Self-Help and Wellbeing: Ifs, nots, myths, and knots

An exclusive chapter from The Psychology of Wellbeing, by Gary W. Wood, published by Routledge.

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This one is from The Psychology of Wellbeing, by Gary W. Wood.

Ring Out The Old; Ring In The New

The first day of a brand-new year brims with symbolism and significance. Every January the obligatory ‘New Year, New You’ campaigns crowd the pages of lifestyle magazines pushing the next wave of self-help books. All urge us to transform our lives and unlock our ‘authentic’ selves. It’s hard to put an exact figure on how much the self-help industry is worth. There’s just so much of it. There are ‘infomercials’, self-help books, audiobooks and apps, weight loss programmes, motivational speakers, and personal coaching services. But the industry is most often valued around $10 billion as of 2016, in the US alone, with a forecast of about $13.2 billion by 2022. Book sales slumped in the recession between 2007 and 2011 but picked up again with a boom in spiritual books in the ‘mindfulness mega- trend’, and more recently with a spike in sales of ‘clean and tidy’ books through the coronavirus lockdown.

Many self-help books tread well-trodden ground; some state the obvious, some are pure invention, and some hold grains of truth. But among the deluge, gems can be found. What we get out of these books depends on how we approach them. So, in keeping with sparkly metaphors popular in the genre, this chapter aims to help you ‘grab the gold and pass on the pyrites’. It is not a Dantean ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’ diatribe. It aims to inform and empower, with an eye on the evidence and the critical questions from Chapter 2. We examine the origins of the self-help genre and some pop psychology myths that hinder more than help. And we conclude with practical pointers on how to pick a self-help book and make the most of it.

Read a Book – Change Your Life?

Book Therapy

Over the years, I’ve worked as an ‘agony uncle’ – an advice columnist in magazines and online. Readers’ letters, whether real or composites, often raise complex issues, but the word limit for replies is always tight. So, a key strategy is to address the broader issue in my response and suggest a self-help book to deal with the detail. The ones I recommend are evidence-based books by psychologists or psychotherapists. They focus on a specific issue with advice for practical steps to resolve it. And generally, reading has been found to reduce stress, even if it’s just a few minutes a day. But there’s a stronger precedent to use books in a therapeutic way.

Bibliotherapy is the use of novels, poetry, and storytelling for therapeutic purposes. It is defined as ‘a process of dynamic interaction between the personality of the reader and literature . . . which may be utilized for personal assessment, adjustment, and growth’. So books would be prescribed by a therapist as part of the healing process. And over time the concept has extended to include self-help books, with or without a therapist.

What is Self-Help?

The dictionary definition of self-help is ‘the action or process of doing things to improve yourself or to solve your problems without the help of others’. By extension, self-help books are a way of ‘coping with one’s personal or emotional problems without professional help’. These books offer a cheap and accessible alternative to therapy, especially for less severe problems, and the readers control when and where to read them. Also a book offers the opportunity to work on an issue in private. But on the downside, a book offers a one- size-fits-all approach. There is no therapeutic relationship, which is a core factor in the healing process. So, a self-help book requires a more active role on the part of the readers. But might also selectively use parts of the book or misunderstand the author’s aims and apply the advice in ways not intended. Or they might not use any of it at all. A line from an online review of one of my books taught me a valuable lesson. It read, ‘This is an average self-help book, as you do need to apply the advice within if you are to gain something’. Some- times people read books for comfort and not to be challenged. And as the self-industry thrives on repeat business, some readers become fans of an author or a concept. Some might just enjoy being part of an ‘in-group’ of a new trend.

Problems Versus Growth

Psychologist and happiness researcher Ad Bergsma identifies four categories of self-help book: growth, relationships, coping, and identity. He groups these into two themes: problem-focused and growth-oriented, although some books cross over between categories and themes.

