Self-improvement is a preoccupation for many at this time of year, and sure enough, there's a slew of books geared to it. The trick is to identify those that are useful.
Sorting out the self-help chaff
Perhaps this will be the year you nail that exercise regime, start that novel or take the trip to Jaipur you've been planning forever. One thing is certain, which is that January will see self-help books such as The Power of Now, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway on promotional displays at the front of bookshops, as stores cash in on everyone's new year-inspired self-improvement kick.
There's a new generation of self-help writers whose books are hitting the best-seller lists alongside those classics. One of them is the Australian Rhonda Byrne, whose 2006 book The Secret sold four million copies in its first year and was followed up in 2010 with The Power, which promises in its intro: "You are meant to have everything you love and desire. Your work is meant to be exciting, and you are meant to accomplish all the things you would love to accomplish. Your relationships with family and friends are meant to be filled with happiness."
Byrne claims that by reading her book, anyone can make all these dreams come true, which would be quite a feat. Luckily for sceptics, a team of experts has been put together in London to investigate whether books like this can actually make people happier.
One of them is Oliver Burkeman, whose book Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done, released this month, carefully examines advice given by self-help books, motivational seminars, productivity-boosting blogs and websites on social psychology and sorts the wheat from the chaff.
"I think that a lot of self-help books make this dangerous promise of complete, perfect, absolute transformation," Burkeman says. "This can be self-defeating, because if you think that a book called Transform Your Life Completely in the Next 24 Hours is going to do what it promises, you feel worse when it doesn't." There are, he says, psychological reasons why this sort of "extreme fresh start" won't work, explaining that "it takes reserves of will power to keep that up that most of us are just not equipped with".
Although he advises caution towards some of the industry's wilder claims, Burkeman admits there is wisdom to be tapped too. "There's a group of people, whom I used to belong to, who feel as though all that self-help stuff is just embarrassing and ridiculous," he says. "But if you approach it with a sort of sceptical - but not cynical - mindset, you've got a good chance of changing for the better. I don't think that we should surrender the whole world of self-improvement to gimlet-eyed, grinning positive-thinking gurus."
One practice culled from the world of self-improvement which Burkeman has adopted himself is keeping a "gratitude journal", a book in which he notes down everything for which he's thankful. He says it sounds corny, but "the fact is that there is proper, bona fide research that it makes significant impact on mood, and even on physical health".
Burkeman will be discussing these sorts of ideas with the writer Alain de Botton in London next Saturday at The Self-Help Summit, a one-day event organised by a quirky Bloomsbury learning centre called The School of Life. Also on the agenda will be a "practical mindfulness" session, agony aunts to consult, and talks on psychological techniques, ancient philosophy's crossover with self-help, and how "well-being" is an increasingly important topic on political and social agendas.
An inspired alternative to the bookshop's self-help aisle is exemplified by a School of Life faculty member Ella Bertoud, who will be offering taster sessions in "bibliotherapy", a service she and her colleagues offer regularly at the centre. Visitors are invited to fill out a questionnaire on their reading habits, formative literary experiences and - if they wish - the details of their dreams, fears and personal problems. All this can be explored in greater detail at a face-to-face consultation, and a few days later a "prescription" is dispatched - with the names of eight novels to motivate and inspire.
"I genuinely think that you can get a lot more out of reading Anna Karenina than reading a self-help book," she says, pointing out that "you kind of live another life while you're reading a novel, and you see the world through someone else's eyes. That helps you learn about how to deal with different situations." She says that lots of classic literature was written with a moral purpose, and believes that brilliant writers who have stood the test of time are likely to offer more insight than authors of pop-psychology.
As an example, she mentions a client who can't decide whether to stay in London in the same job he's had for ages, or move to Sydney for a couple of years to shake things up. "I would recommend a brilliant book by Saul Bellow called Henderson the Rain King, which is about a man who goes to Africa to find himself and have an adventure. And then I might prescribe another one such as Patrick Gale's Notes from an Exhibition, which is about staying in one place but still having a rich, fulfilling, rewarding life. Hopefully, by identifying with the different characters, the reader is going to be enabled to decide which way they want to go."
It's certainly a new take on the meaning of "self-help book", although it's worth pointing out, as Burkeman does in Help!, that there are plenty of clever, scientifically minded writers who can also help with tricky decision-making and forming healthier habits. The huge success of Malcolm Gladwell's social psychology books The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers has paved the way for a new breed of well-informed writers such as the neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer, the doctor of psychology Sonja Lyubomirsky and the social psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, who have written about decision-making and happiness for a popular audience.
According to Burkeman, books like that have made it "a bit more acceptable to be interested in all this kind of stuff if you think of yourself as sceptical and smart, whereas in the past you might have wanted to hide a book about happiness behind brown paper or something". While a certain crowd might see self-help, along with therapy, as consolation for wimps, Burkeman calls the desire to improve your own sense of well-being "a very noble one", and believes that there are plenty of self-help writers out there who really are helping people.
So whether you reach for Tolstoy, Plato, Paul McKenna or Burkeman's own book this month, think first about all the ways it could change your life for the better. Just don't expect miracles.
Recommended by Ella Bertoud
A Grief Observed by CS Lewis, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
The House of Sleep by Jonathon Coe, Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker
Bartleby by Hermann Melville, In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
Recommended by Oliver Burkeman
The Happiness Project
Gretchen Reuben documents a year spent test-driving theories and studies on how to be happy. www.happiness-project.com
Merlin Mann's advice on finding the time and attention to do good creative work. www.43folders.com
Jonah Lehrer explains how neuroscience relates to our day-to-day lives. www. wired.com/wiredscience/frontal-cortex