Is Self-Help Really Helpful?

The self-help book has been around in some form or another throughout our history, so it’s no surprise that today’s self-education publishers have a billion-dollar market and the best-selling book genre in the world 1. More recently, they have technologically developed, crossing over to include blogs, podcasts, mobile applications and wearable tech. But what is it about this entire self-help concept that makes it so popular? More importantly, is self-help really helpful?

We all have come across self-help, or self-improvement, books like How To Win Friends and Influence People and The Power of Positive Thinking. These books first gained prominence in the middle of the 20th century and became a cultural phenomenon in the 1970s 2, but self-help books have been around for far longer than that. One of the oldest books in the world (The Maxims of Ptahotep, written around 2375–2350 BC) is essentially a self-help book, so you could even call it the oldest of all book genres.

Popularity and Effectiveness of Self-Help

Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill is the best-selling self-help book of all time and is widely credited with having popularized the genre 3. Some of the most influential and powerful people in the world claim to have a copy of it 4. Hill was himself no financial expert, but provided advice by summarizing in-depth interviews with Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in the world at the time, as well as with other highly successful business moguls.

Actually, it turns out the whole Hill book was a sham. Hill never interviewed Carnegie, most likely didn’t even meet him, and many of the interviews were later described as a work of fiction. Over time, Hill was dismissed as a conman and fraud who took advantage of people’s aspirations 3. However, none of this affected the sales of the book, which has sold over 100 million copies as of 2019 4. Does that mean the book actually helped?

It’s difficult to determine how helpful self-help books can be. Statistics show that 80% of self-help book customers are repeat buyers. That fact implies that either they found a book helpful and want more, or the previous book did not help and they are choosing a different book, or they moved on to a different goal. The observation that most self-help book buyers do not in fact read beyond the first 20 pages would seem to point to the latter 1.

Take Hill’s book for example; over 100 million books have been sold, but how many buyers have read it and has every reader become rich? That’s certainly not the case. His book identifies the steps of how to get rich, but doesn’t help you with their implementation, nor does it consider the consequences of the steps. For example, a self-help book may suggest investing a part of your monthly salary in stocks, but it doesn’t tell you which investment will give you the best returns and you may eventually lose money instead. At best, good advice is only one ingredient for success. Personality traits, skills, intelligence, willpower and luck play a major role. Opportunities, contexts and challenges change constantly. If self-help books alone were sufficient, why don’t we all buy 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and emulate them. Why go through years of study, training and development for it when we can just buy the book?

Despite their doubtful effectiveness, self-help titles proliferate the market. Perhaps they give readers a feeling of hope, or they provide readers with motivation, at least initially, for improving their life. In that sense, Hill had the right idea: to speak to our aspirational selves. The self-help book becomes a beacon for our ambition, which allows us to put all our other insecurities and shortcomings on the backburner for the time being. On the surface, it might seem rather harmless. Saving or investing a part of your salary is not a bad idea in itself, but what protects us if our self-help comes from non-experts, or comes at a high price of our physical and mental health?

The Pseudoscience Problem

In 2015, The goop Newsletter, part of the multi-million dollar lifestyle and wellness empire founded and run by Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow, wrote about the benefits of vaginal steaming, or V-Steaming, as a way to treat yourself ‘to an energetic release’ 5 and later Paltrow stated in an interview that the treatment can help balance female hormones 6. The concept gained a lot of attention in the Western world after the goop recommendation and was said to be based on Korean medicine. Over the years, goop articles, products and recommendations have repeatedly been accused of being based on pseudoscience, which is a set of theories or methods that are claimed to be based on fact even though they aren’t 7, which is why goop adds a disclaimer to avoid any legal liability.

So it’s not science, but the idea still gets freely and widely promoted. Readers sometimes risk trying these unproven treatments at home with improvised substitutes and potentially disastrous consequences. For example, a woman suffered second-degree burns when trying a DIY version of a V-Steam 8. Other fads claiming to improve your life, such as juice diets, keto diets, and oral activated charcoal and chlorophyll detoxes, are not scientifically proven to be effective, but still generate countless pages of pseudoscience. Medical science, by contrast, has shown that consuming large quantities of activated charcoal and following a long-term keto diet are usually ill-advised 9 10. It’s therefore very important to remember that any self-help advice should come from an expert.

Habit Formation to Help Yourself

Self-help is only effective if it leads to a change in behavior and this new behavior becomes a habit. Books, blogs and podcasts may tell you the habit that you need to form, but not how to form it. A study in 2006 found that more than 40% of the actions you perform in a day are habits and not decisions 11. This is because habits are processes that the brain performs without needing a decision. While everyone is capable of forming new habits, the process is a complex one and depends on repetition and event-based cues 12. For example, brushing your teeth before you go to bed started out with repetition enforced by your parents or guardians when you were young, and eventually became a habit as you grew older. For adults it becomes a part of a sequence of routines and we do it without much thought.

Habit formation requires a much more dynamic approach than a 400-page book or a series of 30-min podcasts. Of course, your decision to make a change is a very important factor. But you also need motivation and other forms of support and supervision. That’s where new technology and devices can help. Let’s take the Fitbit for example; the device that helps you track your physical activity and provides detailed statistics like speed, number of steps, calories burned etc. These statistics can be a motivator for you to exercise more, and to feel pride as you increase the number of steps taken or the number of calories burnt in a day. This makes you want to match or improve on your previous best just to enjoy that feeling again. Similarly, many mobile applications allow you to track and set up schedules that streamline habit formation. Thus, they can act as motivators initially before becoming event-based cues to form habits 12. In some ways, these applications, especially those based on clinical research, can work as experts, motivators and support groups, all personalized to your convenience, something self-help books or blogs cannot achieve. Sometimes helping yourself also needs a little help from you friends, real or virtual.

Picture of Pranay Parsuram

Pranay Parsuram

Pranay Parsuram completed his master’s in Book and Digital Media Studies from Leiden University, the Netherlands. He has worked as an Assistant Editor at Springer Nature and as an academic and research editor and copyediting quality analyst at an English language solutions provider based in Mumbai. He has also freelanced as a copyeditor, specializing in academic and scientific articles, and has trained a number of other academic copyeditors. He currently works on the editorial team of The Habtic Standard.

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