Are self-help books any good?

There are untold thousands of self-help books on the market, covering everything around … well, everything, such as smoking, general well-being, getting the job of your dreams, or even changing your lifestyle to “be the change” or some such expression.

But are these self-help books any good?

Well, it’s entirely possible that the intent of all these writers is from the right place; that people are keen to do nothing more than give people guidance and support in achieving whatever goal they’re seeking help to change. However, they also make profits for their authors and their publishers; just look at Gillian McKeith, who I’ve written about before.

In 2006, Rhonda Byrne published ‘The Secret‘, a book that sold the power of positive thinking as the cure to the woes of the modern world. It went on to sell more than 19 million copies in 46 languages, and defined an entire genre of books, DVDs, and workshops.

Byrne was by no means the first person to publish a self-help book. She wasn’t even the first in 2006. The self-help world had been alive for over a century by that point, and had been a billion dollar industry for over a decade. But ‘The Secret’ became the figurehead for a genre of books and products that have become one of those most profitable and predatory industries in the world.

These books are always full of the same old buzzwords and worn out phrases like “living in your authentic self”, or “living your truth”, or any other combination of words that fill up pages but don’t actually tell you anything. Despite this self-evident truth, the self-help world has grown up into a massively successful commercial industry that lines its pockets thanks to the problems of millions of self-help addicts that get sucked into the nonsense.

We all know at least one self-help addict. I’m not necessarily talking about someone who’s dipped into a self-help guide and taken something specific from it. I’m talking about the people who are always reading books that talk about their truth, validating a new, more positive way of living, and telling anyone that will listen about the power of positive thinking, all the while talking about how much their life has changed thanks to whatever book is flavour of the month.

But have you ever noticed that those same people tend to remain frozen at the same points in their lives? The books don’t often do much for them; afterwards, whether they’ve finished the entire thing or stopped reading after Chapter Three, their talk might have changed – they’re inspired and transformed and enlightened and whatever other buzzwords are the fleeting excitement of the moment, but when you start peeling back the layers, nothing much has actually changed.

Don’t get me wrong, if you carefully study their social media profiles, everything might seem perfect. The colour filters on their photos, their inspirational statuses, and the relentlessly positive memes that get shared about a hundred times a day; everything will look absolutely glowing. They’re engaged, they’re switched on, they’re totally living in the moment and planning for the future simultaneously (which is rather impressive), and most certainly not buried in their mobile phone and laptop for a significant amount of the day in order to actually share all this relentlessly – sickeningly awful – positive stuff. I share a fair amount on my social media, but I don’t pretend to be anything other than a fairly average human being with a vague talent for posting things that either help Brand Munson or because I find them funny.

But  are they actually moving forward in life? Are their relationships improving? Are they making more money? Are they putting more into the world than they’re taking out of it? Probably not. They’re too busy caught in the vicious circle of problems the world of self-help has told them they’ve got.

Let me be more specific; self-help in this context doesn’t mean psychology or philosophy books, although they could be classed as self-help – but in a deeper, more meaningful approach that aims to ask questions and make you just think for yourself. Psychology and philosophy, while expanding your island of knowledge, also make you painfully aware of your ocean of ignorance. Talking about self-help in this context refers to the toxic “new age” genre that promises to pull back the veil on your innermost problems and provide the fix overnight. The kind of book that tells you you’ve got a problem and the only way to solve this problem is by buying this very book, and probably several others by the same writer / publisher, as well as many other sundry items – whatever Gwyneth Paltrow is currently selling through Gloop, for example.

Because happiness isn’t an end point. It’s not like your summer vacation where you drive for what feels like years to finally get to the beach, where you can swim in the pool, eat endless amounts from the buffet, and absorb the local culture. Life isn’t like that, but the self-help industry doesn’t seem to have got that memo. Books come out and try to sell the underlying message that “Once you read this book, you’ll solve your problem, and you’ll finally be happy for ever and ever.” Except you won’t, because you’re a human being, and you’re far more complex than that.

