If you are looking for the secret of happiness, do not read self-help books | The State

Self-help books have been in vogue for many years and fill the shelves of department stores, but lately opinions against them are also in vogue. The key question is: are they good for anything? Do they help someone? Or is it a cheap way to save the psychologist?

They have always been a fad since “The Fables of Aesop”, because they are more successful and are more sold than any other brainy and academic text.

Like any other reading, it involves a verbal experience with another, with an author who speaks to us and recommends what to do with our problems, even with our lives.

More than talking to a psychologist, another professional, or a friend, we read these books so as not to share our intimacies with others.

It is true that these manuals can help a person to find a solution, the problem is that, for the most part, those “solutions” are generalities, common sense and vagueness, even many of these books are a scam, as are the expressions “If you want, you can”, “the search for happiness” or “the secret of life”.

Self-help books have been in fashion for many years and perhaps now it may also be a fashion to criticize them because we have seen that they are useless.

This fashion is part of the scientific trend of Psychology and other health sciences that tends to denounce pseudotherapies.

Almost anyone with a minimal culture could write a book rescuing phrases and ideas from one another, including the names of many philosophers or Zen phrases, and live on it if the book is successful on the shelves.

It is much more complex to write a book based on empirically validated treatments, published scientific studies, and what is proven to work.

Many people prefer to read self-help books instead of going to the psychologist. Getty Images

This does not imply that psychologists do not use so-called “bibliotherapy”, which is nothing more than using written texts as an aid to regular therapy.

Certain books (including novels, biographies, philosophy or disclosure of therapies) can help the professional in their work, in such a way that they accentuate or serve as support to what has been worked during the therapeutic sessions.

Unfortunately, such psychological outreach publications are rare.

A singular language

The type of language self-help uses is distinctive. These books are not usually an essay on life or happiness, but recommend practices on how to achieve things: have friends, sleep well, get rid of stress, increase self-esteem, flirt more, be a better person, or be happy.

They are actually instruction books, but without giving instructions. They use lapidary phrases attributed to great characters, most of whom are fake but, above all, they use short stories, like stories with a moral, that are easy to read and that at the moment raise our morale. They are easier to accept and to follow.

The important thing is that for them to stay they have to achieve something in the real world. These posts may be a starter, but its effects last as long as the book is read, because they do not usually have consequences in our daily lives.

On the other hand, these books use direct language towards the reader, addressing him with phrases such as “you can get it”, “your inner peace is in your hand”, “if you want, you can”.

A woman forcing a smile with her hands.
Self-help books promote a fictional reality that does not have a scientific basis, but a cultural one, where the maxim is “seek happiness” or “eliminate anxiety”, and whoever does not get it ends up even more frustrated. Getty Images

It is the least effective type of language for effecting change, but it is immediately highly motivational, thus engaging the reader, as if the book was written just for him.

This apparent individualization engages more than a neutral text, and more so if you add small stories from others who read the book and “succeeded in their life”, “achieved their goals” or “achieved their dreams.”

Consuming happiness

Much of the criticism of self-help books is based on the fact that they promote a fictitious reality that does not have a scientific basis, but a cultural one, where the maxim is to “seek happiness” or “eliminate anxiety”, and whoever does not succeed ends even more frustrated than before reading them.

In this sense, they can be iatrogenic – the remedy is worse than the disease – they produce enthusiasm and motivation while they are being read, but a week after reading the last page, everything has been forgotten.

One wooden cube with a happy face and one with a sad face
Self-help books produce enthusiasm and motivation while they are being read, but a week after reading the last page, everything has been forgotten. Getty Images

The criticism of these publications, and also of a certain psychological conception about that happiness that they preach, is part of the reality of people who bump into a wall again and again, trying to be happy as the manuals say.

In fact, they have become another consumer good, like new shoes or a new model of mobile. They solve an immediate problem for us by filling in that constant dissatisfaction with our lives, but once we have used them they no longer seem so attractive and essential.

In addition, reading is difficult, it is not an activity as passive as watching series, and when we have read a few pages, we go to leaps looking for the quick information that gives us the immediate recipe to feel better.

A cup with an infusion and a book
Some psychologists use so-called “bibliotherapy,” which consists of recommending written texts as an aid to regular therapy. Getty Images

But yes, they do serve something: to fill in that personal dissatisfaction, or to try to be like the others who look so happy in Instagram photos. And yes, they will also work for someone, there is no doubt that someone will change after reading a self-help book.

Yes, they are also a cheap way to save the psychologist, but they really do not solve any problem, there is no empirical data that shows their effectiveness.

* Luis Valero Aguayo is cProfessor of the Departamento from Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment of the Malaga University.

* This article was originally published on The Conversation and you can read it here.

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