The Changing Face of Self-Improvement: Era-Defining Self-Help Classics of Decades Past


A new year has rolled around, and with it comes a new round of resolutions, improvements, gym memberships, diet books, and self-help guides. It’s something that’s written into the very fabric of America, it seems — just look at our founding father, Ben Franklin — and the early days of January seem like the perfect time to embrace the ever-optimistic, ever huckster-y American attitude of self-help and self-improvement. It’s been a part of our lives ever since Franklin published his first Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1732; however, self-help may have been perfected in the 20th century, where self-improvement met capitalism, leading to books that promised the world, once you put your money down. Each decade brought new ideas on how to magically make yourself a success; here are the defining titles from each of those decades.

Prior to the 20th century: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin

Some people point to the 1930s one-two of How to Make Friends and Influence People and Think and Grow Rich as the beginning of self-help; but before we consider these books, we have to think about our leading founding father, who had the 1730s – 1790s on lock. Franklin was crazy into self-improvement. It was his thing. He was born to nothing, and grew up into one of our leading intellects, and you can trace the rigorous course of his mind through both his autobiography and his Almanack. He is famous for his pursuit of thirteen virtues, from temperance to humility to tranquility to resolution. On the last one, he writes: “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”

The 1930s: How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie

First published in 1936, this bible of the self-help genre promises the world from an “influential businessman”. Born Dale Carnagey (he changed his name to give himself whiffs of the famous industrialist family), he started as a businessman encouraging people to learn the art of public speaking, and How to Win Friends… was the written version of one of the classes he was offering at the time. The result was an instant bestseller and influenced notable names from Warren Buffett to Charles Manson — a suggestion that Carnegie’s political techniques work.

The 1940s: Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill

Well, this was technically published in 1938, but World War II put the kibosh on self-help for a while, so it’s close enough. In any case, between Dale Carnegie and Hill, a theme grew during the Depression: there was another way! If you made friends and made money, then perhaps life could improve! Hill’s book was inspired by a suggestion from Andrew Carnegie that the young reporter, working on a series of features about successful men, comb the histories of those men for commonalities.

The 1950s: The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale

Now this one is weird — Peale was a pastor who hooked up with a psychiatrist, and together they started writing books and handling parishioners needing ministry and psychology. In 1952, they produced The Power of Positive Thinking, a book that promises “10 traits for maximum results,” like “expect the best and get it.” It’s actually a sloppily written, anecdotal tract that mostly relies on the power of… self-hypnosis. Americans are so weird!

The 1960s: I’m OK, You’re OK, Thomas A. Harris, M.D.

The title just feels 1960s, doesn’t it? In this 1967 bestseller, a doctor leads us into his explanation of “transactional analysis,” a psychological theory that presents the idea that a human is, in response to any situation, a parent, adult, or a child. What we want to do is to get to the state where we’re all, in essence, OK, just “adults” talking to each other with none of the baggage that comes from “parents” and “children.” Heady!

The 1970s: The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck, M.D.

In this 1978 book (see, now we are getting into the era of needing doctors for self-help, not hucksters, per se), Peck seemingly has a response to the platitudes of I’m OK, You’re OK: “Life is difficult.” He starts by pointing out that we’re all struggling, and then tells us how to bring love into our lives. In Peck’s eyes, love is work, and a struggle, and an intention.

The 1980s: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen H. Covey

Both business and self-help, this book is the one that you maybe had to read in your high school theology class (no? you didn’t? lucky) and it is about having high self-esteem and the belief that you’re responsible for things in your life. This is good advice, and Covey’s right regarding how believing in abundance, as opposed to scarcity (i.e. the jealousy propelling 1,000 thinkpieces about twentysomething women in the arts), is far better for your mental sanity.

The 1990s: The Rules: Time-tested Secrets For Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider

You know what we were worried about in the ’90s? The relationships between men and women (see: Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus), and all this worry was ripe for parody in Helen Fielding’s bright, sparkling Bridget Jones’ Diary. But anyways, you know what the rules are: play hard to get, don’t put out, get that ring, all sorts of antiquated whatever advice from women who put marriage and relationships as a top capitalistic priority.

The 2000s: The Secret, Rhonda Byrne

We love imagining the laws of attraction (certainly written about elsewhere, pre-Secret) as being something that could create magic in our own lives. But it took one entrepreneurial Australian and one Oprah shout-out to mainstream the idea of “vision boards” and “creating your own wealth,” leading to a whole Secret-based industry. Is it any surprise that this self-help book, released in 2006, became a bible during the Great Recession?