The modern fix: Do self-help books really work?

Few subjects are quite so divisive – but self-help books have become a billion-dollar business. With four 'classics' of the genre about to be republished, Nick Duerden goes searching for enlightenment.

"When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride or vanity."

Dale Carnegie said that, almost 80 years ago. Carnegie, a wildly popular lecturer in self-improvement right across Depression-era America, is in many ways the daddy of the whole self-help movement that, today, is a multimillion-pound industry, a snowball that keeps getting bigger. His 1936 book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, k set the benchmark for the kind of navel-gazing that asked us all to pull up our bootstraps sharpish, and go make something of ourselves. The book has now sold more than 16 million copies around the world, and, in addition to helping legions of the presumably needy, it has also encouraged others to do much as he had done: write a tome about how others can empower and better themselves.

Since the latter half of the 20th century, we have lived in a world dominated by their kind, these often self-appointed lifestyle gurus spouting all manner of advice, and whose books, many of which spawn sequels that spawn sequels, sell in the kind of numbers Booker winners can only dream of.

"Self-help manuals are worthless. Chuck them in the bin, and enjoy what you've been dealt in life."

Janet Street Porter said that, almost two months ago, in this very newspaper. Many would agree, but many more wouldn't. Paul McKenna, the self-help guru's guru, whose works include I Can Make You Thin, is a virtual industry unto himself, with six million book sales and counting.

And next month, the publisher Vermilion, which espouses the motto "Books that change lives", is republishing four classics of the genre in smart, hardback editions: Carnegie's, Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking (1953), M Scott Peck's The Road Less Travelled (1978), and Susan Jeffers' Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway (1987). They reappear at what seems a pertinent time, the country plunged into ever-deepening financial crisis and, consequently, much personal misery. What else, runs the self-help logic, are we to do if not find solace in these titles?

But can books such as these really help us to help ourselves? As if.

Julie Hall, a mother of two living in London, is a self-styled entrepreneur. Part-British, part-Canadian, she started a website in 2008 called Women Unlimited to help women in the business world, her conviction being that there were too few female entrepreneurs. Hall was already running a successful web-design agency, but she believed that all too many women found it difficult to start their own businesses, and felt oppressively lonely once they had.

Women Unlimited, then, became an online place for fellow female entrepreneurs to gather for company, solace and advice. She began running workshops, too. Requiring a name for them, she needed to turn only to her bookshelves. She called them Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. "The [workshops] are essentially a physical self-help book," the 44-year-old tells me. "We're here when things seem insurmountable. And life does have a habit of getting on top of us, doesn't it?"

Hall is one of those people who seems to come naturally carbonated, full of ideas and pep. It's a mindset she says she was not born with, but rather developed through the reading of self-help books, and she peppers her speech with phrases that could have come lifted from them. To date, she has read no fewer than 300.

"There are people in life I called Dream Stealers," she says, "people who don't necessarily understand what you are trying to achieve. They can be difficult to ignore, but by picking up a self-help book, you can get back the power of your dreams and also your vision, and they can give you the courage and motivation to do whatever you want to do. They are my bibles."

Though she grew up in Canada, Hall has spent most of her adult life in London, and says she is used, by now, to the reaction of others when she reveals her addiction.

"But then Brits are a cynical bunch. It's just part of the British perspective. Perhaps because I spent a lot of time in North America, I have some of that North American 'wow' belief. But surely that's good? Surely anything that allows us to believe the sky's the limit is a good thing."

She tells me about the latest addition to her self-help collection. It is by Jack Canfield, the American whose Chicken Soup for the Soul series – syrupy short stories full of feel-good homilies and inspirational messages – have sold more than 100 million copies. His instruction manual, The Power of Focus, informs the reader how best to make the most of their working day. As a result of the first chapter alone, Hall insists she has turned her life around.

