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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

Mark February 3, 2013 at 11:39 pm

There is a great little book by Andrew Boyd called Daily Afflictions. As opposed to affirmations, his book cuts through the hokeyness of other self-help and tells you the way things are. I found this title indispensable during a low point and have shared it with fellow seekers of answers to the difficulties we all get served.

Thanks for these suggestions, I am reading A New Earth now and it is excellent.

David February 4, 2013 at 6:59 am

There seems to be a sort of anti-self-help genre popping up, and the Augusten Burroughs book is one of them. I think it’s long overdue — the idea of self-improvement appeals to everyone, but the traditional hokey style it’s presented in is unpalatable to a lot of people.

Cathy Zheng February 4, 2013 at 1:02 am

I loved ‘Goals’ by Brian Tracey. Straightforward and effective

Kim walker May 10, 2013 at 12:07 am

indeed! Brian Tracy is a genius. It’s the only book I read, I’m interested in finding other books as well. What else do you think should I read next?

Kali February 4, 2013 at 2:27 am

I’ve read “The Four Agreements” twice at different moments of my life, and it is true that it is eye opening, if you’re ready to open your eyes. Have you read the next book from the same author and his son?

I think it is called “the Fifth Agreement”, and they both go into more details about the four agreements, and introduce the power of doubt. But not doubt in a negative way, doubt as in avoid being *certain* of anything. When you take the time to take it in, it really changes perspective on most life events.

radj February 4, 2013 at 2:46 am

Great post! I’m deeply interested in reading these books. Is this listed in reading order? If no, what would you suggest would be?

David February 4, 2013 at 7:00 am

I read them in the order above, but it doesn’t really matter. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff is the easiest read and probably the most immediately helpful.

Mary Woolson February 4, 2013 at 6:22 am

Admittedly, I am a self-help book queen. My bookshelves are filled with pages of insight from some of the best, including Ruiz and Tolle. I have always been searching for purpose and meaning. Finally, at nearly age 50, I have come to recognize that the person who so desired to be healed has found her purpose. I have been called to help others heal themselves as a health coach. Throughout the journey I was greatly inspired by Gregg Levoy’s “Callings.”

David February 4, 2013 at 7:01 am

It’s amazing to look back at how it felt to be “you” a few years ago, and realize how far you’ve come. I’m glad you made it!

Yitzhak February 4, 2013 at 6:25 am

In conjunction with reading Jon Kabat-Zinn on mindfulness, I’d also recommend Mattieu Ricard, in particular his book “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill.” It’s an impressive synthesis of ancient Buddhist traditions with the most contemporary scientific research. Ricard himself has been the subject of neuroscientific studies that empirically show the benefits of mindfulness meditation on maintaining balance in one’s brain.

David February 4, 2013 at 7:03 am

I think mindfulness is the key to untapping humanity’s potential, more than anything else is. It’s just so powerful. I’ll check it out if I come across it. For people not turned off by Buddhism, Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor is terrific.

LL February 4, 2013 at 7:03 am


We are kindred spirits. I’ve read nearly all of your selections – and yes I do wake up early every morning to meditate. I discovered Raptitude while in my first month on a vegan diet. I’m still not eating animal products and appreciate all you have written about it including giving up your V card. I read The Power of Now about 8 years ago over a weekend and literally woke up. It is incredibly powerful. Since then I’ve encountered essentially the same message in many other places, wrapped in different packaging. This information must come in to a person’s awareness when they are ready for it, wrapped in a package they will recognize. Like Oprah says, “Truth recognizes truth”. I gave that book away about a dozen times and I would guess that about 2 people “got it”. One I remember sending me a quick text that said “the Power of now – holy shit!”

So interesting that Augusten Burroughs made the list. I thought I had read all of his work. I adore that man! Have you read “Running with Scissors”? His life, his stories, his writing, his brutal honesty, his humility…I just love him.

