Self-help books are undoubtedly one of the most popular literary genres in existence today, but there’s been surprisingly little research conducted on the type of person who might most gravitate toward them.

Sure, there are stereotypes aplenty about sad sacks who spend days reading up on how to finally turn their lives around, only to return to their local bookstores the next week unfulfilled. Similarly, we’ve likely heard of friends and family members who discovered a newfound zest for life in the aftermath of reading the latest inspirational call-to-arms. And given how many people go through life without ever seeking out any sort of help for their emotional and mental pain, who’s to say that self-helpers aren’t just being more proactive than everyone else, with their mental health improving as a result?  

In order to get to the root of that question, a team of Canadian researchers took the plunge and conducted a small-scale pilot study examining the physiological and/or psychological markers of stress inherent in self-help book lovers when compared to nonconsumers. Their results, published this September in the journal Neural Plasticity, are as surprising for what they found as what they didn’t.

“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 lead author Catherine Raymond, a doctoral student at the Center of Studies on Human Stress (CHSS) of the Institut Universitaire en Santé Mentale de Montréal, in a statement this November. “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.”

Problem-Focused vs. Growth-Oriented

Raymond and her team recruited 30 healthy adult volunteers, 18 of which were identified as having bought or browsed at least four self-help books in the past year, for their experiment.

They then further separated the self-help group along a spectrum of preferring “problem-focused” books, such as How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To, to “growth-oriented” books like How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Lastly, they subjected volunteers to a battery of tests measuring their cortisol levels (via saliva samples), personality traits, and level of depressive symptoms, among others.

As Raymond noted, the only significant differences found between any of the groups was that the growth-oriented group exhibited greater stress in response to an impromptu public speaking task, and that the problem-focused group garnered a higher score on the test measuring depressive symptoms, more formally known as the Beck Depression Inventory II.

Both differences were plainly apparent but do come with a few caveats. For one, the study is admittedly small, with its purpose mainly to see if there’s anything worth checking out in the future with larger and more refined experiments. Aside from that, while the problem-focused group scored highest on the Beck Depression Inventory II, their scores were still well within the lowest range of depression. To illustrate, the average score of the problem-focused group hovered around 8, while the control group stacked up around 4. The scoring range for severe depression, in comparison, is 29 to 63, while the minimal range is 0 to 13.

There might be indeed a starker difference between depressed self-help consumers and depressed nonconsumers, but as the authors noted, it’s a difference that awaits further research to clarify. Left unanswered as well is the exact relationship between stress, depression, and self-help books. Are stressed out, sadder people more likely to seek out these books, or does reading them actually worsen our outlook on life? Maybe, much like a placebo pill, they simply don’t do much of anything?

“Further research will help us learn more,” said senior author Dr. Sonia Lupien, director of the CHSS. “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."

Considering that billions of dollars are poured into purchasing self-help books in the United States alone — over $10 billion in 2009, according to Lupien — that’s a big problem. For those of us who still can’t help but love some self-help, though, Lupien advocates being more skeptical. “Check your sources to avoid being disappointed,” she said. “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.”

Source: Raymond C, Marin M-F, Hand A, et al. Salivary Cortisol Levels and Depressive Symptomatology in Consumers and Nonconsumers of Self-Help Books: A Pilot Study. Neural Plasticity. 2015.