"I now leave the house 10 minutes earlier each day directly because of it," she beams. "I no longer have the frustration of running out the front door while screaming at the kids. And it has made the rest of my day more productive as well. Now, tell me, isn't that incredible?"

Perhaps, but Hall is predisposed to that North American sensibility of hers. A more British reaction would perhaps be first to question who it is that is feeding us these messages, and precisely what gives them the authority to do so. Jack Canfield is a case in point. Chicken Soup for the Soul was essentially predicated on the man's strong moral code. But his moral code was compromised when he walked out on his own family and set up home with his masseuse. Of the two young sons he left behind, one of them, Oran Canfield, later wrote a memoir, Freefall (2009), about the disparity between his father's public and private faces, and how that contributed, at least in part, to Oran's lengthy battle with heroin addiction.

"I never had any faith in any of that self-help shit," Oran told The Independent on Sunday two years ago.

He's not the only one.

AL Kennedy, one of our finer novelists, has what Julie Hall might rightly suggest is the "British perspective". She is dour and cynical, and archly amusing with it. Throughout her life she has battled – if not quite publicly, then at least with the public having some knowledge of it – with depression, a bad back and, throughout 2011, a persistent illness. Kennedy has read a number of self-help books over the years, but mostly for research purposes; several of the characters that people her highly distinctive novels are reliant upon the genre themselves.

"I myself tend to be incredibly cynical about them," she says. "I think the moment somebody you don't know starts talking about how to become happier, you should run away very quickly. Having said that, I've got lots of friends who are addicted to the blasted things."

In Kennedy's estimation, all such titles set themselves an unscalable task: "They all want us to understand how other people work. But you can't understand how other people work because other people aren't always comprehensible. And neither are you."

She bemoans, too, that these books are essentially identical, full of bullet points, exclamation marks, a lot of bold print and hot air. "So much of it is just a dreadful bag of charlatanry. Every day in every way I am getting better, they say. No you're not. You're dying. Every day you're getting closer to your grave."

According to Kennedy, there is only one such book any self-respecting denizen of the 21st-century needs to read, and that is 59 Seconds by Professor Richard Wiseman. "It's one of the few self-help books I can think of with proper scientific research to back it up," she says. "It's fascinating, and it works."

With a surname like his, Wiseman, who is Britain's only professor for the "public understanding of psychology", seems predisposed to the dispensing of advice. Since it was published in 2009, 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot has been translated into 30 languages. It's an illuminating read, and pithily funny, too, Wiseman careful not to take himself as seriously as so many of his peers mandatorily do.

The notion of people reading a book to improve their lives is not novel, he tells me, "but the lack of scientific evidence of so many modern practitioners is, to me, breathtaking. The only thing their books help is their own incomes. That's why I wanted to write an alternative."

What he attempted to do was sift through all existing literature on the subject and identify precisely what does work, and what doesn't. Consequently, the book is full of myth-busting, as, no doubt, is its imminent sequel, Rip it Up, the blurb for which – "Introducing a powerful new psychological theory that will transform your life in an instant" – is positively McKenna-esque in its lofty boast.

"A lot of these other books seem to suggest that whatever is happening in your life is your fault, and then tell you what you should do about it. This fundamentally is not true. Likewise, visualising yourself as successful. That may be a pleasant exercise, but if you look at psychological literature, it's actually an appalling thing to do."

But, he insists, self-help books can be useful. "And in an ideal world, they should be."

Which is where The School of Life might just come in – a forward-thinking initiative to promote self-worth that looks to ancient history for its inspiration.

Founded by the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, The School of Life essentially aims to reinvent Plato's Academy for the modern world, a place to go to discuss all those things that concern us most. In addition to publishing books, the school runs a small shop in central London where people attend seminars on, among other things, How to Live in a Wired World, How to Be Confident, and even How to Be Cool. The writer Roman Krznaric is one of its founders. "We felt we needed to completely reinvent the way we think," he says. "We've become too obsessed of late with quick-fix psychology. What's wrong with taking a slower, more methodical approach?"

