Self-help is considered to be a modern genre of books. However, this has been around for centuries. Any book written in a manner to improve life through a set of guidelines that readers can include in their daily routine can be categorised as a self-help book. These books also shed light on the true meaning of our existence.
The best self-help books are not just a pleasure to read but also comprise esoteric knowledge, which is important for self-improvement and self-growth. It aims to encourage the reader to take charge of their mind, body, business or life itself.
It is one of the most significant genres, with numerous titles competing for space on bookshelves and online marketplaces.
From a modern tale of a young shepherd boy by an acclaimed Brazilian writer to a historical treatise by an ancient Chinese philosopher, we look at some of the finest self-help books you must read to live a better life.
The Alchemist — Paulo Coelho
Santiago is a young shepherd boy from Spain’s Andalusia region. One day, he dreams of a treasure in a faraway land, which inspires him to set out on a journey.
Thus begins an unforgettable adventure, which takes him across the Sahara Desert, gets him robbed, falls in love and finally meets the titular alchemist to find true happiness.
One of the most acclaimed self-help books, every word, phrase, dialogue and passage in The Alchemist offers pearls of wisdom on life.
Through a story of destiny, Coelho presents a tale of willpower — a narrative that instantly encourages the reader to make a personal discovery.
The Alchemist is counted among the world’s best self-help books for making millions of its readers understand the importance of following their dreams and living in the moment.
It has been one of the highest-selling books of all time since its release in 1988, selling over 65 million copies. It has been translated into more than 80 languages.
In 2003, Coelho entered the Guinness Books as the author who signed most translations of a single title in one sitting for The Alchemist.
How to Win Friends and Influence People — Dale Carnegie
Considered to be one of the earliest self-help books, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie has been life-changing for its readers.
Published in 1937, the book has been immensely helpful to those who want to be successful in the world of business or make money through other ventures.
However, to do this, one requires some self-improvement. And this is where this self-help book has been, over decades, acting as a pillar of support for its readers.
Since the book is not class-specific, it addresses anyone anywhere in the world and at any level of the class pyramid. After all, the book is about helping readers imbibe the habits of highly effective people.
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is counted as one of Time magazine’s 100 all-time non-fiction books. Sections of the book dive into important topics such as ‘Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment.’
The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck — Mark Manson
A gem among self-help books, the title of this masterpiece might come across as a tad offensive to some. However, that is exactly the message Manson perhaps wanted to send across — he doesn’t give an F.
The book doesn’t take the usual route that most self-help books do — that is to sound overly positive. Manson tells the readers not to bother about anything and just do what they want to do.
In other words, the book attempts to make readers realise that many of those who have succeeded in life are habitual risk-takers.
“Chances are you know somebody in your life who, at one time or another, did not give a f*** and went on to accomplish amazing feats,” he writes in his blog while citing an example of himself.
Manson’s self-help book is aimed at those who are mollycoddled with vague words like “love”, “joy” and “positive” stuff for their failures. The idea is to make us aware of our strengths and weaknesses, and accept them.
“Because when we give too many f***s, when we choose to give a f*** about everything, then we feel as though we are perpetually entitled to feel comfortable and happy at all times, that’s when life f***s us,” Manson writes.
At the same time, Manson warns against being indifferent to everything.
The book was released in 2016. It reached No.1 on New York Times Bestseller List the following year. It was also on many other bestseller lists, including that of Barnes & Noble.
The Secret — Rhonda Byrne
The Secret is a self-help book that was released alongside a film of the same name in 2006.
Rhonda Byrne was inspired to work on The Secret when her daughter gifted her a copy of The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles in 2004.
Wattles’ 1910 book proved to be a turning point in Byrne’s life, which, according to her, was in a traumatic phase.
Like the film, the book tells us about the “law of attraction” and shares what it claims is esoteric wisdom of contemporary prominent personalities from diverse topics, ranging from politics to business as well as religions.
Byrne believes that things such as money, happiness and good health can be attained through positive thinking.
The book tries to tell its readers that the best way to align the universe with their desires is to remain positive at all times.
The foundation of The Secret lies in how people see themselves and their lives.
