Self-help for the cynic.
November 25, 2012 8:54 AM   Subscribe

Please recommend some self-help books for those who hate self-help books. Humor, cynicism, and a firm basis in science/psychology is especially appreciated.

I've being going through an especially horrible time in my life, and I've begun working very hard on stopping that inner saboteur in my head. I'm in therapy and I'm trying to work on myself outside of that as well, but I'm at the point where I think it might be beneficial to read some books that might give me new perspectives on thinking about my depression and anxiety.

The problem is I absolutely loathe the whole self-help industry. It all sounds cultish and supremely condescending to me. What I'd love is some fantastical combination of self-help and psychology, delivered to me in a readable but still academic fashion. A non-book example that has given me some solace is various podcasts about how the brain works, especially on an emotional level (Radiolab, To the Best of Our Knowledge, et al have done interesting stuff in this respect).

Any thoughts on what might fit the bill?
posted by timory to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to look into The Noonday Demon -- it's a wide-ranging and well-written exploration of depression from many different viewpoints: scientific, cultural, and personal.
posted by shivohum at 9:03 AM on November 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Not a book, but Stanford's Sapolsky On Depression in U.S. (Full Lecture) is a fascinating talk. Interesting, academic, accessible.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:17 AM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I woke this morning to an amazing discussion on the NPR show "On Being": Brene Brown discussing her research on vulnerability.. Wow!
posted by Pineapplicious at 9:26 AM on November 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Thinking Fast and Slow isn't a self-help book persay (its focus leans more behavioral economics), but it's one of the best books on human cognition I've read in a while and I think the ongoing tension between the fast-reacting emotional system and the slower-reacting logical system would be of interest to you even if it's not addressing your symptoms directly.

Here's a talk he did on one of the things addressed in the book, the experiencing self versus the remembering self, that covers the different ways we perceive happiness. You may find yours is "inverted", perhaps remembering the one moment of supreme embarrassment rather than the hours of fun at a party and then plotting that out across your life ("Oh god, I always embarrass myself! I'm never going out again!"), or something like that.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:30 AM on November 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: wow, that's an interesting coincidence -- my dad is reading thinking fast and slow right now, and i started it while i was visiting him for thanksgiving. fascinating stuff, i'll definitely pick it up.
posted by timory at 9:36 AM on November 25, 2012

I'd take a look at Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided, mostly because it's emphatically not a self-help book, but it's worth a read.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 9:52 AM on November 25, 2012

Nthing Brene Brown. Watch her TED talks video, it's amazing
posted by Neekee at 11:03 AM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

You should take a look at Daily Afflictions. You'll have to find the science elsewhere, but it's got the humor and cynicism you're looking for.
posted by Corvid at 11:23 AM on November 25, 2012

Richard Wiseman - 59 Seconds. Self help based only on peer-reviewed science. You might like this google talk too: Your Brain At Work
posted by crocomancer at 11:39 AM on November 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

This may not be what you're looking for, but high quality literary fiction can be useful in this way, also. Nearly all novels, in some way or another, are about humans struggling to come to terms with themselves and their places in the world--am I like a wolf from the steppes, am I someone who can morally relax himself enough to commit murder, might as well I be a cockroach? Et cetera. Self-help books are also about coming to terms with oneself and one's place in the world. But in good novels, the information is presented by history's greatest wordsmiths and imaginations and it is done so in a way that engages the mind and the emotions, at times powerfully, in a way self-help books can't.

Granted, the purely relevant information is not as densely packed in a novel as it is in out-and-out self help books, but the benefits of excellent art mitigate that.

I can usually count on getting some edification and epiphany from Jim Harrison, Saul Bellow, Herman Hesse, John Williams, James Salter and Iris Murdoch, among others, but that's only my personal taste.
posted by TheRedArmy at 12:00 PM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Coincidentally, I just read an excerpt from The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. Seems like it'd be of interest to you.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:05 PM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might try Martha Beck, who comes from the academic world so is great on the science side of things, but also has a wacky sense of humour, pragmatic optimism, and a riveting backstory. You could start with The Joy Diet and then move on to Finding Your Own North Star.
posted by alicat at 10:42 PM on November 25, 2012

Off the beaten path for sure but Kate Bornstein's "Hello Cruel World" is very anti-self-help self help.
posted by manicure12 at 12:09 AM on November 26, 2012

Best answer: Thanks for the shout-out, Ghostride The Whip.

I had a couple of other thoughts – for a straight-up, practical self-help book that is completely based in science, my top recommendation would be The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. It's not cynical, but it's also not remotely condescending. It just provides what it claims to offer, with a high degree of rigor.

On the other hand, I sometimes think a commitment to skepticism and "not touching any of that self-helpy BS with a 10ft pole" can begin to get in the way; a better skeptical approach, I think, is to read some of that problematic self-help literature with a skeptical mindset, trusting that – as a skeptic – you've got the brains to spot when something's useful versus when it's nonsense. To that end, I think Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now, for example, is a book most people should read. Nobody's asking you to sign up to every word…

I hope this helps.
posted by oliverburkeman at 9:42 AM on November 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

Jumping off of the post above, sometimes when I'm going through a hard time I have also found it helpful to push my "not touching any of that self-helpy BS with a 10ft pole" (excellent way of putting it) attitude aside, and just go with it. Embrace the cheesiness. There is often a lot of real wisdom in that stuff actually, and if David Foster Wallace wasn't too smart or cool for self-help literature then I sure as hell am not either.

Aside from that, listen to the podcast Mental Illness Happy Hour. It is smart and funny people (most are comedians/in the entertainment industry) talking about about their struggles illness / difficult upbringing, etc. The host, Paul Gilmartin, does get a little cheesy at times, but he's also so warm and compassionate that I can't hold it against him.
posted by Asparagus at 12:08 PM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

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