Do self-help books help? There are good reasons to doubt it. Yet there are also good reasons to expect that they often do. Below we review the arguments.

Misgivings about self-help books

There is a lot of cynicism about the effectiveness of self-help books. It is not uncommon to bash self-help as a whole. Macdonald (1954) writes: ‘How to writers are to other writers as frogs are to mammals; their books are not born, they are spawned. A howtoer with only three or four books to his credit is looked upon as sterile.’ Rosen (1977) used the title ‘Psychobabble’ in his volume on this topic. He writes: ‘Psychobabble is… a set of repetitive verbal formalities that kills off the very spontaneity, candor, and understanding it pretends to promote. It’s an idiom that reduces psychological insight to a collection of standardized observations, that provides a frozen lexicon to deal with an infinite variety of problems.’ Styron (1990) calls self-help books fraudulent. Csikszentmihalyi (1999, p. 20) claims it is apparent self-help books will not help most readers to be thin, powerful, rich and loved; and even if they succeed the readers will still be as unhappy as before they read the book. Polivy and Herman (2002) claim that buying self-help volumes must be part of a false hope syndrome. Salerno (2005) holds self-help responsible for the end of romance, soaring divorce rates, the decline of the nuclear family, excessive political correctness and rising substance abuse, although this is by quite an inferential leap (Weiten, 2006).

Specific techniques recommended by self-help authors

Such a negative attitude is not justified by reference to any empirical studies. We were not able to find any studies that empirically investigated the effectiveness of the best-selling self-help books in the Netherlands. However, there are indications that self-help books sometimes offer outdated advice.

Paul (2001) describes five common self-help myths:

  • Vent your anger, and it will go away. Research shows that expressing anger can keep it alive.

  • When you are down in the dumps, think yourself happy by focusing on the positive. Research shows that the result may be the opposite of what you want. It can make your misery of the moment even more apparent.

  • Visualize your goals; it will help you to make them come true. Research shows that we not only need optimism about our ability to reach a given goal, but also a sharp focus on the obstacles that are in the way. You need to pay attention to the obstacles and the necessary steps to reach the goal.

  • Self-affirmation will help you raise low self-esteem. Research shows that this technique is not powerful enough. We need positive feedback from people that matter to us. ‘Self-esteem is the sum of your interactions with others over a lifetime, and it’s not going to change overnight’.

  • Active listening can help you communicate better with your partner. This is an appealing idea, but research shows that even happy, loving couples don’t use the technique. It may be better to take your partner seriously, to avoid hostility and to avoid arousal.

Paul (2001) concludes: ‘The five distortions presented here are only a few of the misconceptions you may encounter. To protect yourself against others, be sure to take the self-help descriptions with a measure of skepticism and a healthy dose of common sense.’ The myths Paul (2001) describes confirm the mixed picture of the best-selling self-help books that emerged from the ratings by clinicians and make clear that self-help is not as good as it can or should be.

Another technical limitation is that self-help books work with a ‘one-size fits all’ approach. The advice is not be tailored to the personality of the reader, diagnosis or personal circumstances. Norem and Chang (2002) relate that this is a flaw that is also apparent in the positive psychology movement that is gaining momentum. They emphasize this point by a discussion of optimism. It is tempting to conclude that it is wise to enhance optimism as much as possible, because there is substantial evidence that optimism in its many forms leads to better outcomes in coping, health, satisfaction and well-being (Scheier, Carver, & Bridges, 2001). Still, the recommendation to look at the bright side is counterproductive for people who are very anxious. The induction of a positive mood deteriorates their performance and satisfaction. For them a strategy that is called defensive pessimism yields better results (Norem, 2001). Defensively pessimistic individuals set themselves unrealistic low targets and devote considerable time to all the possible outcomes they can imagine for a given situation. The result is twofold: on the one hand they no longer have to fear that they will mess up, because this is what could be expected; the other result is an increase in motivation. They know what might happen. The end result is a good performance, which would have been threatened by imposed optimism.

