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Five self-help books that actually helped

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There’s something about self-help that is fundamentally uncool. Being into coin-collecting or Dungeons & Dragons is an order of magnitude more socially acceptable than having titles like “How to Get People to Like You” and “You Can Be Happy No Matter What!” staring out from your bookshelf.

Somehow it isn’t yet obvious that a persistent interest in self-improvement is probably the defining trait of the interesting and accomplished person. Self-help literature, though, is a particular kind of self-improvement. Turning to self-help is admitting you don’t quite know how to drive a regular human life. It’s like designating yourself with a voluntary “special needs” status.

I don’t think the need for some intentional re-balancing is special though. None of us are born knowing how to drive. It’s probably not unusual to feel like you’ve never been taught quite how to steer a human life competently, but it may be unusual to admit.

I think what makes us most suspicious of self-help is that we’ve all seen people who are constantly absorbing it and not changing a thing. There are self-help junkies out there — people who get high on the feeling that their life is improving simply by reading the book, yet never actually address their habits in everyday life. They get high on the feeling of possibility, and when the feeling fades they buy another.

Their mistake is simple: they’re missing the “self” part of self-help. Insights by themselves are useless without action, which is what changes lives. But you can get the self-help high just by reading, and that high is enough to make you feel (for the moment) that nothing needs fixing.

The self-help junkie habit is obvious and ugly to everyone else, and so the whole genre is reviled for its empty promises, rather than the reader for his total lack of responsibility. Consequently, self-help remains so uncool that even hipsters won’t touch it. 

Another reason these books are uncool is that most of them are crap. They tend to be written by psychologists who know a lot about what’s wrong with the reader but don’t have much in the way of charisma or writing chops, which makes the reading experience dry and kind of embarrassing. Their examples are cheesy and long-winded. Aside from being boring and clinical, they’re often just dorks.

There are gems though. Some of them, for me, were pivotal in developing in me a much freer and lighter way of moving through the world. Incorporating the bits that moved me and ignoring the rest, they helped me form a worldview that actually suits the world the way it is, and lets me live in it in a way where joy is normal and angst is the exception. So they should be read without shame.

The big ones:

1) Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (…and it’s all small stuff) – Richard Carlson

I was nearing my own rock bottom around ten years ago when a family member lent me this book. I was struggling in college. I had no self-esteem, a small and shrinking circle of friends, and couldn’t imagine how things could get better. I read it in a couple of bus commutes, and I could feel things lightening.

The whole book is 100 short strategies for dealing with day-to-day stresses and downers. Each one is about a page.

#22: Repeat to yourself, “Life isn’t an emergency.” #4: Be aware of the snowball effect of your thinking. #40: When in doubt about whose turn it is to take out the trash, go ahead and take it out. #76: Get comfortable not knowing.

It was my first exposure to the incredible leverage a person has by learning how to let life happen and respond calmly, rather than trying desperately to control what happens.

Since then I’ve noticed that that’s the basic difference between happy people and sad people: the happy people concern themselves with what they can do on their end. Sad people concern themselves with everything else.

Anyone could benefit from this book.

2) Wherever You Go There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Jon Kabat-Zinn is a stress management expert who has found that the most powerful tool for dealing with daily stress is mindfulness.

Wherever You Go There You Are amounts to an elegant introduction to informal meditation, but a person could get a lot out of it even if they have no intention of ever sitting cross-legged with closed eyes. You can feel your mind slowing down as you read the rough-cut recycled pages, its short passages intercut with Kabir and Rumi verses. Kabat-Zinn keeps it non-denominational and fluff-free.

If you spend a decade reading different people’s accounts of how to be happy, you discover that almost all of them can be boiled down to a few principles, and the primary one by far is to keep your attention in the present moment. That’s what mindfulness is. It is an art, and there may not be a gentler and more readable introduction to it than this book.

If you do check it out, and you like the tree he’s barking up, his later (and much larger) book Coming To Our Senses takes an even deeper look at mindfulness in real life.

3) The Four Agreements – Don Miguel Ruiz

In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz characterizes personal beliefs as agreements, which is right on the mark; nothing is true to you unless you agree that it is. If, in your eyes, you’re no good, you have agreed at some point that you are no good. You will live this truth until you stop agreeing. We typically don’t realize we’re constantly making these agreements, yet they define your personal world, which is the only world you’ll ever live in.

Ruiz advocates identifying and challenging all the agreements you’ve accumulated, and toss them out in favor of agreeing to four commitments:

Be impeccable with your word, don’t take anything personally, don’t make assumptions, and always do your best.

