Self-help books

I think is trying to tell me something, because a few of the book recomendations that popped up when I went there today were “Health, Body & Mind” books (aka, “self-help”).

Looking through the “health, body & mind” section reminds me of how I feel looking through any programming & technology book sections. Lots of money to be made, so the shelves are full of quickly thrown together titles that say many of the same useless things the others do.

So I’m kind of curious now, has anyone here read any self-help books that have actually been worth it? Any that have made even a noticeable change in your life?

Not really sure if its considered “self-help,” but my brother did pick up a book on the South Beach low-carb diet.

He’s lost more poundage in a matter of 3 months than I have in a year, so I’d say its working for him.

I have nothing to contribute, but “self help book” is my favorite oxymoron. The only way to top it is asking a Barnes & Noble clerk to show me where the “self help” section is.

And my Amazon recommendations are usually pretty weird because I’ve bought stuff for myself, wife, and kids there. No worries, since I will be buying them more gifts, but I think it suggests that my tastes are well beyond “eclectic” and into “batshit insane”.

Depending how you define self help, yes. The “Feeling Good” books by David Burns seem to be the real deal. They’re a therapy program he originally worked out for mental health professionals to use as supplemental therapy on the cheap, and found out they work well even as self help. They may not help you lose weight or look pretty, but they’re an effective supplement or alternative for helping get your head straight, especially for depression.

Your mileage may vary. I’m not an evangelist for them, but I had a few years with no insurance and, um, profound grumpiness, and my vote is they were a damn sight better than nothing.

There’s a book, a do-these-things workbook, and a handbook that is basically the original book restructured to go step by step with the workbook.

Anyway, not trying to sell you, and I think the genre as a whole is an exploitative money pit, but I think the Burns books are at least an honest and useful-for-some island in the self help sea of shit.

Let me second the recommendation for Burns’ Feeling Good. For folks having trouble with depression, it’s got a lot of practical advice and exercises, and the only jargon it uses comes from academic psychology (no Unempowered Codependent crap here).

Other books that I’ve used or that I recommend to clients:
What You Can Change & What You Can’t – Martin Seligman. A guide describing various clinical disorders and reviewing evidence for current treatment options (pharmacology, psychotherapy, training/education, etc). It’s written by a past president of the American Psychological Association & is geared towards educated laypeople.

Learned Optimism – Martin Seligman. Techniques for training your mind to see things more optimistically, along with evidence for why pessimism is associated with depression and impaired physical health.

The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook – Davis, Eshelman, & McKay. A collection of exercises for reducing anxiety. The only limitation is that it doesn’t provide an explanation of how psychologists currently understand anxiety-related disorders; it’s simply a collection of techniques.

Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail and The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work – John Gottman. Gottman’s the most rigorous academic researcher of couple processes, but somehow he also finds time to write books, see clients, and lead workshops. Great books because the recommendations are tied to empirical findings, not “homespun” wisdom.

Your Perfect Right – Alberti & Emmons. Some of the language is a little dated, but this is the classic book for improving assertiveness.

Procrastination – Burka & Yuen. Best book on this problem; I should probably re-read it rather than posting here…

The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex – Winks & Semans. This generation’s version of the Joy of Sex.

Finally, a self-help classic with personal meaning to me:
The Road Less Traveled – M. Scott Peck. This has been around forever. An ex-teacher recommended it to me when I was in undergrad. It’s definitely less research-based than any of the books listed above, but it helped me take greater responsibility for my life as a young adult. It also indirectly sparked my interest in Buddhism and influenced me to become a psychologist.

I’ve read somewhere that there are more new yearly titles in self-help/psychology than in any other non-fiction category. Even if 90-95% of it is crap, I can usually find a couple decent books. It’s no different from computer games and movies; most are flawed in some fairly obvious way, but a few well-made ones get produced each year.

Good recommedations. I’ll second Feeling Good and anything by Seligman.

A complement to Feeling Good is Mind Over Mood which is basically a general workbook on cognitive therapy. It’s by Greenberger and Padesky.

I’ve probably been helped more by The Tao of Pooh than any other book. And I’m a professional counselor. :D

Another recommendation for “Feeling Good”. A real turning point in my life.

I found better mind technology later on, but you’ve got to start somewhere and that’s a great place.