This self-help book, therefore, aims to guide readers on a journey of self-discovery and become successful, whether in business, relationships or life as a whole, through the inspiring stories of philosophers and motivational teachers such as Bob Proctor and Jack Canfield.
Ever since its release, The Secret has been described as “life-changing” by many of its readers and is, thus, acknowledged as one of the finest self-help books in recent times.
At the same time, the book has been criticised for the concepts it posits such as imagining something unattainable from a logical perspective.
Nevertheless, The Secret remains one of the highest-selling self-help books of all time and, as of August 2020, has sold 35 million copies worldwide. It has been translated into more than 52 languages.
Rich Dad, Poor Dad — Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter
Universally hailed as one of the most successful financial planning books in contemporary times, Rich Dad, Poor Dad is also one of the most acclaimed self-help books.
Released in 1997, the book became so phenomenally popular that it remained on the New York Times Bestseller List from 2000 to 2008.
While Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter enlighten readers about planning their finances wisely and living a good life, there is a treasure of wisdom in the pages of the book which can be life-changing for readers.
Kiyosaki talks about his personal life and the lessons on life and money he drew from the lives of his father and the rich father of his friend.
From this point of view, Kiyosaki says that even children can develop a sense of financial awareness — a trait necessary for true growth in life.
Additionally, a lot of misconceptions about personal finance are busted.
The book establishes that it is not necessary to earn a lot to become rich — it is all about how one manages the money that they have which creates wealth.
All lessons in the self-help book remain relevant even now, making it an evergreen read for young generations so that they can transform into highly effective people in business and life tomorrow.
Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long And Happy Life — Héctor García
Written by software engineer-turned-author Héctor García, the book gets its name from the Japanese word Ikigai, which translates to “reason for living”.
García, who has been living in the country for close to two decades, dives into the lifestyle of rural Japan.
The idea was to discover why the concept of retirement doesn’t practically exist in their world and how they live so long.
Ikigai contains interviews with people in a Japanese village with the highest percentage of 100-year-olds. Through the interviews and observations, the book attempts to unravel the secret behind the long life and happiness of the villagers.
Readers will learn about the daily life of the residents of the village — from how they move around and what they eat — and gain insights about life itself.
Further, the book reveals the ‘ikigai’ of the villagers to the readers.
This self-help book highlights the wisdom of the villagers, which, when imbibed in the daily lives of everyday people, translates to successes in health, wealth and relationships.
Of course, it also leads the reader on a path of self-love and self-improvement, besides finding a purpose in life — one that can make them successful and attain personal satisfaction.
Ikigai is one of the most popular self-help books in recent times. It was originally written in Spanish and, with more than 59 translations, is the most translated Spanish-language book. It has sold two million copies worldwide and continues to rank No.1 in countries such as India.
The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari — Robin Sharma
Robin Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari is one of the best self-help books of modern times.
The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari was first published in 1999 and has been translated into 42 languages.
The self-help book imparts important life lessons through a fictional story of a successful lawyer trapped in a chaotic life situation following a heart attack.
Julian Mantle, the protagonist, then travels to the Indian Himalayas to seek spiritual wisdom and set his personal life in order, realising that all the money in the world is useless to him.
Readers follow his journey and discover the secret of becoming joyous, find the path to self-calling, understand the importance of discipline and learn to value relationships, among other realisations.
The self-help book is packed with practical lessons, each of which has its roots in the ancient culture of the region.
Loved by readers for the simplicity of language and engaging story, the book combines the best of philosophies of the East and the West.
It is a must-read for those wallowing in spending money thoughtlessly so that they can realise the truth of life before it is too late.
At the same time, this story of a man who goes on a self-help trip opens a new window for self-improvement for those who are already on its path.
Man’s Search for Meaning — Viktor Frankl
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” wrote Frankl (1905-1997) in this 1946 autobiography, which is considered a masterpiece among self-help books of the 20th century.
No one other than Frankl would understand the essence of “meaning” better than him. After all, the acclaimed Austrian Jewish psychiatrist was a Holocaust survivor.