So what should you do instead of reading self-help books? If you’ve got genuine problems, then see a professional. The world would be a better place if more of us were willing to see a psychiatrist or therapist. That should be the first move, not trying to solve a problem with a ton of books that forms an industry which has recognised that one of the primary motivating factors for people is pain. The industry uses that pain to peddle their wares.

In fact, psychologists at the University of Montreal have found that consumers of self-help books are more sensitive to stress and show more depressive symptoms than those who don’t read such depressing literature. Researchers tested 30 people for personality and mental health traits such as stress reactivity (the tendency to respond to a stressor, measured by stress hormone levels present in saliva), openness, self-discipline, compassion, emotional stability, self-esteem, and depressive symptoms.

Half of the participants said that they read self-help books and half did not. The self-help consumers were divided into two categories based on which of two broad classes of such books they read: problem-oriented books that discuss the nature of personal challenges, such as divorce, as well as means of addressing these challenges, and growth-oriented books that promote “inspirational messages about life and happiness.”

The results, which appear in the journal Neural Plasticity, show that readers of problem-focused self-help books had the greatest depressive symptoms, while those who read growth-oriented material had greater stress reactivity than non-readers.

My main criticisms of self-help books are as follows;

  • Their recommendations are mainly just common sense or common knowledge.
  •  They’re filled with examples that often feel trite or invented.
  • They propose models that oversimplify reality. For example, organisations or people don’t usefully distill into just a few types.
  • Their recommendations are often out of touch with what works in the real world.
  • These books are often heavily padded: a handful of ideas embedded in 200 pages of an introduction that rationalises the need for yet another book on the topic.
  • Time-sensitive content is obsolete. While most career how-to advice has a long half-life, technological advances, new laws, and the workplace fads do change. Books can’t keep up with those.

So what should you do? Well, I’ve already said the first and most important thing; if you’re truly struggling, find a professional – an actual, real professional who cares and has qualifications to help you deal with your issues. But here are a few more ideas that might help.

Be completely honest with yourself. This is the only way to start any process of personal growth, say Persia Lawson and Joey Bradford. “Sweeping troubles under the carpet doesn’t make them go away – in fact they will get worse and more unmanageable.” It takes courage to share the more exposing parts of your life, but the things that make us uncomfortable need to be worked through. Otherwise they’ll just keep cropping up. So be your own best friend, talk to someone you trust, and ask for help if you need it.

De-clutter every area of your life. Work through problems in stages, which makes big things you’ve put off (such as burying unopened bank statements) feel manageable. Once you’ve sorted finances, time management, health, work, and relationships, you really will feel lighter and more in control.

Reframe your thinking. Start working on being dynamic. Don’t think, “I’ll wait until Monday,” or “I’ll read this book and then start”. Just start; if you make a mistake, then fine – learn from it and do something different, but do something.

Focus on the things you can do something about. Stephen Covey argues persuasively for being proactive, starting a task with the end goal in mind and putting first things first.

Learn not to take things personally. It’s one of the hardest but most helpful lessons you can learn. Miguel Ruiz says: “Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.” Basically, you do you. Let them worry about themselves. Especially if they’re a negative influence. Stop trying to win the unwinnable and do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

Abandon the pursuit of happiness. There are times when we need to accept problems, rather than try to “fix” them. By abandoning the pursuit of happiness, we’re less hypnotised by life’s highs (which we dread ending) and less frightened by the lows. No one said life was meant to be endlessly happy. By accepting the bad times and pain, we can “sob without suffering; your heart can break without you breaking apart”. Not every problem has to be re-framed in a positive light. Some parts of life are rubbish. They will pass – and it’ll leave you stronger.

It’s a truism that everyone’s main goal in life is to be happy – but working out what makes you happy, and eliminating what doesn’t, is a complex and deeply personal ongoing challenge. A self-help book won’t resolve it, but talking to people and taking charge of your own life – with support from those around you – will.

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