I have always believed that you can help yourself with any situation; I assumed that all self-help books were a waste of time. No one needs to follow ‘steps one to ten’ in order to achieve their goals. However, after some research, I found out that I am not entirely correct. Self-help books can actually be very beneficial. Albeit, for these books to be helpful, the reader has to go through a proper match making process to find out which book is the right one for him/her.
Imagine yourself alone on an island full of the best resources and the most advanced technology of the 21st century. Everything is going great until you fall ill. Luckily for you, all the information you need is readily available, all you have to do is find it. So you search through thousands of books, pick out the necessary information, and eventually find a solution to your problem. Voila! You helped yourself. While walking through the town, a book falls from the sky in front of your feet and is titled- “The solution to the problem you spent weeks researching in 5 simple steps”. I don’t know about you but I would curse the universe for not giving me that book earlier. What is the point of this little anecdote? You don’t need self-help books to find the solutions to your problems; you were able to figure out the cure to your ailment. However, this does not mean they are entirely useless; having the self-help book could have saved you a lot of time.
Alain de Botton, a writer and philosopher with degrees in Philosophy from Kings College, University of London and Harvard University, wrote an article for the Guardian in May 2012, exploring the history of self-help books, the reasons for their decline in popularity and suggestions to revive the increasingly unpopular genre. In this article, Botton explains that self-help books can be useful and credible if written properly. Botton begins his article by pointing out that anyone who wants to debase their intellectual prospect just needs to confess that they read self-help books. He goes on to explain that the reason self-help books are disregarded is most self-help books are “written by Americans of the most sentimental and unctuous sort. They promise readers eternal life, untold riches… within 300 pages of upbeat, relentlessly repetitive and patronizing prose”. Botton thereby reasons that self-help books are disregarded due to discreditable authorship and repeated emphasis on far-fetched ideas. (6)
Life isn’t always easy to navigate; sometimes, everyone needs a little help. After he identifies the problem of the genre, Botton states that since life isn’t always simple and straightforward, sometimes it is useful to find a place to turn to. This is when self-help books can prove themselves to be useful. Botton goes further to explain in his article that “for 2,000 years in the history of the west, most of philosophy was self-help”. He gives examples of Epicurus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius’ works that relate largely to self-help on love, justice, human life, anger and even finance.(6) This historical basis proves to a large extent that self-help books are not entirely useless. If philosophers that set the pace for our thoughts today saw the sense in writing volumes that will aid people in finding solutions and answers, perhaps there is some wisdom to self-help books.
Botton concludes that self-help books can be useful to us in a lot of ways. To restore the credibility of the genre, self-help books should be authored by experts in their fields (their reputation is on the line of they put out any work that’s garbage) with a helpful and realistic tone while avoiding earnestness or patronization. (6) For Botton therefore, a combination of the right author and the appropriate tone will make a self-help book useful. Readers should therefore match themselves up with self-help books written by credible authors who use helpful and realistic tones in their writing.
While self-help books might have a useful potential, research by Ph.D. Gerald Haeffel featured in an article in Therapy Today on March 2010 shows that self-help books based on the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy can do more harm than good. (6)
In simple terms, CBT (psychologist lingo for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is based on the reasoning that negative thoughts are the cause of harmful behavior and thoughts; change the negative thoughts to positive and you’ll get positive actions and emotions. The experiment concentrates on the use of self-help books as a preventative intervention for people at risk of developing depression. After researching 72 undergraduates at risk of depression, Haeffel’s postulates, based on his research, that ‘…cognitive work-books as traditionally operationalized (and sold in stores) may not work for individuals who ruminate’. Strange isn’t it? Self-help books that encourage positive thinking could do more harm than good! Haeffel recommends that for individuals who ruminate, ‘… a modified form of cognitive skills training that does not rely on identifying and disputing negative cognitions maybe more effective’. Based on this recommendation, Haeffel seems to share the view that self-help books are not completely useless. With an appropriate approach to writing self-help books, self-help books can definitely be effective in helping people with their questions and problems. Every reader has to understand his/her needs and idiosyncrasies in order to self-prescribe the right self-help books for themselves. The readers ultimately have the power.
An article by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. published on Psychology Today titled “Five Thing You Need to Know about Self Help Books” gives guidelines to choosing the right self-help book. According to Whitbourne, “Getting the wrong self-help book can actually set you back in your search for answers to the dilemmas facing you…” (6) Whitbourne’s article is evidence of two things. First, self-help books can be useful. Second, choosing the right self-help book is important.
Whitbourne suggests a process of elimination style process to getting to the right self-help book. Her guidelines involve:
1. Checking the authors credentials
2. Thinking of the book as a therapist
3. Critically assessing the quality of the writing
4. Deciding whether the book will motivate you
5. Critically reading the book.
These five steps basically set out to find a book that will result in effective communication.
Whitbourne quotes research by Rachael Richardson et al from the University of York which showed that “a good self-help book follows the principles of good therapy”. The essence of good therapy, according to Whitbourne, is “the…‘therapeutic alliance’ or connection between you and your therapist”.(6) Obviously no one expects you to have a heart to heart repertoire with your book; the point here is that a good self-help book should make you feel connected in some way with it. This connection should be established, developed and maintained as Whitbourne points out are the three phases of involved in the development of a therapeutic relationship. By combining critical assessment strategies with an evaluation of the effectiveness of communication between the book and you, you should be able to find a self-help book that is right for YOU.
So, let’s take a step back and reiterate for a second. Are self-help books useless? No, there are a lot of self-help books out there that help people. Finding the right book for you involves a critical assessment of the book, the author and how it affects you. There are a lot of self-help books out there and it is important to have the information and skill needed to find the one that will apply best to you.
Here is what I leave you with- self-help books are useful and important to the world. Although the genre suffers a notorious reputation for being discreditable, with a proper navigation tool through the sea of self-help books, anyone can find a self-help book that is right for them.
Botton, Alain De. “In Defence of Self-help Books.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 17 May 2012. Web. 04 Dec. 2012. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/may/17/in-defence-of-self-help-books?INTCMP=SRCH>.
“Self-Help Books Can Do More Harm Than Good.” Therapy Today 21.2 (2010): 6. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Dec. 2012.
“Self-help.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2012. <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/self-help>.
Whitbourne, Susan K. “Fulfillment at Any Age.” Five Things You Need to Know About Self-Help Books. Psychology Today, 22 May 2012. Web. 04 Dec. 2012. <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201205/five-things-you-need-know-about-self-help-books>.