Do Self-Help Books Really Help?

March, 2020
Allison Zhao, Blog Correspondent
Allison Zhao is in her fourth year writing for Acta Victoriana, which she has been doing since the beginning of her undergrad at U of T. She loves reviewing books, always appreciates cafe recommendations, and probably has a pen you can borrow.
As far as individual books go, controversy is normal and often welcomed. In terms of disagreement on entire genres, however, one category up for discussion is that of self-help literature. These types of books have been around for over a century, even if they seem to be a relatively modern occurrence, and their popularity has been on the rise. In 2018, sales of self-help books in Britain were up 20% from the previous year, landing at a solid three million books sold. Celebrities have even gotten in on the business, with Russell Brand and Fearne Cotton having written and published their own books. It is estimated that the genre will be worth 13.2 billion dollars in the US market by 2022.
To begin with: what counts as a self-help book? And do they really make a difference? Researchers at the University of Calgary looked into these questions, analyzing various types of works that might fall under the umbrella term of self-help, and then evaluating readers on their goals and takeaways from these books. Their working definition of self-help literature was “any book written with the explicit intention of helping its readers change or improve some aspect of their personal or professional lives.” They divided them into three categories: career success (popular titles include How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), personal relationships (The Five Love Languages, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus), and health and wellbeing (When Bad Things Happen to Good People, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose).

The study then looked at reasons why people pick up self-help books in the first place, and found that many of the respondents were experiencing some sort of transition in their lives around the time they chose to read from this genre. Events from the readers’ lives were often what drove them to particular categories of books. For example, respondents cited anxiety about starting a new job, unhappiness following the end of a relationship or friendship, and health scares. 95% of respondents then went on to say that they had learned something from their reading, across a wide variety of topics—from techniques for mental health and self-care, to diet habits, to simply feeling like they were not alone in their problems. However, the percentage of people who claimed to have implemented some change in their lives as a result of the book they read was lower, at only 75%. Additionally, whether or not they managed to fully incorporate new habits in the long-term was not recorded.

A separate research article—published in the Journal of Happiness Studies—offered a wider analysis on the genre, paying particular attention to the effects of self-help books in the longer term. Self-help books tend to take insight from psychological research, and they are one of the most prominent ways that this science can reach a general audience — despite the fact that the portrayal of psychology and the suggested techniques may not be entirely reliable. In 1977, Richard Rosen labelled self-help books as “Psychobabble” in his book of the same name, describing them as a “frozen lexicon to deal with an infinite variety of problems.” There are certainly limitations related to the one-size-fits-all approach that self-help books offer; the advice of any one author, no matter how well-researched, cannot be expected to positively impact every single reader or be comparable to the level of personalization a qualified psychologist would be capable of. One major issue with the self-help genre is that readers and books can be easily mismatched. Consumers tend not to have a methodical way of selecting what they read, and the wide variety of books available to choose from makes it highly possible that readers will not receive the optimal advice for their personal situation.

Furthermore, the same article found that self-help books were most successful for people who already had a positive attitude towards them—in other words, those who were not extremely skeptical of their effectiveness. But there was also a high risk of exaggerated claims coming from the book itself and from people who had had a positive experience, sometimes leading to other disappointed readers. A 2003 study also noted that self-help books worked better for individuals looking to alleviate anxiety, mild depression, and mild alcohol abuse, but were less effective for those attempting to quit smoking or moderate to severe alcohol abuse.

Depending on the person, failure to benefit from a book might lead to self-blame, frustration, or worsening psychological symptoms. The study also notes the risk associated with books having overly optimistic messages, and subsequently downplaying the effort required for improvement. Rather than real change, they might simply inspire daydreaming and an ineffectively lighthearted approach from readers. In the end, books can only suggest a particular course of action, and it is up to the person to figure out how to follow it consistently.

Researchers suggested that the sustained popularity of self-help books—despite the potential downsides—was due to the low cost and the privacy, in comparison to seeing a psychologist or a therapist; readers might view the books as written solutions that do not require opening up and speaking to another person. The books are also more accessible. Books are available in bookstores and can be read whenever convenient. It was further suggested that interest in self-help might also historically stem from the concept of the American Dream, which proposes that anyone can work their way upwards in society based on their merit and accomplishments. In a similar way, self-help books would teach people how to get there on their own.

Considering that self-help books have been around for a long time, it comes as no surprise that they have been influential in the literary scene, despite often being disparaged by scholars. Self-help is not solely a North American and European phenomenon, but also an important subject in markets around the world. The first blockbuster work to fall under this genre was Samuel Smiles’ 1859 book, “Self-Help.” While it was intended to be inspiring for the working class, it drew the contempt of critics and well-known writers alike. H.G. Wells wrote a short story about a young man who abandons his fiancée after reading “Self-Help”; a few decades later, Ezra Pound likened the terminology and overall topic to a virus. Arnold Bennett is another primary example of a Victorian novelist who was also quite successful in producing self-help books; his most commercially successful work was titled How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. He claimed that these books were met with much more appreciation from general audiences than his novels, but, subsequently, they also pushed him into a dispute with Virginia Woolf. In response to his works, she wrote now-famous essays on the technique and use of fiction, giving today’s literary scholars insight on the modernist movement and breakaway from Victorian literature.

On the whole, research about the impacts of self-help literature cannot produce definitive answers to the question of whether or not it truly helps. The greatest challenges to improvement include both believing that it is possible at all and being able to stick with lifestyle changes long enough to see real differences. Perhaps the only plausible conclusion is that if you think a self-help book can help you, make sure you know exactly what you are looking for. Otherwise, it would not be a useful method to pursue.

The greatest challenges to improvement include both believing that it is possible at all and being able to stick with lifestyle changes long enough to see real differences.

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