Since the start of 2021 many of our bookshelves have been awash with self-help books to guide us in tackling the times which lay ahead. Although books on self-improvement are of course intended to help people, they are oftentimes written by overly enthusiastic and overly insightful people who set unrealistic expectations for how to approach life’s adversities. During these testing times, when a head-on stance needs to be taken instead of sugar-coating reality with positivity, I strongly believe that we should call for some honest introspection on whether or not these books actually help or if the rise of literary mindfulness is just another means of attempting to fill the void left by 2020. In other words, are self-help books actually that helpful?

Self-help books that focus on what we lack

For several years, I have been interested in personal development as a means to grow and become a better person. I value the insight and perspective which many self-help books offer. You only have to walk into my room which is plastered in inspirational quotes to gauge my optimistic outlook on life.  

Nevertheless, one thing that I disagree with in regard to many self-help books is the way that they perpetually focus on everything we want to be, do, or have, as it only highlights what we lack and thus diminishes the value of what we already have. In other words, self-help books which tell us to be more positive and happier emphasise that we are neither of these things already. Constantly focusing on what you want to be ultimately leads to people feeling dissatisfied and unhappy because they believe that what they have in the present moment is not good enough. For example, practising positive affirmations such as saying, “I am happy” ironically emphasises that you are not actually happy because if you were, would you really need to constantly remind yourself of this? 

Happiness should not be dependent upon materialism 

Our society is predicated on the idea that your happiness depends upon external factors such as living in a bigger house, having more money, or taking more trips abroad. By constantly chasing surface level achievements in the pursuit of happiness, it paradoxically makes you feel more unhappy. 

As stated by Mark Manson in his novel, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, which takes a counterintuitive approach to traditional self-help novels; “the desire for a more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience”. 

Particularly during these times, I think that instead of consulting self-help books to achieve our ultimate goal of happiness, we should re-evaluate where we attain our greatest sense of fulfilment. Meaningful actions which transcend the surface level include helping others, staying connected to loved ones, and using your creativity. Self-help books tend to detract from achieving a true state of fulfilment by attributing happiness to materialistic pleasures in our capitalist society. The short-term satisfaction derived from these pleasures only covers up a deeper craving for happiness; I think that particularly right now, we should be focusing on how to reach true fulfilment through other means than just trying to be more productive, make more money or fill our days with activities. 

Unrealistic expectations set by self-help books

Over the years I have read many self-help books which advocate habits such as counting your blessings every day, exercising to release endorphins, meditating, or colouring in mindfulness books. Whilst these are all great habits to adopt, and I am in no way undermining the positive effects of these activities, sometimes all I want to do at the end of a bad day is curl up on the sofa with a big tub of ice cream and watch Netflix. The overly positive and unrealistic expectations set by self-help books can often make us feel guilty on such days when colouring in a book is bound to have no effect on your overall mood. Thus, I tend to take advice from self-help books with a pinch of salt, particularly right now, during this lockdown. I would like to remind people to be kinder to themselves and to not feel guilty for not waking up at 5am to go on a 10-mile run and take Instagram worthy food photos. Life is all about ups and downs and the unrealistic expectations set by self-help books during these testing times need to be recognised. 

There is a time and place for self-help books

In a similar way to the beauty industry profiting off of people’s insecurities through cosmetic sales, I would argue that self-help books are profiting off of people’s pursuit of happiness. As great as meditating or doing yoga is, it could also be seen as a means to suppressing emotions with airy fairy surface level solutions. Sure, both of those things may make me feel better in the short term but if I have just lost my job, the last thing that is going to help is standing in front of the mirror telling myself “I am happy”. Therefore, I believe that there is a time and a place for self-help books and more often than not, when it comes to dealing with the tough stuff in life, like a global pandemic, a better solution is needed. 

Shifting perspective

In spite of my strong advocacy for self-help books, over the past year I have concluded that the acceptance of reality is far more liberating. Life is unfair to the best of us and not every day is going to be amazing. 

Instead of sugar-coating reality with positivity 24/7, I have started to deal with situations more honestly and head-on. Everything worthwhile in life is achieved through surmounting the associated negative experience, so, for as many trials and tribulations we face in the end, it teaches us to become more resilient people who can deal with the hurdles life throw as us. 

I am not going to deny that some self-help advice is useful, such as practising gratitude and surrounding yourself with good, positive people. However, I think that sometimes it can be taken too far, and it stops people from dealing with real underlying issues. This can lead to living in oblivion to your emotions by trying to deceive yourself that you are happy when in reality you hate your job, are in a toxic relationship, or are using unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with your issues. Telling yourself that you are happy, positive, or satisfied when you are actually not hinders both growth and action. 

So, what is the solution? 

As with all things in life, the usefulness of self-help books is relative. For some they may work, for others they are a bunch of nonsense. However, if you are the former then I would encourage you to question whether the advice you take from these books is preventing you from facing the real issues at hand. Many people end up kidding themselves into believing that they are happy instead of going through the challenge of changing their predicament. Self-help books are useful, but they really only are a guide. I believe that learning from personal experiences is the most effective way to bring about change. At the end of the day, life is hard, as this year has testified, it is by tackling the hard stuff that you truly grow and become a more resilient person. 

Khadijah Ali

Outside of her German degree, Khadijah is a blog writer, artist and yoga enthusiast. She enjoy writing about personal development, life advice and lessons from her travels.