why people buy self-help books

The wheat from the chaff: philosophy vs self-help

There is something cringy about the notion of self-help. Yet blogging in the philosophical rambling genre invariably has a whiff of it. Even more generally, be it the Bible, Seneca, Leo Tolstoy, Viktor Frankl, Daniel Kahneman or Oprah, or in fact, any autobiography, aren’t they all essentially trying to answer the same question, namely how to make the most of our time here?

what is the difference between philosophy and self-help

Where do we draw the line?

Some writers, psychologists and philosophers have been using a quagmire of specialist terminology to warden off any suspicion of belonging to the self-help family. Religion is many things to many people, but it definitely ticks all the self-help boxes. What about picking up a new hobby? Is that a self-help action? What about ringing up a friend? What about going to the gym to get some endorphins? While we usually draw the line at solitary activities, preferably done alone, by overweight single middle-aged single women called Bridget in the company of Ben and Jerry… But being serious, it isn’t clear how to actually draw the line between legitimately working on oneself and being the gullible victim of charlatans.

Following a discussion on a wonderful Facebook group, Scott Brizel suggested an interesting approach: the problem is solved by noting the distinction between philosophy and ‘wisdom traditions’, even though wisdom traditions are (possibly wrongly) often called philosophies. Wisdom traditions propose strategies for living well, while philosophy is a method of inquiry into the meaning of ideas. Despite the loose use of ‘philosophy’ with respect toward it, Buddhism, for example, is a wisdom tradition, not ‘philosophy’ nor even ‘religion’. Religions tell creation stories, yet they may attempt to add value by establishing an associated wisdom tradition. The three ideas are often conflated, with some systems being both religions and wisdom traditions, but if you note the distinctions I draw, it will be easy to distinguish them.

Why people buy self-help books

The biggest predictor of whether a person will buy a self-help book is whether they have bought one before.

It is possible that the soothing feeling people get from buying and/or reading literature in the self-help genre is simply the reassurance that there is a solution to the problem.

As human beings, we have a profound desire to affect the world around us. This even applies to very young children, who can be taught to pedal a bike. While they don’t understand the significance of pedalling, the fact that the wheels are turning seems to motivate them to do more of it. Seeing tangible results of our actions gives us the feeling of control.

The feeling of control, the belief that our actions will deliver an impact, is probably our number one motivator. So no wonder people buy these books: by buying a book, they are buying equity in the belief that they can change themselves or even the world around them.

why people buy self-help books

Anyone who questions the ability of self-help methods to genuinely address the problem they aim to address seems like a party pooper who is stealing our dream of control. Indeed, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety and security, in this case it is the belief that there is an answer and a role model to guide hold our hand, is more important than the need for self-actualisation.

Self-help books give a sense of safety and certainty. Placebo and religious texts have this in common too.

The authors inevitably portray themselves as a role model for whom these rituals have worked. Indeed, studies done on laboratory animals in helpless positions try to do things that are somehow associated with a reward or schedule. It’s an anxiety-defying ritual, not a solution to the problem per se.

As a child I spent a lot of time in Russia where books were very cheap and ubiquitous – and in the pre-internet era, well, they were the internet. Fiction never really did it for me, unless it was detective stories, and they, as we know, tend to be less than well written for the most part. Encyclopaedias were a bit hit with me, but also books on psychology.

As Western culture came flooding in, so did Dale Carnegie, Tony Robbins and their friends becoming an instant hit with a society turned upside down. My peers and I read some of these books, and they’ve left a negative impression congruent with the aftertaste of much of the rest of Western culture with its endless brands: the obvious repackaged and presented as a revolutionary discovery.

By the time The Secret came around, I was starting college. It wouldn’t occur to me to read that. I got a summer job in a book shop (the shopkeeper suggested I take the academic section, hmm, wonder why). The manager, when he wasn’t schooling me for being late, was perplexed at the proverbial middle-aged women who buy The Secret merchandise: he wasn’t sure how an adult could be convinced that by writing their wishes in a notebook that says The Secret on it (€7.99) as opposed as normal writing pad (€1.99) is better. I guess he just didn’t get why people buy things.

Years later I saw the film Little Miss Sunshine that I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to forget that they’ve held a self-help book in their hands.

why self-help doesn't work

What does the self-help obsession tell us about the society we live in?

Based on my reading of Durant’s The Lessons of History, the rise of the self-help genre is nothing unusual: whenever the role of religion diminishes in society, we flee to other sources of wisdom, or surrogate wisdom as the case may be.

For most millennials I see around me, our moral word seems to be a quilt of Christianity, Western liberalism with a touch of yoga-driven mysticism. I often think that it’s better to be confused and forced into questioning values than to unconditionally accept a bunch of dogma.The wishful thinking of self-help puzzled me for a long time. Is it really that different to a prayer? As a professor of psychology Rami Gabriel puts it:

Popular psychology comes with a message about the possibility of surmounting obstacles through the free will of the almighty self, as well as continual exhortations to practise hopeful optimism and disable despair and hopelessness: in all, a reflection of an individualistic, even narcissistic, culture in the contemporary US.

I would change US to the West. The cultural shifts in the US may be modulated as the cross the Atlantic, but Europe feels the reverberations of these developments for decades. I strongly agree with the narcissistic piece: all of this literature proclaims that you can change the world by changing yourself. While it may seem humble at first, it is actually enragingly self-centred. Of course, the purpose isn’t to be self-centred. It is to keep building the sense of control that would (in theory) allow one to rise above whatever circumstances that are holding them back.

So what is the difference between philosophy and self-help?

