Self-Help Books: Can They Really Make You Happier?

Don’t let anyone make you feel embarrassed about reading self-help books. I for one, devour them. I also write them. Why? Because I am convinced in their potential for helping readers get through tough times or get to better times. For some reason, just as with psychotherapy, self-help books come with an undeserved stigma attached to them. Critics say they can be “dangerous”, they can give us “false hope”, or the motivational boost they might give readers initially is fleeting—and then what? Well then you re-read, and re-assess. The truth of the matter is that up to 85% of psychotherapists recommend self-help books to their own patients, and a growing number of studies show that self-help books can make a big difference in readers’ lives. Self-help is as uniquely American as Stars and Stripes and the right to the pursuit of happiness as laid out for us in the Constitution.

If I didn’t believe there was a valid place in the world for good self-help books, I wouldn’t have dedicated many long hours, months, and years of my life writing them. Researchers use the word “bibliotherapy” (biblio=books) to refer to people who seek to feel better through the reading of certain books, and there is growing evidence that for many people, such books do make a difference. Let’s face it, most people don’t have access (or the time or interest) to go to the research journals and muddle through pages of academic writing. They shouldn’t have to have a degree in statistical analysis to interpret what research findings. A good self-help book, in my opinion, brings this information out the obscure journals and laboratories, and into the light of day; making it available and understandable for all who might benefit. I happen to trust that readers can make their own decisions as to whether one book or another makes sense to them; whether they want to try some of the suggestions contained in it; or whether they need more help than a book can give. If self-help books have become cliché or stigmatized part of the reason is that some authors have taken advantage of their platform by using their book as a little more than an empty advertisement for the author’s more expensive programs or products, without giving the reader any real information in the book itself. There are some charlatans in the field that just outright lie, by giving you “miracle” cures for just about every malady under the sun that “they don’t want’ you to know about.” Well ok, such con artists exist in every sector, but if you do a little research, read book excerpts, and examine real (non-solicited) reviews, rest assured that you can find very valuable self-help books with solid information, suggestions, and exercises that will help you to improve your mood, revamp your lifestyle, improve your finances, help you lose weight, learn how to dress more professionally, build better relationships, and get through loss.

Self-help books are neither a panacea, nor a substitute for psychotherapy when you need it; but my point is that you don’t always need it, anymore than you need medical therapy for minor injuries. If I fall and scrape my knee I wash the wound, slather it with some ointment and throw a Band-Aid over it. If I shatter my kneecap, you better believe I am off to a medical professional. Self-help can give you a clear roadmap for navigating the everyday challenges of life. Centuries ago people looked to philosophers or spiritual leaders for wisdom; today, self-help books in America have gained unprecedented popularity.

So the long answer to the question is YES, self-help books really can make a positive difference in your life. One study I came across even found self-help reading to be a viable remedy for sadness or depression in older adults.

Research has shown that both cognitive and cognitive behavioral therapy have typically had high success rates in reversing depression or depressive symptoms—and in many cases are at least as effective as anti-depressant medication perhaps even more effective. But there will always be individuals who, for whatever the reason, cannot afford to go to a mental health professional, do not have access to one, or who just don’t feel comfortable with one-to-one therapy. A good self-help book can be an effective alternative.

Adults between the ages and 60 and 80 were divided into three groups: Individual psychotherapy sessions (12-20 sessions); Cognitive bibiliotherapy (participants were asked to read a book called Feeling Good (David Burns, 1980) and complete all of the exercises in the book; and a third group, the control group, was the delayed treatment group. In general, both of the “treatment” conditions improved geriatric depression more than the control group, and both psychotherapy and bibliotherapy were found to be viable options for depression in older adults.

So the next time you are in a books store, library, or browsing online, check out the self-help books that address whatever it is you want to work on. And don’t let anyone tell you that you’re wasting your time. You and I know otherwise.

Let’s start a discussion! What are YOUR favorite self-help books? I would love to know how a good self-help book made a difference in your life. I welcome your comments below.

 

References:

Bergsma, Ad (2008) Do Self Help Books Help? Journal of Happiness Studies 9 pp. 341-360

Floyd et. al (2004) Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A Comparison of Individual Psychotherapy and Bibliotherapy for Depressed Older Adults. Behavior Modification 28(2) pp. 297-318

© Raeleen Mautner, LLC 2018