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Self-help or self-improvement is a self-guided improvement [1] —economically, intellectually, or emotionally—often with a substantial psychological basis.


When engaged in self-help, people often utilize publicly available information or support groups, on the Internet as well as in person, where people in similar situations join together. [1] From early examples in self-driven legal practice [2] and home-spun advice, the connotations of the word have spread and often apply particularly to education, business, psychology and psychotherapy, commonly distributed through the popular genre of self-help books. According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, potential benefits of self-help groups that professionals may not be able to provide include friendship, emotional support, experiential knowledge, identity, meaningful roles, and a sense of belonging. [1]

Many different self-help group programs exist, each with its own focus, techniques, associated beliefs, proponents and in some cases, leaders. Concepts and terms originating in self-help culture and Twelve-Step culture, such as recovery, dysfunctional families, and codependency have become firmly integrated in mainstream language. [3] Groups associated with health conditions may consist of patients and caregivers. As well as featuring long-time members sharing experiences, these health groups can become support groups and clearing-houses for educational material. Those who help themselves by learning and identifying about health problems can be said to exemplify self-help, while self-help groups can be seen more as peer-to-peer or mutual-support groups.


Within classical antiquity, Hesiod's Works and Days "opens with moral remonstrances, hammered home in every way that Hesiod can think of." [4] The Stoics offered ethical advice "on the notion of eudaimonia—of well-being, welfare, flourishing." [5] The genre of mirror-of-princes writings, which has a long history in Greco-Roman and Western Renaissance literature, represents a secular cognate of Biblical wisdom-literature. Proverbs from many periods, collected and uncollected, embody traditional moral and practical advice of diverse cultures.

The hyphenated compound word "self-help" often appeared in the 1800s in a legal context, referring to the doctrine that a party in a dispute has the right to use lawful means on their own initiative to remedy a wrong. [6]

For some, George Combe's "Constitution" [1828], in the way that it advocated personal responsibility and the possibility of naturally sanctioned self-improvement through education or proper self-control, largely inaugurated the self-help movement;" [7] [ verification needed ] In 1841, an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, entitled Compensation, was published suggesting "every man in his lifetime needs to thank his faults" and "acquire habits of self-help" as "our strength grows out of our weakness." [8] Samuel Smiles (1812–1904) published the first self-consciously personal-development "self-help" book—entitled Self-Help —in 1859. Its opening sentence: "Heaven helps those who help themselves", provides a variation of "God helps them that help themselves", the oft-quoted maxim that had also appeared previously in Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac (1733–1758).

Early 20th century

In 1902, James Allen published As a Man Thinketh , which proceeds from the conviction that "a man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts." Noble thoughts, the book maintains, make for a noble person, whilst lowly thoughts make for a miserable person. Several decades later, Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich (1937) described the use of repeated positive thoughts to attract happiness and wealth by tapping into an "Infinite Intelligence". [9]

Around the same time, in 1936, Dale Carnegie further developed the genre with How to Win Friends and Influence People . [10] Having failed in several careers, Carnegie became fascinated with success and its link to self-confidence, and his books have since sold over 50 million copies. [11]

Late 20th century

In the final third of the 20th century, "the tremendous growth in self-help self-improvement culture" [12] really took off—something which must be linked to postmodernism itself—to the way "postmodern subjectivity constructs self-reflexive subjects-in-process." [13] Arguably at least, "in the literature of self-improvement...that crisis of subject hood is not articulated but enacted—demonstrated in ever-expanding self-help book sales." [14]

The conservative turn of the neoliberal decades also meant a decline in traditional political activism, and increasing "social isolation; Twelve-Step recovery groups were one context in which individuals sought a sense of community...yet another symptom of the psychological of the personal" [15] to more radical critics. Indeed, "some social theorist[ sic ] have argued that the late-20th century preoccupation with the self serves as a tool of social control: soothing political unrest...[for] one's own pursuit of self-invention."' [16]

The market

Within the context of the market, group and corporate attempts to aid the "seeker" have moved into the "self-help" marketplace, with Large Group Awareness Trainings, LGATs [17] and psychotherapy systems represented. These offer more-or-less prepackaged solutions to instruct people seeking their own individual betterment,[ citation needed ] just as "the literature of self-improvement directs the reader to familiar frameworks...what the French fin de siècle social theorist Gabriel Tarde called 'the grooves of borrowed thought'." [18]

A subgenre of self-help book series also exists: such as the for Dummies guides [19] and The Complete Idiot's Guide to... —compare how-to books.


