Self-help books don’t work (and how to still benefit from them)

My first self-help book, No More Bananas: How To Keep Cool in the Collective Madness was published two weeks ago. This book offers practical advice on how to stay calm and confident in today’s stressful world of information overload and social media. Although it is well-intentioned, I am aware that its effectiveness may be limited. It turns out that self-help books are not very effective. What can we do to improve their effectiveness?

Self-help books are plentiful. There are thousands of them, and more appear each day. They are also very popular. Millions have been sold of Mark Manson’s 2018 ” The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck” as well as Steven R. Covey’s 1989 ” The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People_–to name a recent example but also a classic.

Self-help books are popular, but there are many critics. They can be divided into three groups:

  1. Negative effect: Self help books can give misleading and sometimes dangerous advice. They make insecure people feel worse about themselves or discourage them from seeking professional assistance.
  2. Placebo effect It is not because they are following the self-help advices, but because people now pay more attention to things they weren’t paying attention to before.
  3. No effect Although self-help books may be interesting to read, they don’t work. The advices are too simplistic or common sense and people don’t follow them.

These critiques can be found in the news (like here, here, and here), on blogs (like here, here and there), and in books (like this and here). It seems that self-help books are as popular as their critics because of the sheer volume and tone of the criticisms.

The third point, which I mentioned above, is that many self-help books have little to no effect. These two points are also interesting, but they depend on the type of self-help book used and the advice given. However, the last point is more general. Why don’t self-help guides have the desired effect as the authors hoped?

This article in Journal of Happiness Studies suggests that the main reason is often the reader. It is us who decide whether to read a self-help book. Usually, we don’t. We may glance at the book, skim the blurbs, or read the book but we then go about our normal business. We can do what we want. We don’t need a coach, therapist, or teacher to tell us what to do or keep us on the right track.

Although hiring a self help book coach might be an option, I was often asked by myself, while writing No More Bananashow can I help the reader apply the advice on their own, without the need for someone to do the heavy lifting. The first step was to make the advice practical. However, that’s not enough. Many self-help books contain practical advice that can be applied immediately.

Unsurprisingly, I discovered the answer while staying in a Benedictine monastery a few times. The key lesson I took away was how to read texts and learn from them. The “technique” that they use is lectio divinea, meaning ‘divine reading’. This was originally used to read God’s Word, but can also be used to any other text, including self-help books.

lectio Divina is based on the principle that you should read a text slowly and let each sentence sink in. Slowly read the text until you find a sentence or paragraph that interests you. You can then stop reading and go back to the paragraph or sentence. You can do this again and again and so on. You ruminate on the words until your brain has fully digested them, just like a cow with grass. Your mind begins to connect the information you have just read with the things you already know.

This allows you to absorb the text and increases your chances of changing your behavior. You will also be able to benefit from what you have read. Research has shown that reading in this way can have a pleasant side effect: it makes you feel more positive. This doubles the value of the lectio divina method.

Start by picking up your favorite self-help book, and then start reading this way. You’ll notice a change.

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