The Best Self-Help Book of All Time

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 7, 2010 in Science

Before launching Common Sense Atheism, I spent two years reading all the self-help books I could find. As of a year ago, I had read 340 self-help books. Because I’m insane.

My conclusion from all that reading?

95% of self-help books are complete bullshit.

I started writing quick thoughts on all those books, but the signal-to-noise ratio was so low I gave up.

Here’s the thing. Self-help books are written to sell, not to help. Most books are structured around a gimmick that will sell well. The authors usually show no interest what-so-ever in testing to see if their advice actually works. In fact, I sometimes suspected the book was being written to get people motivated without actually giving them good advice so that when they failed to achieve their goals six months later they would assume it was their fault but look back positively on their initial motivation, and then buy the next heavily-marketed self-help book to come out the pipe.

Seriously, reading just a few dozen self-help books will make you want to punch the whole industry in the face, and then in the balls, and then in the face again.

A few bright spots in all that reading came from actual scientists who genuinely wanted to help people, and really cared about testing whether or not their advice worked. Arnold Lazarus, for example. But there was no self-help author that offered tested and proven advice on a wide variety of subjects.

For years, the best self-help book I knew of was Psychological Self-Help by Dr. Clayton Tucker-Ladd. The book is careful, even-handed, humble, and genuinely helpful, and was written by a professional psychologist who had researched and taught self-help methods for his entire career. The book cites over a thousand peer-reviewed studies and does a great job of explaining what we do and don’t know about how to people can self-help with motivation, behavior modification, depression, anxiety, relationships, and so on.

That book is also 2,000 pages long.

So it’s a great reference book, but it would take a serious investment to actually use. I used it myself, to great effect (seriously; you have no idea what a different person I was 5 years ago), but I was only able to use it by reading the whole thing and typing up my own 30+ page summary! That was a huge investment of time, one that most people cannot afford.

It wasn’t a book I could recommend to people who wanted good self-help material and weren’t gullible enough to fall for The Secret. Normal people don’t have that kind of time!

I needed to find a self-help book that:

  • covered a wide range of self-help topics
  • was written by a scientific skeptic, who would quote the literature instead of his personal feelings or what worked for his one friend
  • was short and quick and cut straight to practical, actionable advice

And then I read Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds.

And it was everything I was looking for.

Richard Wiseman is an experimental psychologist who also does work as a magician and an investigator of paranormal claims. He has published many scientific papers, academic books, and a few popular books, like Quirkology and The Luck Factor.

And apparently, he wanted everything in a self-help book that I wanted. So he dived into the scientific literature and pulled out the most useful advice he could on all the major self-help topics. In each chapter, he tells the story of a few scientific experiments that reveal our human psychology (Malcolm Gladwell style), and then quickly explains the resulting advice on what you can do to change what you want to change in your life.

It’s awesome. All we need now is a sequel with more of the same: Another 59 Seconds.

I hereby declare Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds the best self-help book of all time.

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael December 7, 2010 at 5:28 am

Thanks for the recommendation, Luke!
I really appreciate the fact that you went through all those self-help books because it means that now I don’t have to :)
I will try and get that book for christmas.
What do you think of Carnegie’s ‘How to win friends and influence people’?

Also, even though that other book you mentioned is 2000 pages long, do you think it’s worth the time investment if i were to read it?

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zaarcis December 7, 2010 at 5:41 am

“So it’s a great reference book, but it would take a serious investment to actually use. I used it myself, to great effect (seriously; you have no idea what a different person I was 5 years ago), but I was only able to use it by reading the whole thing and typing up my own 30+ page summary! That was a huge investment of time, one that most people cannot afford.”

This suggest further thought – a question: “Can you post this summary somewhere?” (Of course, if you still have it.)

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Zeb December 7, 2010 at 5:46 am

Have you read/reviewed Getting Things Done by David Allen? I’m interested in it because Merlin Mann of 43 Folders and You Look Nice Today speaks so highly of it, and he’s awesome, but I am skeptical because it sounds like voodoo.