Self-help is hedonistic: do this and life will get better. Philosophy doesn’t aim to change one’s life, only to understand it.

Philosophy doesn’t provide any real recommendations. Self-help is bursting with answers: it is prescriptive. I guess the reason I am even asking this question is because if I hear someone say “don’t think about the negative”, I am keen to think of what the reasons and implications are, in other words, I think of the philosophy of the recommendation. To me, self-help is a truncated philosophy, though it doesn’t try to be.

Philosophers don’t tend to solve problems, they tend to ask and sometimes try to answer questions. Self-helpers have all the solutions. In fact, they tend to only have one solution, for all ills.


39 thoughts on “The wheat from the chaff: philosophy vs self-help”

  1. “For most millennials I see around me, our moral word seems to be a quilt of Christianity, Western liberalism with a touch of yoga-driven mysticism.” Astute observation. But do you think it’s really possible to draw a line in the sand between philosophy and self-help?


    1. Thanks for the comment, Will. I think they are very intertwined, to be honest, and the self-help aspect of philosophy always brings me down. I feel defrauded by it and wish I could avoid it! It’s the same as medicine vs supplements, only in medicine once you get “properly” qualified, you can look down on all the rest of it (which has its own problems, but in this sense it’s a help). With philosophy, it’s much harder to separate yourself from the snake oil merchants.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. By and large, human beings hate the idea of randomness in any form. Therefore, there must be /order/. Therefore one must /search/ for order, and the logical place to start is with people who appear to have found it. Sadly, externalising this search never leads to success or happiness because it deliberately ignores the individual him/herself. 😦


  3. It seems you are labeling as “self help” a wide spectrum of things. What you decry is people selling books and other programs as easy neat solutions. I can agree with that; it is similar to the myriad gold training programs and training aides , and golf clubs that promise “10 to 15 yards longer drives!” When it comes to golf or things of just the mind, it is us who really do the work in the end. Even with the help of psychoactive drugs, it is still us who do the work. So, self-help is basically all there is. We could, however, do with out the quick-fix, sleazy kind.


    1. You’re right! I guess it is the over promise/ under deliver combination that I have a problem with! At the same time, if you want to teach people, you need to promise results will improve – and therein lies the problem. At what point does it become legit rather than brig SH?


  4. Good article Martina. A bit of self help reading πŸ™‚ I know that fiction vs. non-fiction is much a matter of preference and I prefer to go back and forth. At a conference I once attended about health and wellness a medical doctor from Columbia University was keynote speaker. Novelist Michael Ondaatja was another speaker. The doctor’s presentation was about the importance of story telling to the healing process- both in the hearing the persons story and for the person telling of it – and, the medical profession must do better at this. Aboriginal cultures are witness to this, but our western culture is less so. The point of my comment is this: I (and we) learn so much from non-fiction (especially I love Thich Nhat Hahn ). We’d also be wise to remember that some truths are best expressed in fiction – through myths & stories, novels and such. I do appreciate your in depth and diverse posts. Thank you kindly for sharing them – Bruce.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your kind comment. TNH is incredibly popular, but I find his books difficult quite to read. Of late, I have really enjoyed the sort of fiction that is very transparently a reflection on society, the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and Aldous Huxley.

      As for doctors and stories, I think doctors are analytical and it’s important to not get caught up in stories for us. Sometimes a strength has a weakness as it’s flipside!


  5. Very well reasoned and provocative. I think that many if not most sources of suffering are self inflicted and that the solutions are many. Many blind alleys false prophets and opportunities for self deception are present for sure. But let there be no doubt: there is suffering. Compassion is the human response to feel the suffering of others as ones own and to be drawn to relieve the suffering and to eliminate its causes. DFD


      1. “Philosophers don’t tend to solve problems, they tend to ask and sometimes try to answer questions. Self-helpers have all the solutions. In fact, they tend to only have one solution, for all ills.”
        So I guess that ‘one solution for all ills’ is a bad thing then. Too simplistic? πŸ™‚


      2. Maybe it’s a numbers game really. They are not meant for everyone – just the ones that see, understand and want to follow those steps – inevitably just a sub-set of the population. If there are enough n-step plans proposed, maybe each one of us will be able to find something that works for us?
        Here’s hoping, anyway. πŸ™‚
        Kindness – Robert.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Who is the self that is being is helping. If you look to others to help they will, them self. If it comes from the outside it is the perspective of others, If it come from the self it is truth. If you are reading, start listening to what it is saying to you. This is when you will experience self-help.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. PS This was a very insightful article. Not sure why I wrote the above, i guess I have grown tired of all of the cries for help but no one wants to do what is required to be help. We live in a magic wand society. Read a book or take a pill and presto you are better.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Omg this looks like such an interesting read! Looking forward to when Im finished my assignments in a couple weeks so I can come back and read this properly without feeling guilty for it! All the best to you xx


  9. Hi there. Thank you for this very interesting post. I want to share that I used to read a lot of self help books. At one point in my life, it made sense to me and really helped me. Now I am in a phase where books are nice but action is even better. Someone – I don’t remember who – said that happiness is something you have to constantly work for, not something that you reach one and for all. So I completely relate with your article. On a different point, you seem to oppose wisdom and philosophy, I thought the Greeks invented philosophy to live lives with more wisdom. Maybe I’m wrong or/& misunderstood your point. Thank you again for your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m not sure what is wrong with humans wanting to help other humans. If something (be it a self-help technique or a philosophical idea) changes someone’s life for the better, why not share it? People helping people is a good thing. Love one another. No one has all the answers, so any minutia of advice should be welcomed.

    Liked by 2 people

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