According to the usual market tests, the self-help industry seems to be successful. People are prepared to pay substantial amounts for the goods it offers and it seems reasonable to presume that they obtain benefits that are commensurate with the amounts they pay. But some people claim that these benefits are illusory. Does the self-help industry just produce psychobabble that gives people false hope? Or, does this industry assist people to achieve lasting gains in happiness?
Although the research has not yet been done that would enable these questions to be answered in a definitive way, a recent issue of “The Journal of Happiness Studies” contains articles that discuss some relevant issues (Issue 3, 2008, here). In particular, an article by Ad Bergsma examines a sample of best-selling self-help books that have themes relating to personal growth, personal relations, coping with stress and identity. (Authors of the selected books include Gray, Goleman, Dyer, Csiksezentmihalyi and Carnegie). The books were examined to see how closely their messages fit with observed correlates of happiness derived from scientific research. The results seem encouraging. The factors that the books strongly advocate (calmness, independence, internal locus of control, intimacy, love-life and marriage, mental health, self-actualization and tolerance) are nearly all positively correlated with happiness. (The exception is independence, for which results are ambivalent.) The books also strongly recommend against aggression, which has been shown to be negatively correlated with happiness.
Bergsma also refers to research on self-help that has been undertaken by others. This research suggests that most readers of these books are not chronically unhappy. Reading self-help books seems to be part of a coping style of people who are attempting to improve themselves. There is also some 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. Bergsma suggests that the books may function in a way that is similar to travel guides: “Most readers will not follow
the book page by page, but will study parts of the book and will select some travel
options they would have never heard of without the book”.
In order to be successful in enabling people to live more happily self-help books would need to encourage people to reflect on their own patterns of thinking and behaviour and to consider whether changes are necessary. That is certainly true of Martin Seligman’s book, “Authentic Happiness” (2002). Seligman suggests: “Insufficient appreciation and savoring of the good events in your past and overemphasis of the bad ones are the two culprits that undermine serenity, contentment, and satisfaction” (70). The remedies he suggests are gratitude, to amplify the savoring and appreciation of the good events gone by, and forgiveness, to loosen the power of bad events to embitter. Seligman also makes many other suggestions, including making an annual appraisal of your life’s trajectory, covering the domains that are of greatest value to you. This accounting “pins you down, leaves little room for self-deception, and tells you when to act” (82).
Some people manage to turn their lives around simply by reflecting on such things as their most positive beliefs, their role models, the things they are grateful for, their goals and their commitments. For some examples, see Let’sReflect (here).
My personal preference for self-help is a process explained by Michael Hall in his book, “Unleashed”. This involves: developing an understanding of your potential; accessing the executive levels of mind to re-construct your intentions; and actualizing your best meanings and intentions in performance. (The approach developed in Hall’s book can be sampled on his self-actualization web site, here.)
There are many different ways in which people can help themselves to live happy lives. The important point to recognise is that it is in our nature as humans to reflect upon our own lives and to seek to improve them. It seems to me that in developing that skill most of us can learn a lot from “travel guides” written by qualified professionals.