Behavioral self-help books generated more than $10 billion in U.S. profits in 2009. But do they make a difference in people’s lives? A new Canadian study investigates if they really have much of an impact.
Researchers at the CIUSSS de l’Est-de-l’Île-de-Montréal (Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal) and the University of Montreal, say their findings suggest consumers of self-help books are more sensitive to stress and show higher depressive symptomatology — and that most books do not accomplish their desired objective.
Study findings appear in the journal Neural Plasticity.
“Initially, we thought we had observed a difference in participants in terms of personality, sense of control, and self-esteem based on their self-help reading habits,” said Catherine Raymond, first author of the study and a doctoral student at the Centre of Studies on Human Stress (CSHS).
“In reality, there seems to be no difference between those who read and those who do not read these types of books.
However, our results show that while consumers of certain types of self-help books secrete higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) when confronted with stressful situations, consumers of another type of self-help books show higher depressive symptomatology compared to non-consumers.”
For the study, the CSHS team recruited 30 participants, half of whom were consumers of self-help books. The team measured several elements of the participants, including stress reactivity (salivary cortisol levels), openness, self-discipline, extraversion, compassion, emotional stability, self-esteem, and depressive symptoms.
The group of self-help book consumers was then divided into two types of readers:
- Those who preferred problem-focused books (e.g. Why Is It Always About You? or How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To);
- Those who preferred growth-oriented books (e.g.,You’re Stronger Than You Think or How to Stop Worrying and Start Living).
Researchers found that consumers of problem-focused self-help books had more depressive symptoms, and that growth oriented self-help books consumers displayed increased stress reactivity, compared to non-consumers.
Still a question is whether reading self-help books increase the stress reactivity and depressive symptomatology of self-help readers or are they more sensitive to stressful situations?
It is difficult to determine the cause of this observation. “Further research will help us learn more,” according to Dr. Sonia Lupien, Director of the CSHS.
“Nevertheless, it seems that these books do not produce the desired effects. When we observe that the best predictor of purchasing a self-help book is having bought one in the past year, it raises doubts about their effectiveness.
“Logically, if such books were truly effective, reading just one would be enough to solve our problems,” said Lupien. For this reason, she encourages people to focus on books that report scientifically proven facts and are written by researchers or clinicians affiliated with recognized universities, health care facilities, or research centers.
“Check your sources to avoid being disappointed. A good popular science book doesn’t replace a mental health professional, but it can help readers better understand stress and anxiety and encourage them to seek help.”