Problem-focused books include books on coping with stress, anxiety, depression, worrying, getting better sleep, dealing with burnout, how to manage emotions, dealing with life’s obstacles, and mindfulness. This theme also includes relationship books both dealing with issues and improving communication skills.

Growth-oriented books include ‘who am I?’ personal growth titles, self-management, how to live a better life, making better choices, finding meaning in life, understanding yourself, finding your true self, and mindfulness.

Before assessing whether self-help books are effective, let’s consider the readership. 

Who reads this stuff? And who gets the most from it?

Women are more likely than men to have positive attitudes towards self-help books, and female readers outnumber male readers by a ratio of more than two to one. Most are in the 20–49 age bracket, and about half (49%) have been in higher education. There are some indications that readers have a wide range of interests, not just self- help. These findings challenge the snobbish assumption that ‘only stupid people read them’, although some have noted, ‘the more stupid the title, the better it sells’. Also, philosopher Alain de Botton makes the case that many ancient philosophy books were self-help.

Most self-help authors are men, for whom the gender split in readership is about 50:50. But for female authors, the readers are mostly women (87%). And in keeping with gender stereotypes, men are more likely to read books about careers while women are more likely to read books about relationships. In traditional gender roles, males traits cluster around ‘competence’ and female traits around ‘nurturance. So, we might speculate that men view it as a sign of weakness to go into a bookshop for a self-help book, unless it’s a manly title by a man’s man.

Psychologist Ad Bergsma reviews the outcomes of using self-help books and finds they are more effective when helping us learn new life skills, such as assertiveness, problem solving, and even tidiness. Although there’s no support for the idea that a self-help book will transform your life, there is evidence that they can help to make more modest changes. One meta-analysis found that bibliotherapy was ‘no less effective’ than individual or group therapies. Self-help books can also ‘prevent part of the incidence of depression in high-risk groups’. Several studies of people on waiting lists for therapy have shown positive consequences for people in a group receiving ‘reading instructions’ than those in a control group receiving none. But it is crucial to take into account individual differences and the type of issues that affect them. Self-help treatments are more effective for milder cases of anxiety, depression, and insomnia, but not for smoking or severe alcohol issues. Self-help has had the best success for people with higher motivation and who have more positive attitudes toward the treatments.

None of these findings makes for great tabloid headings. Extra, extra, read all about it: self-help books work a bit, for some people, for some problems, some of the time! And although the studies are limited in design and sampling, they do suggest that self-help books have a supporting role to play in managing wellbeing. We just need to be sure we can trust the advice they offer.

The Self-Help Blueprint

Before writing a self-help book, I read a lot of them to see if I could work out the formula. And although I got a lot right, I made some ‘rookie’ errors. On reflection, I should have started at the beginning! Although there are many earlier self-improvement books, the archetype for the self-help genre is titled, not surprisingly, Self-Help, published in 1859. Its author was a doctor, newspaper editor, and political reformer, the suitably named Samuel Smiles. He was the great-great-grandfather of the explorer and motivational speaker Bear Grylls.

Self-Help was initially rejected by the publisher George Routledge, so the author pressed ahead and self-published it. It sold 20,000 copies in the first year. It was later picked up by another publisher, and by the author’s death, in 1904, it had sold over a quarter of a million copies. Among those inspired by it was Sakichi  Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries, and a copy of the book is on display, under glass, at Toyoda’s birthplace museum.

Self-Help bears all the hallmarks of the genre and some warning signs to consider in any critical appraisal. It is full of anecdotes and inspiring potted biographies of ‘illustrious men sprung from the ranks’ and ‘illustrious foreigners of humble origin’. The inference is ‘they succeeded against the odds, so why can’t you?’ And, it asserts the way to success is through the virtues of labour, application, adopting better habits, self-reliance, strength of character, and self-education. Even today, the book has rich pickings for ‘meme’ creators: ‘fortune favours the industrious’,‘doing not saying’,‘perseverance conquers all’, and ‘happiness and wellbeing are secured by our own conduct’. The author’s follow-up books expanded on themes from the first, such as Character, and Thrift, then Duty, and Life and Labour. The content would sit well in any modern self-help book. Check out Awaken the Giant Within and Unlimited Power by Tony Robbins. They are not all ‘Smiles’, but they have their fair share.

