Are self-help books actually helpful?
Over the past few years, books on self-improvement or self-help have become increasingly popular. In the U.S. alone, the self-help industry was valued at 11 billion dollars in 2008. For every problem you may seem to encounter in life, there is a book that claims to provide you with all of the possible solutions to it and more. But, how helpful are these books? And can they magically improve our lives?
Books on self-help primarily aim at those who are struggling with something. People who are vulnerable and looking for quick fixes, one book at a time.
As Matthew Jones of Inc.com writes, “When you’re suffering and looking for help, the self-help industry manipulates your weaknesses by selling you false hope.”
The flourishing of the self-help industry is not hard to understand- after all, we often want advice during dire times. When life is frustrating and difficult, isn’t it helpful to read a book that offers you all the answers?
Research shows that there is some evidence that reading problem-focused self-help books tend to be helpful for people with specific problems such as addiction. However, there is no empirical evidence for the effectiveness of reading growth-oriented books, those that focus on holistic themes such as happiness (Bergsma, 2007). A 2009 review that specifically looked at self-help books for people with depression found that many of the available books are complex to read in terms of literacy levels and may in fact present additional problems. Furthermore, there is no relationship between popularity and a book being evidence-based or readable.(Barkham et. al, 2008).
Several self-help books tend to make outrageous claims about happiness and being optimistic. As human beings, it is inevitable that when we experience a setback, negative emotions are bound to occur. A common theme in self-help books is “Think yourself happy by focusing on the positive.” Research shows that the result of doing this may in fact make the misery of the moment all the more apparent (Paul, 2001). Another limitation of these books is that they come with a one-size-fits all approach. The advice offered may not be relevant to the personality of the reader, diagnosis or personal circumstance (Bergsma, 2007). The books are often based on personal experiences and anecdotes of what the author found useful. Contradictorily then, self-help books tend to be more about what the author found useful rather than what the reader may find helpful. Different people may go through similar events and adversities, but one approach may not be best suited to everyone.
At times, when life isn’t going all that well or when you want to do better, it might be helpful to look at a book for inspiration or ideas. But at the same time, it is important to exercise caution. All ideas may not work for you and that is okay. It is always a good idea to pick books that draw on evidence or research. According to Bergsma (2007), while reading self-help books one must have realistic expectations. You might not be able to transform your life overnight, and change takes time and persistent effort. These ideas may do little for you if you don’t put them into action. For instance, visualizing yourself getting a promotion may not work if you laze around all day and do not fulfil your commitments.
The bottom line: Take what you read with a pinch of salt. Figure out what works best for you, and in the process ensure that you truly are helping yourself.
– Urveez Kakalia and Niharika Bhatia.