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Hermes December 7, 2010 at 6:23 am

Luke: Self-help books are written to sell, not to help. … The authors usually show no interest what-so-ever in testing to see if their advice actually works.

Of course not; how else are they going to get you to buy the next one? :) The idea is to make a book like a consumable item such as gas or potato chips, not a dog eared treasure or a one-use solution.

Thus, some of my informal observations and rules;

* If something is largely effective, it will become scarce and may not stay in production; it will be used, praised momentarily, then forgotten about since there’s no further use for it. Each sale will require the same amount of effort, thus much of the profit will be squeezed out.

==> To make such a product a going concern, you have to charge much more for it, and people may not pay the extra costs even if the long term costs are substantively lower.

==> There’s no easy way to determine before the sale the difference between something that is simple and effective (really, not as add copy) and something that was just a bad idea manifest.

* If something is only slightly effective, or otherwise distracting enough to smother the problem, it will be plentiful; it will be discussed, complained about, and known.

==> How often have you heard someone complain about something, you remembered their comments, and thought you might be OK with the problems or you will be the lucky or smarter one that won’t have those problems? So, you buy it or get it or train yourself in that skill. Your choice to use the complained about item might have worked out well enough, so if it requires being re-bought or re-practiced, that small payoff will be enough to just use it one more time. Like potato chips and diet pills, some products have synergistic associations though in both cases drinking a couple glasses of water and waiting 20 minutes would break or weaken that loop for most people who are caught in it.

Case in point for any parents or guardians reading, 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. This was the first book from Dr. Phelan in his series, and it really is a simple and practical book; short, to the point, and the meat can be summarized in a few minutes. You can tell that he had an idea and covered it based on his experience and knowledge. It’s not perfect, but it is very effective. In fact, you don’t even need to buy the book if you don’t want to shell out the $5-15 dollars for it. You can just read the summaries about it.

So, if the first cheap book was good enough, why did he write more? Because the sales of the first book were good … so, why not write a series of sequels? Why not put up a web site? He did all of these things and more, and indirectly is getting the money from 1-2-3 Magic that his book probably was worth to parents and guardians who read it. By gaming the system by adding on largely irrelevant add-ons he was able to get paid for some of the value that the first book was worth. Smart guy, though the motivation for perfect consumers is to at most get the first one and save themselves some time by ignoring the other books and CDs and DVDs and professional media packages … and a dozen other market segments that the marketer in the Dr. was able to address even though the first thin book covers the most valuable experience.

Second example; meditation. Meditation is marginally effective for most people in allowing them to increase their ability to reduce stress, stay calm, and hone their ability to concentrate. It can also be quite helpful for people with specific less common problems. Most people don’t need to meditate, or if they could benefit from it somewhat are too frazzled to learn it as a discipline, so it gets talked about but not practiced.

Meditation is simple; just go in a quiet area that is comfortable and concentrate on a single thing. A dot on the wall, a tone, … something simple in the room or that can be imagined.

Yet, there are whole segments of the market that cover meditation add-ons such as music, candles, carpets, mats, … if it could be canned, someone would can it and stick a label on the product such as “Lunchtime Meditation”. This doesn’t stop people from selling products that hint at being like meditation, though, and it shouldn’t take a moment for you to think of some of them yourselves. The cult of TM even has attached themselves to this very simple idea and has built an entire lifestyle on it.

The only product I’m aware of, though, that comes close to providing some of the concentration benefits of meditation and is easily bought is L-theanine. It was productized by Gatoraid as Tiger Wood’s Focus drink. It does help with concentration and focus, but was discontinued when Tiger’s wife found out about his lack of focus on her and her alone. The pills are easy to find in the west, are in some products in the far east as well, though some of the packages are over-hyped and sell it hard like snake oil salesmen of old.

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poban December 7, 2010 at 6:50 am

After I saw about 59 seconds in news bits, I downloaded that book and it was fun reading . Then I read my second ever self help book, Dale Carnegie’s How to win and influence friends as Wiseman refered to that book in one page. I liked 59 seconds than that Dale Carnegie’s book. Dale’s book is so 1931.

