Self-help books can actually help

Do self-help books actually help? They can, if a person does what the books suggest.

A student and I surveyed over a hundred adults who had recently read a psychological self-help book of any sort and asked them to what extent, if any, the books, helped them. The most common response was that reading the book helped moderately. We published the findings in a journal article and noted that the results were very similar to a bigger community survey of individuals asked about the effects of receiving psychotherapy.

We also found that our participants reported more improvement if their reading led to changes in how they think and behave. That also seems similar to how psychotherapy works — the client has to make changes in order to experience lasting benefits. The changes can involve more realistic thinking or more optimistic thinking. The changes can also involve setting goals, using sound problem-solving methods, and going into irrationally feared situations. There are many valuable changes a person can make. If a book prompts those changes, the book can help.

Several years ago, colleagues and I tested the value of a self-help book for tinnitus-related distress. Tinnitus often involves a chronic ringing sensation. We found that individuals randomly assigned to read the book subsequently experienced less distress than similar persons in a waiting list control.

I have been reading a biography of Dale Carnegie, who wrote a self-help book that has sold over 30 million copies: “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” The advice includes: Show interest in others, listen carefully, smile often, and avoid arguments. These are good strategies for sales representatives, psychotherapists, teachers, administrators, and so on. Typical of self-help books, “How to Win Friends” gives interesting examples and overstates the benefits of using the strategies.  Using the methods will probably not turn your life around. But it could have a moderately beneficial effect. 

What about people who read a self-help book and make no specific changes? They might still benefit, mostly by placebo effect. They expect reading the book to help them and feel better after reading it. 

Do self-help books completely fail some readers? Yes. Even if the person makes the recommended changes, the changes may not help. No book helps everyone, just as no type of psychotherapy helps everyone. 

What are the most popular self-help books ever written? Carnegie’s book fits here. Also “”7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey and “Your Erroneous Zones” by Wayne Dyer.

Suggestions common to all three books: Think positively and work toward your goals. These two ideas have much research evidence supporting their value.  Positive thinking helps motivate a person to work toward a goal, despite obstacles and delays; persistent sensible effort drives the person forward.

What self-help books have helped you? Which have proven useless?

[Photo by Chris Benson on Unsplash]

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