The basis for self-help is often self-reliance, publicly available information, or support groups where people in similar situations join together. From early exemplars in self-driven legal practice and home-spun advice, the connotations of the phrase have spread and often apply particularly to education, business, psychological or psychotherapeutic nostrums, purveyed through the popular genre of self-help books and through self-help personal-development movements. According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, potential benefits of self-help groups that professionals may not be able to provide include friendship, emotional support, experiential knowledge, identity, meaningful roles, and a sense of belonging. Any health condition can find a self-help method or group such as parents of the mentally ill. But there are limits and these methods do not work for everyone. As well as experienced long time members sharing experiences with a similar practical problem such as finances of a health problem, these health groups can become lobby groups and educational material clearing houses. Those who help themselves by learning about health problems are helping themselves through self-help. But self-help in this context is often really peer-to-peer support.
An expansion of the technologies that empower individuals to conduct both trivial and profound activities binds together the diverse genres which apply self-help concepts. Self-help book-publishing arose from decentralization of ideology, from a growth of publishing industries using expanded printing technologies and (at the pinnacle of growth) from the spread of new psychological sciences. Likewise, self-help legal services grew around expanded access to document-production technology (viz: the printing industry in the 18th century). The Internet, with the ever-expanding selection of commercial and information services which it offers for free, exemplifies movement toward self-help on a grand scale.
"Self-help" appears to have been first used in the legal context, referring to the doctrine that a party in a dispute has the right to use lawful means on their own initiative to remedy a wrong.
Samuel Smiles (1812-1904) published the first self-consciously personal-development "self-help" book — entitled Self-Help — in 1859. Its opening sentence: "Heaven helps those who help themselves", provides a variation of "God helps them that help themselves", the oft-quoted maxim that also appeared previously in Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac (1733 - 1758). Alcoholics Anonymous was started by two alcoholics, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith who first met on May 12, 1935. The twelve-step program grew from this to become perhaps the world's most popular basis of self-help care.
Dale Carnegie (1888-1955) is often considered to have began the self-help movement in the 20th century when he published How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936. Having failed in several careers, Carnegie became fascinated with success and its link to self-confidence, and studied the subject for years. Carnegie's books have since sold over 50 million copies. Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich (1937) described the use of repeated positive thoughts to attract happiness and wealth by taping into an "Infinite Intelligence".
Within the context of this larger market, group and corporate attempts to aid the "seeker" have moved into the "self-help" marketplace, with LGATs and psychotherapy systems ready with more or less pre-packaged solutions to instruct people seeking their own individual betterment.
Some critics have suggested that self-help books and programs offer "easy answers" to difficult personal problems. Commentators have criticised self-help books for containing pseudo-scientific assertions that tend to mislead the consumer, and many different authors have criticized self-help authors and claims. Christopher Buckley's book God is My Broker (1998) asserts: "The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one. In her 1993 book I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, Wendy Kaminer criticizes the self-help movement for encouraging people to focus on individual self-improvement (rather than joining collective social movements) to solve their problems.
The phenomenon has been the target of parodies. Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos is a book-length parody. In their 2006 book Secrets of The Superoptimist, authors W.R. Morton & Nathanel Whitten revealed the concept of "superoptimism" as a humorous antidote to the overblown self-help book category. In his comedy special Complaints and Grievances, George Carlin observes that there is "no such thing" as self-help: if one is looking for help from someone else, it is not technically "self" help; and if one accomplishes something by themselves, they didn't need help to begin with.
Scholars also have targeted self-help claims as misleading and incorrect. In 2005 Steve Salerno portrayed the American self-help movement (he uses the acronym SHAM: the Self-Help and Actualization Movement) not only as ineffective in achieving its goals, but also as socially harmful. Sociologist Micki McGee argues in her 2005 book Self-Help, Inc. that the burgeoning self-improvement industry masks Americans' economic anxieties during a period of economic decline. She sees Americans as "belabored" — at work on themselves, inventing and re-inventing themselves so as to remain employed and employable.
There are a number of self-help groups and programs offered by commercial and non-profit organizations based on psychological principles overseen by mental health professionals. Group psychotherapy has shown for certain situations to be as effective as individual psychotherapy. Psychologists generally recommend empirically validated therapies, for example, cognitive behavioural therapy which has strong clinical evidence for treatment of various mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and stress-related symptoms.
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