Why self-help books don't work

Feline self-affirmations - not scientifically proven

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:

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 Happiness does 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

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.

Reader Interactions


  1. Reb says


    Really good post, and great points particularly about social support. But I have to push back on the very title of your post. What does it mean to say a self-help book “works”? I would suggest that one of the primary reasons we say blanket statements like self-help books don’t work is because of our misaligned expectations (which I admit arise significantly in part due to marketing claims). What if we went into reading a self-help book hoping not that it would “change our lives” but instead that it would provide the spark, the seeds, for such change? Frankly, I would suggest that should be our hope with all external change agents, be they books or coaches or even ropes courses. In the Chris Feudtner sense, we probably need to accept that our big hope for self-help books is infeasible while recognizing that we have other, more specific hopes that might be realized. Change requires sustained effort and support, just like you said. Once we move past our unrealistic hopes that a book or coach or course will magically circumvent those facts, we can begin to recognize and extract the value that these resources can provide.



  2. LVS Consulting says

    Hey Reb – you always raise such great points. I’m glad to have you do that on my blog!!!

    I agree with you – we don’t clearly define “works” when it comes to self-help books, and the title of this blog is mostly a tip of the hat to the original article that inspired my thinking.

    Your post also reminds me of a MAPP assignment that we had about inspirational positive movies and what behaviour change you, as the viewer, made in your life as a result. The spark for change can come from anywhere – a casual conversation, a random glance at an ad while passing by on a bus, a TV show… Why not a self-help book? This also makes me think about the strength of open-mindedness, and how that comes into play…

    So I’m with you – yes, hard work is required, and the spark has to come from somewhere… internal or external. But someone who reads a self-help book – even scientifically-based and empirically-tested – and expects magic is probably looking for love in the wrong places… 🙂

    – Lisa

  3. Jeremy McCarthy says

    I’m not a coach and don’t have that bias. But I agree with you that change takes hard work and a coach can help push us in almost every possible area of life. Whether it’s a personal trainer at the gym, financial planner, mentor or life coach, getting the perspective of someone outside the situation is usually helpful. And most of the benefit comes from being pushed to get the work (that we all know needs to be done) done.

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