Into the World of Self-help

Shawn Chan

By Joanne Yau & Charlotte Wong
Published on January 28th, 2022

As millennials become increasingly obsessed with self-help culture, the underlying factors of its popularization and its implications are also brought to light. From the factors behind the rising popularity of self-help books, to whether self-help books are effective in developing new life skills and changing life perceptions, this article dives into the world of self-help.

Self-help or self-improvement is the use of one's own efforts and resources to improve one's knowledge, status, or character without relying on others. In this article, we present you both for and against cases of self-help, dissecting what self-help actually means for millennials.

The following analysis and commentary applies to most forms of self-help, from books to webinars to life coaches. But since the self-help culture originates from paperbacks, which today still remains as its most dominant form, this article will dive into the world of self-help from the perspective of self-help books.

The rise of self-help books

The rise of self-help can be traced back to a myriad of factors, but to keep things succinct, the following dissection will focus on two main factors: information bombardment and greater awareness towards mental wellbeing.

Information bombardment and social media in the digital age gave rise to self-help. The rise of social media, coupled with the bombardment of 24-hour news and the unrealistic presentation of influencers, led to greater anxiety, depression, FOMO (fear of missing out). “But we’ve got your back,” exclaimed self-help authors in an overly zealous manner. From Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now to Digital Etiquette, self-help books seem to bring a peace of mind amid the digital bombardment on the Internet to many.

While Gen-Z is often at the forefront of social media consumption, Millennials still surpass Gen-Z by 26.4% in terms of social media usage, according to a 2020 survey in the US. This also explains why millennials top the charts in self-help consumption - according to Forbes, 94% of millennials reported making personal improvement commitments in 2015, compared to 84% of baby boomers.

The effect of this digital onslaught is further catalyzed by the global COVID lockdown in 2020. In a study, 87% of U.S. and 80% of U.K. respondents said that they have been consuming more digital content since the outbreak, while a 250% soar in Google searches for ‘self-care’ has been seen, showing the correlation between the two.

On the other hand, greater awareness towards mental wellbeing and focus on the self have also paved the way for the popularization of self-help. Closely linked to the previous point, social media is definitely one, though not the only factor that has brought upon greater mental health awareness and the need to prioritize our own wellbeing in recent years. That being said, prioritizing mental wellbeing is easier said than done, especially under the influence of hustle culture, when everyone is so occupied with work, studies and achieving the societal expectation of ‘success’-- and this is where self-help books derive their value.

Self-help books are like an over-the-counter medication for virtually every facet of life. Too busy for even a weekly therapy session for your social anxiety, or that spiritual retreat because your boss would never let you go on vacation? Self-help books “got your back again!” It’s a quick dose of mental positivity; a simplified formula to the ultimate ‘success’ in life. Whether it’s daily struggles like Managing Stress in the Workplace or something much more complex like Recovering from Childhood Trauma, self-help authors “have your back, yet again!”

You can heal your life: a case study

You can heal your life by Louise Hay is a milestone in the rise of self-help books. It was first published in 1984, with over 50 million copies sold. It was a boom in the ‘self-help’ genre.

Key ideas in the book include: you are what you believe in, forgiveness means letting go of the past and every disease is an act of a “Dis-Ease’. Disease is caused by uneased mental health. She claims that your mind and body are connected together and your experience is a reflection of your innermost belief. She further proposes that adopting healthy thoughts and behavior patterns facilitate physical and holistic healing for all.

Hay uses her personal experience as an example throughout the book. In her early life, she was physically abused by her stepfather Ernest Carl Wanzenreid, and was raped by her neighbour. Her early childhood traumatic experiences bound her from moving forward in her adulthood. In her adulthood, she was devastated by another failed family relationship, divorcing her husband Andrew Hay after 14 years of marriage. These negative experiences are what she claimed contributed to her ‘incurable’ cervical cancer later, yet she outlived her predicted lifespan by letting go of her past through ‘self-help’ albeit refusing medical treatment.

She demonstrates how one should overcome old beliefs that keep one from moving forward from the past. The first step is to learn in detail about the origin of the problem and start building steps towards your new life. Beliefs like 'you are not good enough to deserve happiness’ and ‘women cannot handle money’ can be attributed to your early childhood experience. What is important is realizing that they are untrue, shifting your mindset from ‘I should’ to ‘I could” and converting negative affirmations to positive ones.

Hay is also the founder of Hay House, a publishing company with authors writing on topics such as psychic reading, energy healing, meditation, tarot cards, alternative medicine, numerology, astrology, and holistic healing.

‘The past has no power over us. It doesn’t matter how long we have a negative pattern, the point of power is in the present moment. What a wonderful thing to realize! We can begin to be free at this moment” - Louise Hay.

In this part of the article, we discussed the factors that lead to the rise of self-help books, including digital bombardment and increased awareness of mental well being, utilizing the case study of the book ‘You can heal your life’.

In the second part of this article, we will explore the efficacy of ‘self-help’ in curing exercise diseases and providing another route to improve our lives. However, we will also critique the endless search for ‘advice that works well’ for readers that leads to blind optimism and self-blaming’, thus banking money into the accounts of the authors and publishers of ‘self-help’ books.

The case for self-help books

In the previous part of the article, we discussed the factors that lead to the rise of self-help books, including digital bombardment and increased awareness of mental well being, utilizing the case study of the book ‘You can heal your life’.

In this part of the article, we will explore the possibility of ‘self-help’ in curing diseases and providing another route to improve our lives. However, we will also critique the endless search for ‘advice that works well’ for readers that leads to blind optimism and self-blaming’, thus banking money into the accounts of the authors and publishers of ‘self-help’ books.