At the start of the 21st century, "the self-improvement industry, inclusive of books, seminars, audio and video products, and personal coaching, [was] said to constitute a 2.48-billion dollars-a-year industry" [20] in the United States alone. By 2006, research firm Marketdata estimated the "self-improvement" market in the U.S. as worth more than $9 billion—including infomercials, mail-order catalogs, holistic institutes, books, audio cassettes, motivation-speaker seminars, the personal coaching market, weight-loss and stress-management programs. Marketdata projected that the total market size would grow to over $11 billion by 2008. [21] In 2012 Laura Vanderkam wrote of a turnover of 12 billion dollars. [22] In 2013 Kathryn Schulz examined "an $11 billion industry". [23]

Self-help and professional service delivery

Self-help and mutual-help are very different from—though they may complement—service delivery by professionals: [24] note, for example, the interface between local self-help and International Aid's service delivery model.

Conflicts can and do arise on that interface, however, with some professionals considering that "the twelve-step approach encourages a kind of contemporary version of 19th-century amateurism or enthusiasm in which self-examination and very general social observations are enough to draw rather large conclusions." [25]


The rise of self-help culture has inevitably led to boundary disputes with other approaches and disciplines. Some would object to their classification as "self-help" literature, as with "Deborah Tannen's denial of the self-help role of her books" so as to maintain her academic credibility, aware of the danger that "writing a book that becomes a popular success...all but ensures that one's work will lose its long-term legitimacy." [26]

Placebo effects can never be wholly discounted. Thus careful studies of "the power of subliminal self-help tapes...showed that their content had no real effect...But that's not what the participants thought." [27] "If they thought they'd listened to a self-esteem tape (even though half the labels were wrong), they felt that their self-esteem had gone up. No wonder people keep buying subliminal tape: even though the tapes don't work, people think they do." [28] One might then see much of the self-help industry as part of the "skin trades. People need haircuts, massage, dentistry, wigs and glasses, sociology and surgery, as well as love and advice." [29] —a skin trade, "not a profession and a science" [30] Its practitioners would thus be functioning as "part of the personal service industry rather than as mental health professionals." [31] While "there is no proof that twelve-step programs 'are superior to any other intervention in reducing alcohol dependence or alcohol-related problems'," [32] at the same time it is clear that "there is something about 'roguishness' itself which is curative." [33] Thus for example "smoking increases mortality risk by a factor of just 1.6, while social isolation does so by a factor of 2.0...suggest[ING] an added value to self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous as surrogate communities." [34]

Some psychologists advocate a positive psychology, and explicitly embrace an empirical self-help philosophy; "the role of positive psychology is to become a bridge between the ivory tower and the main street—between the rigor of academe and the fun of the self-help movement." [35] They aim to refine the self-improvement field by way of an intentional increase in scientifically sound research and well-engineered models. The division of focus and methodologies has produced several sub fields, in particular: general positive psychology, focusing primarily on the study of psychological phenomenon and effects; and personal effectiveness, focusing primarily on analysis, design and implementation of qualitative personal growth. This includes the intentional training of new patterns of thought and feeling. As business strategy communicator Don Tapscott puts it, "The design industry is something done to us. I'm proposing we each become designers. But I suppose 'I love the way she thinks' could take on new meaning." [36]

Both self-talk, the propensity to engage in verbal or mental self-directed conversation and thought, and social support can be used as instruments of self-improvement, often by empowering, action-promoting messages. Psychologists have designed a series of experiments that are intended to shed light into how self-talk can result in self-improvement. In general, research has shown that people prefer to use second-person pronouns over first-person pronouns when engaging in self-talk to achieve goals, regulate one’s own behavior, thoughts, or emotions, and facilitate performance. [37] If self-talk has the expected effect, then writing about personal problems using language from their friends’ perspective should result in greater amount of motivational and emotional benefits comparing to using language from their own perspective. When you need to finish a difficult task and you are not willing to do something to finish this task, trying to write a few sentence or goals imaging what your friends have told you gives you more motivational resources comparing to you write to yourself. Research done by Ireland and others have revealed that, as expected, when people are writing using many physical and mental words or even typing a standard prompt with these kinds of words, adopting a friend’s perspective while freely writing about a personal challenge can help increase people’s intention to improve self-control by promoting the positivity of emotions such as pride and satisfaction, which can motivate people to reach their goal. [38]

