Two weeks ago I launched my first so-called self-help book: No More Bananas: How to Keep Your Cool in the Collective Madness. It is a book that offers practical advice for staying calm and confident in today’s stressful world of social media and information overload. Even though very well-intended, I realize that its effect may be quite limited. Because, as it turns out, the effectiveness of self-help books is debatable—to say the least. Why is this and what can we do to make them more effective?
There certainly is no shortage of self-help books. Thousands of them are available and new ones appear every day. And they are popular too. Millions of copies have been sold of Mark Manson’s 2018 “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” and Steven R. Covey’s 1989 “The 7 habits of Highly Effective People“—to single out a recent example and a classic.
Despite their popularity, though, there is a lot of criticism on self-help books. These can be grouped into three categories:
- Bad effect: Self-help books give wrong and sometimes harmful advice, they give false hope, they make uncertain people just feel worse about themselves, or they make people refrain from seeking professional support.
- Placebo effect: If they already work, it is not because of the advices given in the self-help books, but because of the fact that people pay attention to something that they didn’t pay attention to before.
- No effect: Even though people may find self-help books interesting to read (or just have), they don’t work because the advices are just common sense or overly simplistic and people don’t do anything with them.
Such critiques appear in the news (like here and here), in posts that people write (like here and here) and also in various books (like here and here). The sheer volume of the criticisms and the tone of many of them, make it seem that bashing self-help books is as popular as the self-help books themselves.
I want to zoom in on the third point above: the observation that self-help books often have no effect. The other two points are interesting as well, but depend very much on the kind of self-help book and the specific advice that is offered. The last point, though, is more general. So, why don’t self-help books have the effect that is hoped for by the authors?
The main reason, as this article in the Journal of Happiness Studies suggests, is often the reader him or herself. When reading a self-help book, it is us who decide whether or not to do something with it. And usually we don’t. We have glance at the book, read the blurbs or even actually read the book, but then we go on minding our usual business. And we can freely do that. There is no therapist, coach or teacher telling us what to do or keeping us on track.
While hiring a self-help book coach could be one solution, I have asked myself numerous times while writing No More Bananas, how I can help the reader to actually apply the advice on his or her own—without needing someone to play the self-help police. Of course that started with making the advice very practical. But that is not enough, because many of the self-help books around do contain quite practical advices that can be easily applied.
Interestingly enough I found an answer when staying a couple of times in a Benedictine monastery. What I learned there is how you should read texts in order to really learn something from them. The “technique” they use is is called lectio divina, which means ‘divine reading’. Originally, this referred to reading God’s word, but it can be applied to other texts as well—including self-help books.
The core idea of lectio divina is that you read a text very slowly and let sentences sink in one by one. You start reading slowly until there is a paragraph or sentence that appeals to you. Then you stop and read that paragraph or sentence again. And again, and again, and so forth. So, like a cow does with grass, you ruminate the words until you have digested them. While doing so, your mind starts working and connecting the thing you read to the things that you already know.
By reading in this way, you allow yourself to internalize the text that you read and this significantly increases the chance that you will change your behavior—and thus that you actually benefit from the text that you read. And, as research has shown, a nice side effect is that this whole reading experience itself already makes you feel better. This makes applying the lectio divina technique a double-edged sword.
So, your favourite self-help book and start reading in this way. I’ll bet you notice a difference.
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
Image credit: Getty