No one could deny that Samuel Smiles was a remarkable man, but much of his work was ‘of its time’. It’s all very Dickensian. So, should it still be a blueprint for self-improvement today? Because the themes have a political agenda. And in his quest to push the myth of meritocracy, Smiles popularized the idea of the ‘undeserving poor’. According to his view, the undeserving poor were those who didn’t seem to want to work, and what they needed was a withdrawal of all state or charity support until they were forced to fend for themselves. It’s a ‘no safety net, sink-or-swim’ philosophy. So it is perhaps not surprising that, more than a century later, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wanted to give Self-Help as a gift to every schoolchild in Britain, and why a ‘strivers’ versus ‘skivers’ narrative was used to defend cuts in public services under austerity ideology after the financial crash of 2007–2008.

Professor of disability and human development Lennard Davis criticizes the subtext of modern self-help authors. His words apply equally to Smiles’s germinal tome. Davis argues that self-help writers work ‘in the area of the ideological, the imagined, the narrativized . . . although a veneer of scientism permeates the work, there is also an underlying armature of moralizing’.

So, I’ve learned, in my naivety, for my self-help book I didn’t include enough ‘moralizing’, and I tried to pack everything I knew into one book, not string it out over four sequels. I can live with that.

So, let’s consider some of the more persistent tenets in self-help books. 

Pop Psychology Myths

Seize the Day

During the COVID-19 pandemic, aside from fake news, the Internet proved a fertile breeding ground for inspirational ‘memes’, videos, blogposts, and social media posts. All of them imploring us to ‘seize the day’. However well-meaning, they dripped with ‘Smilean sub- text’. I read things like: 

•          If you don’t write your novel now, time is not the problem; you are.

•          If you don’t use this chance to take your business ‘to the next level’ you don’t really want to be successful.

•          If you can’t commit to getting chiselled abdominals now, you don’t want to be fit and healthy.

None of these statements recognizes the added demands of social distancing, whether practical, cognitive, or emotional. And they are all founded on antique myths. Clinical psychologist Dr Stephen Briers has also authored self-help books and admits to unwittingly repeating myths or simplifying evidence to support a point. Researching this book, I realize that I had been taken in by some of the myths too. In his book Psychobabble, Briers busts 23 self-help myths. And, there are ten, at least, featured in Samuel Smile’s Self-Help and repeated, uncritically, today. They are:

(i) let your goals power toward success; (ii) think positive and be a winner; (iii) you can learn to do anything you want; (iv) you’d better get yourself sorted (organized); (v) you are stronger than you know; (vi) you are a master of the universe; (vii) you are in control of your own life; (viii) make every second count; (ix) discover the real you; (x) we must all strive to be happy.

There are grains of truth in all these myths. However, they are often given as absolute truths with no consideration for individual differences, circumstances, and environment. And often, psychology shows that the exceptions are more compelling than the ‘rules’. And, it’s troubling enough there are so many myths, but doubly so when they are gilded with moralizing. This combination sets us up to fail and to feel guilty about it. In the final stages of writing this book, my working day started around 6:30am and ended at 10:00pm, and on a break I noticed this gem: ‘In every day, there are 1,440 minutes. That means we have 1,440 daily opportunities to make a positive impact’. And I thought,‘Thanks for that. Now I feel guilty for eating, sleeping, and sitting on the lavatory’. Thankfully, there are warning signs to alert us before we become too invested in ‘guru-speak’.

Red flags/alarm bells

Four red flag statements that alert me that self-help guru is preaching pseudoscience. All these are false:

•          Men and women are more different than we are alike.

•          We only use 10% of our brains.

•          Some people are ‘right-brained’ and some are ‘left-brained’.

