How reading can change your life
And, as Elizabeth Svoboda suggests in her essay on Aeon, the word could also be a helpful beginning point for tackling the interpersonal, intrapersonal and the existential. Self-help books, when based on empirical research rather than subjective rhetoric, can guide people through trauma, personal crises, and even mental illness:
For many patients, so-called ‘bibliotherapy’ seems to work as well as talk therapy or drugs such as Prozac. In an ideal world, says the psychologist John Norcross at the University of Scranton, self-help books would be tried early in the course of therapy; medications and other intensive treatments would be a last resort, reserved for more serious cases. With “psychosis, suicide, emergencies, you get immediately to the professionals. But for most people, why not start with a book?
This is an interesting thought in an age where self-help and New-Age mumbo-jumbo are sometimes imbricated. But Svoboda explores the history of self-help to reveal its roots in human civilisation:
One of the earliest self-help guides in wide circulation was Marcus Cicero’s De Officis (On Duties), which the Roman politician wrote as a letter to his son. Cicero advised the younger Marcus to focus on meeting obligations to others, even if it required great sacrifice, and warned him away from shallow sources of gratification.”
As with other modes of thought, the self-help genre responds to historical and cultural trends:
Overnight, it seemed, personal agency and self-insight had become hot commodities – Freudian psychoanalysis was all the rage – and the new self-help titles initially seemed to offer a painless shot at a certain kind of lasting change, one based on consciously shifting your thought patterns. In the 1950s, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) ruled bestseller lists with its promise that changing your inner monologue could boost the quality of your life. ‘Think positively,’ he wrote, ‘and you set in motion positive forces which bring positive results to pass.’”
This recognition of the alignment of self-help with the historical and cultural zeitgeist, suggests the power of the genre, both in terms of its ability to reflect society, as well as create it.
Svoboda writes that in contemporary times, there is a schism in the self-help realm. On the one hand are titles espousing ways to see the world according to established schools of thought and empiricism. Titles in this group include David Burns’s Feeling Good:The New Mood Therapy (1980), Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (1990), and Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006).
On the other hand are the books written by what Svoboda calls “woo-peddlers” who make claims based on unsupported evidence. Svoboda gives as an example the best-selling book by Rhonda Byrne, The Secret (2006).
Claims from the “woo-peddlers” are not always benign, and can sometimes lead to adverse outcomes, as several studies outlined to Svoboda’s essay show. For instance, a 2009 study by Jaonne Wood at the university of Waterloo showed that when people with low self-esteem repeat positive phrases about themselves, they can actually feel worse.
So what’s the take-home point from the essay? Chosen carefully and with a mind for validity and credibility, self-help books can contribute to changes in the way people think about the world and act within it:
The literature we choose to guide us should supply proven advice we can trust. But it should also, as Franz Kafka wrote, be ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’, bludgeoning us in ways that awaken us to the extraordinary.”
Some suggested self-help titles from GIM:
Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney (2012), Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success
Adam Phillips (2010), On Balance
Cheryl Strayd (2012), Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
Stephen R. Covey (2004), The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change
Daniel Kahneman (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow
Michel de Montaigne (1993), The Complete Essays
Gloria Steinem (1993) The Revolution Within
Viktor Frankel (1946) Man’s Search for Meaning