Another question is what aspect of optimism is lacking for a certain individual. Aspinwall, Richter and Hoffman (2001) illustrate this by the serenity prayer. Most psychologists studying optimism focus on changing the things one can change through active coping, and self-help authors are hard-liners in this respect. But Aspinwall, Richter and Hoffman offer data that indicates that the other parts of the prayer are equally important: it is productive to accept the things one cannot change and to have the wisdom to distinguish things one can and cannot change. Self-help may have detrimental effects if it focuses on the wrong aspects of optimism for a certain reader.

‘The challenge for positive psychology as it works to better the human condition is to remember that there is no one human condition’ (Norem & Chang, 2002). The same is true for self-help. Solid, empirically valid self-help advice about learned optimism (Seligman, 1991), that is strongly recommended by clinicians (Norcross et al., 2000), may have negative consequences for some of the more anxious readers.

Observed effects of reading problem-focused books

There is empirical evidence that reading problem-focused self-help materials can be effective in the treatment of disorders, and even have outcomes comparable to therapist administered treatments (Wilson & Cash, 2000; Den Boer, Wiersma, & Van Den Bosch, 2004). For example Cuijpers (1997) has made a meta-analysis of six studies in which the effectiveness of bibliotherapy was compared with other treatment modes for unipolar depression. The author’s conclusion is described and updated in the Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effectiveness; “Bibliotherapy is an effective treatment modality, which is no less effective than individual or group therapy.” The treatment effect was measured with the help of depression inventories. A more elaborate review yields the same conclusion (Cuijpers, Kramer, & Willemse, submitted). Self-help books can also prevent part of the incidence of depression in high risk groups (Willemse, Smit, Cuijpers, & Tiemens, 2004).

Cuijpers (1997) conclusion about the effectiveness of the self-help books is based on a limited number of studies and the participants were not drawn from a clinical population, but were recruited through announcements in the media. The depressions were mild more often than severe. Other reviews on the effectiveness of bibliotherapy also suggest that reading instructions can have significant positive consequences, better than control treatment while on a waiting list (Den Boer, Wiersma & Van Den Bosch, 2004; Gould & Clum, 1993; Mains & Scogin, 2003; Marrs, 1995; Scogin, Bynum, Stephens & Calhoon, 1990; Williams, 2001).

However, it is clear that self-help is not equally effective for each disorder and every person. According to Mains and Scogin (2003), self-help treatments were successful for anxiety, depression and mild alcohol abuse, but less so for smoking cessation and moderate and severe alcohol abuse. Gould and Clum (1993) and Marrs (1995) add successes for headaches, insomnia and sexual dysfunction, and confirm the lack of success for smoking cessation and alcohol addiction. Self-help has greatest success with people with high motivation, resourcefulness and positive attitudes toward self-help treatments.

There are also several studies that failed to find positive effects from self-administered treatment programs, even if the technique prescribed has been shown to be successful in a psychotherapeutic context (Rosen, 1987; Rosen, Glasgow, & Moore, 2003). The fact that empirical data about the efficacy of most self-help books is lacking, must be taking seriously given the cautionary tale by Rosen (1987). He probably has the honor to have reached the largest experimental effect ever in psychotherapy literature, but sadly in the wrong direction. He studied a self-help desensitization program for people with a snake phobia. The program worked fine for people that complied to it, but only 50% did. So the researchers added a self-reward strategy to their program to enhance compliance, but discovered that compliance dropped to zero, an unexpected failure from well-intending experts with state-of-the-art knowledge.

Another cautionary remark is that the power of a book to lead to meaningful changes in thinking, feeling and behavior, can also have negative consequences. A famous example is Goethe’s book Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774) that is said to have inspired some readers to commit suicide. Failure to benefit from a self-help book may lead to self-blame and/or the worsening of symptoms (Rosen, 1987). An as yet unpublished study indicated that people that read a self-help book about depression with minimal help from a psychotherapist, wrongly concluded that they could not be helped at all if they did not profit from the advice offered (De Regt, personal communication); but empirical research suggests that these negative consequences are rather rare (Scogin, et al., 1996).

