Turning to self-help books for guidance might seem like a good idea when you’re feeling down about life. But a new study new suggests it probably won’t make you feel a whole lot better — and it could even leave you feeling worse.
The research, conducted by a team of psychologists at the University of Montreal, found that people who read self-help books show more depressive symptoms and higher sensitivity to stress than those who don’t read such literature.
For the small pilot study, the researchers tested 30 people for personality and mental health traits such as stress reactivity (the tendency to respond to a stressor, measured by stress hormone levels present in saliva), openness, self-discipline, extraversion, compassion, emotional stability, self-esteem, and depressive symptoms.
Half of the participants said that they read self-help books and half did not. The self-help consumers were divided into two categories based on which of two broad classes of such books they read: 1) problem-oriented books that discuss the nature of personal challenges, such as divorce, as well as means of addressing these challenges, and 2) growth-oriented books that promote “inspirational messages about life and happiness.”
The results, which appear in the journal Neural Plasticity, show that readers of problem-focused self-help books had significantly elevated depressive symptoms, while those who read growth-oriented material had greater stress reactivity than non-readers.
However, as the authors note, there’s a big “chicken or egg” problem here. In other words, we don’t know whether high stress reactivity and a tendency towards depression lead people to read self-help books, or, alternatively, if reading self-help books makes people more stressed out and depressed.
Sonia Lupien, Director of the Center of Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) at the University of Montreal and the study’s senior author, said both hypotheses are possible, but conclusions can’t yet be made. “Further research will help us learn more,” Lupien said in a press release, noting that it will take an experimental study to confirm the direction of the relationship (i.e., which came first — depression and stress reactivity, or exposure to self-help books).
Where’s the evidence?
Still, the results showed that reading self-help books was not associated with any of the variables measuring positive psychological qualities like self-discipline, emotional stability and self-esteem. So even if reading those kinds of books isn’t making things worse, it’s not likely to make things any better, either.
“[I]t seems that these books do not produce the desired effects,” Lupien said, adding: “When we observe that the best predictor of purchasing a self-help book is having bought one in the past year, it raises doubts about their effectiveness.”
Part of the problem, experts say, likely stems from the poor quality of advice in many of today’s top-selling self-help books. Much of that advice is not grounded in actual psychological research or theory, nor is it based on any established clinical guidelines, according to Steve Salerno, author of Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless.
“Though modern self-help had its origins in works by classically trained psychiatrists… today’s leading exponents have as much business trading in mental health as they do performing neurosurgery,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “They’re snake-oil salesmen, pitching regimens that have never been validated.”
Buying into the overblown claims such books make, Salerno says, can lead to you to blame yourself for failure when you don’t achieve the outcome you hoped for — and avoiding treatments that actually work. And despite the lack of evidence-based advice offered in self-help books, there have, indeed, been many good scientific studies in this area.
In fact, there many relatively simple exercises that any of us can do to positively shape our views and make us happier. Each of the following techniques has been shown, scientifically, to improve psychological well-being:
THE PENNEBAKER EXERCISE
Is there something in your life that you are particularly worried or upset about right now? If it has been on your mind for several weeks, you might want to try this technique, developed by University of Texas at Austin psychology professor Dr. James W. Pennebaker.
All you have to do is commit to writing about your problem for at least 15 minutes a day for three or four consecutive days — ideally, at the end of the day, and without interruption. Research shows that writing your thoughts and feelings down about a specific issue can help you to analyze and better understand it, which in turn changes your entire relationship with the issue. Ultimately, this leads to greater acceptance and happiness of life events, even in difficult times.
Studies have found that this approach can benefit everyone from those dealing with a terminal illness to victims of violent crime to college students facing first-year transitions.
This technique, developed by University of Virginia psychology professor Dr. Timothy D. Wilson, has been shown to help people move past events from their life that they find particularly upsetting, depressing, or traumatic by creating more coherent interpretations of such events. Here’s how the exercise works:
Find a quiet place. Close your eyes, and go back to the time of the experience and see the scene in your mind’s eye. Now take a few steps back from it in your mind, and watch it unfold from a distance. Try to see yourself in the event, and try to understand your feelings (as if observing yourself). The goal is to distance yourself enough from the event that you can watch it as a dispassionate observer, analyzing why it occurred and what the underlying causes were. This will allow you to better reframe the event, and to find new meaning in it. As Dr. Wilson says, “Don’t recount the event, take a step back and reconstrue and explain it.” Write about what you see and why you felt what you did. Do this for 15 minutes, three days in a row.
Through fostering greater emotional distance, this technique can help to blunt the impact of the initial event, and help you avoid similar situations in the future. The same goes for pleasant experiences: if you can understand why something happened, you will be in a better position to make these things happen again.
MAINTAIN A SENSE OF PURPOSE
When everything we do feels futile, we should remind ourselves of our most important goals in life and find ways of making progress toward them. Caring for our families is the most important goal for many of us, and for many of us there are ways we can do it better.
Others find meaning and purpose in their religions, professions, communities or hobbies. Whatever it is that gives us a sense of purpose, we should be sure to make time in our lives to pursue it. People often forget to follow it when choosing careers or deciding how to spend their leisure time.
Studies show that having a strong sense of purpose in life is linked with greater overall life satisfaction and mental well-being, as well as major physical health benefits including reduced mortality risk in later-life. Similarly, maintaining a conscious focus on gratitude has been found to improve emotional and interpersonal well-being.