Can Self-Help Books Really Help?
Heaven helps those who help themselves.” So opens Samuel Smiles’ 1859 book Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct—an appropriately self-published work that birthed the modern genre.
Today, more than 10 million self-help books are sold annually, with topics ranging from time management to pop psychology to discovering one’s true calling. While some focus on how to navigate career or relationships (think Dale Carnegie’s 1936 How to Win Friends and Influence People), others guide readers to success through reformation or reassessment of their unique interior worlds (such as Brené Brown’s 2010 The Gifts of Imperfection). What unifies the genre is a message of self-improvement delivered in a personal way by a confident figure who inspires readers to pursue their “best life now.”
But if heaven helps those who help themselves, what exactly is the role of “heaven”? And how should citizens of heaven read these books—if we should read them at all?
Despite its current popularity, improvement literature is not new. Ancient Egypt produced conduct books like The Maxims of Ptahhotep, while Rome left us Cicero’s On Duties. The Bible contains its own form of “self-help” in the genre of Wisdom Literature: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and even Job help readers make sense of the world and their roles within it. And in the Middle Ages, “courtesy books” taught courtiers how to navigate the social norms of the palace.
For much of history, such writings were limited to the upper classes, intended to train and develop future leaders. (Ptahhotep, for example, was a vizier, a high-ranking official analogous to a prime minister.) But today’s self-help books are decidedly egalitarian, teaching the masses how to rule themselves. Self-improvement is now available to—and expected of—all of us.
That shift was already underway in Smiles’ era. His work emerged in the context of Victorian social reform, with a distinct emphasis on the individual’s ability to overcome his or her circumstances. He empathized with the plight of workers and the underclass but critiqued those he believed pandered to them—such as politicians who would sell a culture of victimhood to stay in power.
For Smiles, personal success was the work of the individual, not social or political systems. “Every human being has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate, a vast destiny to accomplish,” he said in an 1845 speech that would become the basis of Self-Help. “He should have the means of education, and of exerting freely all the powers of his godlike nature.”
This sense of the individual’s “godlike nature” may explain why so many Christians gravitate to self-help books today. In The Evangelical Imagination, scholar Karen Swallow Prior traces the relationship between post-Reformation “improving literature” and modern Christianity.
“It is no coincidence that the Evangelical Revival (which became the evangelical movement) began in the same century that saw the rise of the novel, the industrial revolution, and the very idea of social mobility,” she told me. “The same evangelical value of each individual soul that led to an emphasis on individual conversion led naturally to an emphasis on individual improvement.”
Given this connection, it’s no surprise that some of the most famous self-help titles have been penned by religious leaders. The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) was written by ordained Reformed minister Norman Vincent Peale (who also had strong ties to the Trump family). Stephen R. Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), was a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And management guru John C. Maxwell, of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (1998), is an ordained Wesleyan minister with a doctorate of ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary.
Today, the gap between self-help and spiritual-living books is almost nonexistent, with readers and authors traversing it effortlessly. For example, Rachel Hollis’ s 2018 Girl, Wash Your Face (whose subtitle calls readers to “Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be”) was released by evangelical publisher Thomas Nelson. In it, Hollis writes, “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.” The book has sold over 4.5 million copies and reached No. 1 on The New York Times’s nonfiction bestseller list.
While shared social history explains part of why Christians gravitate toward secular self-help, author and pastor Sharon Hodde Miller believes that something else fuels contemporary demand.
“One of the implications of the gospel is that we are being restored to right relationship to God, and we are being restored to one another,” she said. “But we’re also being restored to ourselves and in ourselves.”
The church she and her husband colead intentionally incorporates “self” into spiritual formation, Miller said, because they’ve seen it neglected in other congregations. “We wanted to name the full implications of the gospel for our lives. I do think that there is a sense in which self-help is a very important subcategory of the implications of the gospel.”
In Miller’s thinking, when churches fail to articulate how the gospel restores the self, secular (or functionally secular) authors and publishers fill the gap. Whether these messages are consistent with the gospel is beside the point for many readers striving to better themselves however they can.
Miller confessed discomfort with the genre insofar as “self” becomes an end unto itself—so much so that she authored her book Free of Me to challenge this focus. “One of the reasons I wrote my first book,” she told me, “was because I felt like a lot of the language around self-help—its vision—was too small.” Citing Augustine, she noted that Christianity has historically understood the self as “being bent in on itself, and what the grace of God does is unbend our souls and reorient us back toward God—toward love of God and love of others.”
