Self-help books: Do they really work?

Losing weight, alleviating depression, escaping anxiety, eliminating procrastination, taking charge of your life, finding happiness, finding and keeping love, developing self-esteem, working through grief, getting past a divorce, tapping in to your potential.

These are all big-ticket life items that could easily require months, if not years, of professional guidance to achieve. More convenient and affordable -- and certainly more popular -- are self-help books. Their ultimate message is clear: If despair is the lock, hope is the key.

The thousands of these titles on the market and the millions of copies of them sold each year are testimony to our collective desire to improve ourselves -- or at least read about it. And with New Year's resolutions still echoing in our ears, it seems there's a plan devised by somebody, somewhere, for fixing almost anything that's broken in us.

Do they work?

"Many (self-help books) can be beneficial, " said Mark Kamena, president of the California Psychological Association. "They are a way for people to receive mental-health services without actually going to a therapist."

As a genre, self-help books sell in such huge numbers that The New York Times includes them in its Sunday Book Review best-seller lists under "Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous."

Self-help titles glut the market, but sales figures are hard to come by because publishers won't share the data. Still, informed guesstimates value the self-help-book arena at more than $1 billion a year.

That's part of the overall $13 billion self-help industry, which includes seminars, retreats, CDs, infomercials, counseling by "life coaches," "holistic" centers and companies like the business-oriented Dale Carnegie Training franchises.

Self-help has even crossed over into the realm of fiction, at least in the case of the recently released big-buzz novel "Love Is a Canoe" by Ben Schrank. In it, the fictitious author of a classic self-help book titled "Marriage Is a Canoe" questions his own advice when he must put it into practice for himself.

"Self-help is a very reliable moneymaking category and a huge market," said Ron Shoop, Random House's district sales manager for Northern California. "Not everybody reads fiction, but everyone is concerned with overcoming their problems and limitations."

Authors of self-help books include licensed medical professionals and clergy who espouse 21st-century versions of spirituality, as well as self-actualization masterminds and inspired gurus promising to raise our consciousness to other planes. But essentially anyone with advice to give can get into the act.

One recent self-help title that went to the top of the charts is "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" by former Wall Street lawyer Susan Cain ("I always wanted to be a psychologist," she said).

"Quiet" explores the dynamics between introversion and extroversion. It was a runaway best seller that made "best books of 2012" lists around the country. Cain's presentation on the TED Talks video site has been viewed more than 3.5 million times.

"My book has real takeaways that people can use," Cain said. "It's a gigantic permission slip that entitles introverted people to be who they are for the first time in their lives. Every day I get emails from them telling me the book has changed their (approaches to) their jobs, leisure time and social (interactions)."

As one of the nonfiction-reviews editors for Publishers Weekly magazine, Samuel Slaton looks at hundreds of self-help titles each month. He said the economic downturn has been a boon for self-help.

"There are a lot of books geared toward how to overcome daily anxiety," he said. "The recession has created a market for them. A lot of them offer a combination of inspirational anecdotes and practical things people can do."

Slaton mentioned one upcoming title with that template, "The End of Worry" by self-help veterans Will van der Hart, an Anglican vicar, and psychiatrist Rob Waller.

"They're coming at the problem of worry and anxiety from two perspectives," Slaton said, "so there's something there for religious types and skeptics alike."

As for the overall effectiveness of self-help books, Slaton noted, "Maybe just by honoring the impulse to be 'better,' people see a positive effect."

But that's not the whole story, according to Micki McGee, a cultural critic and Fordham University sociology professor who wrote the 2007 book "Self Help, Inc."

"We look to self-help books for answers, but the literature only serves as a kind of balm," she said. "They remain an incredibly successful marketplace product because they claim they're going to solve the problems of your life, but your life is lived in a context where the problems are going to be ever-changing and constant. They work enough to make you read the next one, but if they really worked, people would fix themselves and the market would disappear. That's not happening."

Some self-help books do provide inspiration and hope, she allowed, and "a chance of making people at least feel better -- even if the actual lived conditions of their lives are not substantially improved. But when people are hopeful, they don't resort to desperate measures."

Online journalist and social critic Steve Salerno lays out a much darker view of the self-help-book industry in 2006's "Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless."

"We're addicted to these books because we all think we have the power to be something different Tuesday morning from what we went to bed as Monday night," he said.

"The self-help movement has become a self-perpetuating business model that is so enormously profitable it attracts get-rich-quick types who want a piece of the pie," he added.

Too many self-help-book authors lack credentials, he contends, "doing the equivalent of practicing psychology without a license, selling regimens that have never been tested or proven, with no reliable way of tracking who benefits other than the authors."

Sandra Dolby, who read 300 self-help titles in order to write 2008's "Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them," has a slightly softer view.

"I like the pattern that most (self-help books) follow, which is to tell a story and then say, 'Here's what this story suggests you should do,' " said Dolby, a retired professor of folklore at Indiana University. "Reading them is like going to a trusted friend to ask for advice, and listening to them tell you what they think you should do and why it would be a good thing. Most people like the idea of self-education and discovery, which is encouraging."


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