Self-help books: Food for our self-helplessness

Self-help books constitute a multibillion dollar industry. These books blanket the shelves in bookstores and cover a multitude of topics ranging from financial strategies to self-esteem promoters to happiness guides. The idea was spawned by a book of the same name that was authored by Samuel Smiles, a Scottish-born government reformer, and was published in the year 1859. The book, Self-Help, was defined as the ‘Bible of Mid-Victorian Liberalism’. Mainly focusing on monetary management, the book promoted thrift – “the quality of using money and other resources carefully and not wastefully”. Smiles was elevated to celebrity status overnight. The book sold 20,000 copies in the year of publication and over a quarter million copies by the time of his death fifty years later, which is a tremendous achievement considering the era. Thus began the advent of the world’s bestselling genre.

Since these books are such a big hit, it is important from a mental health standpoint to assess how they affect their readers and whether they really work. To begin with, statistics show that 80% of consumers are repeat buyers. This may mean two things; the books really work and these buyers would like to improve their living further, OR, the books don’t work and they are still trying to find ways to better their livesThis is not to say that they don’t help at all, but it is more likely that just reading a book may not change your life overnight, change is gradual and requires a foundation.

Researchers from the Centre for Studies on Human Stress (University of Mental Health in Montreal) engaged 30 individuals, half of whom read self-help books and half of whom did not. They were evaluated for stress reactivity, self-esteem, social skills, mental stability, compassion, and depression. Individuals from both groups seemed to be relatively similar in all aspects excepting stress reactivity and depression. Those individuals who read self-help books which were problem-oriented showed more depressive symptomatology as compared to the non-readers and those who read books which were growth-oriented showed higher levels of stress reactivity.

It is better advised to procure books that contain scientifically proven facts and written by eminent clinicians or scholars that are affiliated with universities or research institutes of high-standing. These will allow you to have a thorough understanding of facts and theories which you can apply to your situation possibly guided by the so-called self-help books. Remember that if you need help, just because it is a popular science book does not mean it can replace a mental health professional.

Meghna Nambakkam

Fourth Year Medical Student, SRMMCHRC

Bridging Passion and Compassion.