Keep up the great work! I love looking for your email updates on Monday mornings.



David February 4, 2013 at 7:04 am

This is How is the first I had heard of Augusten Burroughs. I liked his style and would like to read more of his.

Linda February 4, 2013 at 7:14 am

Excellent list. I struggled with The Power of Now but really loved The New Earth. Augusten Burroughs ‘Dry’ is one of my favorite books ever. If you like him and haven’t read it you might want to check it out.

Sophia February 4, 2013 at 7:31 am

Nice work. I don’t know the other books, but the Power of Now would definitely be on my top five list – and probably the first. It’s so powerful, and so revolutionary. Even if it is a rehashing of ancient principles, you’ve got to give him credit for making something that would reach you so easily. Also, I think he teaches just with his presence or energy: especially watching him talk, it’s hard not to get drawn into that state.

I won’t list my top five but one book that came instantly to mind was “Johnathan Livingstone Seagull”. It’s fiction, and as such actually bypassed my new-age filter at the time when I wouldn’t normally read such stuff. But with the story it symbolizes so perfectly the journey of a person from conformity to creating themselves consciously and powerfully. It inspired me and made me think I might not be alone in thinking the world was crazy.

David Lynch February 4, 2013 at 7:48 am

Before the internet really took off, I was trying to help a friend who had some deep-seated emotional issues, and I referred him to a couple good books.

He eventually bought them, but after he did, he told me, “I’d feel more comfortable going up to the book store cashier with a stack of hard-core porno than with a stack of self-help books.”

I like that this post deals with that stigma and resistance.

David February 4, 2013 at 3:10 pm

The stigma is kind of bizarre. We all need help with life. We’re just not supposed to admit it.

Kevin Cole February 4, 2013 at 8:34 am

Hey David,

You continue to bring great content every week man. This is one of the few blogs I genuinely get excited to read.

Out of these books, I have only read “The Power Of Now,” but will be adding the other ones to my list. “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff” looks really good. I often struggle with those anxiety-filled moments of day to day life. It’s something I’m consciously working on and a book like that sounds like it would be very beneficial.

Another great book is “Man’s Search For Meaning” written by a psychologist who survived the Holocaust. Have you read it?

David February 4, 2013 at 3:11 pm

I just read Man’s Search For Meaning. Loved it.

Melanie February 4, 2013 at 8:49 am

“A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” by Donald Miller is simply beautiful. Yes, he’s a Christian writer – but he’s also a liberal Christian writer, and has a different stance than most in the genre. The book is basically an encouragement to do more with your life than what is expected/typical. “Love Does” by Bob Goff is also beautiful – and is the idea that the more you give yourself away and love others, and are sacrificial in your love and time the happier you will be. Not to mention Bob has led just an incredible life (encouraged his kids to send letters to world leaders – got responses from said leaders – went all around the world meeting them and in the process became an ambassador). Both great books, very encouraging – but also – the idea that happiness, true happiness, really isn’t about ‘self’ at all.

David February 4, 2013 at 3:13 pm

> Both great books, very encouraging – but also – the idea that happiness, true happiness, really isn’t about ‘self’ at all.

That’s a great point. Donald Miller is on the list :)

Patricia February 4, 2013 at 9:00 am

Hi David, I’ve read 3 of these books and agree, especially the Eckhart Tolle, which I keep at my bedside, and often open a random page to read before attempting to relax into sleep. It helps to still the mind. But I have to suggest to you one of the best books out there, that explains precisely and scientifically the workings of the mind (without being dull), which is Joe Dispenza’s “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself.” It kicks you up a level in understanding that has helped me be more mindful about how my thoughts are bringing my life to life! Check it out!

David February 4, 2013 at 3:15 pm

I have that book on my bookshelf, haven’t read it yet. I got it based on a recommendation from someone in the comments. Was it you?