Miller’s concerns about the genre are not unwarranted, especially given the relationship between medium and message. “Form very much determines content,” Prior wrote to me, “and this is no less true of the form (or medium) of books. Reading is (generally) a solitary, individual activity, one that generates one’s sense of self and one’s sense of personal agency.” In other words, self-help books by their very nature assume that personal growth is an individual pursuit, the product of our own agency.
Alastair Roberts, an author and lecturer with the Theopolis Institute , is a longtime observer of self-help literature aimed at young men—books like Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. He too believes that the question of agency lies behind the genre’s appeal.
When the modern era ushered in social mobility and the possibility of changing one’s life, it brought a kind of social fragmentation and disorientation too, wherein individuals struggle to find themselves in a “healthy relationship with reality, with God, and with yourself,” Roberts told me.
“But,” he continued, “part of it is that agency is really important. It’s a recovery of one’s active involvement in reality. When people feel that they’ve lost that, when they don’t feel like they have traction in reality, there’s a sense of ennui or a sense of alienation.” Roberts points to Scripture, noting that recovering “a sense of involvement and investment in reality is something that Wisdom Literature speaks to.”
Unfortunately, Roberts argues, excessive focus on personal agency can also lead to a kind of myopia in which the individual finds himself unable to navigate the world or find his place in it. “If [young men] are overly caught up in themselves, it ends up being something that can actually undermine their sense of agency within the world,” he said. “What they need really is something to draw them out.” What they need is community.
In this way, the current boom of self-help literature may belie a larger social upheaval where individuals have been left to navigate the world on their own. “Common knowledge” is no longer common. And folk wisdom, once handed down from generation to generation, is now the purview of experts who pass it along for $19.95 a volume.
This disconnect not only shapes the form and content of self-help books; it may also hinder our ability to implement the changes we read about. We may be committed to personal growth, and a book may convey some truth, but without community, the possibility of real change is slim. Ironically, though, the very lack of communal bonds is what drives many of us to look to strangers for instruction.
Granted, the digital age has allowed self-help authors to form a kind of community around their books. In some cases, though, it’s hard to tell which serves which: the online audience or the publishing contract. As follower counts and sales totals grow, they become mutually necessary to one another, and communities of camaraderie morph into sales floors.
The work of author Glennon Doyle is a good example of how online community and self-help writing merge. Her message of courage and commitment to one’s truest self began attracting a following in 2009, when she started blogging about the struggles of parenthood, marriage, and mental health.
As her fan base grew, readers found each other in the comment section and eventually on social media. True friendships formed, and Doyle led her community to work together for charitable and political action. When she released her first book in 2013, Carry On, Warrior, it sold modestly. But her next book, Love Warrior (in 2016), was chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection, and her 2020 memoir, Untamed, debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list, remaining there for seven weeks.
Perhaps even more significantly, Doyle’s journey shows how tightly an author’s own process of change shapes the advice they offer. When she started blogging, Doyle was married to a man and wrote from an explicitly Christian perspective. A decade later, however, she was divorced, remarried to a woman, and leading a spiritual-but-not-religious following. And it all played out in public.
She was and is unabashedly a work in progress, with transformation itself perhaps the only constant, and her role as a self-help influencer seems to have created a feedback loop that drives that change ever forward.
But even at its best, an online community can only offer support for our individual journeys. We may be able to cheer each other on, but the work still rests on our shoulders and ours alone. And here the weakness of the self-help genre really begins to show: If personal growth is within our grasp, what does it mean when we don’t grow? What happens when mental health challenges or neurological differences like ADHD make time management and efficiency impossible? What happens when a marriage can’t be saved despite all the good advice in the world?
The gap between what self-help books promise and what they can actually deliver does not sit well with everyone in the genre. Visitors to best-selling author and Duke Divinity School professor Kate Bowler’s website are asked, “Are you living your best life now? Not always? [Bowler’s work] is for you.”
Using the industry’s own tools—social media, podcasting, and speaking engagements—Bowler subverts the typical approach to self-help by challenging its core assumptions. She calls its message of always upward, always achieving a source of “toxic positivity.” Instead, Bowler regularly reminds her readers that life is beautiful—and hard.
Despite her publishing success, Bowler is no stranger to suffering. She was already interested in the spiritual tensions embedded in the rhetoric around personal success (her doctoral work focused on the prosperity gospel) when she was diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35.
Against all expectations, she survived and is currently cancer free. But the experience left her with a profound sense of human vulnerability and of our inability to control much of anything about our lives.
“We can be people of deep hope,” she observed in a 2021 Washington Post interview. “That is not the same thing as saying our lives are going to work out. As a person of faith, I believe God is drawing us toward a future that is fundamentally a story of love and the salvation of the world. That’s not the same thing as saying that my life in its particularity, in all my hopes and dreams, is going to play out the way I imagined.”