If you make those agreements it’s almost impossible to let yourself down, feel guilt or give in to fear. They short-circuit virtually all self-defeating human behaviors.

These days, rather than trying to be perfect each day with each agreement, I work the agreements backwards when things seem to be going wrong. Any time I feel stuck, it takes about five seconds to identify which of the four agreements I broke to get there. Either I’ve been untruthful in some way, I’m making assumptions, I’m taking something personally, or I’m cutting corners. I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten myself into trouble in any way other than those.

4) The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle

Oprah made him simultaneously popular and uncool in most demographics when she did a whole webseries on A New Earth, the follow-up to The Power of Now. He was attacked by the religious housewife contingent of Oprah’s audience for his “false religion” — which is all nonsense if you read A New Earth or its predecessor — they’re both nonreligious and straightforward. And he’s an extremely nice man.

The Power of Now is an exceptional book. It’s easy to recognize the primacy of living in the moment as an ingredient to happiness, and Eckhart Tolle is by no means the first to focus on it. But he goes further by articulating that it is not only the only path to happiness, but the entirety of the path — there’s nothing else you need to do, because all of our suffering comes from living in thoughts about a badly-remembered past or an imaginary future.

The concept is ancient, and Tolle credits the ancients for it, but he’s one of the first to deliver it in plain language with no religious coloring or mythological allegories. He just tells you how to do it.

5) This is How – Augusten Burroughs

If you still can’t get over your self-help gag reflex, then this is the one for you. Augusten Borroughs set out to write a self-helpful book derides certain self-help standards — particularly the catch-all prescription of positive thinking to everyone, when many help-seekers are people who are experiencing extreme suffering and suicidal thoughts.

A lot of self-help is rather generalized, for people who feel troubled but not quite maimed by serious instances of loss or abuse. Burroughs has had a difficult life, which he shares candidly in This is How, addressing his fellow sufferers of the worst baggage imaginable. The subtitle of the book is Help for the self: proven aid in overcoming shyness, grief, molestation, disease, fatness, lushery, spinsterhood, decrepitude and more, for young and old alike.

He really digs into the ugliness of personal suffering and tells you how to deal. Some of the chapter titles give a clue: How to Feel Like Shit, How to Be Fat, How to Get Over Your Addiction to the Past, How to End Your Life, How to Lose Someone You Love, How to Let a Child Die.

The tone is very different from traditional self-help. There’s no smileyness or pandering. Burroughs is blunt and a bit foul-mouthed, and tells you what’s going to work and what isn’t, if you really do want to get better. The result is refreshing. You feel like you’re being slapped and told how it is, rather than being hugged and told to think happy thoughts.


The way self-help works is by the adding up of poignant bits over time. Reading a great book like one of these can give you the feeling of breaking through in real-time, and it may even leave you different forever. But there are no cures — the rest of your life will always remain ahead of you, so it’s a matter of becoming better equipped to manage it.

Your natural skepticism and fluff-detector will dismiss a lot of what you read, and this is good, but certain aphorisms and skills will stick. Once in a while one will appear in your mind at exactly the right time, and you feel yourself doing something differently. And now a window is open where you didn’t know there was one. Your world has gotten a bit bigger, and a bit lighter.


Photo by angelocesare

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Johngary February 28, 2013 at 4:45 am

Two books changed my life, they are Think and grow rich and The secret.
It forced me to go after my dreams

rachid March 3, 2013 at 4:32 pm

I think “The Power of Now” is great book
thank you so much for sharing this list

Edwin Cooper March 8, 2013 at 9:33 pm

You forgot one little known book by an amazing author: Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self Help Book


This book is filled with insightful essays, soul gutting quizzes and some thought provoking thought experiments that will have you digging deep into your psyche.

Sometimes satire is the best way to convey a message. I love Walker Percy and believe he had a lot to say.

“The Power of Now” is one of my favorite all time books, however, and really changed my worldview. I had never really grasped living in the present before I read it.

Zenez March 21, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Beyond Success and Failure: Ways to Self-Reliance and Maturity by Beecher. period!

L.K.Adhikary March 26, 2013 at 7:06 am

Two books that actually changed my life are YOU CAN WIN by Shiv Khera and THE SECRET by Rhonda Byrne.I request you to add these two to your list name the site as seven self help books that actually helped.