Terri Lynn February 4, 2013 at 9:58 am

Great article. I am a recovering self help junkie. The mind is so quick to turn truths into concepts and keep them tucked away as mental constructs. It has to be embodied and owned. It’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom. It was Byron Katie and Adyashanti who broke that spell. Adya’s latest is short, to the point and free to download. http://www.adyashanti.org/wayofliberation/
You would likely enjoy Jed McKenna’s ‘Spritually Incorrect Enlightenment’

David February 4, 2013 at 3:20 pm

“Spiritually incorrect” sounds right up my alley.

frank smith March 11, 2013 at 8:39 pm

Hi Now your talking.
Osho’s book’ the mustard seed’ brings Jesus’s teaching into a spiritual plane.
well worth the read.

Also he was very Spiritually incorrect as you will realise if you read his many books

Mark Steele February 4, 2013 at 10:01 am

I’ve read a couple on your list and I’ll check out the rest. But based on my happiness level and what’s on my shelves, I’m having to conclude that I’m more into buying books than fixing my life. :)

David February 4, 2013 at 3:25 pm

I have a ton of unread books sitting on the shelves. I’ve decided I won’t buy any new books this year.

My happiness level has gone up dramatically though since I started reading this material. The real cause is habit-changing, not book-reading, but I guess the idea is that the latter encourages the former.

Lorraine James February 4, 2013 at 11:34 am

I had a couple of books like that a long time ago. Then, I latched onto those, “Think & Grow Rich” books, even one titled that. Haven’t gotten rich yet though. I liked how inspirational they were, that I could be rich someday.

David February 4, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Hi Lorraine!

Maybe if you haven’t grown rich yet, you haven’t been thinking enough :)

Napoleon Hill is a bit dated by now but there are a whole lot of self-made people who say he was their inspiration. I know I feel great when I listen to his audiobooks.

Kimolisa February 4, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Out of the five books, I’ve read one – The Power of Now. I’ve heard of The Four Agreements and it’s on my list of books to read. I agree with you when you said to learn and not act is useless. That was my case, I understood the theory but I was not doing the practice. It was when I did the practice, i.e. applied the theory to my day to day life that I really felt like I was on the right track in terms of my self help.

I also sense the other side of the self help industry which reminds me of the weight loss industry. The theory is sold and repeated but the actual info on practice are held back because it’s simple but requires a lot of work. For my personal journey I keep in mind that the Buddha would give his teaching and leave it to his student to do what they wish with it. I will continue to read and learn but I will pick and choose what I will use in my lif.

Great article.

David February 4, 2013 at 3:29 pm

I think there is a parallel with the weight-loss industry, but it’s not nearly as insidious. The issue with the weight-loss industry is that the selling point of any new equipment or program is that this New Thing finally makes it easy to lose weight. But lasting weight change always amounts to a dramatic lifestyle change, and that’s just not what they’re selling. Self-help tends to be more earnest, but there is a lot of “me-too” fluff out there, and none of it works without personal initiative, no matter what book is serving as the inspiration or instruction.

Andy February 4, 2013 at 12:25 pm

‘This is how’ is the Breaking Bad of self-help books. By that I mean it just blows the rest of the genre away with its clarity, intelligence and emotional honesty.

David February 4, 2013 at 3:30 pm

It really is something special. I have the audiobook version which is probably even better, because you get his scorned tone of voice with it.

Tiffany February 21, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Andy wrote my thoughts exactly. Thanks for recommending this book, David. I was glad to see my library had it on audiobook. And you’re right, it is better to hear his tone of voice!

Colin February 4, 2013 at 1:38 pm

I discovered this blog a couple weeks ago and it’s really great! I’ve only read Tolle’s book which was truly, truly special. Personally I found some of the data in Scientology helpful in recognising what is going in in myself and others and much of it has stayed with me, (I wouldn’t go anywhere near the church however!). As you say, being present seems to be the key.