Positive responses to ‘self-help’ books include the following: ‘Opened new avenues for me’, ‘More self-confidence’, ‘Made me understand myself and others’, ‘Insight into problem areas’, ‘Peace of mind’, ‘Knowledge of hypertension and stress’.

Hay believes that diseases can be ‘eased’ by practicing ‘self-help’. Experiments indicate that ‘self-help’ is able to relieve some mental problems as effectively as medical treatment. For example, according to the Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effectiveness, in a study of six cases on the effectiveness of bibliotherapy compared to other treatment modes for unipolar depression, it is concluded that ‘Bibliotherapy is an effective treatment modality, which is no less effective than individual or group therapy.’. Bibliotherapy is a creative arts therapy modality that involves storytelling or the reading of specific texts with the purpose of healing. In this case, it refers to self-help books and implies that there are cases where self-help books can cure diseases.

Some readers may critique ‘Self-help’ books for using simply pseudo-psychology in their books, some of which is considered common sense. They argue that advice in ‘self-help’ books works, but not because of self help books, but due to the fact that people pay attention to things that they haven't paid attention to before, also known as the Placebo effect. However, it can also be argued that it is the aim of ‘self-help’ books to allow people to notice things they haven’t paid attention to before, thus they are able to learn to improve themselves through principles learnt in ‘self-help’ books.

On the other hand, the effectiveness of ‘self-help’ books varies as readers’ take different approaches to actualise the books’ advice. Even if ‘self-help’ books provide enough scientific cases, research and expert recognition, ambiguity still exists considering how the readers actualize the principles the book prescribes. According to the article in the Journal of Happiness Studies, when reading a self-help book, the effectiveness of the advice given depends on whether the readers take action out of what they learnt. And in most cases, readers do not, and continue their old habits after reading the book. Moreover, since readers can misinterpret the text as well, it deters confused readers from taking action.

The case against self-help books

While this normalization of ‘self-help’ may raise awareness of mental stress and other problems that are easily overlooked in our daily lives, much has to be said about this argument.

Firstly, self-help books promote a one-size-fits-all cure and undermine individuality. Despite the “this is my personal experience only and might not apply to you because everyone is a unique snowflake” disclaimer at the beginning of each self-help book, at its very core, self-help is a trial that tests the formula befitting for somebody else on yourself. Readers dive into self-help books with hopes of gaining life-changing tips to fix their ‘problematic’ lives. When the first formula doesn’t work for them, they go on to reading the second, the third and the fourth self-help book, in search of the ultimate formula. This leads them on an endless search in a heap of self-help books, because the fact remains that there is no one book that could just turn your life around in one snap. By falling into the rabbit hole of self-help, readers are not only left confused and overwhelmed, they now become victims soon to be capitalized off as well - a point on which I will explain later.

Secondly, self-help is an industry that banks on privilege. This ‘self-help’ is not universally accessible, this model of ‘self-help’ is only enabled by a lot of self-funding, leaving the ones who can’t afford this ‘help’ helpless. In trying to criticize the self-help industry, it is important to understand their target demographic as well. Overwhelmed by hustle culture and the pressure to meet societal standards in modern society, millennials have naturally become their target consumers. Millennials are spending twice of what Boomers spent on self-improvement despite earning half the income. This willingness to spend on self-help gives authors the golden opportunity to make good money. From the famous (or infamous) Deepak Chopra who published 91 books all surrounding topics of self-help, to life coach and author Tony Robbins who has a net worth of 500 million USD as of 2021, these self-help gurus essentially built their entire careers from proliferating their self-help products.

While the former point also applies as a broader criticism of capitalism, the following argument pinpoints the inherent problem with self-help - the monetization of readers’ emotions and insecurities.

This is not to disregard all genuine intentions of self-help authors, but it would be naïve to think that the 10.4-billion-USD industry is constructed purely based on philanthropic gestures. It is undeniable that the self-help industry would profit more with discontent readers than if they are satisfied with their lives. Hence, in a more cynical yet realistic sense, the self-help industry capitalizes off readers’ unhappiness and their never-ending chase for perfection.

Thirdly, self-help books portray an unrealistic sense of ‘perfection’ and perpetuate readers’ dissatisfaction. Building on my previous point about falling into the rabbit hole of self-help, this spiral of self-help media consumption goes two ways - for both authors and readers. As mentioned in my first argument, readers hardly ever stop with the first book. In search of ‘the formula’ to fix their lives, or an even ‘better formulae’, it extends from self-help books to webinars to retreats to a life-long coach. On the other hand, the narrative in self-help books is also a shovel that digs deeper into this rabbit hole. Authors, albeit unintentionally, portray a convincing world of perfection in their books to readers, causing readers to chase after this standard of perfection set by them. By telling readers how they should be ‘happier, wealthier and healthier’ (this is in fact part of the title of the self-help book by spiritual mentor Francesca Durham), authors fixate on the idea that constant fixation of one's life is needed on readers. In this way, readers would continue this endless chase to the authors’ propounded state of perfection, while guaranteeing a continuous flow of income to their bank accounts.


In trying to implement over-the-bookstore medicines to ourselves, it’s easy to overlook one’s own individuality and go on endless ‘trials and errors’ with self-help books. While it’s good that these self-help authors are offering a way for the general public to cure their struggles in life, it’s easy for readers to fall into the rabbit hole of self-help as well. The bottom line? Treat self-help books with a grain of salt. Over-the-counter pills can never replace proper medical treatment, as with self-help and therapy. Self-help books are a good place to start putting more focus on our well-being, but professional help could never be replaced by yet another glossy Deepak Chopra book.

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