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Therefore we divided the group further using two dimensions. The books can be problem-focused or growth-oriented and can be theory-guided or eclectic. The first dimension roughly follows the categories used above. The categories Personal growth and Who am I? The other categories or more heterogeneous or fall in the middle of the dimension. Eclectic self-help books use ideas from different schools of thought in psychology; theory-guided books translate ideas from one particular research tradition so that they are suitable for a large audience.


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Most books are eclectic in nature, but more academically oriented authors often write theory-guided books. Examples are the work of Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi and Bolen. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi are among the founders of the school of positive psychology and Bolen is a Jungian scholar. The ideas of cognitive behavioral psychotherapy is well represented among the theory-guided self-help books.

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A surprise might be that the growth-oriented books outnumber the problem-oriented books. In the top 57 of best-selling psychology books there is only one book about overcoming depression and no books that specifically target anxiety disorders or addiction. This could be an artifact of the method used for this selection of self-help books. Our sample was based on the books sold in general bookstores, and self-help books are also distributed by mental health professionals and client organizations.

The scarcity of best-selling books about psychological disorders in the Netherlands may indicate that people with mental disorders need the guidance of a professional before trying a self-help book. People that seek to enhance their communication skills or their ability to cope with stress do not need such professional support. Perhaps people with mental disorders think that their problems are too serious to be solved by a self-help book.

Another explanation is that they might misdiagnose their own problems. Somebody with social phobia might buy a book about communication skills and somebody with a depressive disorder might buy a book to enhance personal relationships. What type of people buy self-help books? There is not much research available to answer this question, but Starker thinks that self-help is an essential part of American culture. Obstacles to upward social mobility were removed and people felt that they also could be part of the American dream, if only they would know how.

Self-help books offered appropriate guidance. This individualistic background is also recognizable in most of the self-help books that sell well in the Netherlands. There is no reason to think that the people that buy this kind of self-help book are typically chronically unhappy or mentally disturbed.

Wilson and Cash conducted a survey of a sample of college students. Females were more likely to have a positive attitude towards self-help books. Other factors that predicted a positive attitude to self-help books were: enjoyment of reading in general, psychological mindedness the disposition to think about psychological processes as related to the self and to relationships , a stronger self-control orientation and, last but not least, a greater life satisfaction.

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Self-help readers tend to have an ability to recognize relationships between thoughts, feelings and actions and want to use self-help books to improve themselves. Reading self-help book seems to be part of an active and adequate coping style, which fits in with an individualistic culture, where individuals have the freedom to pursue happiness on there own ground. As for the Netherlands the profile of the readers of the Dutch monthly Psychology Magazine is known.

We do not suspect that the readers of this magazine differ much from the people that buy self-help books in general. Psychology Magazine often has headlines with practical implications on the cover, such as how to be happy, how to succeed in relationships or how loneliness can be overcome.

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Do self-help books help? There are good reasons to doubt it.

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Yet there are also good reasons to expect that they often do. Below we review the arguments. There is a lot of cynicism about the effectiveness of self-help books. It is not uncommon to bash self-help as a whole. A howtoer with only three or four books to his credit is looked upon as sterile. Csikszentmihalyi , p.

Polivy and Herman claim that buying self-help volumes must be part of a false hope syndrome. Salerno holds self-help responsible for the end of romance, soaring divorce rates, the decline of the nuclear family, excessive political correctness and rising substance abuse, although this is by quite an inferential leap Weiten, Such a negative attitude is not justified by reference to any empirical studies. We were not able to find any studies that empirically investigated the effectiveness of the best-selling self-help books in the Netherlands. However, there are indications that self-help books sometimes offer outdated advice.

Vent your anger, and it will go away. Research shows that expressing anger can keep it alive.


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When you are down in the dumps, think yourself happy by focusing on the positive. Research shows that the result may be the opposite of what you want. It can make your misery of the moment even more apparent. Visualize your goals; it will help you to make them come true. Research shows that we not only need optimism about our ability to reach a given goal, but also a sharp focus on the obstacles that are in the way.

You need to pay attention to the obstacles and the necessary steps to reach the goal. Self-affirmation will help you raise low self-esteem. Research shows that this technique is not powerful enough. We need positive feedback from people that matter to us. Active listening can help you communicate better with your partner. It may be better to take your partner seriously, to avoid hostility and to avoid arousal.

32 Best Mental Health Books for Increasing Your Well-Being

To protect yourself against others, be sure to take the self-help descriptions with a measure of skepticism and a healthy dose of common sense. The advice is not be tailored to the personality of the reader, diagnosis or personal circumstances. Norem and Chang relate that this is a flaw that is also apparent in the positive psychology movement that is gaining momentum.

They emphasize this point by a discussion of optimism. Still, the recommendation to look at the bright side is counterproductive for people who are very anxious. The induction of a positive mood deteriorates their performance and satisfaction. For them a strategy that is called defensive pessimism yields better results Norem, Defensively pessimistic individuals set themselves unrealistic low targets and devote considerable time to all the possible outcomes they can imagine for a given situation.

The result is twofold: on the one hand they no longer have to fear that they will mess up, because this is what could be expected; the other result is an increase in motivation. They know what might happen. The end result is a good performance, which would have been threatened by imposed optimism. Another question is what aspect of optimism is lacking for a certain individual. Aspinwall, Richter and Hoffman illustrate this by the serenity prayer. Most psychologists studying optimism focus on changing the things one can change through active coping, and self-help authors are hard-liners in this respect.

But Aspinwall, Richter and Hoffman offer data that indicates that the other parts of the prayer are equally important: it is productive to accept the things one cannot change and to have the wisdom to distinguish things one can and cannot change. Self-help may have detrimental effects if it focuses on the wrong aspects of optimism for a certain reader.

The same is true for self-help. For example Cuijpers has made a meta-analysis of six studies in which the effectiveness of bibliotherapy was compared with other treatment modes for unipolar depression. Cuijpers conclusion about the effectiveness of the self-help books is based on a limited number of studies and the participants were not drawn from a clinical population, but were recruited through announcements in the media. The depressions were mild more often than severe. However, it is clear that self-help is not equally effective for each disorder and every person.

According to Mains and Scogin , self-help treatments were successful for anxiety, depression and mild alcohol abuse, but less so for smoking cessation and moderate and severe alcohol abuse. Gould and Clum and Marrs add successes for headaches, insomnia and sexual dysfunction, and confirm the lack of success for smoking cessation and alcohol addiction.