Do self-help books work?

I have a secret hoard of self-help books. Books that I used to hide from view when I was single and had any male visitors visit me aboard Aurora, the boat that I used to live on. Those books promised to show me how to manage my time better, manage my finances better, lose weight, get slim thighs, become a highly effective person, win friends and influence people, get a man…. All in a few easy steps.

I’m still hopeless with time management. My bank balance is often in the red. I am at least a stone heavier than I’d like to be and my thighs remain on the chunky side. I’m certainly not what I’d describe as a highly effective person. I do have a lot of friends but very little influence and I did manage to meet a man, but it was no thanks to The Rules or How to Meet a Man over Forty.

So can we conclude that the answer is no, self-help books don’t work?

Perhaps it isn’t that the books haven’t worked. It’s that like many people, I buy them hoping that simply reading the books will make me into the person I want to be.

According to Ad Bergsma writing in the Journal of Happiness Studies, “a self-help book requires a very active role on the part of the reader.” The role of the reader is crucial: “we can speculate,” says Ad, “that the quality of the advice offered in self-help books may be less important than the quality of the reader.”

So that’s my problem. I’m just not a quality reader. But I wonder, should I have been turning to self-help books seeking change in the first place?

The Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen suggested that we turn to books and to other people for advice because we do not listen to our own inner voice. We do not tap into the wisdom that is already inside us.

I would like to be slimmer. So I recently ordered a copy of Pinch of Nom: Everyday Light. It’s a very beautiful book with lots of ideas and lovely food photos, but if I’m really honest with myself, I don’t need a single one of those under 300 calorie recipes to make me lose weight. If I listen to my own inner voice, it’s telling me that I already know how to lose weight: I eat too much and exercise too little. Rather than reading new recipe books, I could go out for a walk.

If I want more friends and more connection in my life, I already know that the answer is to get out and meet people rather than sitting home with a book. Once this pandemic is over, anyway.

And if I want to manage my finances better? Perhaps I could start by spending less on self-help books.

Photos by Richard Gillin, used under a Creative Commons License.


  1. Another good read of yours, Jenny.

    1. Thanks Clare. I am really chuffed that you not only read my stuff but take the time to comment xx

  2. As a fellow self-help book junkie I love what you say Jen. There’s something enticing about the new ones that come on stream – I’m finding it a bit similar with certain podcasts and listening to great self-improvement ideas (often linked to a book purchase of course) and then the book sits on a pile (hoping to imbibe it as we share a home maybe) and I make myself toast and jam for breakfast… Maybe it’s a hobby: ‘I’m a collector of self-help books’. There, I said it. Do I read them all? More like dipping in and then pretty much getting back to life as it was. But I think there is advice there to have self-compassion. So hey-ho!
    All the best xx

    1. Thank you for posting a comment, Tracy. I really appreciate it as I often wonder if anyone is actually reading this! I have a book on Self-compassion! It’s a really good one, too. By Kristin Neff. Have you heard of it? I haven’t got into the self-improvement podcasts yet. But maybe I should. On Facebook, someone put a link to this one: I might try it! xx

  3. I’ve never bought a self-help book; but I would if you wrote one! I gather the best thing about them is the idea that somebody else feels the same way. There is something powerful about someone having the same problems and a book offering a solution is very attractive?

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