Long gone are the days where the self-help books section in libraries would gather dust in a dark corner, visited by those brave enough “accidentally” browsing the aisle, five minutes before closing. In modern times, self-help is a very big deal, demonstrated by an industry which, by 2022, is estimated will be worth $13 billion.
Humans have always learned from each other, sharing knowledge and approaches to life and the rich spectrum of experiences it presents. Ancient books, such as Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and Sun Zsu’s The Art of War still fly off the shelves (or the warehouses of online retailers) at rapid rates.
Self-help books aren’t magic solutions to instant happiness, but they provide a window into new ways of thinking, relating, loving, problem-solving, and being. The term self-help is adapted from a 19th-century book of the same name by Scottish author Samuel Smiles.
Since then, the cultural phenomena have only grown. From the concept of the American Dream featured in self-development classics such as Think & Grow Rich and The Power of Positive Thinking to the New Age thinking and positive psychology in books such as The Power of Now and Daring Greatly, self-help literature has always reflected societal trends.
Taking that all into consideration, what are the best self-help books of all time? Which books rise above the cultures and time periods they came from to represent the best of the best in terms of evergreen life lessons and timeless wisdom? Below is an eclectic list of some well-known and some lesser-known books that have the potential to change your view on the world, from inspiration to practical tools.
Here are 17 of the best self-help books of all time:
Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl
If ever there was evidence of the capacity for love to transcend hate, and good to triumph over evil, it’s the work of Viktor Frankl. Split into two parts, the first half tells of Frankl’s harrowing experiences in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Through the pain of his own experience (Frankl’s wife, mother, father, and brother were killed) Frankl illuminated an inside view of human behavior during the most unimaginable hardship.
The second section of the book details the ethos of logotherapy and existential analysis, a mixture of psychological theory and philosophy. What kept those alive, in the darkest of moments? What is at the heart of each of us? For Frankl, it’s the will to meaning, combined with an incomprehensible super-meaning tied to the fabric of existence.
Anyone reading Frankl’s words will be moved and inspired to forge a meaningful life and live with dignity and responsibility, even through the toughest times. This is a valuable read, particularly around times of personal or global hardship, such as the corona pandemic.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
As the saying goes, every journey begins with a single step. In the realm of self-help, each step can be a single choice or the multitude of decisions made each day. The question is, how do you make better choices? In Clear’s own words, “habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”
This self-help book has sold 2 million copies, gaining popularity due to its comprehensive overview of all things in habit formation. Anyone who has tried to change habits knows how much of a challenge it can be. Fortunately, Atomic Habits provides a well-researched structure to rid unhelpful habits and create new, self-serving ones that last.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho – Best self-help books for the everyday mystic
The only fiction book on this list, The Alchemist is a seminal classic that has sold over sixty-five million copies worldwide. Why is a fiction book on a self-help book list? To put it simply, the way it was written by author Paulo Coelho was unlike anything of its kind at the time. It’s a fictional story, but you’re just as much within the main character Santiago’s head as you are there beside him in his journey to discovering his Personal Legend.
If you’re looking for guidance in a general sense, are at all religious (or even agnostic), or simply want wisdom on how to discover what it is you were meant to do and become (and, honestly, probably even if none of those things apply to you), this book will quite literally change your life forever.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one of several well-known classics on this list, though I personally find it to be the most refreshing one. On one side, this self-help book is exactly what it sounds like: a guide to the habits of successful, effective people. On the other side, though, there runs an incredibly important undertone that forms the real power of the book and the prime takeaway: living with fairness and integrity is the path to maximum efficiency and success.
In a world where shortcuts, secret deals, and dishonesty are prominent, Covey’s classic preaches a message that the world needs more than ever — and shows you how to apply it in the form of simple, straightforward habits.
Feeling Good Handbook
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely applied and effective forms of therapy in modern times. Its pioneer, Aaron T. Beck, took inspiration from Stoic philosophy, and the premise that thoughts influence actions, and by rationalizing our thoughts, we behave, and feel, differently.
Dr. Burns’ book isn’t an easy breeze, but a comprehensive encyclopedia of the CBT approach. Those looking to apply the tools themselves will find a wealth of material to work with. It’s the most “prescribed” book to support patients with depression and anxiety in the US, for good reason — it’s been voted the leading book on depression by mental health professionals.
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
If you read one book on spirituality, you can’t really go wrong with Tolle’s classic The Power of Now. It isn’t just a guide to spiritual practice and how it can transform your own life, it’s a guide to transforming the world with the power of that practice as well.
The key takeaway here is that you have the ability to change the world one step at a time if you work on transforming yourself from the inside out, an insight that can serve you well for your entire life.
Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki – Best self-help books for winning in finance
On the other side of the spectrum, there’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad, which is to financial literacy what The Power of Now is to spiritual practice. It presents you with a complete set of sound, useful principles for living better and more effectively when it comes to money and personal finances.
The book uses the contrast between two characters, “poor dad” and “rich dad,” to teach various financial principles. The primary takeaway is that those who aren’t good with their money and have less are that way because they work for money, whereas those who are good with their money amass more of it because they learn how to make money work for them. They’re generalities, but the lessons taught are no less valuable.
If you want to improve your ability to manage your finances, Rich Dad, Poor Dad is the perfect package of enlightening knowledge and actionable instruction.
The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris
Another book explaining the foundations of a therapeutic practice created by Steven C. Hayes. Harris provides an easy-to-follow and practical overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). A form of therapy that mixes mindfulness, behavioral change and values work, Harris explains how ACT allows us to create awareness and space for our feelings, whilst consciously choosing a more fruitful response.