It can be hard, even for Christians, to tell the difference between toxic positivity and godly hope. And it may be particularly hard for those who are accustomed to reading their Bibles as a form of self-improvement.
Despite the fact that the Bible speaks to suffering—most notably in Job, Ecclesiastes, and Christ’s own passion—the very act of coming to a text in search of personal change shapes our expectations of how change happens. In this sense, Christian readers may be uniquely primed to embrace the message of self-help books because they’ve already experienced a kind of self-improvement through reading.
Among the books Prior says have shaped the evangelical disposition toward self-improvement is John Bunyan’s 1678 classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan’s allegory has several common features of novels of the period, Prior writes in The Evangelical Imagination, including a focus on a character “in oppressive circumstances laboring through individual will and determination.”
Notably, the book opens by showing Pilgrim with “a book in his hand.” That book is the Bible, and its warning of impending judgment is what sends Pilgrim on his personal journey. In other words, reading starts his progress.
For modern Christians, this may not be remarkable, but in Bunyan’s day, mass literacy was not normal and so neither was biblical literacy. Correspondingly, Christian growth was not considered an individual pursuit—so much so that when Bunyan followed his conscience to preach outside the auspices of the Church of England, he was thrown into jail. But is it fair to say that we modern Christians read the Bible the same way we read self-help books? And if we do, is that wrong? Aren’t we supposed to read Scripture and be changed by it?
Author and CT columnist Jen Wilkin, a staunch advocate for Bible literacy among the laity, believes “the Bible is for everyone.” (The title of her latest book, coauthored with pastor J. T. English, proclaims, “You Are a Theologian.”) Despite this, Wilkin warns against reading the Scripture as a project in self-improvement. “It’s true that the Bible changes us,” she told me. “But it may not do so in the time frame we would demand. Many have come to expect that the Bible exists to make them feel better in bite-sized servings, often in ten minutes or less. But the Bible is not meant to be cherry-picked for a quick emotional fix.”
In other words, while the Bible contains texts that will improve us—if we let them—the goal is not to offer life hacks. The goal is transformation. When we spoke, Roberts argued that biblical Wisdom Literature always moves toward embodied wisdom. The goal of books like Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes “is very much a movement through Law to internalization,” he said. “You’ve taken the Law, and you’ve chewed over it, and it’s become part of you.”
In this sense, true change is a much larger undertaking than most self-help books suggest. The problem is not that these books envision too much for our lives but that they envision too little.
Christian tradition holds that the work of personal transformation is so large that it requires an entire community (Eph. 4:11–13). Self-help books grapple with universal questions, but they do so at the individual scale. How do we navigate a cursed world? How can we make our work more effective? How can we heal our deepest wounds and sorrows?
For many, including Samuel Smiles, the answer begins with each person making choices and building habits alone. Larger social reform comes as we each reform ourselves. But just as the Bible cannot be read for quick fixes or in isolation, our journeys of improvement are not quick, straightforward, or solitary either. As Wilkin said, “We should study the Bible for ourselves, but not by ourselves. The Bible is meant to be understood in community—both the community of the local church and the community of the saints.”
In this sense, the biggest concern for Christians who read self-help books may not be the content or even the goal of self-improvement. It may be the method—how we go about the project of bettering our lives and what we do when we can’t.
After all, if we have the power to improve ourselves, we start to think we have a duty to do so. As author Alan Noble summarized the plight of modern humans in his book You Are Not Your Own, “Virtually every … voice we interact with will tell us, ‘No. Keep striving. You haven’t done enough. If you quit now, your life will be a waste. Do something else to make it worthwhile.’ ” But not all problems are within human power to control. Even many of our personal problems are outside our own power to fix.
So not only do we need community to help us grow; we also need community when we cannot grow. We need the support of others and the love of like-minded saints who come beside us in our struggles and grieve with us when life continues to be hard despite our best efforts.
In this way, reading self-help books as a Christian means doing so in community, with an eye toward both lament and transformation. It means confessing our dependence on God and others in a way that both honors our limits and invites our growth.
The next time you reach for a self-help book, remember that this is just the first step in making a change. The next might be gathering a reading group or sharing your journey with a trusted friend. Or as Paul puts it in Galatians 6:2, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Heaven doesn’t help those who help themselves so much as heaven helps us help each other.
Hannah Anderson is an author who lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Her latest book, Life Under the Sun, considers the wisdom of Ecclesiastes.
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Can Self-Help Books Really Help?