HistoricalThe term self-help was coined in the 1859 book Self-Help by Samuel Smiles that expounds the virtues of personal responsibility, hard work and perseverance. However, self-help materials were written as far back as antiquity such as the 3rd century BC work The Art of Happiness by Epicurus. The following are common themes of self-help books before 1960.
Finding meaning in life
Influencing others positively
Religious and mystical experiences
Belief and faith
Hard work and perseverance
Philosophy of abundance
1960sThe 1960s experienced a large scale culture shift driven by a youth culture known as the hippies. The 1964 best seller, Games People Play by Eric Berne is viewed as popularizing psychology. This was followed by a large number of pop psychology books in the 1960s. The following are other dominant themes of this time.
Games people play
Self-image and visualization
Overcoming self-defeating behavior
1970sThe 1970s sees a shift away from psychology and towards spirituality. This may be seen as replacing a void created where people had become less traditional and religious due to the large social and cultural shifts of the 1960s. For example, the 1974 philosophy book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance uses quality as a means to consider the interconnection between art, science and the human experience. This is a search for universal meaning and laws that underlie all things.
Nature of true happiness
Pursuit of meaning
Meaning of life
Spirituality as a journey
1980sSelf-help books of the 1980s appear to be influenced by management trends of the time with a shift towards strategy, tactics, time management and setting goals over the more spiritual themes of the 1970s. Pop psychology shifts towards how to deal with problems and accumulate influence and power. Advice becomes more specific and actionable.
Using psychology on others
Dealing with unhealthy relationships
Learning to love oneself first
1990sThe 1990s saw a continuation of the corporate themes of self-help where books were heavily influenced by management theories of the day. For example, the 1989 book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People introduces management fads such as "paradigm shifts." A theme of emotional intelligence emerged in both offices and in self-help during this time and it's unclear which inspired which. Another major theme of this era was the differences between men and women such as the 1992 book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.
Living in the moment
Strategies for power
Differences between men and women
2000sThe 2000s sees an explosion in the number of self-help publications likely driven by ecommerce book sales and ebooks. Books of this period are far more original and try to present a dramatic secret that will have some great effect. There is also a theme of trying to put some science behind advice with books based on mathematics such as Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell that looks at some statistics behind success.
Power of introversion
Secrets to success
Habits for happiness
Pareto principle (80/20 rule)
2010sIn the 2010s, self-help advice become polarized into two camps. One focuses on accepting yourself, being yourself, overcoming self-limiting beliefs and learning not to criticize yourself. The other focuses on facing adversity, setting high standards and taking on challenges to build grit and resilience. There is also a large amount of lifestyle advice during this time focusing on minimalism, simple living and self-sufficiency. This is a dramatic shift from the remarkably materialistic and shallow advice of the 1990s and 1980s.
Not caring what people think
Words of affirmation
Overcoming self-defeating thoughts
Acts of service
Grit and determination
2020sSelf-help of this time tends towards relativism and the idea that individuals set the rules in their interactions with society as opposed to the other way around. One gets the sense that people are trying to detach from society due to the high rate of cultural and technological change or some other force such as negativity in social media and politics.
Next read: Examples of Self-Improvement
Embracing one's true self
Breaking free from societal expectations
Unconventional principles for living
Meaningful life in a fast-paced world
Saying yes to new experiences
Setting boundaries and saying no
Nature based mysticism