Self-help and psychology

Self-help literature proliferates today, on bookshelves and online, providing guidance and knowledge for people looking to improve their lives, careers and mental health. The origins of the genre have been traced as far back as antiquity, but it was in the 19th century, in the works of authors such as George Combe and Samuel Smiles, that the publication of self-help works gained mass popular appeal. This growth in self-help literature, amongst other things, accompanied the development of scientific theories of mind, and the rise of psychology as a distinct discipline in the Western World.

In this talk, I wish to look at the historical relationship between psychology and self-help from the 19th century onwards, asking to what extent theories of mind have underpinned self-help advice, how these have changed over time, and what lessons historians can take from this story.