In the iconic 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally, Sally reunites with acquaintance Harry in a bookstore when her friend Marie leans in and whispers, “Someone is staring at you in personal growth.” The popularity of self-help books skyrocketed in that decade, featuring authors such as Louise Hay, Stephen R. Covey, and Norman Vincent Peale. However, the genre has existed for more than 150 years.
Early Self-Help Books
One of the first bestselling self-help books was titled simply that: Self-Help by British physician and journalist Samuel Smiles was released in 1859 and within one year sold more than 20,000 copies— and by the turn of the century, over 250,000. Basically centered on Victorian values of self-reliance, perseverance, temperance, and others, it also shared prominent success stories of men who followed these principles to achieve success, thereby inspiring others (you’re correct in assuming that no women were featured).
Ironically, although he wasn’t successful in his previous vocations, Smiles achieved wide acclaim for Self-Help, and it’s considered a foundational template for many similar books published since. If you’re curious about it, The Project Gutenberg offers a free ebook.
Another preeminent author of the self-help genre was silent film star Douglas Fairbanks, who published Laugh and Live in 1917. Now what would one of the era’s most famous performers know about the common person’s struggles? It didn’t matter: his focus on laughter, joy, and positive thinking was, in his mind, the path to a better life. Take a look.
Marcus Aurelius. Napoleon Hill. Dale Carnegie. Victor Frankl. Brené Brown. Charles Duhigg. Tony Robbins. Marianne Williamson. Don Miguel Ruiz. Eckhart Tolle. Jen Sincero. Martha Beck. Robert Kiyosaki. Rhonda Byrne. James Clear. Marie Kondo. Dan Gilbert. Mark Manson. Shonda Rhimes. Wayne Dyer. These are just a few of the thousands of authors over the past century that seem to tap into a specific need—be it personal or professional—and provide guidance, observations, and solutions.
Why the Continued Popularity?
Personal development is considered a multi-billion-dollar industry, and it’s more than just books. Seminars, online workshops, personal coaching, courses, and more support the non-stop growth. But what’s driving it?
Some studies on the self-help approach conclude “there is some evidence that reading problem-focused self-help books tends to be helpful for people with specific problems. As yet there is no hard evidence for the effectiveness of reading growth-oriented books. This is a regrettable omission on the part of academic psychology.”
Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, points out that “in the past decade, many academics such as Brené Brown and Dan Gilbert are getting into the mix by writing self-help books based on scientific studies.” This, in his view, helps to elevate and legitimize certain concepts within an industry where anyone can profess anything.
However, in an article for Inc., licensed therapist, addiction specialist, and life coach Matthew Jones points out that, “when you’re suffering and looking for help, the self-help industry manipulates your weaknesses by selling you false hope.” He adds that “convincing yourself that you are inadequate—that your life needs something more and that you need to achieve things, own things, and buy things to find happiness—is what shackles you to unhappiness.” His no-nonsense suggestion is to “re-discover happiness [and] release the darkness that you create through your own life patterns.”
So, the question remains: do self-help books really help?
It Depends on Your Perspective
There’s no need to dismiss the genre entirely, especially if you’re being introduced to new concepts, working with your therapist to explore specific aspects of health, or just want to discover different ways of thinking. What many professionals suggest is to be discerning—and somewhat skeptical—to determine just what exactly benefits you.
Psychologist, professor, and researcher Tim Carey states in a Psychology Today article that “self-help books are, by and large, stories about what the author found helpful in becoming the sort of person they want to be. Will the discoveries they made about what was helpful for them be helpful for you? Who knows?” He stresses that if the presented ideas suit you, then apply them, but if not, “it might be helpful to consider that what you were trying on was never yours in the first place.”
Manson says “self-improvement is quite literal in its meaning—it’s used to enhance oneself, not to replace it. If you’re looking to replace who you are with something else, then you will never succeed, and you’re more likely to get sucked up into the nonsense and pseudo-science and suppress your feelings of inadequacy rather than deal with them head-on.” He cautions people not to fall prey to the “perception of progress” presented by someone else and mistake it for progress itself.
More Ideas to Explore at Cottonwood Tucson
Our holistic approach to healing is one of many factors we’re most proud of at our Tucson-based campus, and our professionals here strive to provide extensive opportunities to support your personal journey. If certain books, podcasts, documentaries, and other aspects of inspirational growth help reinforce wellness for you, please let us know in the comments below.