The use of self-talk goes beyond the scope of self-improvement for performing certain activities, self-talk as a linguistic form of self-help also plays a very important role in regulating people’s emotions under social stress. First of all, people using non-first-person language tend to exhibit higher level of visual self-distancing during the process of introspection, indicating that using non-first-person pronouns and one’s own name may result in enhanced self-distancing. [39] [40] More importantly, this specific form of self-help also has been found can enhance people’s ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behavior under social stress, which would lead them to appraise social-anxiety-provoking events in more challenging and less threatening terms. Additionally, these self-help behaviors also demonstrate noticeable self-regulatory effects through the process of social interactions, regardless of their dispositional vulnerability to social anxiety. [40]


Scholars have targeted self-help claims as misleading and incorrect[ citation needed ]. In 2005, Steve Salerno portrayed the American self-help movement—he uses the acronym SHAM: the Self-Help and Actualization Movement—not only as ineffective in achieving its goals, but also as socially harmful. [2] "Salerno says that 80 percent of self-help and motivational customers are repeat customers and they keep coming back 'whether the program worked for them or not'." [41] Others similarly point out that with self-help books "supply increases the demand... The more people read them, the more they think they need them... more like an addiction than an alliance." [42]

Self-help writers have been described as working "in the area of the ideological, the imagined, the narrativized.... although a veneer of scientism permeates the[ir] work, there is also an underlying armature of moralizing." [43]

Christopher Buckley in his book God Is My Broker asserts: "The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one". [44]

In 1976, and a decade later in 1987, Gerald Rosen [45] [46] raised concerns that psychologists were promoting untested self-help books with exaggerated claims rather than conducting studies that could advance the effectiveness of these programs to help the public. Rosen noted the potential benefits of self-help, but cautioned that good intentions were not sufficient to assure the efficacy and safety of self-administered instructional programs. Some 40 years later, Rosen and colleagues have observed that many psychologists continue to promote untested self-help programs, rather than contribute to the meaningful advancement of self-help. [47] [48]

In the media

Kathryn Schulz suggests that "the underlying theory of the self-help industry is contradicted by the self-help industry’s existence". [49]

Parodies and fictional analogies

The self-help world has become the target of parodies. Walker Percy's odd genre-busting Lost in the Cosmos [50] has been described as "a parody of self-help books, a philosophy textbook, and a collection of short stories, quizzes, diagrams, thought experiments, mathematical formulas, made-up dialogue". [51] In their 2006 book Secrets of The SuperOptimist, authors W.R. Morton and Nathaniel Whitten revealed the concept of "super optimism" as a humorous antidote to the overblown self-help book category. In his comedy special Complaints and Grievances (2001), George Carlin observes that there is "no such thing" as self-help: anyone looking for help from someone else does not technically get "self" help; and one who accomplishes something without help, did not need help to begin with. [52] In Margaret Atwood's semi-satiric dystopia Oryx and Crake , university literary studies have declined to the point that the protagonist, Snowman, is instructed to write his thesis on self-help books as literature; more revealing of the authors and of the society that produced them than genuinely helpful.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Psychotherapy is the use of psychological methods, particularly when based on regular personal interaction with adults, to help a person change behavior and overcome problems in desired ways. Psychotherapy aims to improve an individual's well-being and mental health, to resolve or mitigate troublesome behaviors, beliefs, compulsions, thoughts, or emotions, and to improve relationships and social skills. There are also numerous types of psychotherapy designed for children and adolescents, such as play therapy. Certain psychotherapies are considered evidence-based for treating some diagnosed mental disorders. Others have been criticized as pseudoscience.

The term large-group awareness training (LGAT) refers to activities - usually offered by groups with links to the human potential movement - which claim to increase self-awareness and to bring about desirable transformations in individuals' personal lives. LGATs are noted for being unconventional; they often take place over several days.

Coaching is a form of development in which an experienced person, called a coach, supports a learner or client in achieving a specific personal or professional goal by providing training and guidance. The learner is sometimes called a coachee. Occasionally, coaching may mean an informal relationship between two people, of whom one has more experience and expertise than the other and offers advice and guidance as the latter learns; but coaching differs from mentoring by focusing on specific tasks or objectives, as opposed to more general goals or overall development.

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living, focusing on both individual and societal well-being. It studies "positive subjective experience, positive individual traits, and positive aims to improve quality of life." It is a field of study that has been growing steadily throughout the years as individuals and researchers look for common ground on better well-being.

Abraham Maslow American psychologist

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Unconditional positive regard, a concept developed by the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, is the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does, especially in the context of client-centred therapy. Its founder, Carl Rogers, writes:

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