Self-Help Books That Truly Work

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
January 13, 2016

Put yourself on a better track with a book or tape. 

When you confess you’re in a mild funk, every so often a confidante will say something like, “It sounds silly, but this self-help book really worked for me.” Your friend might even give you her copy. You might feel dismissed. After all, aren’t your problems much worse than everyone else’s? 

You know that’s not true, but think so anyway. Enter a self-help book with a wise voice offering excellent advice in the privacy of your own home (or maybe a waiting room, somewhere.)  Self-help books can help, though some are much better than others. 


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For example, in one small 2010 trial, doctors told depressed patients to follow the advice in David Burns’ “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy,” which navigates readers through the basics of cognitive-behavioral therapy — noticing unhappy thoughts, evaluating how true they are, and substituting more accurate ones. Overall, their mood improved — and they did just as well as a control group of patients who received standard medical care, which usually included an antidepressant. 

In another study, mildly depressed people met for a 90-minute class weekly for 8 weeks, in which a teacher walked them through exercises written by the Scottish psychologist Chris Williams, author of  “Overcoming Depression and Low Mood: A Five Areas Approach.” About half of them were taking antidepressants as well.  Six months later, they were doing far better than a control group that was receiving standard medical care, which again included antidepressants for about half.  

Psychologist John Norcross at the University of Scranton, coauthor of a guide to self-help resources used by  psychologists, argues that patients who aren’t in the worst shape should try books — or tapes — before they turn to medications that can cause side effects. When Norcross asked more than 2,500 psychologists to rate the self-help titles their clients had tried, “Feeling Good” came out on top. Two autobiographies that offer coping strategies for mood disorders were also popular: William Styron’s “Darkness Visible” and Kay Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind.” Check this list of highly-rated self-help books dealing with anger, anxiety, lack of assertiveness, grieving, marriage, and other issues. You might choose a book when you’re embarrassed to talk about an issue: there’s some evidence that self-help books work particularly well for sexual problems, for example. 

The British National Health Service has endorsed book therapy, also known as “bibliotherapy,” in a program called “Reading Well: Books on Prescription,” which includes a list of books backed up by scientific evidence, according to the agency.  The public gives the program high marks. For depression, the National Health Service list recommends Williams’ book mentioned earlier; “Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think,” by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky; and “Overcoming Depression: A Self-help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques,” by Chris Gilbert.  The agency also has an arm that promotes fiction, poetry, and memoirs as mood-boosters, though without studies to back them up. 

For a fee, you can even get a personalized reading prescription from a British organization called The School of Life.

Although your friend’s pick may be wonderful, be careful: some self-help books contain bunk.  Venting anger won’t make you less angry, as you might hear. Pouring out your despair in a journal may not help, either.Visualizing that you’ll find a parking spot or do well on a test doesn’t make it happen. You knew that, but if, for a moment, you believed the persuasive author who made you think otherwise, when you come down from your cloud, you might feel worse. 

All that said, reading a self-help book is a sign that you’re in motion and want to feel better. Put the bad book aside and try another, preferably one recommended by psychologists. When you land on the voice that speaks to you — and make a real effort to do the exercises — you could be well on your way.        


April 02, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN