Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2008 | Features

The Joy of Self-Help Books

By Tina Owen
A harmless diversion or a dangerous delusion? How is the booming self-help literature industry affecting Americans and the nation?

Fresh out of graduate school and single in the big city, Christine Whelan decided to play it by The Rules when looking for love. The sociology professor also mixed business with pleasure by turning her personal life into an informal research experiment.

Whelan wanted to see whether much-maligned self-help books—her research passion for several years—really work or whether, as some critics claim, they're ineffective, fraudulent, and even hazardous to your mental and emotional health.

Whelan used The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right as a blueprint for her first relationship in New York City. Everything worked fine—until she got fed up playing by someone else's rules and started to act like her usual self. Her boyfriend promptly dumped her. So did the next one, when Whelan deviated from the guidelines set out in Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex.

The moral of this story? "If change—of any sort—is what you want, self-help books often do work; when they don't, it's usually because people can't or won't follow their advice to the letter," says Whelan. "But changing your behavior is one of the hardest things to do. And if you do change, will it be for the better?"

Whelan's story does have a happy ending. She did find Mr. Right—by acting like herself—and she even went on to write her own book, Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women. Luckily for UI students, she and her husband also moved to Iowa City, where she now teaches a popular sociology course that examines the role and influence of self-help books in American life and culture.

Well, what else would you expect from a woman whose grandmother used to work as a secretary for Dale Carnegie?

Carnegie, author of classic and seminal works such as 1937's How to Win Friends and Influence People, features in Whelan's "Self-Help Books in American Society" class. So do other notable self-help gurus, from Ben Franklin and Horatio Alger to Dr. Spock and Dr. Phil. Students also read critiques that pull no punches in attacking what the authors perceive as a shameless, dangerous, unregulated pseudo-science that preys on people's needs and weaknesses.

Also shaping the course is Whelan's doctoral thesis from Oxford University, in which she correlated sales of self-help books from 1950 to 2000 with the results of the national General Social Survey. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this long-running survey "takes the pulse of America" by tracking people's opinions and attitudes.

"We think of self-help books as frivolous, yet they are invaluable windows into the social history and social psychology of our country," says Whelan. "When the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club asked people nationwide which books had most influenced their lives, seven of the top 13 books mentioned were self-help texts."

Whelan argues that one of the keys to the genre's success is control—or rather, a perceived lack of it by many Americans. Her research indicated that, since the 1970s, many Americans have felt a sense of alienation—adrift in a society that seems rocked by seismic changes and in which their voices are often unheard or ignored. "Self-help books make explicit promises for positive change," Whelan says. "They offer ways that people can influence their little inch of the world, their inner world, at a time when they feel they can't affect anything going on in the wider world."

Today, thousands of these books promise to help readers unlock their inner child, become a better manager, improve their self-esteem, discover the joy of sex, or learn not to sweat the small stuff. Now estimated to be a $12 billion industry, the self-help market has exploded in the last three decades.

"Self-help books are invaluable windows into America's social history and psychology." UI sociology professor Christine Whelan

Between one-third and one-half of all Americans purchase a self-help book at some time—and with more than 45,000 different titles currently in print, they have plenty of choice. Women are by far the greatest consumers of diet, exercise, relationships, and "touchy-feely" titles, although male readers also buy into business and career self-help literature. Students in Whelan's class reflect those demographics: only ten of the 37 students are male.

"Before this class, I just thought of self-help books as something that my mother and grandmother read," says Johnathan Merkwan, a pre-med, art history, and museum studies sophomore from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. "Now, I'm much more aware of them in sociological terms. It's interesting to see how they've weaseled their way into American culture."

Merkwan notes how pseudo-scientific terms from self-help books have infiltrated mainstream American life. "Everyone seems to be co-dependent now," he says. "Is it really a good thing for people to talk and think about their so-called problems so much?"

Undoubtedly, many self-help books offer good advice and perform a useful function—if only to make readers feel that they're taking positive action or that other people share their problems. Whelan points out that 85 percent of psychologists recommend self-help books to their clients as a useful first step to behavior change. She also cites the best-selling Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey as a well-written and thoroughly researched book by a credible expert.

On the downside, many self-help books are penned by authors without any verifiable expertise in the areas they address or proof that their advice works. Instead, they rely on slick marketing copy, attention-grabbing titles, powerful rhetoric, first-person accounts, and simple advice for complex problems.

Critics charge that such authors prey on vulnerable people; they give them unrealistic expectations, set them up to fail, convince them of problems they don't really have, or encourage them to go it alone instead of seeking professional help.

Whelan's advice is to be wary of books whose authors rely on rhetoric and anecdotes to back up their claims rather than actual scientific evidence. A prescriptive, "my-way-or-the-highway" attitude on the part of the author is another red flag. Such works reflect the religious background of early American self-help books. Even today, many modern self-help books still adopt a tone of religious fervor, with the author sounding like a pulpit-pounding preacher offering salvation to true believers.

A more helpful approach, says Whelan, is the one adopted by experts like Dr. Spock, who offer tried-and-tested advice, with the caveat that if it doesn't work, feel free to try something else rather than beat yourself up for failing.

Then there are books like The Secret that adopt an approach Whelan despises: the tendency to blame the victim.

A runaway best-seller endorsed by Oprah and purchased by millions of people desperate to tap into ancient wisdom and turn their lives around, The Secret undoubtedly appeals to a modern audience. In fact, though, it repackages and updates the ideas of 18th century Maine faith healer and hypnotist Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, one of the earliest gurus of what became known as the New Thought Movement. Quimby and later New Thought proponents believed that our thoughts literally shape our world, giving us the ability to attract health, wealth, and happiness through the power of positive thinking.

"According to these books, the law of attraction says that positive things come to you if you think positive thoughts, and negative things happen if you think negative thoughts," Whelan explains. "If you're a single mother who's just been fired, these books would say that's because you haven't been thinking good thoughts—and I find that offensive."

Despite her expert and often critical take, Whelan admits that even she can't resist the powerful appeal of these works. "I'll pick up a book as an academic exercise and realize an hour later that I'm not only engrossed in it, but I've taken the quizzes and I'm worried that I have whatever problem the book addresses," she says.

The appeal of self-help literature lies in an enduring human condition: life is complicated, unpredictable, and frequently overwhelming. "These books boil everything down to really simple things that everyone can understand," says Whelan. "Life isn't that simple, even though we'd often like it to be."