Tine April 12, 2013 at 6:38 pm

self help books that changed my life, probably John Bradshaw’s books on the inner child, Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Alchemy, and Branden’s The Six pillars of self esteem has a ludicrous title but the content is quite valuable. I will stop now, could go on forever (Byron Katie Loving what is, here is another one)

John McDougall April 22, 2013 at 3:26 pm

I love your list, and the thoughtful insights you take the time to formulate. I’m really enjoying Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote, which despite being described as a “detox for the self-help junkie” in fact contains some beautiful passages and personal views which I felt inspiring for all the right-thinking reasons. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the same. Thanks again for a great blog, certainly the best of its kind I’ve seen.

MouthyGirl April 26, 2013 at 3:48 pm

I just ordered the Augusten Burroughs book, I listen more when I’m not pandered to, I find that insulting. I wouldn’t describe myself as a self help junkie but knowing that my past is nothing I want to model in the future…I have to get that info somewhere – and I’m not ok with the status quo, like ever. I’ve only just found Raptitude and I am pouring over as much as I can because I’ve come to much the same conclusions in my experience and if I can jump ahead on something I haven’t reached yet…WIN!

Jo Galloway May 17, 2013 at 5:45 pm

Love the blog….
I’ve only read The Power of Now from your list but several other self help books have been flicked through from time to time. I’m actually writing (or trying to) write a self help book myself as it happens. Its targeting adopted people and empowering them to discover the ‘me inside’ of themselves. It will be based around my own experiences around adoption and my journey which is still ongoing, to find the Me inside.
I certainly don’t want my book to be classed alongside those other non descript self help books that talk the talk but don’t really help people to walk the walk. Thats why I’m using my own experinces to illustrate points in the book. I feel its important for my target market to feel that there is a level of real empathy and understanding from me as well as recognising that not everyone in the same boat has the same experience. x

Roosevelt Gederman July 14, 2013 at 7:52 am

My dream retirement locale is Portugal! I have study that it is THE place to retire in Europe due to a lessen than average cost of living , a large coastline (so it’s easier to live close to the ocean), and less citizenship/visa red tape.

Jeremy August 14, 2013 at 12:01 am

Thanks for helping me spend my amazon gift card :) I’ve read so many of these books and now I’ve discovered more. My first read was the power of positive thinking and it’s amazing but years latter that book is still in my mind. The power so now is also a great one and I have it on CD and take it on all long trips with me.

Judy September 24, 2013 at 12:43 pm

I really appreciate your comments about how we need to actually change our habits and not just read about self-help concepts. It really resonated with me and sparked the motivation I needed!

Yuval Perry November 1, 2013 at 7:53 am

The power of now, was one of the best inspirational book I read, his writings are very precise and touch your soul directly, this way your self conscious start the awareness process.

Clara November 2, 2013 at 1:47 am

Hello David! Beautiful picture of man at library: pointing to humanity, and needs met by an important public service, and learning craved even when physically feeble. Will check out the last book you mentioned. Enjoyed article tone!

karl November 8, 2013 at 8:45 am

I went to the local library and asked the librarian where I could find the self-help section. She said, I could tell you, but that would be defeating the purpose.

Mary Lynn November 19, 2013 at 2:19 pm

Thank you for these suggestions. I have a added a few to my reading list for next month. If I could add just one book to this list I would choose What’s Next? by Joy Chudacoff http://whatsnextthebook.com/.
I’ve read it a couple of times over now and it has become somewhat of a go-to reference book for me now when I’m feeling in need of a bit of inspiration and focus on my work goals.

Ivo November 20, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Hello guys,

I would like to share with the group the following books: The magic of thinking big, 7 habits of highly effective people, the greatest salesman in the world, the richest man in Babylon, the monk who sold his ferrari. On business: think and grow rich plus Zig Ziglar and Brian Tracy material (books or audios)

The bible is also a good book for self improvement. I find Jim Rohn’s material very inspiring.

I subscribed to an audio-download company and I love to drive and listen to some great books. It might not work for you but for me is like a workout for the mind.

mitten November 22, 2013 at 12:36 am

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Briana Blair December 7, 2013 at 6:19 pm

I do think people miss the “self” part, as you mentioned. Reading alone will never help if you don’t put any effort into accepting that you’re broken and working to fix it.

As for the genre of self-help writing, most of it is boring rehashings and useless affirmations. When I wrote my self-help book I really tried to get to the core of what’s wrong with people and give them usable advice on how to change. Now with my blog I do the same thing. I give people examples that they can put into action right now, and I write a lot of content that doesn’t appear like self-help, but is designed to really make people think.