What is the trap? Most of us spend life seeking happiness and avoiding unpleasant experiences. Yet Harris notes how this relentless pursuit rejects difficult emotions and actions based on avoiding or chasing a feeling, not that which is most meaningful. The book comes with a wealth of straightforward exercises, and is helpful for anyone looking for more fulfillment, satisfaction, or looking to find a way to manage depression or anxiety.
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Dale Carnegie wrote several great self-help books in his time, but How to Win Friends and Influence People is easily his best. This book is king when it comes to learning how to work and communicate with people, so I consider it required reading — especially for an introvert like myself.
Carnegie does a great job of showing that good communication really has nothing to do with natural talent or smooth words, but knowing the right tactics to use with interacting with others, something everyone can do.
Communication is one of the single most important skills you can work on, given how critical communication is to everything that we do. If you want (or believe you need) to become a better communicator, or simply want to get better at working with people, read this now.
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
Think and Grow Rich is one of several old-school classics on this list and its place is well-earned. For twenty years, author Napoleon Hill studied the most successful people of his time, including Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell and chronicled those findings together into one neat little package.
The main takeaway? A focused, burning desire (or the power of a made-up mind, what Wayne Dyer called intention), gives us the power to achieve or acquire what we want most in life.
If you’re looking for insights on how to achieve your dream or a specific goal, this is a classic you can’t do without.
When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön
All the self-help in the world can’t prevent life from throwing up unpredictable events; loss, failure, disappointment, rejection. In times of hardship and overwhelm, often the most important guidance to receive is heartfelt and simple reassurance that things will be okay, and that suffering will be overcome. The sub-head of the book is “heart advice for difficult times,” and the Buddhist nun’s wisdom certainly backs up that statement.
Drawing from both her raw personal experience and ancient Buddhist teachings, Chödrön offers an alternative perspective on suffering, in opposition to the Western view to avoid pain at all costs. Most crucially, she offers a clear explanation of the Buddhist practice of self-compassion.
This is one of the best self-help books for women and men in hard times. It offers inspiration to confront fear, uncertainty, and loss head-on, with courage, to learn and to grow, and in turn, learn to know ourselves on a deeper level.
What to Say When You Talk to Your Self by Dr. Shad Helmstetter
This book had a profound effect on me at a very critical point in my life. A classic that’s not often listed on lists of the best self-help books, Dr. Helmstetter’s WSWYTYS has the ability to completely transform your life by showing you how to master your inner self-talk.
Our inner dialogue holds huge amounts of control over our life, influencing virtually every decision we make each and every day. The only problem is, our inner dialogue is usually incredibly negative and self-destructive.
So, what happens when you learn to master this inner dialogue and change it? Your entire life changes. I credit this book, in part, for helping me get out of a difficult spot in my life where I was working somewhere I knew didn’t align with my purpose but didn’t have the confidence or belief to take the next step.
If you believe your inner dialogue is holding you back, this book has the chance to change your life forever.
The Power of Positive Thinking by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale
Dr. Peale’s classic is the quintessential self-help book, being one of just a handful of early books from around the 1950s that shaped the entire self-improvement space as a whole. For that reason, there are many themes in the book that you’ll see echoed throughout many of the other books on this list. However, the perspective is slightly different and a refreshing change.
The value of positive thinking is such a basic mantra of self-improvement that it’s now almost overlooked. The Power of Positive Thinking is great for anyone looking to get back to basics and learn some of the fundamental lessons that are critical to believing in self-confidence and an optimistic mindset.
The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz
The Magic of Thinking Big is a book that I’ll always remember because reading it was probably the first time I was introduced to the true power of the mind. Like Peale’s Positive Thinking, this is another classic, so the examples and speech that Schwartz uses are often entertaining in themselves.
Above all else, The Magic of Thinking Big will teach you not to short-change yourself. Think big, don’t settle, and watch as a simple shift in the way you think literally changes your results. The Magic of Thinking Big is great for anyone looking to learn more about how to use the mind to achieve higher levels of success.
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
Of all the best self-help books, researcher and author Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly strikes at the heart of the most important issue of all: our lack of self-worth and struggles with shame. The main takeaway of Daring Greatly? You’re not alone in thinking that you’re not worthy. In fact, most people think the same way. It’s the single most universal challenge facing people of all cultures. But you are worth it and you can find that self-worth– and great strength– in the willingness to open up and be vulnerable.
If you’re looking to work more from the ground up and want to tackle fundamental issues, this is the one book you need.
The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman – Best self-help books for building a healthy relationship
Who could’ve predicted the humble work of a pastoral counselor from three decades ago would become a cultural phenomenon in modern times? With 13 million copies sold, Chapman’s distinction of the love languages — words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and gifts.
The love languages aren’t hard and fast rules, they offer a clear understanding of personal preferences around giving and receiving love. Although technically a book on relationships, by harnessing the knowledge and sharing with a partner, Chapman’s wisdom serves as a useful framework for anyone interested in developing deeper levels of intimacy. This is truly one of the best self help books, for women and men alike.
A Course In Miracles by Helen Schucman
Granted, the introduction claimed there are no magic solutions. But A Course in Miracles is the closest one can get to a description, and practical walkthrough, of awakening to the magic and the miraculous of the day-to-day. What is the miracle? The realization of love’s presence in one’s life.
Released in 1976, the 1,333-page book was relentlessly transcribed during a seven-year period between 1965 and 1972 by Schucman and her colleague at Medical Psychology at Columbia University, Bill Thetford. Those less spiritually-inclined might be put off by its New Age vibe, but if nothing else, the principles offer a radically transformed view of viewing the world and the spiritual path.