Whenever I go to the bookstore, I marvel at how the self-help section keeps getting bigger and bigger. It seems there is a book for almost every kind of problem. Maybe your struggle is with romantic relationships, maybe it’s with weight-loss, maybe it’s with work. Whatever aspect of life has you down, chances are there is a book that will help you, or at least promise to.
And these days, self-help isn’t just limited to books. You can go to a seminar, or find help online. Whatever the medium, all the gurus claim something new and magical. Just do what we tell you, they say, and you will find the peace and joy you seek.
It all sounds so great and wonderful, and easy too! Just think good thoughts, and all your problems will be solved.
Some years ago, I organized a seminar for John Gray, the author of the famous book “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” Gray talked about how to communicate with your partner, and how to anticipate and avoid the most common misunderstandings. His presentation style was very entertaining, and I truly enjoyed the seminar.
However, I can’t say I found much real value in his recommendations. They were so generic, it was hard to see how you could actually apply them in real life situations. It seemed to me that if that was as good as you could get from a self-help book, the more specific advice you could get from a counselor would be much more useful. But the audience evidently saw it differently. Most of the women left at the end of the day extremely happy with what they had learned. They looked forward to returning home to a life full of roses and goodness, with no more conflicts with their spouses.
But I wonder, just how good are these self-help resources? Do they really deliver on the better life they promise? No, says John Norcross, professor of psychology at the University of Scranton. According to Norcross, only about 3 percent of all self-help resources are based on enough scientific research to rightfully claim their techniques work at home, too. He says not only that, but that 5 percent of self-help resources are actually harmful. Imagine that, a self-help book that actually makes your life worse!
I suggest you check out Dr. Daniel Gilbert’s “This Emotional Life” interviews on the PBS Web site, www.pbs.org. Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of the best-selling book, “Stumbling on Happiness.” In one of the interviews, he talks to Louise Hay, a best-selling self-help book author. Hay says why bother with scientific data? As she puts it, scientific data changes all the time. They say one thing one year, and something else the next. If scientists are always changing their opinions, Hay says, we shouldn’t pay too much attention to their research.
I’m a big believer in research, but perhaps Hay has a point. If one piece of research says one thing, and another says something else, who should we believe? Perhaps we have no choice but to rely heavily on the author’s word. After all, very few self-help gurus rely solely on their own thoughts and feelings. Most of them use at least a little science to back up their claims. But still, I find it hard to put much stock in theories that are largely based on just one person’s feelings, even if that person is a best-selling author. What makes that person think her own experiences in life will transfer well to my own?
Whatever side you take in the science vs. experience debate, it’s hard to ignore the fact that self-help tools do, in fact, help people. Of the people who successfully change their behavior, 75 percent say they’ve done so on their own, without professional treatment. If 75 percent of people can solve their problems with self-help methods, who cares that only 3 percent of those methods are based on scientific research? If a $20 book helps you turn your life around, it’s the best $20 you could spend. It doesn’t really matter how much science was in the book. Psychology is a science, but perhaps self-help doesn’t need to be.