natural to want someone to tell you exactly what to do. But, rather than looking to a self-help book for a step-by step blueprint to follow, Bergsma suggests using it the same way you would a travel guide: “Most readers will not follow [a travel guide] page by page, but will study parts of the book and will select some travel options they would have never heard of without the book. In a similar way self-help books . . . show options for thinking and acting from the psychological toolkit of the individual that are underdeveloped or could be used more often. You don’t have to try everything you read in a self-help book. What works for someone else might not work for you and vice versa. Take what resonates with your unique personality, lifestyle, schedule, and limitations, and experiment with it. If something doesn’t work, stop doing it, and don’t feel bad about it.”
- Take action! This point can’t be hit home enough. It doesn’t matter how sound or research-backed the principles are in a self-help book; if you don’t put them into practice, they won’t work! As Bergsma notes, this isn’t any different from a person getting help from a professional therapist. Therapists can offer their patient advice, but if the patient never takes action on the advice, they won’t make any progress. Ultimately then, the effectiveness of self-help books depends primarily on the reader, leaving Bergsma to cheekily conclude: “if a self-help therapy works, we should first congratulate the ‘client’ not the ‘therapist.’”
People should consider self-help books with caution and skepticism, particularly ones that make grandiose and far reaching promises for solving problems or being happy. The reader should be diligent in checking to see if the author is a professional with experience and training in human behavior or psychology, and if there is research evidence to back up any claims or promises. Having said that, some self-help books recommended by mental health professionals can be inspirational and beneficial for the reader.