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It is easy to dismiss self-help books and those who read them. But not only do we need serious self-help, we must also take self-help more seriously. Valued at $11 billion worldwide, self-help is a major global industry. It both reflects and generates many of our prevailing ideas about the self and about the cultures in which we live. The self-help industry not only seeks to shape the way in which we think, feel and behave, but also provides many of the core metaphors on which we rely to talk about our inner lives. Many of those metaphors, not least that of the mind as a computer that might require reprogramming, are at best unhelpful.
Critics of self-help believe that its current popularity is part of an all-pervasive neoliberal imperative to maximize efficiency. They see it as a sinister plot to direct all responsibility for our wellbeing back upon ourselves. Self-help, they feel, casts all our problems as personal, and our failures as owing to a lack of willpower and resilience, when they are in fact caused by the politics of capitalism. While this may be true of some self-help, the idea of self-improvement has a long and rich history, extending back to ancient wisdom traditions. The wish to improve ourselves is bound up with our need for self-knowledge, for mastery and for transformation. It is a timeless desire and an essential part of what makes us human.
And some self-improvement literature really can help us to become better people. I mean better not in a competitive but in an ethical sense: the improved self is more able to direct attention outwards, towards projects, other people, and the communities of which we are a part.
1. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE) believed that all suffering is in our minds. Suffering is caused not by external events but by our reactions to those events — by faulty judgments and unrealistic expectations. Given that most external events are beyond our control, Aurelius argues in his Meditations that it is pointless to worry about them. Our evaluations of these events, by contrast, are completely within our control. It follows that all our mental energies should be directed inwards, with a view to controlling our minds. The key to a happy life, then, lies in adjusting our expectations, because “Only a madman looks for figs in winter.”
2. David D. Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (1980). The science underpinning David Burns’s Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy may no longer be cutting-edge, but its core message remains a powerfully relevant one. A more down-to-earth version of Stoicism, it is based on the premises of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Feeling Good illustrates how our feelings are shaped by our thoughts, and contains some great techniques for training our minds to question negative thinking about ourselves and others.
3. Russ Harris, The Happiness Trap (2007). We are, of course, not purely rational creatures. Sometimes our attempts to control our thoughts can become counterproductive. In The Happiness Trap, the Australian psychologist Russ Harris explains the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). He invites us not to try to control our negative thoughts or uncomfortable feelings, but simply to de-fuse with them, to accept them, and then to let them go. That way we have more energy to commit to value-based action.
4. Lao-Tzu, Tao te Ching (ca. 4th century BCE). Spiritual self-cultivation through the art of letting go is the central theme of Lao-Tzu’s Tao te ching (The Classic of the Way and Virtue). In Daoism, letting go centers on the idea of offering no resistance to the natural order of things. It promotes a sophisticated form of submitting our will to cosmic forces, by accepting what is and loosening our attachments to our desires and expectations of specific outcomes. The Tao suggests that we can improve ourselves by returning to a simpler, more authentic and intuitive way of life. A key concept is wu wei – “non-action” or “effortless action.” Wu wei can perhaps best be described as a spiritual state marked by acceptance of what is and the absence of selfish desire. It is also a subtle but highly effective mode of soft power.
5. Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide Book to Spiritual Enlightenment (1998). We are not our thoughts, argues Eckhart Tolle in his bestselling The Power of Now. Most of our thoughts, Tolle writes, revolve around the past or the future. Our past furnishes us with an identity, while the future holds “the promise of salvation.” Both are illusions because the present moment is all we ever really have. We therefore need to learn to be present as “watchers” of our minds, witnessing our thought patterns rather than identifying with them. That way, we can relearn to live truly in the now.
6. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Science and Psychology of Kindness (2013). In many theologies and wisdom traditions, altruism is the highest moral and spiritual value. More recently, psychologists have shown that altruistic acts not only benefit the recipient but also lead those who perform them to be happier. Moreover, practicing altruism, the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard argues, is the key not just to our personal happiness but also to solving our most pressing social, economic and environmental problems. Altruism enables us “to connect harmoniously the challenges of the economy in the short term, quality of life in the mean term, and our future environment in the long term.”
7. Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854). The American transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau famously withdrew to a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, where he sought to live simply and “deliberately.” It was there that he developed the intriguing notion of “life cost” — the perfect antidote to unthinking materialism and the toxic Protestant work ethic to which so many of us are still enslaved. Most of us find it normal to trade our life time against goods, believing that productivity and success are secular signs of grace. Thoreau saw paid work as a necessary evil to which we should dedicate as little time as possible. His aim was not to work a single minute more than was necessary to cover his most basic living expenses, and to spend all his remaining time doing what he truly cherished.
8. Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: The Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust (1946). According to the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, our most important task in life is to furnish it with meaning. Indeed, we must find meaning even in our suffering. In his deeply moving book, Frankl observes that those who managed to do this when they were interned in Nazi concentration camps had a much higher chance of survival. If there is a powerful “why” that drives us, he writes, we can tolerate almost any “how.” While meaning making can take many forms, including loving, creating and contributing to the well-being of others, Frankl insists on one limitation: meaning has to be situated in the world rather than in our own psyches. Our life’s purpose cannot just be the desire to become our best possible self, for the self is a very poor site for meaning.
9. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy (1308–21). This fourteenth-century poem chronicles the gradual overcoming of the middle-aged and burned-out Dante’s spiritual weariness. Guided by his mentor Virgil, he journeys from Hell to Paradise, where he is eventually reunited with his beloved Beatrice. The epic can be read as a cautionary Christian tale or as an extended revenge fantasy in which many of Dante’s personal enemies get their gruesome comeuppance. But we can also read it as an archetypal story of spiritual growth and self-overcoming. The doubting Dante is systematically re-educated by his many encounters in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. The inhabitants of Hell show him how not to live his life, and the costs of their bad choices. In the end, purged of his own weaknesses, Dante reaches a higher spiritual plane and glimpses the divine.
10. Anonymous, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Almost all forms of self-improvement resemble a quest narrative or a heroic journey. Such narratives entail the hero(ine) venturing into the unknown — a dark wood, an underground kingdom or the belly of a beast. There they encounter obstacles and often have to engage in battle with an enemy or a temptation. Having overcome these challenges, they return from their adventures transformed and ready to share with others what they have learned, the true function of the hero(ine) being to help others. The oldest surviving narrative of this kind recounts how the formerly selfish Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh returns from the wilderness into which he ventured, bearing the plant of eternal life. Rather than eating it himself, he shares his boon with his people.
11. Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936). Written during the Great Depression, How to Win Friends and Influence People is still in print for a reason, teeming with sensible and practical tips for making the best of human relations. Key to Carnegie’s method is the art of mentalizing — stepping into the shoes of others and trying to see the world from their point of view. Very few of us master this art, because it requires the ability to imagine what lies beyond our own cognitive maps. As Carnegie argues, however, this beyond is not exactly complex: Human beings are above all defined by their unquenchable thirst for attention, sympathy and respect. For others to like us, we simply have to find ways of giving them what they most need.
12. Angela Duckworth, Grit: Why Passion and Resilience are the Secrets to Success (2017). According to psychologist Angela Duckworth, grit tops talent every time. That is music to the ears of anyone inclined to identify with Aesop’s plodding tortoise rather than the effortlessly speedy hare. “Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another,” Duckworth writes. Grit is a drive to improve both our skills and our performance by consistent effort. Gritty people are always eager to learn and are driven by an enduring passion. They learn from their mistakes, have direction, and live more coherent lives.
A slightly shorter version of this post appears in The Guardian.
I discuss these and many other texts in greater depth in The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths.
What is the number one self-help book? ›
With over 700,000 ratings and averaging at 4.21 stars, "How to Win Friends and Influence People" is the best self-help book according to Goodreads members.Is it worth reading self-improvement books? ›
Self-help books can be a powerful tool when used properly. They are cheaper than therapy and can be just as effective. You can progress in your own time, and most people find it more comfortable than seeking professional help.What can I read to better myself? ›
- How to Win Friends and Influence People. ...
- Think and Grow Rich. ...
- Man's Search for Meaning. ...
- The Power of Positive Thinking. ...
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. ...
- Awaken the Giant Within. ...
- The Power of Now. ...
- The Four Agreements.
