Do Self Help Books Work? Like, Do They Actually Help?

Yashvi Peeti 5-6 minutes 1/13/2023

Image of a Black woman reading a tablet

It’s that time of the year again! By that I mean it’s the beginning of a new calendar year. A new year brings new hope of inching closer to the people we want to be and the life we want to live. A genre that truly thrives on this feeling is “self-help.” But do self-help books work? Do they really help us help ourselves? And if yes, how?

A research paper published in Journal of Happiness Studies titled “Do Self Help Books Help?” might give us some insight into this. The article acknowledges that there’s a lot of skepticism around this genre. It also outlines scenarios in which self-help books can actually work! Here are a few of the times.

When the Book is Problem-Focused

Self-help literature can be divided into two broad categories: problem-focused and growth-oriented. Problem-focused books offer advice on how to overcome specific issues. These can include insomnia, stress, addiction, anxiety, and depression. Growth-oriented books impart “wisdom” on topics like attaining happiness, finding purpose, career growth, and building fulfilling relationships. Research suggests that people do benefit from reading problem-focused self-help books, but there isn’t enough evidence for the efficacy of growth-oriented ones.

When the Book is Based on Up-to-Date Research

An increasing number of self-help books are published each year as the genre keeps thriving. Some of these are poorly written, only consolidating the ideas already present in pop culture. Some books will also contradict the advice given by another. The books that are most likely to benefit you are ones based on the latest research, and written by someone qualified to deliver these findings.

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When You are Self-Motivated

The research states, “Self-help has greatest success with people with high motivation, resourcefulness, and positive attitudes toward self-help treatments.” If you’re already motivated to make a change, self-help books can serve as a valuable resource by providing you with some direction to do just that. But if this is not the case, you might want to look for an alternate solution that provided a little extra support and keeps you accountable.

How Can You Benefit From Reading Self-help?

No matter what advice you receive, consider how it fits with your context and life. You might want to outright reject some of it, adapt some of it, and some of it might be easy to fit into your routine. It’s better to take small incremental steps to build habits, practices, or behaviours that make sense to you. Understand that the author has written about what works for them. Even advice imparted in self-help books that are based on evidence and research doesn’t apply to everyone across the globe. There are systemic issues that hold some of us back, and we need to acknowledge this to discern how much of their advice is applicable to us.

Books can be influential. It’s okay, and even rewarding to be influenced by them. But here’s a few things to keep in mind while practising the techniques learnt through self-helps books:

  • Make sure the book you’re reading is written by someone qualified to give the advice they’re giving. If not, find a better book that does just that.
  • Create a feedback loop with yourself to check in regularly if you’re benefitting from the new thing you’re trying. If you want to keep a track of this, you can journal about your progress.
  • Talk to trusted friends and family about the changes you’re making. A little real-time support can go a long way.
  • Manage your expectations. These books are marketed as ones that will transform your life and lead to unparalleled success in your area of choice. However, personal change is slow, and can be hard. Have realistic expectations of how much the book can help, and how much time that can take.
  • If you’re making any drastic changes, you should absolutely consult a healthcare professional. This disclaimer will also be present in any well-written self-help book.

Self-help is not the only genre that helps you grown and learn. Poetry and fiction can provide much needed shifts in perspective. Memoirs and essay collections can teach us a lot about lives well lived. If you enjoy reading these more, lean right in!

If you do want to delve into the self-help genre, you can find some lists of recommendations here.