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Joseph December 7, 2010 at 7:06 am

Thanks for the recommendation. Here’s one of my favorite:

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

http://www.amazon.com/Stumbling-Happiness-Daniel-Gilbert/dp/1400077427/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1291734305&sr=8-1

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Chris December 7, 2010 at 7:09 am

Have you read anything by Albert Ellis? Check out:
http://www.amazon.com/Guide-Rational-Living-Albert-Ellis/dp/0879800429

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David December 7, 2010 at 7:30 am

Luke,
Along the lines of what Chris is asking, why did you go through 300+ pop self-help books written by media personalities instead of going straight to the professional, scientific helping profession? Albert Ellis, and many other helping professionals have written self-help books based on scientific research, though I see very few of them on your list. Although I don’t want to get personal, I’m also wondering why you didn’t seek out a professional and reputable counseling psychologist. It just seems like it would have been much more efficient than reading thousands of pages of trash.

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Polymeron December 7, 2010 at 8:36 am

I notice the general approach here is that self-help books are unhelpful on purpose.

Eliezer Yudkowsky has a different take on the matter. Reading Luke’s description of his experience so far was highly evocative of it, for me.

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David Rogers December 7, 2010 at 8:52 am

Have you read Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-help Book?

http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Cosmos-Last-Self-Help-Book/dp/0312253990/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1291740530&sr=8-1

It is quite different from what claims to be self-help.

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juhou December 7, 2010 at 10:59 am

Bought it for my Kindle. Thanks for the recommendation.

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Lauren December 7, 2010 at 11:05 am

A couple of useful tips I remember from 59 Seconds:

1. Featuring a cute baby picture in your wallet will increase your odds of having it returned when lost from 3% to 40% (as I recall the percentages). If you don’t have a baby, or if even you admit yours is ugly, use any cute baby.

2. Wait staff: increase your tips by (~20-30%ish) by simply repeating back the order to the customer – not just “yeah”, “uh-huh”, but the order verbatim.

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Luke Muehlhauser December 7, 2010 at 11:26 am

Polymeron,

Yes, good Yudkowsky link.

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Jeff December 7, 2010 at 11:47 am

I got 59 seconds from audible after your news bits and loved it as well. So nice to read about a theory of how to do something better in your life that is backed up by data and percentages of increase etc.

Zeb:
David Allen’s Getting Things Done is the best task management to0l I have ever used. I implemented it in my gmail account with Active Inbox and it is the only thing that keeps me on task for a sustained amount of time.

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Ásgeir December 7, 2010 at 11:50 am

I’m a long time reader, first time poster. :)

What is your definition of a “self-help”-book, Luke? Would you count Russells’ “The Conquest of Happiness” among them? Or even The Nicomachean Ethics?

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Scott December 7, 2010 at 3:33 pm

If you buy a book to help you out, is it actually self-help, or is it just help?

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Thomas December 7, 2010 at 4:49 pm

After I saw about 59 seconds in news bits, I downloaded that book and it was fun reading . Then I read my second ever self help book, Dale Carnegie’s How to win and influence friends as Wiseman refered to that book in one page. I liked59 seconds than that Dale Carnegie’s book. Dale’s book is so 1931.  

Could you email me? I want to talk to you about Wiseman and Carnegie. My address is valyreon@gmail.com

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Luke Muehlhauser December 7, 2010 at 5:33 pm

What is self-help? I’ll let other people define it. But I would certainly think that increasing one’s happiness would be part of self-help, and The Conquest of Happiness and The Nicomachean Ethics are both concerned with that.

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KT December 7, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Come on, Epictetus’ Enchiridion has to be the best self-help book of all time. Demand the best of yourself, trust reason, and follow Fate with grace. What more could one want?

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poban December 7, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Thomas, I have emailed you the 59 seconds, its in epub format, so you either have to have adobe digital editions installed or have a smartphone. Regarding How to win friends, you can download Dale Carnegie’s book from google.

