Beginner’s Guide to Self-Help

close up of books in our Self-Help collection

Ah, self-help. Walk through any bookstore or library and chances are you’ve seen a self-help book–maybe one even caused you to pause for a moment. And who can blame you? The allure of self-help is hard to deny. 

There’s an equation that will help find happiness? Show me.

 You can become rich in 14 steps? Sign me up. 

There’s an explanation for why and how I think or process things in the specific way that I do? Umm…. yes, please.

So, how does one navigate such an expansive world of promises, hacks, and “secret” knowledge? This beginner’s guide is not the definitive answer to such a question, but I do believe that it’s a great place to start.

A Brief History of Self-Help

The origins of self-help have been long debated, with many citing Benjamin Franklin (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin) as the inventor and others giving that distinction to Samuel Smiles in 1859 with his book Self Help. Some have pointed back in history to Socrates, while others contend that it wasn’t until Dale Carnegie and his book How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936 that the self-help genre actually took form. But whoever started it or when, it’s safe to say that the concept of self-help isn’t all that new.

But What Is Self-Help Exactly?  

Simply put, a self-help book is any book written with the intent of instructing its readers to better themselves or to solve their problems. In our library, the self-help section includes books that fall between 150 and 179.9 in the Dewey Decimal system, with some recognizable titles being The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, Atomic Habits by James Clear, and The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. However, if you ask someone what their favorite self-help book is, you may find some books that fall outside of our self-help section on the second floor. For example, jump on Goodreads and you’ll find the following books on one of their top self-help book lists:

Here’s a few from Bookriot’s The Best Self-Help Books of 2024:

So, what gives? Are self-help readers mistakenly calling books “self-help” when they are not?  Or do we need to update how we categorize these types of books?

My guess is neither.

Like many things, the lines that demarcate self-help from something like health, are not all that clear. Since self-help is any book that teaches or provides insight into solving one’s problems, the subject matter can vary greatly, like psychology, finance, social justice, philosophy, memoir, health, communication, and more.

Staff Perceptions of Self-Help Books

When we asked library staff what they think of when they think of self-help, they said:

“When I think of self-help, I usually think of communication first, followed closely by subjects like meditation, awareness, and staying grounded.” -Ryan

“Mental health information–all day, every day!” -Leah

“I often think of the category of social justice. I read a lot while leading an EDI team at my last library and I think there are a lot of books out there that are good tools for introspection about the messages we get ingrained in us from society.” -Amanda

“I think I usually associate self-help with dieting or like physical wellness.” -Vinny

“Aside from general psychology and relationship-type books, I've also enjoyed reading a lot about the law of attraction/manifestation.” -Mandy

“I think mostly of mental health first, then probably behavior change.” -Van

“Wellness, relationships, and getting organized.” -Nancy

Perhaps, the breadth of what readers consider self-help is why the genre has grown the way it has. From 2013 to 2019, self-help sales increased 11% annually in the United States, with the total number of self-help books tripling during that time period. In Canada, there was a 27% increase in self-help book sales between 2016 and 2017. Though this is only a snapshot of what is happening in one section of the world, it’s clear that there is a demand for these books and that producers of this content have no intention of slowing down. Combine this with the rise of podcasts, social media, and an overall increased awareness of wellness, the options are endless whoever you are and wherever you are. Having to choose from so many options can be overwhelming, but the good news is that there is something for everyone.

Steven, one of our collection development librarians, puts it beautifully:

“People turn to self-help books because they work. Not every time and not every book, but the genre thrives because often enough a book will provide just the insight, comfort, and helpful mental tools and techniques a person needs while navigating life’s twists and turns.”

Wesley, another colleague, says:

Unmasking Autism was a huge help to me. It gave me words to describe things that I had struggled to articulate to others, and a more positive outlook on myself in context of relating to the world and those around me.”

For me, it was Ryan Holiday’s Stillness Is the Key that really landed. This was mainly because I wanted to be more mindful in life, and the way Ryan Holiday presents information was agreeable to me at the time.

How to Approach Finding Good Self-Help Books for You

A good way to approach self-help may be to look for books on topics that interest you. This can be decluttering your home or forming certain habits. It can lean toward philosophy or more toward science. More than knowing the title of a trending self-help book or the ins and outs of the genre, it may be more valuable to know that there most likely is a book about what you are looking for.

However, before you go to the library and check out a stack of self-help books, I’d be remiss if I did not offer this word of warning: many books may miss the mark for you, even though they have been highly regarded. Some books may feel unnecessarily repetitive, some may feel poorly written, and some may even feel superficial. A common criticism of self-help books is that many of them are full of fluff (often at the hands of a self-aggrandizing author) and that instead of 200+ pages, the concept(s) could have been thoughtfully communicated in 200 words. It’s wise to remember that self-help books are only a tool for overall wellness and they are not the answer in and of themselves.

But don’t let this discourage you. If you are reading this and feel that a self-help book can provide a positive boost in your life, go for it. Pick up one or two, and maybe you’ll find a morsel of insight that opens up your perspective about something. On the flip side, you might find that self-help books simply don’t resonate with you and that you’d rather turn to something else to enhance your life. Just because your favorite podcaster, public figure, or social media influencer is all about this or that book, doesn’t mean it will work for you–and that’s perfectly fine.

With that said, if you are still curious about self-help books, consider our Beginner’s Guide to Self-Help, and recommended titles from my colleague Van on Thinking and Feeling, and Thinking about Feeling.

Pro tip: try listening to self-help audiobooks via Libby, Hoopla, or CD.