37, No. 4, pages 370-377), about 85 percent of psychologists recommend self-help books to their clients. But with all the books out there-and more being published as you read this-how can a practitioner know which ones to recommend?Which book should I read first? ›
If you ask any avid reader about some good books to read for beginners, they will definitely mention the Great Gatsby. Among the classic 20th century literature, The Great Gatsby follows the story of wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for Daisy Buchannan.How can I improve myself everyday? ›
- Cultivate gratitude. ...
- Greet everyone you meet. ...
- Try a digital detox. ...
- Use positive self-talk. ...
- Practice random acts of kindness. ...
- Eat at least one meal mindfully. ...
- Get enough sleep. ...
- Breathe consciously.
- Be open to learning new things. At no point in your career will you know everything. ...
- Network and meet people in your industry. Networking is easy to do remotely. ...
- Learn to be more resilient. ...
- Find your niche. ...
- Become a better communicator. ...
- Work better together.
- A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy.
- Marginal Revolution by Tyler Cowen.
- Some other good daily reads:
- Calling it a Day: Daily Meditations for Workaholics by Robert Larranaga.
- Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations by Frederick Buechner.
- "Tactical Thinking: 50 Brain-Training Puzzles to Change the Way You Think"
- "Train Your Brain"
- "Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain"
- "How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens"
“The rich are voracious readers on how to improve themselves. They're reading self-improvement books, biographies, books about successful people, things like that, says Tom Corley, the author of “Change Your Habits, Change Your Life: Strategies That Transformed 177 Average People Into Self-Made Millionaires.”
What is the difference between self-help and self improvement books? ›
A self-help book is one that is written with the intention to instruct its readers on solving personal problems. The books take their name from Self-Help, an 1859 best-seller by Samuel Smiles, but are also known and classified under "self-improvement", a term that is a modernized version of self-help.Why you should not stop reading? ›
Reading challenges our minds and sparks our creativity. It makes us see things in our "mind's eye" rather than simply interpreting someone else's vision.What is a downside of self-help therapy? ›
There are also sometimes significant disadvantages to self-help approaches as well. You may lack the perspective to properly understand the nature of your issues. Your ability to help yourself will only be as good as your ability to be objective and clear about what the nature of your issues is.What happens when you read self-help books? ›
When you read a self-help book, you start to believe you can be more, do more, and experience more. This is how you get stronger and better. You dare yourself to go where you haven't gone before, so you can experience what you haven't had before. When we believe we can be more, we are pulled to do and feel more.What are the 3 most read books? ›
- Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling.
- The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien.
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
- The Da Vince Code by Dan Brown.
The Holy Bible is the most read book in the world. In the past 50 years, the Bible has sold over 3.9 billion copies. It is the most recognizable and famous book that has ever been published. The Bible is a collective book with many different preachings based on God and the Lord Jesus Christ.How can I improve myself as a woman? ›
- Stop comparing yourself to others. ...
- Don't worry about others' opinions. ...
- Allow yourself to make mistakes. ...
- Remember your value doesn't lie in how your body looks. ...
- Don't be afraid to let go of toxic people. ...
- Process your fears. ...
- Trust yourself to make good decisions for yourself.
- Set goals for yourself. ...
- Surround yourself with people who want to see you do well. ...
- Evaluate what isn't working and eliminate those habits. ...
- Learn a new activity or skill. ...
- Eat healthily and hydrate daily. ...
- Have compassion for yourself and others. ...
- Clean your space regularly.
To recap, these areas are: Physical Body, Emotions and Meaning, Relationships, Time, Career, Finances and Contribution and Spirituality. Each of these areas requires focus – neglecting any one of them can cause massive pain in your life.What are the 7 skills needed independently? ›
- communication skills.
- multitasking ability.
- discipline and patience.
- ability to deal with rejection and not take it personally.
- ability to compromise and sacrifice.
- organizational skills.
- ability to learn from mistake and move on from them.
What are the five pillars of self-discipline? ›
The five pillars of self-discipline are: Acceptance, Willpower, Hard Work, Industry, and Persistence.What are the 3 types of self-discipline? ›
Three types of Self-Discipline
Here are examples of three types: active discipline, reactive discipline, and proactive discipline.
- Physical movement.
