You are here: Home Self-help


The demand for happiness advice is vast and many different thinkers
have offered their views. This special issue presents a cross section of happiness
counseling through the ages and considers the advice by classic Chinese philosophers,
Epicurus, Schopenhauer, as well as contemporary New Age thinkers and selfhelp

The demand for happiness advice is vast and many different thinkers have offered their views. For the Journal of Happiness Studies I served as a quest editor of a special issue about happiness counseling through the ages. We have tried to assess whether there is an evidence base for the advice by classic Chinese philosophers, Epicurus, Schopenhauer, as well as contemporary New Age thinkers and self-help authors. You can find the papers for which I have the copyright down here.

Introduction of the special issue

Outlines the general idea behind the special issue and summarizes the findings of the contributing authors.

Download the paper  Advise of the wise 

Psychological self-help 

There is a lot of skepticism about these self-help books. Some claim that they provide false hope or even do harm. Yet there are also reasons to expect positive effects from reading such books. One reason is that the messages fit fairly well with observed conditions for happiness and another reason is that such books may encourage active coping. There is also evidence for the effectiveness of bibliotherapy in the treatment of psychological disorders. The positive and negative consequences of self-help are a neglected subject in academic psychology. This is regrettable, because self-help books may be the most important—although not the most reliable—channel through which psychological insights find their way to the general audience. 

Download the paper  Do self-help books help? 

The great Pessimist

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) is well known for his pessimism. He did not believe in real happiness. In his view, the best a person can achieve is to reduce misery. At the end of his career, he wrote a book on how to live the most bearable life. This is a practical guide based on his personal experiences and illustrated by quotations from other thinkers subscribing to his views. In this paper, we summarize his recommendations and compare these with conditions for happiness as observed in present day empirical research. Little of the advice appears to fit current research on conditions for happiness. Following Schopenhauer’s advice would probably make us unhappier, even if we had the same neurotic personality.

Download the paper  Arthur’s advice: comparing Arthur Schopenhauer’s advice on happiness with contemporary research 

Epicurean pleasures

Epicurus was a philosopher who lived in Greece in the 3rd century B.C. Like his contemporaries, he was much concerned with the question of how to live a good life. In his view the Chief Good is to decrease pain and increase pleasure. Though Epicurus is reputed for advocating the pursuit of refined sensorial pleasures, he recognized the need for deferring gratification or enduring pain. He advised his followers to lead a modest and contemplative life in friendly communities. His advice can be characterized as ‘serene hedonism’. This paper explains that position and considers its applicability for the present day. It concludes that Epicureanism was quite accurate in describing the conditions of happiness and that he offered valuable guidelines in dealing with hardship and difficult emotional content. His ideas that happiness is the same as the absence of pain and that one should withdraw from society are less fortunate. It made him assume that happiness automatically follows if one is in the right state of mind, and that there is no need to actively seek interaction with the environment for the betterment of the circumstances of life. However, Epicurus’ advice might have been a good option for his contemporaries given the societal turmoil in his times.

Download the paper  Happiness in the garden of Epicurus 

Closing remarks of the special issue

One of the aims of this special issue on happiness advice was to assess the reality value of recommendations. All papers checked empirical indications for effectiveness, typically by inspecting whether the things advised have been found to be related to happiness in empirical research. Some limitations of this approach are that some advisers used a different definition of happiness than the papers, the papers checked the advice for present day readers, not for the contemporaries of advisers, the data that is used to check the advice is most often correlative in nature, and the papers ignored personality differences. Future research should focus on a wider range of happiness advisers, look at the interaction of the advice and individual readers and address the question of the usefulness of the advice experimentally.

Download the paper  The advice of the wise: afterthoughts about reality checking 

Other papers by Ad Bergsma about happiness