•          In any communication, words only account for 7% of the message.

Gender differences

Consider the ‘different planet’ approach to relationships. Gender theorist Kate Bornstein describes such books as ‘quick fix essentialism’ which only work if we accept the first premise. Because when we ask questions, the arguments begin to unravel. Even basic ones such as ‘Which women?’ or ‘Which men?’ Intuitive sense-making is useful for forming hypotheses but flawed in finding out if they are correct. Psychological evidence from multiple studies shows that differences between men and women are small. And even these tiny gaps are narrowing. 

Neurotrash

Cognitive neuroscientist Profession Gina Rippon coined the term neurotrash to describe pop psychology brain myths, including the notion of gendered brain differences. No brain expert would use the terms ‘right brain’ or ‘left brain’. They would more likely use ‘hemispheric specialization’. So, if you see these simplistic categories, be suspicious. In fact, always be sceptical of any binary categories. The right-brain/left-brain theory is based on research of more than half a century of patients with brain damage.54 Although we can pinpoint specialization of function in the brain, there is extensive interaction. But neuroscience has moved on since the 1960s, and more recent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) does not sup- port the idea of fixed lateralized brain types. And, as for the 10% figure, it’s hard to pinpoint where this started. One theory is that pioneering psychologist William James referred to ‘underdeveloped potential’ and a self-help guru decided to put a number on it. Also, early brain researchers admitted they didn’t know what 90% of the brain did. And so, the myth was born. Over the years some attributed the statement to Albert Einstein, but no record of it exists. This is a good place to mention neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). Although it has neuro in the title, it is not part of neuroscience but pseudoscience. At best, it takes three weeks to ‘qualify’. And since the creation of NLP, there has been no research to support its ‘extraordinary claims’ in more than three decades. There is also no proper regulation and standardization of training. In fact, one TV presenter, for an investigative report, managed to get his pet cat registered as an NLP ‘Master’. So, don’t believe the hype.

The body language myth

I have included this by way of a confession. I am guilty of spreading this myth, but the last time was 2006. It’s the famous ‘7%–38%–55% Rule’. The myth states that in any communication words only account for 7% of the message. The tone of voice accounts for 38% and body language and facial expressions for 55%. And it’s true. These figures are from laboratory studies with female participants, although it was an artificial setting and a non-generalizable sample. So, we need to be cautious in our interpretation. Moreover, the research only refers to first impressions, or when words and non-verbal cues conflict. In these specific cases, we give more weight to the non-verbal content. But it does not apply to all forms of communication.

None of these examples are likely to harm your wellbeing, but they show how the phrase ‘research shows’ or ‘studies show’ might be used to mislead. So, if a topic interests you in health and wellbeing, or learning, then examine the myths surrounding it and use the questions from Chapter Two to test the knowledge.

One aspect of pop psychology that deserves more scrutiny is ‘the power of positive thinking’.

Toxic Positivity

Sometimes it’s not appropriate to ‘turn that frown upside down’ or tell people to ‘smile, it might never happen’ when it already has.Toxic positivity is defined as ‘an ineffective and extreme overgeneralization of an optimistic, happy and positive state of mind in any given situation’. During the COVID-19 pandemic, social media told us to keep smiling and that we’ll all get through it. But fear, grief, and anger are appropriate emotions in a total disruption of normality and for such a high death toll. In the preceding chapter, one of the main criteria of positive mental health is an adequate perception of reality, empathy, and social sensitivity. Unmitigated positivity is not positive mental health; it’s denial. Author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich in Smile or Die argues that the positive thinking movement has marginalized critical thinking. Often it uses first-level intuitive thinking, confirmation bias, and cherry-picking that we explored in the preceding two chapters. And this ‘pick and mix’ approach can be dangerous. Essayist and investigative reporter Steve Salerno in SHAM argues that positive thinking can dissuade people away from proven medical treatments in favour of ‘curing’ themselves by the power of the will, with disastrous consequences. 

