The rise, fall and Renaissance of self-help books (and blogs)

There are two types of “self-help” books. The first, and most common type, is based on an individual’s journey, experiences and thoughts.

Books (or blogs) such as these are often useful. Sometimes it helps to hear what worked for one person – to read their story, link it to your own, and learn from the life philosophy that resulted from it. Be cautious, however, not to read such books as statements of fact; they are better defined as “statements of experience and thought.” The fact that something is true for the author, does not mean that it will always apply to you as well. Some of the earlier books that may be seen as “self-help”, such as As a Man Thinketh, by James Allen, or Essay on Man, by Alexander Pope, and other reflective literary works, make several statements of fact about the way these authors believed the world worked. These “statements of fact” are their view and their opinion – you won’t find a comprehensive reference list at the end of these publications.

“You are today where your thoughts have brought you; you will be tomorrow where your thoughts take you.” (James Allen)

– By the way, As a Man Thinketh, is an excellent read and very thought-provoking! It is also available as a free audiobook on ( if you happen to be interested. –

More recently, self-help books based on scientific research have emerged. These books are written by individuals who make understanding human nature, success, perseverance and/or optimal functioning their life’s work. They are full-blooded academics, university staff, full-time lecturers and researchers. The experiences they share are often not only their own, but rather shared experiences. They relate the stories of their research subjects, whether these are a small group of individuals, or large groups of people, most of whom may stay anonymous. Instead of sharing a miniscule sample of experience, they provide insight into what works (or does not work) for thousands of people. They provide information which has been tried and tested – quite literally. The power of this information is that it is much more generalisable. What a single author may relate about their experience is very unlikely to be useful to you. But what a researcher shares about thousands of projects and research subjects is highly likely to apply to you as well – statistically speaking.

What’s my point? Read either of these types, by all means! But don’t discount the source of your information. If you’re looking for facts, look in places that are able to provide facts. If you are looking for inspiration and a philosophical glance, then read sources that will provide this for you. Just please don’t read one story of overcoming trauma, for example, and expect the very same “recipe” to work for you or a loved one.

Book recommendations

So, what research-based self-help books would I suggest you read? For those of you who are interested in Positive Psychology and learning more about optimal functioning, my top four suggestions follow below – happy reading!

  1. Positivity, by Barbara Fredrickson
  2. The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor
  3. Grit, by Angela Duckworth
  4. Flourish, by Martin Seligman

What books do you reckon are missing from this list? Please comment and share your suggestions!

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