Why Most Self-Help Books Suck (And a Few That Don't)

Last Updated Feb 23, 2011 10:33 AM EST

Christine Whelan is a student of the self-help movement -- literally. This University of Pittsburgh professor did her doctoral dissertation on the self-help industry and what makes something in this genre a best-seller. Her take? She tells me that while the idea that we can make ourselves better by reading a book is perennially popular (who wouldn't want to improve their lives in 4 hours?) many books fall far short. Here's why:
  1. The "real people” are made up. Anecdotes are great for illustrating a point. So we learn that "Bob” and "Jane” learned to communicate well and now their marriage is all better! Um, yeah. Real life is messy, and using composite characters, or those with the details changed, are just other words for fiction. Which has its place, but is always suspect in a genre that claims to be true.
  2. They promise that change is easy. "We want three easy steps to overhaul our financial life, or washboard abs in 60 seconds a day,” Whelan says. "But here's the unpleasant truth: Behavioral change is among the hardest things we can set out to do, and any book that promises you instant changes is selling you snake oil.” Put it this way. If changing our lives was painless, you'd see a lot more svelte, rich and happy people walking around.
  3. There's probably no evidence. Most self-help writers aren't in the business of documenting whether their ideas work for the majority of people who try them. "There's no efficacy data on the vast majority of diet self-help books,” Whelan says. "Who knows if positive thinking actually cures people. But self-help books use rhetoric and repetition to prove their points.”
So which books don't suck? After wading through more than 300 over the years, Whelan is partial to "books that offer solid advice to guide readers step-by-step toward long-term change. These are books that encourage the reader to get back to core virtues like perseverance, honesty, self-control and thrift -- not empty quick-fix solutions.” These include Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (1937), M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled (1978), Samuel Smiles' Thrift (1876!), Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1987) and a few other dark horse ones, including -- full disclosure and brag alert -- 168 Hours.

For her new book called Generation WTF: From "What the #%$&” to a Wise, Tenacious, and Fearless You, Whelan had her students test drive advice from the books that didn't suck, and had some interesting, actual real-people results. One student re-established contact with her grandmother a few days before the grandmother passed away. Another analyzed his TV time logs and decided to get more sleep instead. One reduced her text messages from a record 267 per day to 10.

So change is possible. It just isn't easy.

What's your favorite self-help book?

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Photo courtesy flickr user, EvelynGiggles