Fitter, happier, more productive: there are hundreds of self-help books out there promising to make us all this and more.

And you’d be hard-pressed to pick up a magazine or switch on the TV without stumbling across an article promising five simple steps to boost your self-esteem or a reality show with contestants going on emotional “journeys” to overcome their “demons”.

These self-help staples have seeped seemingly unnoticed into the Western psyche. But could the very books and ideas meant to help us actually be doing more harm than good?

Brighton-based clinical psychologist and broadcaster Dr Stephen Briers believes so.

In his new book, Psychobabble: Exploding The Myths Of The Self-Help Generation, he sets out to debunk the myths and expose the quack theories of the multi-million-pound self-improvement industry.

One particular bugbear is the assumption we should be constantly striving to improve ourselves.

“I wouldn’t want to knock people’s desire for self-improvement and their aspirations, I just don’t want people punishing themselves or feeling they have to reach for things that are actually beyond anybody’s grasp,” says Briers.

“It’s about being realistic about one’s weaknesses as well as one’s strengths. We have very little tolerance in our culture for that – a weakness is something to be hidden and excised. It’s a bit taboo really.”

Briers, who is a regular psychology and mental health expert on BBC Three documentaries such as Freaky Eaters and BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show, thinks one of the most harmful ideas purveyed by many self-improvement gurus is that we should be happy and positive all the time.

“If we create this expectation that happiness is the norm, people are left flailing around thinking there’s something wrong with them if they aren’t happy all the time,” says Briers. “You need the light and the shade, the ups and the downs – that’s what gives character and tone to our lives.”

He believes that as religion has come to play less of a part in many of our lives – in the 2011 census, the number of people stating they had no religion had risen to one in four – we are looking to other places for answers to life’s big questions and are all too easily swayed by the quick fixes and five-step plans offered by popular psychology books.

“I think there’s a big part of all of us that wants simple answers and, as life becomes more complex, that pressure becomes all the greater.

“As science teaches us new things about just how mind-boggling the universe is – and how uncontrollable it is – naturally people want to feel there is some prospect of understanding the world and more importantly of controlling it, particularly their own lives.”

Briers is certainly not someone who had his life mapped out from a young age. He studied English and Theology for his undergraduate degree, then did a PhD in social anthropology before returning to education to study psychology.

Not the most straightforward career path, then. “Psychology is the ultimate destination for people who can’t make up their minds.”

Following the publication of his book, Briers, who lives with his wife and two teenage sons in Fiveways, is looking forward to taking a break from his busy work schedule to spend more time with his family.

“So far as I have a new year’s resolution, I will be taking my book’s own advice and easing things down a bit.”

But that doesn’t mean writing is completely off the cards, with Briers “harbouring aspirations to write fiction” at some point in the future.

While Psychobabble takes a fairly sharp stick to some of the self-help genre’s key principles, Briers is happy to admit there are some genuinely helpful and scientifically sound guides out there, but that we should be more willing to question what we read and accept that life is rarely easy.

“As a culture I think we need to be prepared to grow up and face uncomfortable realities rather than always reaching out for comfortable solutions.

“We all need a bit of comfort and escapism but let’s be aware that’s what we’re doing rather than kidding ourselves that this is an accurate mirror on reality.”

  • Psychobabble: Exploding The Myths Of The Self-Help Generation (Pearson, £10.99)