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.