Whether you’re heartbroken, struggling with grief or need some motivation in your life, self-help books can help, and we’ve rounded up some of the finest.
It used to be that the idea of reading a self-help book was greeted with sneers and mockery from those who believed they were badly written and didn’t actually help anyone.
Thankfully, those days are long gone, and good self-help books can be found on ‘best of’ book lists, and often have big fans, including food writer Nigella Lawson.
“Every now and then, I like reading what I call ‘gone-badly’, which is a term introduced to me by our mutual friend to describe general New Age, sort of, self-improvement rubbish,” Lawson told fellow cook Yotam Ottolenghi on an edition of the podcast Simple Pleasures.
“I have a bit of a weakness for that. I’m not going to divulge the titles of the books I buy,” she adds, joking: “But if ever my iPad goes missing it’s going to be very embarrassing for me.”
In fact, self-help books have come a long way since the days of looming awkwardly in a bookshop. Nowadays, we can hide behind our devices, but we don’t really need to – since the boom in bestselling titles across the genre show exactly how popular it has become.
If you want to improve any area of your life, self-help books are now the go-to; forging the way to a better, bolder you. Here are six of our favourite guides to read with zero shame, including a Nigella favourite.
For: Productivity and confidence
Try: The 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins
“Hesitation is the kiss of death. You might hesitate for a just nanosecond, but that’s all it takes. That one small hesitation triggers a mental system that’s designed to stop you.”
Mel Robbins’ best-selling book is a manual for get-up-and-go: but it’s written with so much warmth and accessibility that you won’t mentally eye roll at the Just Do It mentality. At the heart of Robbins’ approach is the idea that we routinely sabotage ourselves by overthinking and procrastination. Instead, we should just go for whatever we want using a simple countdown technique of “5-4-3-2-1”. This mental tool distracts the mind and leads to direct and self-perpetuating action in anything from career progression to unhealthy relationships. It sounds too simple to be true but Robbins’ wildly successful talks on the topic, along with series of case studies quoted in the book, show just how effective it can be.
For: Help with your mental health
Try: Jog On by Bella Mackie
“Maybe the sudden urge to run was a physical manifestation of this desire to escape my own brain. I guess I just wanted to do it for real.”
Journalist Bella Mackie’s Jog On is a book about running, but it’s also about so much more than that. Following the collapse of her marriage and struggling with deep-rooted mental health issues, Mackie put on her trainers and went for a jog. Although she didn’t get very far on her first go, she tried again, and again, and again. Jog On recounts how running helped Mackie work through crippling anxiety and depression. Running isn’t a cure, says Mackie, but Jog On is definitely an inspiring and motivational book that will help you see how small steps could help you with your mental health.
For: Ditching physical and emotional clutter
Try: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, by Marie Kondo
“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life”
What’s cleaning got to do with being stuck in a job rut, or suffering brain fog? A hell of a lot, as it turns out. In her smash-hit tidying manual, Marie Kondo demonstrates how de-cluttering your home can lead to dramatic changes in your mind and your life. When you purge your house of excess baggage - using the intense yet deliciously intuitive KonMarie method - you are suddenly able to see your life clearly once again. Unhampered by the weight of “stuff”, you can better recognise who you are and what you want. It’s potent stuff (some people end up divorcing after trying Kondo) and the only way to understand is to go ahead and start reading. At the very least, you’ll put your socks drawer to rights; but we predict larger changes, too.
For: Living a healthier life
Try: The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray
“I found that I was about a million time happier sober than I ever had been while drinking”
The first great thing about Catherine Gray’s funny and honest memoir is that it’s relevant even if you’re thinking of cutting down on alcohol rather than stopping altogether (although she does suggest a 90-day start period to reap the rewards). The second great thing is that she neatly sidesteps the rock-bottom narrative that underpins most “Quit Lit” literature: instead, her book is all about showing the benefits of quitting booze in a non-preachy way. It’s easy to relate to her story and understand how our cultural love affair with alcohol really isn’t all its cracked up to be. No wonder Fearne Cotton rates this thought-provoking read.
For: A messy breakup
Try: Heartburn by Nora Ephron
“You fall in love with someone, and part of what you love about him are the differences between you; and then you get married and the differences start to drive you crazy.”
The beauty of Nora Ephron - beloved screenwriter of When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle - is that her writing really speaks to you, combining realism and humour to deliver a (strangely comforting) punch to the gut. This autobiographical novel is based on the break-up of her marriage to Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, whose affair Ephron discovered when she was seven months pregnant with their second child. Ephron somehow transmutes her pain into comedy, for an intimate confessional that’s like a best friend to anyone suffering a break-up. Nigella Lawson is a fan, hailing it as “bittersweet and sobbingly funny”.
For: Dealing with bereavement
Try: A Manual for Heartache by Cathy Rentzenbrink
“The mind is simply another part of the body. It works hard, deserves our care and we shouldn’t feel ashamed about needing to give it some attention.”
When Cathy Rentzenbrink was a teenager, her older brother was knocked down by a car leading to an agonisingly drawn-out family tragedy that dominated years of her life. Her first-hand experience of grief is imbued within this wise and emphatic guide; the equivalent of a warm duvet for anyone struggling with catastrophic loss. Rentzenbrink doesn’t profess to be a therapist and her one-person-to-another approach is all the better for it. Delve in for simple, comforting advice on everything from seeking help with depression to the best type of books to read when you’re grief-stricken (gentle and funny material).
Images: Getty, Instagram, Cathy Rentzenbrink