Self-Help Books That Truly Work

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
September 19, 2023
Self-Help Books That Truly Work

Put yourself on a better track with a book or tape. Sometimes a stranger’s perspective is exactly what you need. Here are some self-help books that work.

When you confess that 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 unique? Aren’t they much worse than everyone else’s? 

You know that’s not true but, when you feel that way, you need a reminder. Knowing millions of people have experienced some variation of your issues is good medicine. A self-help book with a wise voice can provide exercises, excellent advice, motivation, and companionship whenever you pick it up.

In short, these books actually can help. Start by exploring, until one clicks.


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Books can give you the gist of different kinds of therapy. For example, in one small study, volunteers with mild-to-moderate symptoms of depression found relief after eight weeks reading one of two books, although none of them received any formal treatment. One book was “Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression,” by British psychologist Miriam Akhtar. The other was a book with cognitive behavioral exercises for depression, recommended by Reading Well, a national British program.

The study didn’t say which book was better. With books, it’s easy to take a look and decide which suits you, or you can try both.

That experiment might also help you find a therapist. Positive psychology is a set of research-backed practices that can help anyone find daily happiness. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — also backed by research — helps someone with depression notice and limit thoughts (for example, “I’ll never feel better,” or “I’m no good”) that contribute to their illness. Ask a therapist which approach they know best.

The benefits of reading might last. According to an overview of studies, all analyzing the effect of targeted reading after periods from three months to three years, lowered depression symptoms in adults over time. In that overview, it wasn’t effective with young people, however.  

Depression isn’t the only subject suitable for self-help or guided reading. Reading and listening to tapes as part of therapy has helped people with schizophrenia, lightened psychological symptoms in people with cancer, and reduced anxiety in patients before surgery.

One particular form of that approach in England is offered for a variety of mental health conditions, including dementia. In some research, depressed patients given self-help books do better than those who receive antidepressants.

Psychologist John Norcross at the University of Scranton, coauthor of a guide to self-help resources psychologists use, 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: The New Mood Therapy,” a manual of CBT techniques by Stanford psychiatrist David Burns, came out on top. Two memoirs that describe mood disorders were also popular:

The British National Health Service has endorsed book therapy, also known as bibliotherapy, in Reading Well: Books on Prescription, citing books backed by scientific evidence. It recommends specific self-help books for:

See the complete list of titles. You can also find books for teens and children.       

The School of Life, a British organization, has assembled a library of “exceptional books that together illuminate, soothe, console, and explain all that may be painful and sorrowful.”

It might help to pick a book that is popular. Someone else you know may have read it, which gives you an opportunity to get personal.

The Goodreads site provides reader rankings for self-help books. Among them are:

A book your friend suggests might be wonderful, but use common sense: Some self-help books contain nonsense.

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 know that. But if you believe a persuasive author who makes you think otherwise, when you come down from your cloud, you might feel worse. 

Feeling cynical that no book can help you is a symptom of despair. 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 that psychologists recommend. 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.        


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September 19, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN