In a nation whose identity is based on second chances, self-sufficiency and supposedly endless possibilities, it comes as no surprise that the self-help industry in the United States is booming, making over $10 billion per year. Self-help books are one of the oldest forms of self-improvement available (think Tao Te Ching or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations), and they’re still going strong. Ever since Dale Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People was published in 1937, self-help books have become increasingly popular; publishers put an estimated 2,000 new tomes on bookstore shelves each year.
But many are wary of the success self-help books have enjoyed. Steven Salerno, author of SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, says that the popularity of self-help books has contributed to higher divorce rates, higher murder rates and lower-quality public schools. While these claims are difficult to prove, his skepticism regarding self-help books reflects the opinions of many who view the industry as a cash cow. In the concluding paragraphs of his first chapter, Salerno writes that self-help programs often belittle their followers, albeit covertly: “If SHAM [Self-Help Actualization Movement] doesn’t transform your life, it’s not because the program is ineffective. It’s because you’re unworthy.” Salerno also cites the “18-month rule” in an interview with Forbes. The “18-month rule” comes from market research from Salerno’s former employer, publishing house Rodale, which found that “the most likely customers of self-help products are the same people who purchased similar products with the previous 18 months.”
While some find truth in Salerno’s statement, others swear by self-help books. Katrina Kritz of Los Angeles, CA, says she reads self-help books “because they’re positive and encouraging and everyone needs encouragement and support…most of them say the same thing…it’s fine with me because I need to be reminded constantly.” CEO Chris Lee of Blue Flurry Marketing says that self-help books have helped him by “putting me in the right state of mind in preparation for my busy day of work. They may not give an exact answer to everything that I am dealing with, but they help in maintaining a positive outlook and will to keep moving forward.”
Linda Sapadin, Ph.D., a psychologist based in Long Island, says that self-help authors are not just in it for the money: “Self-help books are certainly not a cash cow for the author. With all the work you put into it, you’re basically working for less than minimum wage. So why do it? Because you truly believe that you have knowledge that can change people’s lives for the better.”
The Pros and Cons of Self-Help Books
Dr. Sapadin clarifies that many authors of self-help books are in the business for purely altruistic reasons. That being as it may, though, do self-help books actually work? The psychologists and mental health professionals we surveyed said that self-help books are like the Force: they can be used for either good or bad. Here’s a list of pros and cons they came up with:
- Self-help books tend to over-simplify problems: “Some self-help promoters advertise that their method is ‘what really works’ when ‘traditional therapy and medication all fail,’” says Jennifer L. Fee, Psy. D., licensed psychologist and Director of Vision Quest Psychological Services in Placentia, CA. No one can guarantee that any approach will work and these messages often imply that difficulties can quickly be resolved.”
- Self-help books can be discouraging: “Self-help books that focus only on one method or approach can be a big discouragement for those whom that approach does not work,” says Dr. Fee. “The best self-help book will at least mention other options for treatment.” Also, self-help books can be detrimental to effectively treating one’s problems: “I spend a lot of time doing psychoeducation, and outright re-educating clients about what they’ve read,” says Barbara Ferullo, a licensed mental health counselor.
- Many self-help books are written by people without credentials: Some self-help authors position themselves and their books as definitive authorities on self-improvement without citing scientific evidence. “The reason self-help books get a bad rap is because many of them are written by people without credentials,” says Carole Lieberman, MD, a psychiatrist and author of her own self-help book, American Dreams Interrupted: How to Stay Safe and Sane in a Time of Terror. “Anyone can call themselves a “coach” or “relationship expert” these days and write a book. The information they provide often has disastrous results because they have never gone to school to get a Ph.D. or an M.D. and don’t really know what they are talking about.”
- Self-help books are not a cure-all: “These books often do an outstanding job of inspiring readers,” says Steve Levinson, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Thief River Falls, MN. “But rarely, in my experience, does the inspiration actually produce lasting benefits. The problem is poor follow-through, which is frankly a prominent characteristic of human nature—one that self-help book authors, for obvious reasons, choose to overlook.”
- Exercises: “A good self – book provides exercises for effectively coping with difficulties, including lowering anxiety, containing stress reactions due to trauma, etc.,” says Dr. Fee.
- Knowledge: “A good self-help book provides psychoeducation about a disorder or difficulty,” says Fee, “Accurate knowledge is important for recovery. It is easy to forget this information when given verbally by a psychologist or physician, so it is good to have it in written form.”
- Hope: “Self-help books give people a taste of success and the hope that they too can change,” says Sara Rosenquist, Ph.D., a psychologist in Chapel Hill, NC.
- Help: “Self-help books are great adjuncts to therapy,” says Dr. Rosenquist. “I regularly suggest that my patients read some self-help book written by a colleague as part of their therapy with me. That way they have another perspective, and some exercises that are different from the ones I might be prescribing, and something to refer back to.”
What Does Science Say?
In an article entitled “Self-Help: Shattering the Myths,” published in Psychology Today, mental health journalist Annie Murphy Paul addresses how advice commonly found in self-help books holds up to scientific research. Here are five assumptions that self-help books often get wrong:
Vent your anger, and it’ll go away: While taking your anger out on a pillow may help manage stress, the psychologists Paul consulted said that venting anger might actually be counterproductive to solving the problem that caused the anger. By focusing on something other than your anger you’re more likely to gain some distance and work rationally to better your situation.
When you’re feeling blue, think yourself happy by focusing on the positive: Not so, according to researchers. This tactic can often backfire.
Visualize your goal, and you’ll help make it come true: It’s pleasant to think of your success as a Nobel Laureate or a professional wrestler, but visualization isn’t too far from daydreaming, according to the psychologists Paul interviewed. Studies have found that what actually helps people achieve their goals is figuring out steps to attain those goals and mentally rehearsing them.
Self-affirmations will help you rinse low self-esteem: Self-esteem is a more complicated beast than most self-help books will have you believe. Paul’s psychologists said that those with low self-esteem “don’t value their own opinions very highly” and are likely to get discouraged when their self-pep talks don’t result in higher self-esteem. Rather, learning how to cut negative people out of your life and surrounding yourself with people who believe in you and support you will lead to higher self-esteem…over time.
“Active listening” can help you communicate better with your partner: Nice idea. No one does it, though, even super-happy couples, according to the psychologists Paul interviewed.
Do you think self-help books work? What are some titles that have helped you? Let us know on our Facebook page.