Indications for effectiveness of reading growth-oriented books

The effectiveness of growth-oriented self-help books has not yet been investigated in this way. There are, however, some indications of their effectiveness. One indication is the judgement of these books by professionals and another is the readers’ evaluations. Still another indication for effectiveness is the relevance of the topics addressed. Below we will check that relevance in a comparison of topics in the books and the conditions for happiness observed in empirical research.

Clinicians’ ratings of self-help books

The Authoritative guide to self-help resources in mental health (Norcross et al., 2000) has brought together the reviews and ratings of more than a thousand American clinicians about 600 self-help books for different categories like schizophrenia, mood disorders, anxiety, stress-management and headaches. The problem-focused books are dominant, but some of he categories such as Career development, Self-management and self-enhancement and Spiritual and Existential concerns are clearly growth oriented.

The selection of self-help books was not random, but it is encouraging that the reviews are predominantly positive. Nineteen percent of the books are considered very helpful and one percent is rated negative. Another indication for the quality of self-help books is the fact that a large number of psychotherapists (85%) recommend self-help books to clients (Campbell & Smith, 2003; Norcross et al., 2000; Starker, 1988).

Thirteen books out of the top 57 bestselling Dutch psychology books were rated in Norcross et al. (Table 4). The ratings are rather mixed. The main reason for this is that the books by Wayne Dyer and John Gray are often sold to the Dutch public, although clinicians do not recommend them.

Table 4 Clinicians ratings in Norcross et al. (2000) of Dutch popular psychology books

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Readers’ evaluations of self-help books

Starker (1989) conducted a survey on self-help of 67 volunteer hospital workers, men and woman ranging in age from 27 to 86 years of age. Starker did not make a distinction between problem focused and growth oriented self-help books for his survey. The large majority (85%) thought the books were ‘sometimes helpful’ or ‘often helpful’. This sample reported positive experiences such as:

  • ‘Opened new avenues for me’.

  • ‘More self-confidence’.

  • ‘Made me understand myself and others’.

  • ‘Insight into problem areas’.

  • ‘Peace of mind’.

  • ‘Knowledge of hypertension and stress’.

Relevance of the advice

Self-help books are unlikely to be effective if the topics they address have little relevance for the happiness of most people. This can be checked by comparing the topics in growth-oriented books with findings of empirical research on happiness. If a self-help author recommends to seek happiness in a higher income, that advice is unlikely to work out well for most readers, since research has found little relation between happiness and income (e.g., Kasser, 2002; Ryan & Dziurawiec, 2001; Tatzel, 2003). If, however, the advice is to optimize personal relationships, an effective book has a good chance to enhance happiness, because good relationships appear to be an important condition for happiness.

This line of reasoning offers the possibility to check the topic choices in the self-help literature. Because of the abundance of the studies involved I will not use individual studies, but refer again to the findings in the World Database of Happiness (Veenhoven, 2006). This is a large database were most correlational findings about happiness are gathered. Table 5 summarizes the topic choices in the self-help literature and makes a comparison with the correlational data in the database.

Table 5 Topics in the self-help literature and their relevance for happiness

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Table 5 confirms the impression that self-help books recommend for things that are related to happiness. The differences between the recommendations in self-help-books and the observed correlates of happiness do not seem to be random.

The self-help books stress a specific way of life that is built on the ideas of the individual pursuit of happiness and humanistic psychology. In self-help books the focus is more on eudemonic well-being than on hedonistic well-being. These concepts offer different definitions of the good life. Hedonistic well-being concentrates on pleasure attainment and pain avoidance, on feeling good, but not necessary on outward success. Eudemonic well-being defines well-being in terms of the degree to which people are fully functioning (Ryan, 2001) and adds a moral dimension to the good life.

The authors want to foster personal growth and overrate personal independence, tolerance, self-actualization, calmness and an internal locus of control. Aggression, popularity and appearance seem to be undervalued. So self-help books could help to enhances happiness. However, this content-analysis cannot give an indication whether these self-help books actually fulfil their promise.

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