Can self-help books make you happier?

I'm sure most of us have read a self-help book at one time or another (it's not just a female thing), whether your tome of choice was Danny Wallace's 'Yes Man' or Dale Carnegie's 'How to Win Friends & Influence People.' The titles of these books are designed in such a way that they're inspiring; they leap off the shelf at you. It's ok to admit that you've read, and enjoyed, so-called 'self-help' books in the past, but you might wonder whether they actually have any effect on your happiness? Whether you read them with serious goals in mind, or just for entertainment, we thought we'd ask the question everyone secretly wonders when shopping for books like this – Can self-help books make you happier?

What are 'self-help' books?

Let's start by explaining what we mean by 'self-help' books. Any book designed to direct you how to do something better, quicker, more efficiently, or to help you with decision making in your life, or even to help you feel better about yourself and your life – that's a self-help book. Sometimes, these books are obvious; they're found in the self-help or aptly titled 'Mind, Body, Spirit' section at your local book shop (or on Amazon). Other times, they can be found hiding in the comedy section; we'd class most of Danny Wallace's books as self-help titles, even if they're posing as comedy (they are a pretty good read!) So now we've clarified what we're actually talking about, let's look at some facts. We do love our facts here at Expertrain!

The facts

Around six million people in the UK currently suffer from some form of mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression, with 90% visiting their GP for help. Whilst you're on a waiting list for counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), what if your GP could prescribe you a self-help book to help you better understand what you're going through? The Reading Well Books on Prescription scheme launched in July 2013, with copies of 30 self-help books available at most libraries across the UK, for GP's to recommend to patients. Whilst reading these books doesn't take the place of medication or therapy, it can be a lifeline – research has proven that books are an effective way of delivering CBT to patients, and with the waiting list for therapy averaging six months or more, books could be the answer (1). Reading is also a great way to relax and can help you to get a better night's sleep, which can help with the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The Best-sellers

The number one best-selling self-help book of all time is How to Win Friends & Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, a salesman turned lecturer and writer. Although it was published in 1937, most of the advice and life skills are still relevant today. The book has sold more than 15 million copies in 36 languages and provides its readers with techniques for handling people at work and in your personal, changing people and other skills. Other popular self-help books include 'The Road Less Travelled' by M. Scott Peck, 'Feel the Fear And Do It Anyway' by Susan Jeffers (a personal favourite) and 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People' by Stephen R. Covey. Then there are the slightly more humorous novels, some of which have been turned into films, such as 'He's Just Not That Into You' by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo.

Could self-help books be addictive?

There's a danger behind turning to self-help books everytime a problem rears its head though. It might sound crazy to say that books can be addictive, but it's true. One woman, Charlotte Pearson Methven, is a self-confessed self-help addict who spends the majority of her free time 'working on herself', devouring hundreds of books and taking the action they recommend (2). Psychologist John Stewart explains the allure of these novels, “These books are clever and gimmicky. People think that just because they come with a glossy cover they have the wisdom, but 90% are rubbish.” He quickly adds that some good ones do exist! The catchy titles, particularly those aimed at women such as, 'Smart Women/Foolish Choices' or 'Why Men Love Bitches' are hard to resist, and with women being more self-aware than men (2) and also more competitive with each other, these novels are eagerly snapped up from the shelves.

Do self-help books actually work?

It depends on your perspective and what you're hoping for from your self-help book. There is research to suggest that self-help books are an effective way of providing CBT for those with mild depression and anxiety (3), particularly those books which provide tasks and exercises for readers to carry out. In effect this makes you take action to combat your problems. This doesn't mean that self-help books are a magic 'cure-all' that will eliminate mental health problems and make you feel instantly happy, but as part of a lifestyle overhaul, they can help.

Author Lyndelle Palmer Clarke believes many of us rely too heavily on self-help books when the going gets tough (4). Palmer Clarke is a personal growth expert who believes we hold the key to our own happiness within ourselves. She explains, “There's a misconception that reading a great self-help book or attending a seminar is all that's needed to make life upgrades. There's a kind of, 'read this book and it'll change your life' message out there that's creating nothing more than self-help addicts. It's a trap I've fallen into – always buying the latest self-help book hoping the next one would fix and improve my life. The truth is, we don't need another self-help book because most of us already know what we need to do to improve our lives. We just need to do it.”

The self-help myths – busted!

There are some happiness myths perpetuated by self-help books – after all, it helps authors to sell more copies! We bust a few of these wide open.

#1. Personal growth is easy

That's just not true. Growing and changing is hard and painful, which is why many of us give up. The rewards are worth it though; motivating yourself to move out of your comfort zone and embrace change is better than being stuck in an unhappy situation.

#2. The more things you have, the happier you'll be

Personal growth isn't even remotely about things or possessions; these don't bring happiness, even if that new 50” flat screen and PS4 have brightened up your weekend...Progressing with personal growth will show you that it's having less, not more, that actually makes us happier. As your self-esteem improves, you'll no longer need things to make you feel better.

#3. Happy people are always positive

Life isn't always candyfloss and rainbows, and the above statement is totally not true. Sure, it's important to be positive when you can be, but it's also important to be real and authentic. You won't feel happy and positive everyday, and that's normal!

So what's the deal, are we happier for our self-help collection?

Self-help books have a place in our lives; they can give us the temporary confidence or self-esteem boost we need to take the steps we need to take. They're there to bolster us, or provide us with some support tackling our anxiety and depression. In a way, they're sort of like a wise, knowledgeable friend you can turn to with your problems. But you wouldn't spend all day, everyday chatting to your friend about your problems, would you? Everything in moderation, we say and if you enjoy the occasional self-help book, it can help to make you happier and healthier – a healthy diet and regular exercise can boost your mood too! Just don't become the woman (or man) who fills their bookshelves from floor to ceiling with self-help tomes. Trust us, it's not a good look!

Do you have a favourite self-help book that's helped you through tough times? Tell us about it!

READ THIS NEXT: Is your body language holding you back?

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Author By Paula Beaton
Date On 11th Nov 2014 at 10:23
sarah lynn - 28/11/2014 - 20:28

I think there is just a lot of fluff to dig through out there but there are some absolute gems too that are written from authors that really know their field well. A really great, recent example would be Jason Treu's Social Wealth. There is a book that speaks a lot of sense that would truly benefit just about anyone. I would nominate it as one of my absolute favorite books of the last 5 years and it continues to prove itself valuable to me on a frequent basis.

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