From humble beginnings, self-help books have now colonised huge and ever-growing areas of bookshops. Best-selling titles like ‘Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus‘, or ‘Don’t Worry, Make Money‘ promise to teach us how to fix our relationships and live ‘more fully’. But are these, and other come-ons, just empty assurances designed to sell a product?
While the advice of philosophers like Epicurus and Schopenhauer, comes to us with the lustre of intellectual achievement, modern self-help books often don’t. Worse, they can seem tacky, opportunistic and filled with psychobabble.
Of course self-help books vary considerably, in both quality and popularity – but are the most popular also the highest quality? In an article to be published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, Ad Bergsma looks at the most popular self-help books and asks whether their advice can really help us (Bergsma, in press).
Reasons to be sceptical
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.
While claims like Salerno’s are hard to justify, there’s no doubt that self-help is a massive industry. Salerno’s estimate is $8 billion a year in the US alone. That’s a lot of cash and all the more reason to take a closer look at what self-help books actually contain and whether it is useful.
Is this cynicism unfounded, merely motivated by jealousy or is there some substance to it?
What are self-help books about?
The first problem is deciding exactly what self-help is given the number of different books on the market. Bergsma (in press) contacted a local publisher for the highest selling self-help books in a variety of bookstores.
Broadly speaking here is what these books covered:
- Personal growth: these were mainly focussed on improving the self.
- Relationships: giving advice on communication skills and how to improve our personal relations.
- Coping: how to deal with difficult events and situations. These often concentrated on dealing with stress at work.
- Identity: about gaining personal insight, although some overlap with the personal growth category.
What self-help books get wrong
Comparing the advice given in self-help books with psychological research about the conditions of happiness reveals two sides to the story. Let’s start with the negative. There is evidence from previous studies that self-help books sometimes perpetuate psychological myths. Paul (2001) points out some common ones:
- Venting your anger is good. Wrong. Research shows that expressing your anger helps maintain it.
- When depressed, think happy thoughts. Wrong. Research shows that trying to think happy thoughts when we’re depressed can actually make our current unhappiness even more obvious.
- Visualise your goals.Not the whole story: in order to achieve a goal we need to focus on the problems that stand between us and reaching our goal.
- Use self-affirmation: “I’m a tiger!” Doesn’t work, it seems we don’t believe our own praise. What we really need is praise from others to raise our self-esteem.
- Use active listening to communicate with your partner No luck here either. Loving couples don’t seem to use this technique.
What self-help books get right
On the other hand, when Bergsma compared the advice given in his sample of self-help books, most of it corresponded with findings from happiness research. For example, self-help books pointed out the importance of our families, friendships, intimacy and love-lives, all of which are highly correlated with happiness.
Even if self-help books contain the right advice, though, there’s still the question of whether reading a book will make any difference to people’s lives. In other words: is there any evidence that after reading the advice, that people actually put it into practice, resulting in an improvement.
Do self-help books work?
To answer this question Bergsma argues we have to make a distinction between two different types of self-help books. The first focus on the idea of personal growth and the second tackle a particular problem, for example depression or anxiety.
Research into the use of problem-focused self-help books – sometimes called ‘bibliotherapy’ – has found that they can be effective for less severe problems, like mild depression and anxiety. As for growth-oriented books, there’s no evidence for whether they work or not, although people do claim, when asked, to find them useful. Unfortunately we have to be sceptical about these sorts of reports – see my series on the hidden workings of the mind.
It’s notable, though, that in the sample Bergsma examined, the vast majority of books were growth-oriented, not problem-oriented. This doesn’t mean the growth-oriented ones are no good, just that we don’t know whether they’re effective or not.
The hope factor
If self-help books do work, and there’s evidence that some do, why are they effective? Bergsma argues that it may have less to do with the specific advice they contain, and more to do with a factor common to all self-help books: hope.
To explain this point, let’s draw an analogy with psychotherapy and the research into its effectiveness. Psychotherapists operate using a variety of different techniques, e.g. cognitive-behavioural, psychodynamic, person-centred and so on. Research into the effectiveness of these different types of psychotherapy has suggested there is a common factor in all of them. This common factor is probably the beneficial effect of having someone listening to you and providing support. The actual techniques used may be less important.
Perhaps the same is also true of self-help books. One thing that all self-help books have in common is that they all tell us that change is possible. In other words they give us hope. Exposing ourselves to a hefty dose of hope probably helps us cope better with life, even if it can’t really make us all thin, rich and ecstatically happy.
The dark side of hope is that claims about potential improvement can, and are, grossly exaggerated, in order to prise open our wallets. Similarly a bright and breezy approach to potential change may lead us to believe that changing ourselves is easy, when often it requires considerable, sometimes monumental, effort.
» See also: 6 self-help books for depression that are recommended by the research and by clinicians themselves.
Bergsma, A. (In press) Do self-help books help? Journal of Happiness Studies, 1-20.
Paul, A.M. (2001). Self-Help: Shattering the Myths. Psychology Today, March.