The Guru-ization of self-help

The self-help industry becomes more intelligible once you stop seeing it as education or health information. It’s infotainment, similar to the infomercial. In neither case is the primary aim to inform. Their aims are to entertain or to sell, respectively. And in some cases, to exploit for entertainment, such as scandal-based TV talk shows. It’s all show business. 

Adventures in infotainment

Hands up, I confess I have taken part in some PR-based research pro- jects. But my criterion for taking part is that I need to be able to bring in evidence-based psychology. And that’s why I turned down the Blue Monday campaign with its pre-written bogus formula. They only wanted a male psychologist to put his name to it – because mathematics is a man’s subject!

In the majority of media work, producers and directors are all very well-meaning, but I’ve lost count of times producers and journalists have asked me to say things that would ‘make a better piece’, irrespective of the evidence. I’ve been asked to ‘speak more slowly’, ‘don’t put so much psychology in it’, and ‘don’t wear a jacket because it reminds the audience of bailiffs and debt col- lectors’. I’ve been told it’s ‘TV Gold’ if you can make someone cry. And my own personal favourite was a proposal for a body language show that involved hidden cameras to film men at urinals. And when I protested that, aside from the ethical issues, if people know they are being filmed they will behave differently, the producer replied, ‘Don’t worry, they won’t know they are being filmed’. As if this made it better!

As a public engagement psychologist, it’s difficult to filter out the noise. I am often told by media producers and researcher that I’m being asked to comment on news stories because they have ‘done their research’. But it’s more likely they fiddled about for five minutes on the Internet, and once you are in their database, and have said yes once, the more likely you’ll get asked again. When producers or journalists are under pressure they’ll go to the convenient source, not necessarily the most appropriate. And the twin themes of entertainment and expediency explain why experts from the ‘Oprah stable’ like Dr Phil and Dr Oz were asked for their opinion about lifting the pandemic lockdown. 

Neither are epidemiologists but they are experts at something, they are entertaining, and they said yes. And even if they are speaking vaguely in their area, the commercial imperative might trump a factual one. A review of popular medical talk shows found potential conflicts of interest and that they ‘often lack adequate information on specific benefits or the magnitude of the effects of these benefits’. Shockingly, half of the recommendations either have no evidence or are contradicted by the best available evidence.

It is beyond the scope of this book to offer a complete dissection of the self-help infotainment industry, but two books I’ve cited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Steve Salerno are well worth a read. The mass media are indispensable for drawing out attention to ideas, new and old, and new products and trends in self-care and wellbeing. How- ever, we always need to bear in mind that they are often unreliable narrators.

Doing It By The (Self-Help) Book

Self-help double binds

Just like the impossible objects of artist M.C. Escher, pop psychology creates Escher-like impossible objectives. In self-help books there is often a tension between high self-esteem and unrealistic ‘change your life’ goals, or multiple goals, or mixed messages. These can set up double binds or what psychiatrist R.D. Laing calls ‘impossible knots’. For instance, how do we respond to the societal maxims of ‘look before you leap’ and ‘they that hesitate are lost’? Or, ‘you are the Master of your own destiny’ and ‘trust in the Universe’? And the same applies when too many goals conflict.

Pop psychology has no overarching paradigm. It can be an‘anything goes’ model, where theories and ideas are cherry-picked to support a first premise that might not be true. Pop psychology books might be presented as theories, but theories need to be tested. Otherwise you’re just being drafted into someone else’s wishful thinking. 

The anti-self-help book

Steve Salerno’s SHAM inspired a new trend in self-books. What began as a handful of books warning of the perils has now become a new shelf in the pop psychology section – the anti-self-help book. Just what we need – books that advise us not to read advice books. But unless you’re loitering in book shops reading them for free, someone is making money from them. And the same rules of critical analysis apply. Who is the author? What are their credentials? What are their qualifications, accreditations, and professional memberships? And is there any substance to the approach? Among the new wave are books with expletives in the titles such as John Parkin’s F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way. And it’s a fun idea. But as amusing as it is, does it really need a 777-page book, let alone several books to tell you that saying ‘f**k it’ is a spiritual act? And does it need a residential retreat in some sunny clime to immerse yourself in the therapeutic power of ‘f**k it’? Because if you don’t f**k it after the first page you probably never will.