Od January 16, 2014 at 11:23 am

Hello sir! I’ve read all comments and reply and the post. I really appriciated your list. Some of books I haven’t read. I will read all of them. For me Tolle is number one as always.

Kevin Bradberry February 19, 2014 at 7:30 pm

I like your gritty opinion of self-help. It’s refreshing. Just subscribed to your blog.

Adam February 20, 2014 at 12:22 pm

I am an older college student that has not always done well in the academic field. I never thought I would be 24 years old and still pursuing my undergraduate degree, but it is something I want and know I need. I was wondering what book you recommend to help someone who is looking for motivation and to find their purpose in life?

Anna February 26, 2014 at 3:49 am

Gosh why is …. Non violent communication by Rosenberg not on your list? Have you read it but found these self help books better? I hope it’s just because you haven t read it ,because I’m running out of funds and was just starting to feel relieved that now I have NVc I don t have to spend any more of my family s money on self help books. When do you know when it’s time to stop?
I’m also reading the artists way which helps unblocking creativity…. Loving it! And recommend mixing NVc techniques for self empathy with Artists way book. Xxxxx ps why do I always try forcing everyone else into reading the same books as me. When will I find anyone that likes the same self help books as me? Thanks xxxxxannaxxx

David Cain February 26, 2014 at 8:43 am

I am a huge fan of Non-Violent Communication and I recommend it on my recommended books page. I don’t exactly consider it a “self-help” book though.

Anna February 28, 2014 at 8:11 am

Hi David, I so disagree that NVc is not self help! If we could stop judging ourselves and others and just realise that we are all giraffes with needs and feelings then there would be no need for any other self help book at all. Being out of touch with our needs and feelings and not being able to ask or express, is what causes all problems. I’m looking forward to your reply to this. Perhaps I’ve missed something. Xannax

Lincoln March 7, 2014 at 2:00 pm

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www.haitian-truth.org March 8, 2014 at 8:44 pm

A few years ago, one of our local residents, Mac Vorce, who is
also a bicycle enthusiast petitioned for the development of bicycle
paths and trails. Unfortunately Nora Ephron recently passed away,
but she left us with some of our most endearing romantic comedies of all time — from “When Harry Met Sally” to “Sleepless in Seattle”
and “You’ve got Mail. Whether these are taken live – while you are doing a real gig – or whether you have them done on a false stage, will depend on you.

Carla Clark March 12, 2014 at 3:51 am

This is an amazing article and also amazing comments. I have just released a neurooscience and psychology based anti-self-help self-help book called Mind Your Head. The scientific boom in research coupled with a desperate need to be done with hokeyness and get real, useful, applicable info out there that is heavily backed by science is what fueled the development of the book and so I thought it would be appropriate to share here: http://bit.ly/BestBrainBook

E.F Nicholson April 4, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Hi David, Thanks for the great list .I think someone else mentioned Byron Katie who I thought stood, just by the fact your are left with a concrete tool, that when applied really will work .
I think there is also an argument that the self-help genre has been co-opted ,or certainly supported buy, the pervasive culture of individualism and consumerism that we are immersed in. Rather than the focus of peoples unhappiness being directed toward environmental factors, such as poverty wages, debt slavery ,structural inequality, a media that has vested interest in people being unhappy with who they are ect.. much the self-help literature would like them to see it all being about just them. So when someone reads a book but find it really tough because they stressed about debt, working a double shift, raising to young kids on their own, have very little connection to nature or community, is it any wonder they find being “positive” just another chore to the list? Then compounding the damage is they feel even worse about themselves, as they struggle to feel the glass half full. Where they should have compassion for how well they are probably doing, given the harsh and uncaring environment they are working from .I know there can be a danger of justifying victimhood but I think for any method to support someone progressing, needs to factor in the environment that method is being attempted to be lived from. Who looks at a seed unable to take root and thrive and only looks at what’s wrong with the seed, not the earth, water or sunlight that seed has around it?Why are humans any different? I have put some thought about it here http://things-that-matter.net/2014/01/08/how-easy-is-it-living-life-and-being-happy-in-the-midst-of-our-modern-media-filled-world/ , but would love to hear some other perspectives about how much should personal development be coupled with what kind of environment people are attempting to develop within.

E.F Nicholson April 4, 2014 at 5:06 pm

Sorry i forgot to add this link to a book by David Edwards called
“Free to Be Human: Intellectual Self-defence in an Age of Illusions”
that one chapter looks at the role of self-help/psychology within the framework of a very subtle propaganda model.Its an excellent book, really gets you to to look at where many of our collective assumptions come from, would put it on my top 10

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