Someone somewhere posted a link to a recent article from the Ottawa Citizen titled “Sorry Oprah: Self-help books seldom helpful“. The article goes on to say that one reason these books, which represent a multi-million dollar industry, don’t work is because they’re not scientifically-based. Tactics like chanting a self-affirmation aren’t necessarily proven to boost your self-esteem, for example. According to the article:
“In their study, psychologists Joanne Wood and John Lee from the University of Waterloo, and Elaine Perunovic from the University of New Brunswick found that individuals with low self-esteem actually felt worse about themselves after repeating positive self-statements such as “I am a lovable person” or “I will succeed,” typically found in many self-help books.”
However, I’d like to suggest another reason why self-help books don’t work, and it’s the same reason why other short-term interventions aimed at changing behaviour rarely work. Into this large dumpster, I’d add most team-building activities (rope courses? C’mon…) and leadership training (one week off-site sequestered with other leaders doing case studies and self-analysis).
It’s because there’s no follow-up once the course is done, the book is read and the activity is complete. None. Nada. The individual simply goes back to ‘real life’ and despite his or her best intentions, the old habits and patterns set in.
Now I enjoy a good self-improvement book as much as the next person, especially when it’s psychologically-tested and empirically-studied. I have several on my shelf that I would highly recommend. (And please do email me if you’d like to find out what they are!) But I can assure you from painful experience that just possessing the books does not mean you will become a better person. Just owning a book like Authentic Happinessdoes not, in fact, make you happier, great book though it is. Simply having The How of Happiness on your shelf does not actually get you the life you want, despite the subtitle.
Both of those books are brilliantly written by esteemed psychologists (Martin Seligman and Sonja Lyubomirsky, respectively) but those books will do nothing for you unless you follow through on the activities recommended in each tome, and consistently work to change old habits.
Yes – work.
It’s hard work to become happier. It’s hard work to change your perspective. It’s hard work to refocus your attention on the positive. And it’s hard work to remain accountable to yourself when it’s only you working at it.
My suggestion? Some form of social support. As a coach, I naturally have a bias to suggesting that you work with a trained, certified, professional coach. But that’s not within everyone’s budget. Yet some form of social support – a good friend, a spouse, a manager, a co-worker, a relative – can help you stay on track.
Of course you want to be sure that whatever technique you use for making that positive change is a valid one. If chanting self-affirmations doesn’t work for you, then don’t do it! Lyubomirsky’s book has a great self-test to help you determine which happiness activities you should try first, and all of her activities are scientifically tested.
But once you have made up your mind you’re going to make a change, you need support along the way.
And that’s why self-help books don’t work. Because in order to change yourself, you need more than just yourself.
Lisa Sansom has her MBA from the Rotman School of Management, and over two decades of experience in teaching and training. Her years of work in the organizational development field have included projects on change management, employee engagement, leadership development, team coaching and employer of choice strategies.