When Self-help Books Are (and Aren’t) a Waste of Time

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Self-help books are a prevalent genre today. Even if you’ve never read one, you have doubtless seen several titles at the local bookstore or heard them mentioned online.

Perhaps your curiosity has been sufficiently piqued to pick up a copy of a classic, such as Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. But is reading such books really going to help improve your life? Will it be a worthwhile investment of your time?

In search of happiness

Based on data from analytics experts at The NPD Group, self-help is a fast-growing genre in publishing. Sales figures reached 18.6 million units sold in 2019, nearly double the numbers from 2013. The compound annual growth rate is at 11% over this six-year period.

Clearly, more people are buying self-help books each year. And they are presumably spending some time reading them. But is there any evidence that these books have the desired effect?

There’s a dearth of formal scientific evidence in this regard. That may be due to the inherent difficulty of such an undertaking.

Not all self-help titles are created equal. They may pertain to different aspects of psychology or promise improvement in varying areas of our lives. The skill of the author at communicating ideas is also a factor. So is the potential receptiveness to change of the reader. And in any case, you’d have to rely on their self-report as to whether a book was actually effective.

Yet a different set of data seems to belie the idea that sales of self-help books equate to their effectiveness. The World Happiness Report shows that in the US, our overall level of happiness and life satisfaction has declined steadily since 2012.

With so many people buying and reading self-help books over the same period, you’d expect that happiness would have risen. Instead, what we’re seeing may be a symptom of malaise. Unhappy times may make more people seek out different relief measures, with self-help books just one of many such options.

Taking a step forward

Maybe it’s unreasonable to pin our hopes for happiness on any self-help book. But surely reading one that’s relevant to your situation can lead to a small step towards improvement?

The problem here lies in the often multifaceted nature of improvement and the complex challenges we all face in life.

Imagine you have an heirloom bookshelf in your house. Over the generations, it’s never been moved, and it’s full of massive, dusty books. Now you want to move it because you’ve devised a new layout and look for your home interior.

You can polish your floor, but the difficulty comes from inertia: getting that shelf to move in the first place. You know that once it’s in motion, it will be easier to push around.

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But it won’t budge, so maybe you have to enlist the help of friends or neighbors. Or maybe brace yourself for a few hours of sorting through those books and taking them down to lessen the weight.

Self-help books are like that floor polish. They can prime you towards positivity and give added motivation. But the ‘activation energy’ for change must come from you. Whether it’s gathering more impetus or unburdening baggage, you need to take concrete action.

Perhaps you get a friend to hold you accountable or hire a professional coach like the team at Miick. Whatever it takes to move the needle, it probably won’t be enough to rely on a self-help book alone.

The value of time

The heart of the question isn’t about what potential benefits a self-help book might offer. It has more to do with what you deem to be the actual value of your time.

Speed readers might be able to digest a book in a day. Most people take longer than that, due to differences in reading skill or time available. No matter how long it takes, though, what else could you be doing with that time?

Is there something more valuable you might be doing? Logging extra hours at work, assuming you get properly compensated, might be a better use of that time. Or perhaps you could take an online course to receive some structured training in a skill you could use to further your career.

Unfortunately, as the WHR study referenced earlier notes, most people are now spending more time on digital media at the expense of everything else. Not all of that time is being productively invested in learning or improving. Much of it goes towards gaming, streaming, social media, and other forms of idle entertainment consumption.

Take a good look at what you might be giving up to read a self-help book. It could be valuable activities, or it could be dead weight. If it’s the latter, then it can’t hurt to try reading one.

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