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The term self-help or self-improvement can refer to any case or practice whereby an individual or a group attempts self-guided improvement[1]—economically, intellectually, or emotionally—but refers most frequently to something with a substantial psychological or spiritual basis. The basis for self-help is often self-reliance, publicly available information, or support groups where people with similar problems join together.[1] From early exemplars in self-driven legal practice[2] and home-spun advice, the connotations of the phrase have spread and often apply particularly to education, business, psychological or psychotherapeutic nostrums, purveyed through the popular genre of self-help books and through self-help personal-development movements. According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, potential benefits of self help groups that professionals may not be able to provide include friendship, emotional support, experiential knowledge, identity, meaningful roles, and a sense of belonging.[1] Any health condition can find a self help method or group such as parents of the mentally ill. But there are limits and these methods do not work for everyone. As well as experienced long time members sharing experiences with a similar practical problem such as finances of a health problem, these health groups can become lobby groups and educational material clearing houses. Those who help themselves by learning about health problems are helping themselves through self help. But self help in this context is often really peer-to-peer support.

Sociological theories of self-help

The self-help philosophy relies more on first-hand knowledge (or folk knowledge) than empirical data.[citation needed]

An expansion of the technologies that empower individuals to conduct both trivial and profound activities binds together the diverse genres which apply self-help concepts[citation needed]. Self-help book-publishing arose from decentralization of ideology, from a growth of publishing industries using expanded printing technologies and (at the pinnacle of growth) from the spread of new psychological sciences[citation needed]. Likewise, self-help legal services grew around expanded access to document-production technology (viz: the printing industry in the 18th century).[citation needed] The Internet, with the ever-expanding selection of commercial and information services which it offers, exemplifies movement toward self-help on a grand scale.[citation needed]


The authors of First Things First invoke wisdom literature dating back as far as 2500 B.C. as a validation of their particular enumeration of fundamental human needs[3]. Within Classical Antiquity, the advice poetry of Hesiod, particularly his Works and Days, has been seen as an early adaptation of Near Eastern wisdom literature. The Stoics offered advice with a psychological flavor. The genre of mirror-of-princes writings, which has a long history in Islamic and Western Renaissance literature, represents a secular cognate of Biblical wisdom literature. Proverbs from many periods embody traditional moral and practical advice of diverse cultures.

"Self-help" appears to have been first used in the legal context, referring to the doctrine that a party in a dispute has the right to use lawful means on their own initiative to remedy a wrong.

Samuel Smiles (1812-1904) published the first self-consciously personal-development "self-help" book — entitled Self-Help — in 1859. Its opening sentence: "Heaven helps those who help themselves", provides a variation of "God helps them that help themselves", the oft-quoted maxim that also appeared previously in Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac (1733 - 1758). Alcoholics Anonymous was started by two alcoholics, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith who first met on May 12, 1935. The twelve-step program grew from this to become perhaps the world's most popular basis of self-help care.[citation needed]

The self-help marketplace

Research firm Marketdata estimated the "self-improvement" market as worth $8.5 billion in 2003 — including infomercials, mail-order catalogs, holistic institutes, books, audio cassettes, motivational speaker seminars, the personal coaching market, weight-loss and stress-management programs. Marketdata projected that the total market size would grow to over $11 billion by 2008.[citation needed]

Within the context of this larger market, group and corporate attempts to aid the "seeker" have moved into the "self-help" marketplace, with LGATs and psychotherapy systems ready with more or less pre-packaged solutions to instruct people seeking their own individual betterment.[citation needed]

There is also an exploding market of computer self help books such as the Dummies Guides and the Complete Idiots Guides.[citation needed]


Some critics have suggested that self-help books and programs offer "easy answers" to difficult personal problems. Commentators have criticised self-help books for containing pseudo-scientific assertions that tend to mislead the consumer, and many different authors have criticized self-help authors and claims. Christopher Buckley's book God is My Broker (1998) asserts: "The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one." In her 1993 book I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, Wendy Kaminer criticizes the self-help movement for encouraging people to focus on individual self-improvement (rather than joining collective social movements) to solve their problems.

The phenomenon has been the target of parodies. Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos[4] is a book-length parody. In their 2006 book Secrets of The Superoptimist, authors W.R. Morton & Nathanel Whitten revealed the concept of "superoptimism" as a humorous antidote to the overblown self-help book category.

Scholars also have targeted self-help claims as misleading and incorrect. In 2005 Steve Salerno portrays the self-help movement (he uses the acronym SHAM: the Self-Help and Actualization Movement) not only as ineffective in achieving its goals, but also as socially harmful.[2] Sociologist Micki McGee argues in her 2005 book Self-Help, Inc. that the burgeoning self-improvement industry masks Americans' economic anxieties during a period of economic decline. She sees Americans as "belabored" — at work on themselves, inventing and re-inventing themselves so as to remain employed and employable.

However, there are now a number of commercial companies that offer psychology products that are based on sound and validated psychological principles, for example, cognitive behavioural therapy programs to help people overcome anxiety, depression and stress-related symptoms.[citation needed]

See also

For articles on individual:


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 APA Dictionary of Psychology, 1st ed., Gary R. VandenBos, ed., Washington: American Psychological Association, 2007.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Steve Salerno (2005) Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, ISBN 1-4000-5409-5 p.24-25
  3. Covey, Stephen R., Merrill, A. Roger, and Merrill, Rebecca R., First Things First: to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy. New York: Simon and Schuster (1994)
  4. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1983.

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