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Clark December 7, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Thanks, Luke for your great post! I agree that MOST self-help books are made to sell, not help, but I have read one recently that was of great help. Written by David Fox, M.D., Comfort Healing and Joy: Secrets to living a magnificent life was a book I found that I could not put down. It helped change my attitude for many aspects in life and I believe it’s worth checking out if you’re into self-help books.

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Chris December 7, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Come on, Epictetus’ Enchiridion has to be the best self-help book of all time. Demand the best of yourself, trust reason, and follow Fate with grace. What more could one want?  (Quote)

KT, yes! And Epictetus was a big influence on Albert Ellis, one of the founders of cognitive therapy. See here: http://www.politicsofwellbeing.com/2008/06/stoicism-founder-of-cognitive-therapy.html

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Ben December 7, 2010 at 7:40 pm

Thanks for the review! I just finished reading other reviews and purchased a used copy.

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Timothy Underwood December 7, 2010 at 7:41 pm

I’m starting to suspect we might be the same person, except you found an actually useful self help book, and I just kept reading things that weren’t useful.

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zaarcis December 8, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Ok, I can read it by myself too. Maybe it even will be much more useful. :)

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EvolutionSWAT December 8, 2010 at 11:33 pm

I bought this after you recommended it before. Very excellent book, and research-driven.

It is s little short for me, but I guess that also makes it more readable and compresses a lot of really good content into very few pages.

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Patrick December 11, 2010 at 8:05 am

I myself have read hundreds of self-help books and agree with Luke’s assessment that 95% just don’t and won’t work in helping people make solid, long-term changes. The best self-help author of all time you ask? Albert Ellis. Not even close. (Arnold Lazarus was a student of Ellis’). You have to be willing to work your ass off but if you are this books can help anyone lead a more fulfilling life. I’m puzzled as to why he wasn’t mentioned by Luke but I’m glad to see that some other commenters have “seen the light:)”. I had the opportunity to talk at length with Al Ellis about a number of things. Especially, I asked him about his book A Guide to Rational Living. Great book. Even better in my opinion: How to Make Yourself Happy. Read it and USE it!

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Luke Muehlhauser December 11, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Patrick,

Totally agree about Ellis. The science in it is of course dated now, but his were certainly the best available at the time.

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Patrick December 11, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Could you expand on your comment concerning Ellis’ outdated science, Luke? I realize that many more studies have been done in the last 5-10 years on the efficacy of CBT approaches to health but since Ellis’ approach to removing blocks to actualization mainly uses the scientific method–which isn’t going to change anytime soon–and philosophical positions or stances–USA, UOA, ULA, for example–I’m not seeing how increased scientific knowledge will improve the core of Ellis’s contributions. The cognitive, emotive, and behavoural techniques could be updated but again the core would seem to be unaffected. Look forward to hearing from you!

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Luke Muehlhauser December 11, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Patrick,

No, I just mean that we have lots more studies now from which to draw our conclusions about human psychology.

And actually, science is currently is changing. It’s undergoing the ‘Bayesian revolution of the sciences’ as we speak. But that’s not what I was talking about.

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Ryan Williams January 2, 2011 at 7:08 pm

I’m always looking for great personal development material. I just purchased 59 Seconds. Thanks for sharing it.

Ryan Williams
GrowthNotes.com

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Hasan June 16, 2011 at 4:44 am

Disbelief in God can make us feel helpless for sure. Watch http://youtu.be/-jp0ouwBhK4

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Jerald June 16, 2011 at 10:39 am

Even this very same article looks like being written just to get popular. I don’t believe in self-help books either, just for the reason there is really no place you can get the formula to how-to-do it. If you can formulate then, you don’t have to do it. Someone else can do it or a robo can do it. To me, the real help is to inspire and motivate people to do it. Its only fair to help people choose the right rather than telling what is right.

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Terry July 30, 2011 at 9:51 am

Dennis Prager wrote an excellent book, Happiness is a Serious Problem, that I have found most helpful. Even an atheist could find great value ;) Basically, overly high expectations that are impossible to achieve naturally lead to gloom about failure. Read it!l

I look forward to the book reviewed here.

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