History, he continues, is full of people trying to unravel the mysteries of life, and who dug deep in an attempt to make sense of it. "Take the Greeks. They realised, for example, there were many different kinds of love. Not just romantic love, but the love of friendship, of enduring affection, selfless love, playful love. In our world today, where 50 per cent of marriages end in divorce, we could do a lot worse than learn from them."

And so The School of Life shall endeavour to illuminate us on our paths. How benevolent of them. But neither they nor Wiseman are necessarily seeking guru status. The former are far too intellectual to crave celebrity status, while the latter, perhaps mercifully, doesn't possess Paul McKenna's sheen. But both, just like Dale Carnegie almost a century ago, believe that the ability to help ourselves is within all our grasps.

"There is no one way to live our lives, no quick fix," Krznaric states. "Life is complicated; we should accept that. But we have a huge realm of knowledge to draw upon: history, philosophy, film, literature, and all manner of personal experiences. We should stop looking purely inside ourselves, and swap our introspection for outrospection. It might do us all the world of good."

For more information on The School of Life visit: theschooloflife.com. 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' by Dale Carnegie, 'The Road Less Travelled' by M Scott Peck, 'The Power of Positive Thinking' by Norman Vincent Peale, and 'Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway' by Susan Jeffers are published by Vermilion in April

THE FOUR MOST INFLUENTIAL SELF-HELP BOOKS OF ALL TIME?

How to Win Friends and Influence People

by Dale Carnegie

Age: Carnegie died in 1955, aged 66.

Background: Born a Missouri farm boy in 1888, he became a motivational speaker in the 1930s. His shtick – How to improve conversational skills! How to become more entertaining! – struck such a chord that people queued around the block to hear him.

The gist: Carnegie was the king of stating the obvious in bullet-point form. Avoid arguments. Show respect. Be friendly. Don't overpower.

Cultural relevance then: Published in 1936, it invented self-help as we know it. It prompted many sequels, too, such as How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

...And now: Sixteen million sales later, it remains the self-help benchmark.

The Road Less Travelled

by M Scott Peck

Age: Peck died, aged 69, in 2005.

Background: After a turbulent childhood, during which he was diagnosed with depression, Peck became a psychiatrist.

The gist: That it is only by facing our difficulties that we can reach a decent level of self-understanding.

Cultural relevance then: Initially sneered at for being too religious, it was mostly ignored upon publication. Peck then took to the lecture circuit, and promoted it himself. Six years later, it became a bestseller.

...And now: Though heavy on the religion – "We live our lives in the eye of God" – Peck's psychological clarity still gives it a certain authority.

The Power of Positive Thinking

by Norman Vincent Peale

Age: Peale died, aged 95, in 1993.

Background: A Methodist minister who wanted to spread His word across America.

The gist: To remain undefeated by everything, to have peace of mind. "May God continue to use this book in human helpfulness," he writes, a touch conceitedly, in the intro.

Cultural relevance then: Condemned as over-religious claptrap by many, though the televangelist Reverend Billy Graham reckoned him God's right-hand man.

...And now: Fifteen million readers can't be wrong, can they? At best, the man's legacy is his indefatigable (if blinkered) optimism in the face of adversity.

Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway

by Susan Jeffers

Age: Curiously, and surely deliberately, unknown. Does Ms Jeffers suffer from a fear of ageing?

Background: After attaining a doctorate in psychology, Jeffers, from California, became an avid reader of self-help books. Then she wrote one.

The gist: You, too, can overcome your fears and live a life of endless fulfilment, as I did!

Cultural relevance then: First published in the 1980s, the book, with its endless chummy exhortations, quickly found a predominantly female audience.

...And now: "My book seems to have touched a universal chord," she says. It is available in 100 countries, and Jeffers remains the "Queen of Self-Help".

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