In defense of self-help

Over at City Journal’s website, I have a piece up called “The Paperback Quest for Joy.” It ran in the fall print issue and is now available online. This feature (which is — warning! — lengthy) is both a history of the self-help genre, and a defense of it, with insights from current writers like Gretchen Rubin (of The Happiness Project), Alisa Bowman (of Project: Happily Ever After) and Christine Whelan (Generation WTF). 

Some excerpts: “Just because there’s plenty to criticize doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty that’s worthwhile, too. As Gretchen Rubin points out, all branches of knowledge have their quacks: ‘When you have your astronomy, then you get your astrology—and we have our own astrologers in this neck of the woods.’ Nonetheless, ‘the greatest minds throughout history have thought about things like self-knowledge and self-control and how to live a good life. I don’t know why it’s now branded as snake-oil stuff.’ Even the most over-the-top books offer a real benefit: they encourage the virtue of self-examination. To read self-help is to take stock of one’s self and to ask what kind of life one wants to lead.”

And another one: “It’s very American to think that we can better our lives by picking and choosing from inspirational tomes that are available to anyone with a spare $20. We don’t believe that people who are rich, or who have steamy marriages, are fundamentally different from the rest of us. We believe that they have discovered some knowledge that is accessible to us as well. The fact that we choose our gurus according to who seems most compelling is also very American. We have no state religion, and few of us do things just because our great-grandparents did. We don’t listen to a village elder who tells us what the good life looks like. Instead, we construct it ourselves, from what we see of the world around us—and what we find at the bookstore.”

I enjoyed writing this one, and I hope you enjoy reading it!



11 thoughts on “In defense of self-help

  1. Great piece; I did not find it “lengthy” but then again, I’m a fast reader. I’m a believer with a growth mindset, who has checked out a great many self-help books. There are some real evidence-based gems in this genre, and your piece favorably referenced the ones worth our time. I’ll only add that my marriage was immeasurably helped by John Gottman et al’s research-based book on marriage “The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work,” as well as Harville Hendrix’s “Getting the Love You Want.” I’m also a huge fan of Gretchen Rubin’s writing, especially “Happier At Home” – in fact, the biography is a treasure trove of great book suggestions.

    As a financially successful, happy person I feel I’m also qualified to say what is not worth the time and money. Anything that seriously mentions “manifesting” your dreams or the so-called Law of Attraction (as if we’ve all suddenly forgotten how magnets actually work), or would have grown ups pondering childlike, rainbow-colored drawings cribbed from an artist like Sark is suspect. Still, people do fall for it – maybe the appeal is that it is entertaining and fun for them even if it isn’t objectively life-changing.

    1. @Hush- Thanks! What is amazing is how long and in how many various forms the Law of Attraction idea has been around. Sure, if you believe it you can achieve it, but it also helps to, you know, put in a lot of time and practice.

  2. Good article. The part about 12 Step groups rated more space – AA has been around for almost 80 years. Also a bit off, IMO. I can see why people think they promote a victim mentality, but in my experience, such a stance is not tolerated. And, unlike self-help experts who attract mostly a middle to upper middle class audience, 12 Step groups get people from all walks of life. Thanks for posting.

    1. @Bruce- a whole separate article could be written about AA and other 12-step groups. I think Steve Salerno (who I quote in the article) writes a bit more about them in his book.

    1. @NicoleandMaggie – I feel like I must have missed something with Your Money or Your Life. I found it interesting but not life changing. But maybe I started from a similar perspective to the authors (in terms of wanting financial freedom – the ability to not *have* to do anything).

  3. I read a book on vacation called Leadership DNA … and in general most reading can be helpful… just to think about different things.. I like books like Habit or Thinking Slow and Fast which are more about how things work like anchoring (which is helpful in thinking of pricing etc) and our general psychology and I find it helpful … not saying it always works but I started putting my running shoes out (cue) and waiting for my first cup of coffee (reward) until after I do the 30 minute run on this year’s and last year’s list of to dos and it is scientifically supported and I do think it will work to be like no cup of coffee until 30 minute run. I read a book called My Sisters the Saints and from the description of Mary as reserved I’m trying to bite my tg more in marriage …
    can you get a steamier marriage from reading QUALITY fiction? or fiction as self help.. can someone write an article of what to read as self help as fiction.. that would be a fun article to read… even if it is how to have more fun… entertaining yourself with good fiction etc.

  4. That was a really interesting article- thanks for linking to it here. I would never have found it otherwise. I don’t buy a lot of self-help books, but I don’t avoid the entire genre, either. I like books like The Happiness Project and your 168 Hours because they give me ideas I can incorporate into my life. Like you say in your article, I don’t take someone else’s whole scheme for life, but why wouldn’t I want to look to other people for ideas for improving my life? I certainly don’t want to have to make all the mistakes myself!

  5. Very interesting article. I am with Cloud, I don’t buy a lot of self-help either, but am not against them. I just happen to find a lot of help in some of the inspirational books that I read. For instance, I just finished a great spiritual novel titled, “Quest for the Lost Name” by George Makris. The book was not only very entertaining, but also taught some great spiritual terms and concepts without ever being preachy. I tend to learn when I am entertained.

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