Are Self Help Books Effective?
Ria Mittal
are self help books effective

As the self help genre has seen a boom in popularity, the debate on the effectiveness of these self help books has also increased. 

What classifies as the self help genre? 

Self help books are nonfiction books that are meant to give instructions to the reader on how to improve or solve an issue in any facet of their life. They can give advice on topics in the mental, physical, spiritual, and financial area—just to give a few examples. 

Popularity of Self Help Books 

Around 5,000 new self-help books are now being published annually. It is one of the fastest-growing nonfiction categories, with the industry being worth $10.5 billion as of 2020. According to Andrew Weil, MD and author of 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, suggests that this recent popularity of the self help genre may be part of a natural human instinct to look for fulfillment

Social media has contributed to this rise in demand as well. Trends such as #booktok on TikTok are making many books popular on the internet. In fact, social media platforms assisted in the discovery for 14% of purchases of self-help books in 2022. TikTok contributed heavily, as TikTok users bought 30% of self-help books last year. 

Along with this, the growing popularity of self help books may be attested to a rise in mental illness. A report from the MHA found that nationwide, almost one in five people in the U.S. are living with a mental health condition. Many self help books attempt to help individuals who are struggling with these conditions, leading to the potential purchase of these “self improvement” books. 

So, are self help books effective? 

The short answer: It depends. There are many, many self help books available on the market. Some are better written, more scientifically-backed than others. Along with this, everyone has different emotional and physical needs, so self help books affect each person in a different manner. 

Benefits of Self Help Books 

  • Accessibility and Affordability

Not everyone can afford or access professional help for their issues. Self help books can provide a relatively inexpensive way to start making changes and put work toward solving an issue. Additionally, self help books make scientifically challenging concepts more comprehensible to those who are not scientists, essentially putting them in layman’s terms. Dr. Francine Shapiro’s book, Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Techniques from EMDR Therapy, describes data on brain function and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) in simple terms. Since the language is digestible, anyone can understand their brain is affected by trauma and potential EMDR techniques. 

  • Empowerment and Motivation 

Self help books can give people hope they are not alone in the battle against their obstacles. By reading a book, they are immersing themselves in a community of those who are struggling with a similar issue and relating to the author as well. Additionally, by flooding one’s mind with the positive and encouraging words read in the book, individuals are inspired to think optimistically, make better decisions, and take positive actions. 

  • Develop a Practical Toolbox 

Reading a self help book can provide one with strategies and practices that are often used in therapy and other cognitive behavior programs. Many self improvement books are written on the foundation of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which is a widely used therapeutic orientation nationally and globally. CBT is a technique that aims to change unhealthy thoughts to change one’s feelings. Self help books often suggest similar techniques to challenge irrational thoughts simmering from mental illness. These books often come with exercises that prompt one to evaluate their life as well. It gives individuals the chance to make changes while still feeling good about themselves. The Desire Map, by Danielle LaPorte, is an example of this, as it is filled with many enlightening prompts and exercises.

Limitations of Self Help Books

Lack of Personalization 

While self help books provide general advice that can be a good guiding base, it is a “one size fits all” solution that lacks personalization. Therapy and other programs give individuals a tailored experience to tackle their issues. 

Spread of Misinformation 

Self help books deliver valuable advice, however, those writing these books may not always be the most qualified. When a book is not written by an author with experience, knowledge, and certifications in the field they are writing about, they may simply be drawing upon anecdotes and personal experiences. While this is still of value, there needs to be some credibility behind the author. Additionally, marketing and sales efforts for these books may validate and even over exaggerate the author’s claims simply to boost sales. In fact, Gerald Rosen, a UW clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, wrote two self help books and fell prey to these marketing traps. However, this should not deter one from reading a self help book written by an author who has clearly done research and is qualified to speak on the topic. 

Need for Action and Accountability 

Information provided in self help books is quite valuable. However, its value is undermined by the need for action and accountability to see change. Self help books cannot keep individuals accountable to actually act upon the advice and information given in the book. UW Psychology Professor Robert Kohlenberg wrote and tested Migraine Relief to measure its impact. He uncovered the lack of follow-through, as even though his subjects were motivated, only 20% read his entire book and a mere 2% to 4% complied with all of the book’s suggestions. Along with this, it can be harmful to put the responsibility of “self help” on those who are dealing with serious mental illness. It can be tough to already complete daily tasks, and the added burden of putting in the work to feel “worthy and happy” can be a big ask. Essentially, self help books cannot replace the impact that professional services provide. 

Is it possible to find self help books that are effective? 

Yes! Self help books can be a great complement to professional services, such as therapy. They can serve as a reminder to think and stay optimistic, educate on typically complicated topics, and be a good read in general. 

It is important to remember a few things to avoid when finding your next “self help” read:

  • Books that don’t offer data to support their conclusions
  • Books that don’t have bibliographies
  • Books that promise permanent change 
  • Books that purport to be the universal answer to the problem

Here are some self help book suggestions: 

  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dr. Carol Dweck 
  • Tiny Habits by Dr. BJ Fogg
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
  • Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? By Dr. Julie Smith

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