So now, with the main caveats covered, if you are in the market for a self-help book, let’s explore how best to find one that works for you.

How to get the most from a self-book

In this last section, we draw together themes from the book so far to form a basis to choose and use a self-help book. But before we consider the pointers, in theory, can a self-help book really help? Well if we go back to the discussion in the preceding chapter on therapeutic outcomes, it provides some ‘ifs’. From the preceding chapter on outcome research, a book can offer hope and have an expectancy effect. The missing factor is the relationship, which is not likely to be as strong between a reader and an author. That’s why celebrity self-help books do well. There’s a sense of knowing the author. And if you a chose a book where the author’s voice comes through in the writing, this can help to create a sense of a relationship. But overall, the success of a self-help book lies in how you read it and what you do with the information.

Chose a book like you’d choose a therapist

If you choose a self-help book like you’d choose a coach or a therapist, everything begins to fall into place. If you check the author biography and it states they talk to angels, are the reincarnation of Nefertiti, and were raised by wolves, chances are it’s not an evidence-based approach. All the critical questions proposed in Chapter 2 will help you to decide if the author is an expert at all, and an expert you can trust. And look out for the self-help myths covered earlier.

Websites such as Reading Well in the UK works with libraries to recommend booklists chosen by experts and by people living with conditions covered in the lists, and their relatives and carers.

Does it speak to you?

Once you have checked the book’s credibility, move on to the tone. Do you like the style and layout of the book? Does the way the book is written ‘speak to you’? Does the book impose a story on you, or does it help you to retell your story? Is the book likely to motivate you?

Actively engage with the material

A common mistake made in study skills is an over-reliance on passive techniques, learning by rote, and trying to memorize lecture notes. However, we retain information better the more we do with it at the input stage. And we can borrow this idea from study skills and use an active reading technique for self-help books. It helps to use a journal to capture your thoughts, the outcomes of any exercises, and your reflections. I have adapted the academic and the SQ3R technique for use with a self-help book.This revised version stands for survey, question, read, react, review.

•          Survey – flick through the book to get a feel of the structure and layout. This stage incorporates some of the insights from ‘Does it speak to you?’ mentioned earlier.

•          Question – from the start write questions in your journal, for the book as whole, and then for each chapter. What questions do you want the book, and each chapter, to answer? This tactic helps to create a context for processing the information.

•          Read – as you start reading, keep your questions in mind, and write down thoughts, questions, and reflections as you go.

•          React – is another way of saying ‘if the book has exercises, suspend your belief and try them out’. Attitude change involves thoughts, feelings, and actions. And often the easiest way to create some fresh insights is to take action, and then reflect.

•          Review – at the end of reach chapter, take a few moments to con- sider the information before moving on to the next chapter.

Shared experience

The Reading Well website has a function for finding reading friends. So, to enhance the experience further you could work through a book with a friend or set up a reading group – like group bibliotherapy.

And that’s how you make the most of a self-help book and improve your chances of having a positive experience. A book probably won’t change your life. But rather than being a ‘punter’ in a commercial process, you create your own process in a way that just might help your self.

Summary and Reflection

In this chapter we:

•          examined the ‘self-help trade’ and whether it harms more than it helps

•          narrowed the applications of self-help materials to areas where it is likely to be more effective 

•          explored the origins of the self-help book genre, exploded some pop-psychology myths, and outlined a plan to select a self-help book and make the most of it.

How has the information affected your approach to wellbeing? And what ideas do you have for further investigation?

In the next chapter we examine the contributions that positive psychology has made to our understanding on wellbeing.

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