Generica/Happiness is a novel about a self help book that actually works and causes the world to end, basically. Obviously it’s fiction.


Is anyone familiar with Eckhart Tolle or Byron Katie? I got a ride from an older dude who’s a fan of both and we listened to their CDs for a while.

The first thing I realized is that it’s really asking a lot of someone to sit and listen to this bullshit and pretend like it isn’t, well, bullshit. Like it takes a certain personality type to flick off the CBC and put it one of those discs, because you’re going to be subjecting a complete stranger to amateurish, undirected psychobabble and repetitive edicts about shit like energy and vibrations and other such nebulous (or, uh, made up) ideas.

The second thing is that it really is a racket. I mean, I’m not saying I could do it as well as those two, but given a book contract I am positive that I could dupe a great many people into giving me money for shit I write while stoned and taking a dump. Three weeks worth of dumps should be enough for an entire book if I type fast.

Best euphemism for “scotch” ever.

My dentist is really good with teeth but very New Agey and spacey. Anyway, she knows what I do for a living so she always wants to talk to me about self-help books for some reason. Last time I was there for a checkup she was going on and on about Eckhart Tolle with a glazed look in her eyes. I was done pretty quick and out of there but I was glad I didn’t have to have an extended procedure like a root canal.

Back in college I took a satire class where the final project was to write a short satire. I decided my topic would be self-help books, and got my father to loan me a handful of the best ones (he has an extensive collection). The one that really stood out for me was Flow. I had a I-Don’t-Know-What-I’m-Fucking-Talking-About experience while reading it, and changed the topic of the final paper to something else.

I’ve been meaning to read that, I’ve experienced it briefly in athletics, but the broader implications to life are where it gets dense and woo-woo. Not saying it isn’t correct, just that it may be unexplainable. I’ve read a later book on the subject by the same author and it was just anecdote after anecdote, with some poorly-correlated statistics.


Samatha-vipassana meditation, dude. This stuff has been rigorously systematized and you don’t need to buy into supernatural phenomena, overarching ethical systems, or the authority of a questionable clergy to practice it. Think of it as reps for your hippocampus.

If my memories are right, I read it back in 1999, so I wouldn’t necessarily consider Flow the greatest thing ever if I re-read it today. As far as attempting to extrapolate from anecdotes goes I remember the other self-help books being far worse. I also don’t mind a lack of rigor in this area, since performing controlled experiments that give definitive information is really difficult. I admire the subjective well-being researchers for attempting to do this, but even there I’ve seen a lot of contradictions and anecdotal evidence.

Most of this stuff is going to come down to, “X worked for me, and some other people, so maybe you should try to incorporate it into your life.” I think this is part of the reason why there’s so much crap on the market. If we lack the capacity to quantify whether or not something is going to work, then anyone with some crazy ideas can step in and call themselves an expert. So if you read one author and find him useless, I don’t think you should bother wasting your reading time on his other work.

I’ve read Tolle’s “Power of Now” and I think it’s a book that can help you learn a lot about yourself, if you are so inclined (not everyone is). I’m generally interested in figuring out how I tick, so I found it useful.

Feeling Good looks interesting enough that I ordered a copy to check out.

The meditation recommendation is a great one - one of the few self help approaches I’ve acted on.

One of the classics that tells you a lot about the different types and ways to meditate is “How to Meditate / A Guide to Self Discovery” by Lawrence LeShan.

You gotta love meditation, it’s portable and you carry it around in your skull!


What is the deal with Peck’s The Road Less Traveled? I’ve always heard this book was well-regarded, but I read the first 50 or so pages on the plane yesterday and it was a struggle. My issue is not content related. I am onboard with self discipline and self examination, but he just seems like such an arrogant little shit. He offers an example of how the lack of disciple to do homework assignments (!) creates juvenile delinquents, and while I can see the connections he’s making, it’s clearly written to appeal to some audience – I guess middle-class America – and present himself as an authority, but he does it all at the expense of juvenile delinquents, an unrepresented and easy target. It’s just so contrived and kooky, so simplistic and self-assured. I just hated reading it. I was on a plane and it was on my kindle, so I couldn’t do anything dramatic like throw it against the wall. He is making a name for himself standing on the shoulders of someone else and it just galls me. Is the whole book this way? Why do people speak so highly of it?

Are you asking for help?