In September 1942, Frankl, his pregnant wife, brothers and parents were arrested by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps. By the time the war ended and Jews were liberated, Frankl had lost his loved ones.
His time in the concentration camps, including Auschwitz, deeply affected Frankl, and he realised that it was in understanding the “meaning” of life that distinguished the living from the dead.
He witnessed that those who did not succumb to the most adverse of circumstances had the greatest chance of survival.
Frankl, who developed logotherapy, posited that the primary goal of life is the discovery and pursuit of what is meaningful to us. This brings happiness instead of blindly chasing happiness itself.
Thus, according to Frankl, “But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy’. Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically.”
In 1991, the US Library of Congress conducted a survey in which the book was named as one of the ten most influential books in America.
Originally published in German, the book has sold over 16 million copies and translated into more than 24 languages.
The Prophet — Kahlil Gibran
While some readers might want to grab a copy that simplifies Kahlil Gibran’s profound wisdom in The Prophet, it is best not to.
The reason being: The Prophet, a collection of mystical prose poems, is supposed to be understood as they are, even though they may appear like parables of the most esoteric kind.
Despite its religious-sounding name, the book has nothing to do with religion — it is meant for all humanity.
The Prophet is one of the finest self-help books written in the 20th century and will be counted among the greatest ever for a long time.
It is a unique experience to read this book as its insights into life makes it one of the pioneers amongst self-help books published in recent history. Whether looking for self-love, self-improvement, answers to personal issues or simply the best way to start living in the moment, the book offers something to all sorts of readers.
Lebanese-American Gibran (1883-1931) is himself an icon in the literary world. As a poet, he is placed immediately after Shakespeare and Laozi (also written as Lao Tzu) in terms of volumes of work sold.
There are schools named after him in the US, and he is often described as one of the wisest philosophers of contemporary times.
Through its fictional titular character, The Prophet dwells upon the meaning of love, children, freedom, pain, friendship, joy and sorrow as well as the eternal argument of good and evil through 26 prose poems.
Sample this verse from the poem ‘On Children’:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
Every word in these four lines has a meaning and forms a message that hardly any book on parenting has ever been able to put across.
The book was published in 1923, and its imprint on the lives of people has only grown.
Generation after generation has turned to the pages of The Prophet to seek enlightenment and answers to the complexities of life and have never been disappointed.
Former US President John F. Kennedy, former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and English rock band The Beatles are among the many illustrious personalities around the world who were inspired by the book.
It has been translated into more than 50 languages and has sold tens of millions of copies.
Interestingly, The Prophet, which has never been out of print, was never advertised after the early years of its release in the 1920s. It didn’t need to because the seminal work speaks for itself.
Tao Te Ching — Laozi
All said and done about self-help books, if one needs to really learn the meaning of life, one has to turn to a book that was written over 2,400 years ago in ancient China.
Attributed to Laozi, whose name translates to Old Master, Tao Te Ching contains 81 verses of unparalleled wisdom that have stood the test of time.
It has inspired emperors, sages, travellers and everyone who has read it for centuries. Today, it is recognised as the most translated book after The Bible.
The book’s name roughly means “The Book of the Way”. The “way” here refers to the path one needs to follow to find a balance between life and the universe.
It is the most authoritative text in Taoism (also written as Daoism) — a school of philosophy founded by Laozi.
Today, Taoism is one of the five recognised religions in China and is followed by a third of Taiwan’s population besides many others in nearby Southeast Asian countries and territories.
Yet, the book itself is welcomed as a philosophical doctrine than a religious text in the strict sense.
True to its name, it is about leading a way of life that is in harmony with the environment of adherents and followers. It is a guide to living life to the full by harnessing the inner self through contentment.
At its core, Tao Te Ching is all about self-awareness, spontaneity, humility and elevation of the spirit. It advocates a system of non-interference to ensure that problematic issues die a natural death. There is no “good and bad” in the message of Tao.
Even in modern times, everyone — from politicians to business leaders as well as those wanting to find the true meaning of life — can learn from this book.
Tao Te Ching is among the most acclaimed self-help books. But unlike The Prophet, readers will have to rely on accurate translations because Tao Te Ching is written in parables and aphorisms.
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