Nathan February 4, 2013 at 1:58 pm

If you really want a great book to read that I would consider self help is the 7 habits of highly effective peope by Stephen Covey. Its practical, not full of mumbo jumbo and can be applied immediately in your life. I own at least a couple of the books you listed and although they were ineresting reads at least for me were full of metaphysical jargon that while feels good does not truly bring any real world practical value to ones life. 7 Habits however, is the number 1 selling Business book out there. Even though its sold as a business book there is no area of ones life that this book won’t help a person with.

David February 4, 2013 at 3:32 pm

I have read the 7 Habits and I still have “Be proactive” and “Use your R and I” in my head years later, and have gotten a lot of mileage out of them. The book was kind of dry though, and ended up getting the audiobook on sale, which is also dry. But the ideas are indispensable. It’s famous for a reason.

Maia February 4, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Hi David,

thanks for the list. Interesting you say that self-help isn’t cool, it’s true, although I think it should be cool and I believe it is getting cooler. It seems to be more acceptable nowadays to read self-help, and even this blog is kind of about personal development isn’t it?
Self-help isn’t cool I guess, as you say because people don’t like admitting that they are not perfect, but there should be nothing wrong with that.
How many people go through life not fulfilling their potential or being utterly miserable, but they won’t read self-help, because it’s cheesy and uncool, but sometimes a simple lesson could change their lives?
I am a self-help junkie (could you tell? :-) and frustratingly as you say there have been many times where I have read a book and can’t for the life of me remember what was in it, and you do get a self-help high just from reading it.
But, although most things from these books have been forgotten, some key ones have stayed.
Power of Now was definitely one of them and also the power of positive thinking (from many books combined), and also a book on meditation.
Even if some self-help books are read and then forgotten and not implemented, I would still see them as ‘cooler’ than watching rubbish TV, playing video games or reading novels with no meaning in them just for entertainment. At least self-help gives you a momentary positive high at the least and possibly a lasting change at best.
For me the lure of self-help is the constant hope that perhaps I’ll learn something new to improve my life even further.
But for me the books that had a most lasting impact on me, didn’t necessarily tell me something I hadn’t heard before, but somehow made me understand, making it really hit home, so I finally implemented it. It’s not always what’s written in the book itself but the mental process it sparks off in your mind when you start thinking about it and perhaps come to some positive conclusion/realisations on your own.
We need to make self-help cool!

David February 4, 2013 at 3:34 pm

>Even if some self-help books are read and then forgotten and not implemented, I would still see them as ‘cooler’ than watching rubbish TV, playing video games or reading novels with no meaning in them just for entertainment.

I totally agree. The uncool thing is often the harder and more rewarding thing. The high-hanging fruit.

Nev February 4, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Hi David,

Freshly minted insights pour from every page in this one:-
Notes to Myself – by Hugh Prather.

Way before blogs, this was written in the seventies. Just someone being incredibly mindful and truthful; it’s a little book that you want to drop in peoples lap from time to time. It doesn’t feel like self-help; it feels like a friend. It does help though!

Diane February 4, 2013 at 6:44 pm

Another one by Hugh Prather was important to me years ago:
“How to Live in The World and Still Be Happy”
Actually found a great synopsis on line while I was Googling to check the title:

Terri Lynn February 4, 2013 at 7:29 pm

oh yes, here is another one that was useful. I guess I still am a junkie :)
Busting Loose From the Money Game: Mind-Blowing Strategies for Changing the Rules of a Game You Can’t Win
-Robert Scheinfeld

It Calls Me Onanon February 4, 2013 at 10:02 pm

I think that often people that devote themselves to “self-help” tend to base their wisdom off of their personal anecdotes and ultimately miss the greater observation about humanity and what they say seems to lack charisma because it doesn’t appeal to a broad set of circumstances.

I find that they usually say things that don’t help with nuances outside of their social class (or any aspect that defines what particular sect of life they experience). They fail to identify what parts of the “math” adding up to their conclusions were circumstantial or a result of specific sets of personal preferences and guidelines–things that can only come from a background similar to their own!

