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New age self-help books you need to read right now

In their modern avatar they promise practical victories and some tough love

By Deepa Menon  March 2nd, 2016

There’s something desperate about reading a self-help book. Admitting that you need help with basic tasks that most other humans seem to manage, like daily exercise, getting a date or loving yourself, can seem kind of pathetic. But the lure of these books is urgent. They’re like those ads for creams that solve embarrassing body issues. Gross if you don’t need them, but necessary when you have a rash in a delicate area.

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, author of Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture, draws the parallel between philosophy and the self-help genre. They both tell you how to live, but while philosophy belongs to the exalted realm of Thinking, self-help concerns itself with the lowbrow region of Actually Doing. Lamb-Shapiro started researching this book fully expecting to uncover a bunch of charlatans and bogus mantras, and she did find plenty of those. But she also found help that she didn’t know she was seeking.

Closure came from a statistic. The author read in a book on grieving that 90 per cent of women whose mothers kill themselves fear they may also be led to suicide. When she was two, Lamb-Shapiro’s mother committed suicide. Suddenly the frightening premonition she’d lived with resolved itself into a statistical fact. A comforting fact, it turns out, because knowing that a majority lives with the same fear reduces its terror considerably.

A good self-help book’s main goal is to make you feel like less of a freak. You are not the only one who has trouble quitting FB/eating more protein/asking for a raise. The new wave that succeeded the Chicken Soup era uses science and common sense to address these issues; its appeal is more left-brain than right. The new bestsellers are written not by self-styled gurus but by MIT professors, TED speakers and MDs. They’re written well, designed beautifully and produced to look good on your bookshelf. Most importantly, they know their audience. 

We are a generation of recovering optimists. We follow the news closely enough to know that the planet and all of us on it are screwed. So the self-help genre in its modern avatar promises more modest accomplishments — a neater desk, calmer weekends, children who eat their greens — and attracts those with more realistic expectations regarding personal growth. We don’t believe, like the preceding generation did, that you can think away cancer. But we do believe there is a coffee out there that can help us lose weight and stay energetic all day. We don’t want The Secret; we want to know if we can substitute yak butter with desi ghee in our Bulletproof Coffee.

Truth is, we could all use a little help. Who is hideous enough to believe they have no room for improvement? But desperation still remains the key to getting the most out of these books. You have to want to change, keenly. Many people, observes Lamb-Shapiro, buy self help books, feel virtuous for having taken a step towards change… and stop there. There are no new routes to happiness, only the same ones even the almost 80-year-old Serenity Prayer acknowledges: accept what you can’t change, change what you can and wise up to the difference. Just sometimes, we need more specific instructions than that.

To get a hold on your emotions: Read F*ck Feelings by Michael L Bennett (MD) and Sarah Bennett

A psychiatrist from Harvard and his daughter, a comedy writer, tell you how to work with the smarts you have, make up for the life skills you don’t and not let your feelings push you around. Instead of putting your wounded emotions in the driver’s seat, the book helps you train your brain to see a situation exactly for what it is, and map your way to a (relatively) happier place.

To shorten your to-do list: Read Work Simply by Carson Tate

If every day starts with sharpened pencils and good intentions and ends with you staring in panic at an untouched to-do list, you need a better system. Take productivity expert Carson Tate’s quiz (also on and assess what your working style is: prioritiser, arranger, visualiser or planner. Then discover how, in Tate’s words, you can find a schedule and workstation that fit your personality. 

To cure self-help addiction: Read Promise Land: Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro

This part-memoir, part-investigation tells you which gurus are nutjobs and which theories work. The author spent years attending motivational seminars, reading extensively (in the self-help and philosophy aisles), and interviewing authors and readers to understand if these books actually cause a breakthrough.

To wear out cynicism: Read Small Victories by Anne Lamott

This may not be formatted or even marketed as a self-help book; it’s a collection of autobiographical essays about gratitude by Lamott, a writer who combines the perspectives of a feminist, a one-time addict, a 60-something looking for love and a born-again Christian. It’s a tricky mix, but fans swear by her brand of insight delivered through the hypodermic of humour. 

To win against Instagram: Read Driven To Distraction At Work by Edward M Hallowell (MD)

What if you’re told that the reason you’re always behind at work is not because you’re disorganised, or lazy, but because you have a saviour complex? Sits better, doesn’t it? ADHD expert Hallowell homes in on six such distractions, including screen-time and ‘idea-hopping’, that may be derailing your focus. He then guides you towards gently detangling from these patterns and getting some work done.

To soothe existential angst: Read Waking Up by Sam Harris

Philosopher, neuroscientist and author of several books skewering the world’s major faiths, Harris contends that while religion may be a “perverse misuse of intelligence”, aspects of it serve as a psychological security blanket. In Waking Up, he articulates how you can keep the comfort of religion, while ditching the dogma.

To train for 360° happiness: Read The School Of Life series

The School Of Life series tackles all kinds of existential and practical issues with an aim to bump up your emotional intelligence. The impressive stable of authors, each a cool person in their own right, uses its articulate powers — and a rich dollop of research — in an effort to show you How To Think More About Sex (Alain de Botton), How To Stay Sane (Philippa Perry), How To Find Fulfilling Work (Roman Krznaric) and How To Age (Anne Karpf).

Quick fix: colouring books: Buy Geometric Patterns,artwork by Lisa Congdon

A majority of books on Amazon’s list of bestsellers in the self-help category are a nursery staple. Colouring combines small sensory experiences that collectively reduce stress and put you in a meditative state: the smell of colour pencils, the absorption of staying between the lines, the satisfaction of creating something. 

To ace first impressions: Read Presence by Amy Cuddy

Tired of less talented peers getting ahead? Maybe you need to stand differently. In her new book, social psychologist Cuddy, who’s take on body language is the second most viewed TED talk of all time, elaborates on the science of ‘power posing’. Through these non-verbal cues, you can assert your personality and control the message you’re sending.

To use indecision well: Read Nonsense by Jamie Holmes

Faced with an opinion, people who answer in a rigid ‘yes’ or ‘no’ are likely to align all facts to their particular bias, while those comfortable with ambiguity seek out more creative solutions. Using scenarios as diverse as ad campaigns and hostage negotiations, Holmes proves that confusion isn’t the end of the road to wisdom, but a promising start.