LOOK through book best-seller lists, and you’ll see one genre that towers over all the others.

No, it’s not romance or crime fiction, but what might loosely be called self-improvement, an unruly grab-bag of works purporting to hold the secret to getting rich, thin, decluttered and, above all, happy.

“50 Most inspiring self-help books to refresh the way you think,” reads a recent headline in one women’s magazine.

“Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic you may have found yourself re-evaluating your life and what you want to prioritise when it comes to you [sic] career, relationships and living situation. And where better to find a helping hand during that journey than with a self-help book?” the article goes on to say.

The top titles for 2022 make various pitches for our attention, including “cleaning tips to shine your sink and soothe your soul”, “turning adversity into advantage” or “how self-love is the key to your greatness”.

It’s boom times for the self-help industry, that’s for sure.

There’s a formula to these things. First, we need to be convinced of the problem, that there’s something wrong with us or missing from our lives.

Whether it’s wealth, career advancement, a dream relationship, or a guinea pig, it doesn’t really matter. We are each our own renovator’s delight, a crumbling house riddled with termites and rising damp but presenting an outstanding opportunity for improvement.

Fortunately, there’s always a solution: 10 easy steps that will transform us into that elusive ideal version of ourselves, rebuilding our shaky foundations, banishing the white ants of self-doubt.

Some gurus embellish their recipes for fulfillment with loads of science-sounding language. What neuroscience tells us about overcoming [insert problem of choice] is a favourite.

Others go the “ancient secrets” route, picking a culture apparently at random to claim it somehow discovered a utopian pathway hidden from the rest of humanity.

The chosen cultures always have an element of exoticism, by which I mean the gurus who promote them usually come from somewhere else entirely.

I’m yet to see a self-help book claiming “How the hidden rituals of small-town Kansas will bring you health and happiness” or “Secrets of a happy life from the ancient knowledge of the Australian suburbs”.

The appetite for self-improvement appears endless, and I have no doubt the books sometimes offer useful insights.

But the whole phenomenon does raise bigger questions for me and I’m not the only one, as this article in New Statesman makes clear.

Why are we in the world’s wealthy nations so fixated on the failure to be “our best selves”?

Clearly, there is something missing in our lives, a pervasive dissatisfaction that leads us to seek some kind of change.

But there’s a narcissistic, navel-gazing element to the solutions offered by the self-help gurus, not to mention an intrinsic selfishness. The aim is rarely to become a better person, but rather to get more for ourselves (love, money, admiration, whatever).

And the focus on individual transformation papers over the inequalities in our society, placing the blame for “failure” squarely on the individual.

If you can’t get the dream job, home or relationship, that must mean you haven’t been practising the 12 habits of successful people, right? Being born into intergenerational poverty couldn’t possibly have anything to do with it.

The global self-help industry had an estimated value of more than US$38 billion in 2019, with strong growth projected for the future.

Imagine if we could redirect all that time and money devoted to the quest for individual success to seek a better future for all of us.

Jane McCredie is a health and science writer based in Sydney.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.

7 thoughts on “Self-help industry more about narcissism than improvement

  1. Andrew Nielsen says:

    AND writing opinion pieces is not about narcissism?

  2. Andrew Nielsen says:

    I like self-help books. I find that they recommend effortful ways to be of more service to the world as a whole.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think I read an article once that stated that bibliotherapy rates very highly as a form of treatment for depression. I presumed that meant reading books aimed at challenging negative self thoughts and so on (essentially self help).
    I suppose you are not referring to that literature. Maybe a more nuanced view of self help books would be more helpful than accusing all authors of such books to be narcissists.
    Just a thought.

  4. Ian Denness says:

    Self-absorption doesn’t really satisfy us long-term, or even achieve much for others, in my humble opinion. The “I, me, my” culture eats itself up.
    I like the opposite order, with a happy twist at the end. As Jesus said, love God first and foremost, then love the others that we interact with in living life. Caring, serving. Jesus’ example is the best!
    Then, love yourself. You can do it…
    I read that in the Bible – Matthew 22:37-39.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I agree that many self-help books are written for self-serving purposes. There are also some that increase one’s understanding of one’s self and others which can help to expand emotional intelligence. Some of the self-help books I have read over a number of decades helped to shine a light on some of my ingrained, unhelpful thought processes, gain different perspectives, make better decisions and navigate a world that I found very confusing.

    Is there any research on identifying the most useful/helpful books in this industry? Perhaps research findings could help to promote specific self-help books that have the potential to make the world a better place!

  6. Ralph Hampson says:

    Great piece, certainly this idea that we are on an individual journey of self awareness – rather than being a person who is part of a collective – COVID 19 has certainly shown up those fault lines. Really enjoy your articles reflecting on our current state.
    Thank you

  7. Sarah says:

    It’s a hobby! And replacing the hole due to lack of religion for some people. Whether it helps as much as it costs in another question- the most helpful guides I think are books by smart thinkers eg -Scott Adams, Jordan Peterson, who don’t rely much or at all on charisma and vague statements. Which you can read/ watch cheap or free!

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