I think, personally, that people don’t change partly because of their own dysfunction, but also because the guru’s wisdom is over-simplified or convoluted and it reinforces the readers’ sense of direction-toward-change as a short, temporary “solution” devoid of much real insight or perspective. It just doesn’t apply to the rest of their lives.

As for the self-help guys being “psychologist” types, they only fit that description in the manner they use to reconcile issues–they over-simplify problems into “diagnoses” instead of looking at each separate facet individually and determining the immediate cause & effect occurring. Psychologists tend to parse the world into cookie-cutter diagnoses and so we have “psychologist-types.”

Elwin Bagley February 24, 2013 at 2:55 am

YEA It Calls Me Onanon
You hit the tack on the head. Most self help books seem to be written by authors that are so called philosophers who want to pump up their ego and make money.And they do it by telling thier heroic stories about how they succeeded in overcoming thier problems by overecoming these fancied troubles.
There is one that comes to mind about an author who writes that he suddenly became enlightened when waking up with a hangover and seeing the light, then going on a flashback trip of some kind that had him sittiing on park benches and losing all responsibility for years. then coming out of it and making a good life by telling other people about his experience.
GET the behind me Saten

Chetan Sharma February 4, 2013 at 10:53 pm

Thanks a lot! Now I’ve made a new ‘To Read’ list after reading this..

Buck February 5, 2013 at 1:03 am

Thanks so much for sharing your taste, David. I will remember this article down the road when I need reminders and/or guideposts for creating my path in life.

Karen February 5, 2013 at 1:26 am

Perhaps you could call them inspirational books, not self help books!
Mine just “came along” at the right time, looking back!
Some that I still dip into years later:
Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach
‘The Artist’s Way’ & ‘Vein of Gold’ by Julia Cameron
Universal Heart by Stephanie Dowrick
The Alchemist by Paul Coelho
and the Four Agreements too

Sam February 5, 2013 at 4:59 am

Well this is not a self help book , but have you read zen and art of motorcycle maintenance yet. I see that it is still in your bucket list.

Mark February 5, 2013 at 5:05 am

Interesting concept a self-help book. Almost an oxymoron if taken literally. You can help someone, but can you help yourself without an external reference point? You have to be shown or taught new ideas or skills. Once you gain these you’re not “self helping”, instead aren’t you simply taking on the ideas and concepts of another, being guided by their reference points, morals, mores and prejudices.

Mind you, I wish I had their money :)

Martina February 5, 2013 at 7:47 am

There is so much out there….I’ve read a lot of them, depending on what stage of my life I was in. A lot of them are plain money-makers for the authors, many are very useful, some are delusional and unrealistic. I started reading The Power of Now, but couldn’t get into it THEN… a good one that I read recently was “Reverse” by Ondrej Zouhar and Anze Mofor. A good across the board view of principles for leading balanced life. I’ve given it as a present to a lot of my friends who are either new to the whole concept of balanced living or are in the “I’m so confused with my life” stage. Definitely recommended!

elizabeth keith February 5, 2013 at 8:23 am

i’ve stayed away from self-help genre, religious or not.
This article lists all the reasons quite precisely, then brilliantly gives 5 examples i am going to add to my collective.
“Insights by themselves are useless without action, which is what changes lives.”
i have had a pastor recommend the Ruiz book..
thanks for this article

Ron Potter February 5, 2013 at 9:05 am

Thanks for the article. Someone shared it with me. I read many self help books, and ultimately started doing Holosync meditation which really helped me to do the things that the self help teachers were advocating. Byron Katie was a big influence and Tolle, and I think it is an industry that has a far greater impact than it is given credit. I have to mention Abraham-Hicks as well who has taught me the best strategies for keeping my mind on track.

Ondrej Zouhar February 5, 2013 at 9:07 am

Very nice article, I enjoyed part about reading, but still not putting action into own life.
I published book Reverse and I like to always tell people that this book will show you how to improve life, but will not do it for them without their active pursuit. I call it “mental masturbation” when folks go to seminars, church and read books, but they still feel like victims without practicing what they learned in their life.
Again, thank you David for sharing your ideas and books that helped you I enjoyed your article very much.
With love Ondrej Zouhar

Fa. February 5, 2013 at 8:51 pm

Hello David, loved your list (and LOVE Raptitude..) It’s funny what we consider ‘self-help’ means to us personally.. I’ve read some of the books on your list but one that really knocked my socks off was ‘The Disappearance of the Universe’ by Gary Renard. Over 5 years ago I ordered a book from Amazon and received this one (uhh, by accident?..) from the bookseller..
I’m glad I did. I hope you get curious enough to read it some day.. Hugs.

Kristina February 6, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Hi David,

A great book selection! Three others that have similar ‘you won’t be the same after you read this’ feelings are:
– The Art of Possibility
– How to Stop Worrying and Start Living
– The Art of Loving

The messages in these books have stuck with me.

Reikalein February 7, 2013 at 12:30 am

It’s funny, I’ve never considered myself a self-help book type of person, and strictly speaking, if you browse my bookshelf, I still haven’t forayed into that genre. If you read between the lines though, possessing books written by Michael Pollan and the book I’m reading now about sugar and obesity by Dr. Robert Lustig suggest that I am surreptitiously dipping my toes into the category. I used to be a sugar addict, like most people we know. I needed help. I was inspired by a blog and then went and bought books that would help me recalibrate my eating patterns and palate. I wasn’t overweight, but knew that my addiction was detrimental to my health and could eventually lead to my ballooning in size, so I sought help, albeit not as obviously as if I had bought a self-help book for food addicts. I chose to educate myself in order to change my habits. It’s less of a spoon-fed help approach, I guess. Pardon my crappy pun.

To be honest, I find for any other moment of helplessness (admittedly, like you, I have little to legitimately complain about) that blogs are the best way for me to assimilate my problem with others’. If I can find a blog where someone has coherently written up their experiences in similarly turbulent times, then this will most likely provide the insight I need. The comments often prove to be invaluable too. It’s all just more human and I think we crave the reassurance that we’re not alone in the matter we’re facing – books achieve that to an extent, but artificially so, using statistics as opposed to real voices.

mariavlong February 7, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Dear God you are about to get(or are already buried in) a tsunami of titles. Please consider my contribution to that project: The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer. Please believe me when I tell you that I am uniquely qualified to give you this suggestion because: A) I own a massive library of self help circa 1980’s to present. B) I have changed. Exhibit A) I was mildly agorophobic and never learned to drive (one of your examples) and I changed enough to just having bought my first car ever. Exhibit B) Starting with your 88 things, Your blog has been my most helpful online source for self help(hahaha!) which has yielded tangible measurable results in many areas of my life, and I usually don’t heed the advice of whipper snappers who happen to be a couple of decades younger than me. :)

Vinita March 4, 2013 at 4:52 pm

I second that vote. I’ve also read a lot of the books mentioned here but there is something about The Untethered Soul that resonated with me. Almost like sitting down with a wise, down-to-earth and yet enlightened friend.

Maryam February 7, 2013 at 4:35 pm

What did people do before the self-help book boom? Decades ago, centuries ago? I think that is a key question to put things into perspective. They used stories, lore and art and wise sayings of old to keep them and their loved ones in a good mental place. But it wasn’t a relentless and insatiable gorging, it was the backbone of a cultural form which reminded people on a daily basis the fundamental truths (can I dare say that in this day and age?!) of human existence. It doesn’t take a thousand words; a one liner from granny would do. Nor a thesis on why it’s better to think one way over another, an example from Aesop would do (although I’d be quite happy with Tolstoy). Nor a 12 step plan with optional support group; a couple of choices and family support or outcasting depending on which choice was taken. Religion may be blamed for messing up many a mind but it too had and has a role to play in terms of guidance and faith and the direction and nature of one’s thoughts. That direction has been towards selfishness rather than selflessness and we have more time and resources to indulge in thinking about our selves and how to better our selves. The intention may be good but our focus has been on us rather than others and this is the crucial point; we humans have always been part of something bigger than ourselves but now our selves have got bigger and everything else is a part of us.

Terri Lynn February 9, 2013 at 12:26 am

I think the best self help guru out there is Cesar Milan. People think they are learning to train their dog but are learning to change their behaviour (to calm and assertive) so that the dog behaves. Its the best kind of self help, and it includes the constant feedback from an unconditional loving friend. Every day a dog (and his owner) need:
Exercise – walking a dog at least one hour every day, and in the correct way.
Discipline – giving a dog rules, boundaries, and limitations in a nonabusive manner.
Affection – a reward we give to our dogs and to ourselves, but only after the dog has achieved calm submission in our “pack”.

Jon February 9, 2013 at 10:24 am

“Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the better self-help books I’ve come across. It deals with the science of happiness based on extensive research. Amazon has 80+ reviews. You can learn more there.

Hannah February 9, 2013 at 1:59 pm

“Somehow it isn’t yet obvious that a persistent interest in self-improvement is probably the defining trait of the interesting and accomplished person.” REALLY resonated with that. I find it so ridiculous that there is a section of the bookstore and genre of literature titled Self Help. again, ~Somehow~ growing is not a hobby for most. I like to say, if it isn’t growing in someway it’s probably dead.
Anyway, really enjoyed this, and on this topic, Wayne Dyer’s Your Sacred Self was awesome. I like to describe it as an outline of Ego-based behavior and Higher-self behavior. Makes the key step of changing habits easier in my opinion because he details all the little ways our Ego has us acting on a day to day basis.
thank you!

Ashley February 13, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Great article. I have to agree that there are a lot of crap self-help books around, however there are also some really great ones too. I recently stumbled across a life changing book for me, Bill Sims, Jr.’s latest book, “Green Beans & Ice Cream.” I was having problems with my teenager and what Bill’s book taught me was to implement more positive reinforcement into our relationship, and taught me how to do it. I guess my point is that people shouldn’t shoot all self-help books down. You never know when one will change your life. Oh, and Terry, I completely agree with you… I love Ceasar Milan as well. He too has made a world of difference in our home.


Hamlet February 14, 2013 at 1:00 pm

One way to avoid the embarrassment of displaying self-help books is to buy (and read) philosophical classics. This tactic has its own unfortunate baggage, such as pretentiousness, but classic philosophy is much more practical and self-help-oriented than its modern academic counterpart. These suggestions are from the ancient Stoics:
1. The Enchiridion (The Handbook), by Epictetus
2. Letters to a Stoic, by Seneca
3. Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Calvyn February 19, 2013 at 8:31 am

Quite surprised to see Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff in this list, but yes I agree it should be here! Simple words, yet profound meanings :D

John Pollard February 23, 2013 at 7:21 pm

If you are looking for lasting self-help it’s quite useful to get at the core operating system of the human bio-computer. Foundational self-help concepts (missing in books you described) are explained here for novice to expert.

SELF-Parenting: The Complete Guide to Your Inner Conversations

Daniel February 24, 2013 at 6:20 pm

Great list of books David ! I’ll make sure to check them out.

Amie Lout February 26, 2013 at 12:45 pm

I came across a great workbook, Thinking Anew: Harnessing the Power of Belief by Richard Quis. It was awesome, a really great practice in writing and self help. Can really be applied to whatever life situation you’re in. helpthinkinganew.com if anyone wants to take a look. I have a list just from these comments I need to go look at! Thanks!

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

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and bands they need a lot of lead-time. his
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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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