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History of Self-Help


Webster’s dictionary defines self-help as “the act or an instance of providing for or helping oneself without dependence on others.” However, the ability to function independently is only one aspect of self-help.

While some consider self-help a way to deal with problems others see self-help as a way to reach our full potential by raising self awareness and increasing happiness.

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Self-help is a growing movement in North America empowering men and women to take charge of their lives. Self-help is certainly not a new concept but only in the twentieth century has it become a mass phenomenon.

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Steven Starker, in his 1989 book Oracle at the Supermarket: The American Preoccupation with Self-Help, suggested that its roots lie with the Puritans in early colonial America, and their constant quest for self-improvement. Dr. Starker calls self-help “an essential part of American culture,” connecting it to American Independence and Thomas Jefferson who idealized the new nation as a place where “a man could rise in his station according to his merits and abilities.”

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Increasing prosperity since the end of World War II in 1945 has allowed individuals to have more leisure time to pursue self-help.

In his 1943 classic A Theory of Human Motivation, Abraham Maslow identifies five fundamental human needs and their hierarchical nature. In his hierarchy of needs, Maslow theorizes that taking care of the lower needs allows human beings to pay more attention to higher needs such as self-help (or self-actualization according to Maslow).


Source: Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation, Psychological Review, vol. 50, 1943, 370-96.

As shown in Maslow’s pyramid, a sense of belonging, esteem and self-actualization is where most North Americans, to varying degrees, find themselves. It is only in the last half of the 20th century where the majority of North Americans have had the luxury of thinking beyond daily sustenance issues such as shelter, clean water, and food.

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In 50 Self-Help Classics author Tom Butler-Bowdon notes that throughout history many self help books have been written, including some not typically associated with self-improvement:

The Bhagavad Gita
The Dhammapada(Buddha’s teachings)
The Holy Bible
Tao Te Ching(5th-3rd Century BC) Lao Tzu
The Consolation of Philosophy  (6th century) Boethius
Autobiography (1790) Benjamin Franklin
Walden(1854) Henry David Thoreau
Self-Help (1859) Samuel Smiles
As a Man Thinketh (1902) James Allen

Source: 50 Self-Help Classics: 50 Inspirational Books to Transform Your Life, Tom Butler-Bowdon

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Until recently, books were the source for self-help information. Books like Napolean Hill’s Think and Grow Rich or Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (both from 1937) or Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 blockbuster, The Power of Positive Thinking, helped nudge self-help to its current market dominance. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care , published in 1946, was revolutionary in telling mothers that “you know more than you think you do.”

The 1960s and 1970s marked the start of the pop psychology boom. In 1967, author Thomas Anthony Harris wrote I’m OK — You’re OK. Since then, many others have contributed to the growing field of self-help, from motivational dynamo Anthony Robbins to time management expert Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) to behaviorist Dr. David Burns (Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy).

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The advent of the paperback in 1935 marks the beginning of mass literature that has made self-help literature increasingly affordable and accessible to a growing number of the general public. In 1966, Sony and other Japanese manufacturers began mass production of cassette tapes and tape recorders. By the 1970s, cassette decks were becoming the “must-have” accessory for audiophiles and car owners. This allowed for self-help material to go beyond the printed page.

Increasingly, broadcast has competed with print media. It could be said that the first self-help show on television premiered in 1962 with Julia Child and The French Chef TV series. Television remains a major source of self-help material, albeit limited primarily to exercise, yoga, cooking and the occasional call-in show. Since her start in 1986, Oprah Winfrey has moved away from tabloid television to focus on the growing demand for self-help on her syndicated talk show.

The Video Home System, better known as VHS, was launched by JVC in September 1976 and started the home fitness movement, another self-help innovation. The June 2003 introduction of the DVD has further enhanced the production of self-help videos on a variety of topics.

Finally the commercialization of the Internet in 1993 and the rise of search engines ten years later highlight the ability of the computer to deliver self-help information to anyone with access to a networked computer.

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Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books, DVDs, tapes, life coaches, seminars, and motivational speakers. Some peg the industry, with all its component parts, as being worth as much as $10 billion annually.

Source: The Secret life of self-help books, Toronto Star, March 18, 2007.

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Did you know that reading self-help books has become recognized as a promising new therapy? The name of this new type of treatment is known as “bibliotherapy” (or reading therapy) and has been proven to be effective in clinical trials for behavioral disorders such as depression.

For suggested reading therapy material please refer to the Personal Growth and Addiction Self-Help sections below.

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The Self-Help Section has resources specific to addiction self-help. Whether you are coming to terms with your own addiction, your child’s addiction, or that of a family member or partner, more help is available.

Self-help for addiction is also provided to individuals and their families that are now in addiction recovery (life after treatment). Finally, a whole section is dedicated to self-help groups for addiction in the 12-Step Support Groups section.

Sunshine Coast Health Center invites you to explore and challenge your own understanding of addiction treatment, addiction recovery, and the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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A self-help section for individuals and their significant others would not be complete without a section on personal growth. Personal growth is a broad term that explores four separate but inter-dependent questions common to all of mankind:

  1. Who am I?
  2. What is my purpose here on earth?
  3. How can I reach my full potential?
  4. How can I serve my fellow man?

You may ask yourself what personal growth has to do with addiction. Personal growth is a broader category of self-help that can include such diverse topics as spirituality, financial self-help, fitness, etc. Since addiction can impact all aspects of life, anyone with an addiction can benefit from personal growth and its many sub-categories. However, personal growth is designed for a wider audience which includes people that do not have an addiction.

Sunshine Coast Health Center recommends personal growth literature to anyone, especially individuals and their significant others who are now in the recovery phase (life after treatment).

If you are curious, we invite you to explore the Personal Growth section.

Disclaimer: the materials and information offered on this site are intended for educational purposes only and are not intended as a substitute for needed medical, psychological or psychiatric treatment or counseling. If you have any questions, consult with your health professional before using these materials.

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