When you confess you’re in a mild funk, every so often a confidante will say something like, “It sounds silly, but this self-help book really worked for me.” Your friend might even give you her copy.
You might feel dismissed. After all, aren’t your problems unique? Aren’t they much worse than everyone else’s?
You know that’s not true, but when you feel that way, you need a reminder. Knowing millions have experienced some variation of your issues is good medicine. A self-help book with a wise voice can provide exercises, excellent advice, and companionship whenever you pick it up.
In short, these books, websites, or podcasts actually can help. Start by exploring—until one clicks for you.
Books can give you the gist of different kinds of therapy. For example, in a small 2019 trial, volunteers with mild to moderate symptoms of depression found relief after eight weeks of reading one of two books, though none received any formal treatment.
The two books were Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression, by British psychologist Miriam Akhtar, and Manage Your Mood by David Veale and Rob Willson. It's a book with cognitive behavioral exercises for depression that was recommended by Reading Well, a national British program. Which was better? The study didn’t say. But with books, it’s easy to take a look and decide which suits you—or try both.
That experiment might also help you move forward with a therapist or choose one. The positive psychology book by Akhtar has a set of research-backed practices that can help many find daily happiness. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—also backed by research—helps someone with depression—notice and limit the thoughts (for example, “I’ll never feel better” or “I’m no good”) that contribute to the illness. Ask a therapist which approach they know best.
Can the benefits of reading last? According to a separate overview of research, analyzing the effect after periods from three months to three years, targeted reading did cut depression symptoms in adults over time. In that overview, it wasn’t effective with young people, however.
Depression isn’t the only subject suitable for self-help or guided reading. Reading and listening to tapes as part of therapy has helped people with schizophrenia, lightened psychological symptoms in people with cancer, and cut anxiety in patients before surgery. One particular form of this approach has been developed since 2020 in the north of England, where it is offered for a variety of mental health conditions, including dementia. In some research, depressed patients given self-help books do better than those who receive antidepressants
Finding Your Books
Psychologist John Norcross at the University of Scranton, coauthor of a guide to self-help resources used by psychologists, argues that patients who aren’t in the worst shape should try books—or tapes—before they turn to medications that can cause side effects. When Norcross asked more than 2,500 psychologists to rate the self-help titles their clients had tried, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, a manual of CBT techniques by Stanford psychiatrist David Burns, came out on top. Two memoirs that describe mood disorders were also popular: William Styron’s Darkness Visible, a description by a novelist of his suicidal depression, and An Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychologist who suffers from bipolar disease.
The British National Health Service has endorsed book therapy, also known as “bibliotherapy,” in Reading Well: Books on Prescription, citing books backed up by scientific evidence. It recommends specific self-help books for mindfulness, anger, grief, shyness, sleep problems, asthma, understanding dementia, panic, binge eating, postnatal depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and more. See the complete list of titles. You can also find books for teens and children.
The School of Life, a British organization, has assembled a library of “exceptional books that together illuminate, soothe, console and explain all that may be painful and sorrowful.”
It might help to pick a book that is popular. Someone else you know may have read it, which gives you an opportunity to get personal. The GoodReads site provides reader rankings for self-help books. Among the most recently published are The Mountain Is You: Transforming Self-Sabotage Into Self-Mastery, by Brianna Wiest, and Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University.
What about the book your friend suggests? It may be wonderful, but use your common sense: Some self-help books contain nonsense. Venting anger won’t make you less angry, as you might hear. Pouring out your despair in a journal may not help, either. Visualizing that you’ll find a parking spot or do well on a test doesn’t make it happen. You knew that, but if, for a moment, you believed the persuasive author who made you think otherwise, when you come down from your cloud, you might feel worse.
Feeling cynical that no book can help you is a symptom of despair. On the other hand, reading a self-help book can be a sign that you’re in motion. Put any bad book aside and try another, preferably one recommended by psychologists. When you land on the voice that speaks to you—and make a real effort to do the exercises—you could be well on your way.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory