How Helpful Are Self-Help Books?

Growing up, I remember spending a lot of time at my grandparents’ house; much of that time was spent running in and out of rooms, seeing what kind of trouble I could stir up. But what I’ve always remembered was the number of books lying around about how to connect with your body, how to run a better business, or why your dieting method is harming you. A lot of the books they were reading were about ways to improve themselves. These books, combined with inspirational quotes, healing stones, and soothing tabletop fountains that littered the house have stuck with me as I’ve gotten older. My grandma has always been the woman who told me to be kind and to choose wisely when deciding what to be upset over. Her ability to remain calm and peaceful in times of stress is admirable. I just wonder if all of her self-help books ever truly helped her.

I like to believe that when someone wants to improve themselves, it typically starts with figuring out something within. Self-help books might be a good way to start, but ultimately, being disciplined and determined to change your life cannot be done with a book. In an article from Huffington Post, Matthew Jones wrote on Quora, “You must be the one who takes responsibility for your current state and implement changes in your life,” going on to say “The book can change your perspective, but you must change your life” (2016). Matthew Jones is an expert in the field of personal growth, and while he is not dismissing the potential of self-help books, he is emphasizing that it will take implementing different practices and perspectives to truly see results. He made a point that you should not “just read self-help books — make your life a self-help book” (2016). This quote reiterates the word “help” in self-help. The books are there to be an aid in one’s journey — the rest of it ultimately depends on how badly one wants to alter their life.

As someone who has read a few self-help books that channel across the board (specifically The Four-Hour Work Week and You Are a Badass), I cannot recall one thing I learned from them. I began to wonder if maybe it was me and I’m doing something wrong, or maybe they just aren’t my thing. But I thought it would be unfair to disregard something because it didn’t work for me, because maybe it could work for someone else. I borrowed these books because I’m a college senior with no sense of direction in regard to the next chapter in my life that is quickly approaching. I personally was not determined to implement these practices in my life; I was hoping they would just give me a little pick-me-up. And as I read them, some things did click, but I often questioned what I was reading. Some of these blanket-fixes were so broad that they failed to recognize that every person is different, has different circumstances, and has different ways of life.

As I did more research, I realized I wasn’t the only one questioning the methods and statements from a lot of these self-help books. In an article in Fast Company by Aytekin Tank, he writes about the harm self-help books can cause. He addressed the lack of understanding of individuality when he wrote that “it compares performance across people and ignores our personal range” (2019). This can create a false sense of reality, because realistically, different methods work better for different people. This isn’t to say that you can’t find one method in there that changes your life, but odds some of these tips can apply to everyone, are low.

The self-help book industry has become increasingly popular and is expected to keep rising in popularity over the next few years. Tank found that the industry was worth ten billion in the year 2018. He also mentioned that “people who purchase self-improvement books have likely bought another during the previous 18 months” (2019). If it does not work for a specific individual, he or she is onto the next book that might bring more promise. I could see why this is a pattern among those who contribute to the self-help book industry. Buying a book for twenty to thirty dollars is a lot easier than paying for a therapist or medication. Many people cannot afford a therapist, or a doctor, or even a prescription. Although I’m sure many of those purchasing these books are simply trying to fit into a society that is constantly expecting the best from us, there are also many who might not have any other option. While the layers to why the worth of the self-help book industry is so high, and will continue increasing, could be one we will never understand; as I continued my research, I noticed a pattern among the self-help books’ biggest critics and supporters.

Today’s society is always pushing us to be the best version of ourselves, especially on the internet. There is an expectation that we as a society should be maximizing our experiences as best we can in order to match expectations and those around us who we perceive to be doing the same. Aytekin Tank said it well when he wrote “as a society, we are obsessed with optimizing every part of our lives — our eating, sleeping, studying, exercising, relationship-ing, and, of course, working” (2019). The internet only fuels this obsession, and self-help books come as a way to further enhance these aspects of our lives. Why though, is it so hard to do, but we are expected to make it look so easy?

While the transparency and honesty about mental health has increased, so has the expectation to be our best selves at all times. In an article published by GQ, Clay Skipper wrote “we’re supposed to be happy all the time, which, turns out, is a hard thing to do when you’re constantly being told you can do and be better, and more positive, and more productive. It’s almost like self-help isn’t always… that helpful” (2018). His article points out that there is a sense of urgency in feeling like this. People who do feel depressed, or anxious, or lonely, are feeling normal things, but we condition people to feel like those need to be eliminated right away. Society is ignorant to the fact that these things take time.

In an article about self-help books on The Independent (UK), Nick Duerden quotes writer Roman Krznaric saying “We’ve become too obsessed of late with quick-fix psychology. What’s wrong with taking a slower, more methodical approach?” (2012). Even if one were to read and benefit from a self-help book, it would take time and work to reinforce what they read into their everyday lives. The expectation to be happy all the time is unrealistic, and self-help books often promote this ideal. There are many outside factors that can account for one’s happiness or lack thereof, but while we have some control over our happiness, we do not have all of it.

Skipper made another good point in his piece, noticing that “now, there’s so much pressure in modern society to perform and to be productive, to be efficient, that we don’t have this time to recharge” (2018). This quote reminded me of something I read a while ago that stated that employers who overwork employees, in turn, make them less productive. This always stuck with me, especially when working long hours at restaurants and internships throughout the years. The longer the hours, the worse the work became. I noticed this from fellow employees and myself—working my third double in a row because the business was understaffed created irritability between employees and the quality of work diminished. I consider this similar to taking care of ourselves: how are we expected to consistently be at our best when we don’t have time to rest and remember what it is that puts us at our best?

Recognizing the need to recharge is one that is lost, but also one that is beginning to emerge. While the idea that we should constantly be working toward a better self still stands, I believe people are starting to realize that a night in watching movies and eating pizza by yourself is just as important as going out with friends multiple times a week. I’ve seen this emergence in jobs that are starting to offer unlimited vacation days, the option to work from home, and snacks at the office. I see it on social media where people are honest about the time it took them to be in a healthy mental state, or the time it took them to lose weight and become a healthier version of themselves. I believe there is starting to be a societal wide understanding that humans need breaks; we need “time to recharge” if we truly do want to be at our best selves.

While self-help books seem, in an essence, useless and arguably more damaging, they do have the power to be useful if one takes them at a realistic approach. Our mentality as a society has generated a sense of immediateness in everything that we do, making us imagine that a self-help book is a quick fix to making us “better.” Given my emphasis throughout this article on the idea of individualism and that different people benefit from different things, I cannot completely conclude if self-help books really do help. I think like most things in life, the way we approach it can determine how it will affect us, and sometimes that effect is better or worse. Remembering to give yourself time to recharge and recognizing that when you face a struggle you aren’t the only one, are two of the best self-help tips I internalized when writing this piece, and are ones I hope you can take away from it, too.