However, numerous studies have defined that 15-30 minutes is a minimum interval we should dedicate to reading each day. Neuroscientists agree that even simple lifestyle changes, like daily 15 minutes with a nose in a book, will support your brain health for a lifetime.What happens to your brain when you read everyday? ›
Reading consistently strengthens connections in the brain, improves memory and concentration, and may even help you live longer. Reading can also reduce stress levels and prevent age-related cognitive decline. To read more, set aside time every day to pick up a book, whether it's during your commute or before bed.What happens when you read a lot of books? ›
Reading is good for you because it improves your focus, memory, empathy, and communication skills. It can reduce stress, improve your mental health, and help you live longer. Reading also allows you to learn new things to help you succeed in your work and relationships. The best part?Which book is best for increasing brain power? ›
Brain Power: Improve Your Mind as You Age : Gelb, Michael J., Howell, Kelly: Amazon.in: Books.What type of reading is best for the brain? ›
Stanford University researchers have found that close literary reading in particular gives your brain a workout in multiple complex cognitive functions, while pleasure reading increases blood flow to different areas of the brain.Can IQ be increased by reading? ›
It increases intelligence.
Exposure to vocabulary through reading (particularly reading children's books) not only leads to higher score on reading tests, but also higher scores on general tests of intelligence for children. Plus, stronger early reading skills may mean higher intelligence later in life.
Another reason why the bible, has been most read conveniently is that it has been translated into several languages. Report has it that the Bible has been written in over 3, 500 languages, making it the most translated book in the world.
What is one of the most famous self-help groups? ›
The first self-help group, Alcoholics Anonymous, was developed in 1935 to meet a need for better treatment, as many felt that medical professionals at the time were not adequately treating alcoholism. Today AA and other 12-step programs are among the most popular type of self-help organization.Is Think and Grow Rich worth reading? ›
This book doesn't need my words as its selling is self-explanatory. I always by a self-help to learn something out of it, but from this book I literally learned so many things. This book doesn't only deal with "WHY", but also explains how great success can be achieved.Which state has the highest number of self-help group? ›
Detailed Solution. The correct answer is Bihar. Bihar has become the first state in the country to have 10 lakh self-help groups (SHGs) managed by women.What are the self-help groups for the poor? ›
A SHG is a community-based group with 10-25 members. Members are usually women from similar social and economic backgrounds, all voluntarily coming together to save small sums of money, on a regular basis.What type of therapy are self-help groups? ›
Mutual self-help groups include a variety of programs, with 12-step programs (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous, AA; or Narcotics Anonymous, NA) and Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART Recovery) being the most common ones.How do I start living and stop worrying? ›
Step 1: Analyze a situation causing you worry to determine the worst possible scenario if you fail. Step 2: Accept the worst possible case scenario, if it is to happen. Step 3: Focus on trying to improve the situation so that you end up with a better outcome than worst case.Why is Atomic Habits good? ›
“Atomic Habits was a great read. I learned a lot and think it'll be helpful to a lot of people.” “In Atomic Habits, Clear will show you how to overcome a lack of motivation, change your environment to encourage success, and make time for new (and better) habits.What is the 5 hour rule? ›
What is the 5-hour rule? The 5-hour rule is the concept of spending at least one hour every workday consciously learning new things or practicing various activities. Doing so can help you gain new skills and knowledge, which can lead to both personal and professional development.What do rich people read everyday? ›
They focus on biographies, self/career improvement books packed with principles, lessons, mistakes, observations, successes and experiences, industry-related books, building wealth books and history books that changed economies.Why self-help books are waste? ›
You may have enjoyed reading that self-help book (which is an advantage in itself, like reading for pleasure) but that doesn't mean it worked. Too often their advice is just common sense or overly simplistic. It's things we've heard countless times, but will only listen when they've got a glamorous cover.
What do the wealthiest people read? ›
- JAMIE DIMON CEO OF $483.45+ BILLION BANK. JAMIE DIMON. ...
- Jack: Straight from the Gut. ...
- Sam Walton: Made in America. ...
- Life is What You Make It. ...
- Security Analysis. ...
- The Intelligent Investor.
Elon Musk. The real-life Tony Stark, a college dropped and the richest man in the world today, Elon Musk, is a voracious reader. He was an extraordinary kid and spent most of his early days reading science fiction and playing video games.What is the hidden message in Think and Grow Rich? ›
The “secret” of Think and Grow Rich is to place yourself within the overall scheme of creation, obeying natural laws that inevitably and invariably beget growth, expansion, renewal, and generativity.