Fulfillment at Any Age

How to remain productive and healthy into your later years

Five Things You Need to Know About Self-Help Books

A five-step guide

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Want to improve your relationships? Having trouble sleeping? Feeling stuck in your career? Coping with bereavement? Looking to hone your leadership skills? If you’re like many people, you’ll try to solve these and other problems in your life by browsing the website or self-help aisles of your favorite bookstore. Self-improvement books now account for at least a $2.5 billion a year industry in the U.S. alone, increasing since 1972 to at least 2.5% of the total number of books in print. Approximately one-third to one-half of adults in the U.S. have purchased a self-improvement book at least once in their lifetime (http://www.selfhelpinc.com/excerpt.html).

Without refining the categories too much, there are an astounding 417,000 and counting self-help results available on Amazon.com in the search for “self-help.” There are 50 top-selling books alone on anxiety and depression. Given this staggering collection, how can you possibly decide where to look for the self-help book that will most help you? Fortunately, you can narrow your search by following a few relatively simple guidelines.

Before you click to purchase or snatch that appealing title off the grocery store rack, it’s wise to consider these guidelines, even if the purchase will only cost you a small amount of your hard-earned currency. It’s not only the financial investment you need to stop and think about, but the emotional one as well. Getting the wrong self-help book can actually set you back in your search for answers to the dilemmas facing you in your life right now.

Guideline #1: Check out the author’s credentials. You’re probably expecting that the advice I’ll give you is to look for authors with doctorates in psychology or related fields. You may figure that the only self-help authors worth giving your precious time and attention to have years of professional training in academia and the sciences. All other things being equal, you’re right. Good job; you’re off to a great start! Yes, it’s better if a self-help author has logged in a certain number of courses, contributed to a certain number of scientific studies, and provided a certain number of hours of professional services. However, keep in mind that the individual’s training and experience tell only part of the story. You can’t judge a self-help book entirely by its author’s academic pedigree.

Many of the people who include their names on a self-help book didn’t actually write 100% of its content. They’ve partnered up with ghost writers who translate their lofty academic pronouncements into words on the page that the average reader can comprehend. It’s unethical for psychologists to misrepresent their work to the public, so you’re protected in that sense. However, keep in mind that you’re reading a version of their expert advice that’s been altered for the popular press. Some of it may be watered down, even if it’s still technically “accurate.”  As a result, a treatment that works when a clinician uses it may not work when it’s translated into lay terms. The more assurance you have that the author actually authored the book, the closer the expert’s advice will be to the treatments that are shown to work. Don’t hesitate to do a quick Google search of the author and track down his or her training and background and make sure that it matches the expertise that the author claims to have. You might also look to see if the author has written books that are not for the lay public but would be perfectly understandable to a non-professional. These might give you additional tips that you won’t find in a pop psych version of the author’s work.

Second, experts may also have been experts at one time but have since lost currency with the most recent research. The research might have changed and so may the advice based on interventions that are no longer recommended. They may also no longer be practicing in the area of specialty of the book. Before you make your purchase, then, scan the book’s contents and check out the date it was actually written and be wary of a book written before (to be generous) the 1990s. Even better are more recent copyright dates which reflect the latest thinking in the field meaning a copyright date of no earlier than 2005. If you’re satisfied that the author is a legitimate source and that, although it’s a popular book, the research seems sound, you can move on to examine the book’s specific value for you.

Guideline #2. Think of the book as your therapist. Research by University of York (U.K.) psychologist Rachel Richardson and colleagues (2010) showed that a good self-help book follows the principles of good therapy. Richardson and her co-authors compared the so-called “common factors” of two widely-read self-help books on depression to find out how well they stack up on the criteria for good psychotherapy. Bibiliotherapy (i.e. treatment with books) is increasingly being promoted in the U.K. in partnerships between health providers and public libraries. Mental health providers “prescribe” books to their clients that local libraries, in turn, have agreed to stock. By identifying the common factors that work in these specific self-help books, this research gives you concrete ideas about how to evaluate the potential for a given self-help book to help you.

The essence of successful therapy is the so-called “therapeutic alliance” or connection between you and your therapist. Obviously, you don’t have an actual relationship with a book, because the book isn’t responding to you or treating you as a unique individual. Therefore, the successful self-help author has to do the next best thing, which is to make you feel as though you are in a relationship. The factors common to good therapy are best thought of in terms of the three phases of the development of a therapeutic relationship: establishment, development, and maintenance.

A successful self-help book author establishes a relationship with you by writing a book that’s relatively easy to use, makes you feel that there’s hope for you, shows you that the author understands your problems, gets you to commit to working with the book, and gives you at least some advice right away. 

The author develops the relationship with you by allowing you to feel confident that the author’s techniques will be helpful, gives you feedback on what you’re thinking and doing, and shows responsiveness to your feelings. Here’s where the author faces perhaps the biggest challenge. You’re not actually going to be able to get individualized feedback, and a book can’t possibly know how you’re feeling. The author has to know enough about working with people like you to be able to anticipate your thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. The author can further individualize the process by giving you the chance to learn how to adapt the book to your own objectives and abilities. Be wary of authors who say you “must” do this in order to achieve help. Instead look for authors who give you some options. Richardson and her colleagues also suggest that it’s very useful to find examples in books of actual cases that have gone well under the author’s treatment. This will give you concrete specifics to latch onto, and also help to gain hope that the treatment may in fact be useful. At the same time, as pointed out by researchers David Richards and Paul Farrand (2010), the book shouldn’t present an unrealistically positive view of therapy. Some case studies showing the struggles of real-life clients can help you adopt a realistic set of expectations about your chances for improvement.

Finally, to maintain the relationship, a good self-help author anticipates the fact that you’re going to be tempted to put the book down or even give it up altogether (at least for a while). The author can “forgive” you in advance for taking a break and give you strategies to follow to get back on track when you’re ready.  Again, it’s important that the author build in some flexibility to allow for the many types of people who will look for guidance in the book’s pages.

Guideline #3. Look critically at the quality of the writing. A self-help book is, first and foremost, a book and as such, it should be reasonably well-written.  Unlike the writing that goes into a technical or academic book, the writing in a self-help book should be easy enough for you to get through so that you won’t get bored or feel that you can’t possibly handle the material. As I pointed out above, it’s fine to look at more technical books if you have the background, but you can’t rely 100% on academic treatises to give you hands-on guidance. By the same token, be wary of authors who waste precious trees on uttering perfectly obvious truths that you knew before you even opened the book (e.g. “to change you really have to want to change”). Here’s where the author’s expertise comes into play. You want to learn something that you didn’t already know, and the chances are that you’ll learn more from people who have gained respectability in their field.  It’s possible that, as I mentioned earlier, the expert author’s work was popularized to an undue extent by a ghost writer so that its message became oversimplified.

Flip through the book (or do a Google sneak peek at it) and see if the excerpts you find contain information written at a level that fits your reading style and knowledge of the topic. You may have a pretty good idea from the very first sentence about whether this author is going to engage, enrage or just bore you to tears.  Think of this sample as a way to determine whether this author is someone you’d want to have treat you in person. If so, then you’ve found a match. If not, keep looking till you’re satisfied that this is a book that you’ll actually look forward to reading. 

Guideline #4. Decide whether the book will motivate you.  A book’s format plays an important role in determining whether you’ll take its advice seriously to heart. In a study of online participants seeking help with sleep problems, a team of Norwegian researchers led by Bjorn Bjorvatn (2011) found that a self-help book about sleep actually did help readers improve their sleep and reduce the number of sleep medications they reported taking. The study used an innovative experimental method, assigning readers randomly (online) to a condition in which they either read this brief self-help sleep book or, instead, were given a one-page set of suggestions to improve their sleep habits. Although the self-help book readers improved significantly more than did those who read the one-page sleep habit advice, some of the poor sleepers actually benefited from the simple fact sheet.  

Perhaps you’re someone who likes your advice short and sweet. In that case, you may not even get through a self-help book. Depending on the nature of the problem, you may improve by using reliable mental health websites such as those from the American Psychological Association, the U.S. Centers Disease Control and Prevention, or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. These sites can help you by allowing you to acquaint yourself with basic facts or to refresh the information you knew at one time or need to update.

Guideline #5. Don’t be afraid to give it a critical reading.  Let’s say you’ve gone the self-help book route and now have paid good money to have a relationship with the author whose advice you decided to follow. Despite your checking out the quality of the author’s credentials, currency, and writing style, though, you find yourself to disagree with some or much of what you’re reading. Now what? According to the principle of cognitive dissonance reduction, by having spent money on something you’re going to be reluctant to admit that you wasted it or to admit that you made a poor decision. You soldier along anyhow, but as you get further into your reading, you realize that you can’t accept what the author is saying. That’s okay! Some self-help books have become wildly popular despite the fact that they don’t present an accurate view of the problem they’re trying to address.

One of the best examples of such a misguided piece of work is John Gray’s 1992 Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.  Pennsylvania State, Greater Allegheny researchers Margaret Signorella and Jeanna Cooper (2010) decided to investigate whether this widely read book, still high on Amazon’s list today, to see if it presents an unrealistically gender stereotyped view of men and women in relationships. According to Signorella and Cooper, this book is assigned to nearly a quarter of couples attempting to improve their relationships. Books such as the Mars-Venus book appeal to women despite the fact that they often characterize women as the source of the problem in relationships.  We might wonder, then, whether readers actually buy the main argument of the book and then use it as a basis for improving their own relationships. Signorella and Cooper asked a sample of undergraduates to rate their actual preferences for relationships behaviors that they labeled as stereotypically male, stereotypically female, or neither. As it turned out, men and women gave very similar ratings to the kinds of behaviors they sought from a romantic partner, and both preferred statements that were halfway between the two planets.

There are plenty of other examples of self-help books that make false claims about a topic. For example, Gail Sheehy’s Passages continues to pronounce the inevitability and predictability of life’s transitional stages. However, researchers in the field have never found evidence to support Sheehy’s claims that people’s personalities change in calendar-like fashion throughout adulthood. Should you happen to read such a book and find that it doesn’t apply to you, there’s no reason to think there’s anything wrong with you.

If a self-help author’s advice doesn’t ring true, this doesn’t mean that you’re the one with the problem. Of course, some advice might be harder to swallower than others, so I wouldn’t recommend rejecting any idea you disagree with. But you should be willing to look critically at self-help advice, especially if you’re planning to base a major life decision on the words of one author.

With these five guidelines in mind, you’ll be a far wiser consumer when you approach the myriad of options in the self-help aisle. Fortunately, there’s much you can learn from the self-help community of authors as long as you follow some of these self-help guides!

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012

References:

Bjorvatn, B., Fiske, E., & Pallesen, S. (2011). A self‐help book is better than sleep hygiene advice for insomnia: A randomized controlled comparative study. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology,52(6), 580-585. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9450.2011.00902.x

Richards, D. A., & Farrand, P. (2010). Choosing self-help books wisely: Sorting the wheat from the chaff. In J. Bennett-Levy, D. A. Richards, P. Farrand, H. Christensen, K. M. Griffiths, D. J. Kavanaugh, ... C. Williams (Eds.) , Oxford guide to low intensity CBT interventions (pp. 201-207). New York, NY US: Oxford University Press.

Richardson, R., Richards, D. A., & Barkham, M. (2010). Self-help books for people with depression: The role of the therapeutic relationship. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy38(1), 67-81. doi:10.1017/S1352465809990452

Signorella, M. L., & Cooper, J. E. (2011). Relationship suggestions from self-help books: Gender stereotyping, preferences, and context effects. Sex Roles65(5-6), 371-382. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-0023-4

For a fascinating philosophical analysis, read the "Cult of Positivity" in the self-help movement by Trinity College Dublin philosophy student Rob Grant.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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