Do you need support while going through a rough patch or guidance to improve your mental health and wellbeing?
Seeking advice from books can be a good starting point if you cannot afford coaching or therapy.
However, it is important to be discerning when it comes to self-help. There are some excellent and worthy books out there, written by professionals with the necessary expertise, moral integrity, and good intentions.
But there are also books that are less helpful and propose self-help ideologies that can end up making us feel worse rather than better.
In the article below, we share a list of well-researched and critically acclaimed self-help books that have helped many people over the years. Some have survived the test of time and become perennials on the self-help bookshelves, while others are excellent new additions to the genre.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Meaning and Valued Living Exercises for free. These creative, science-based exercises will help you learn more about your values, motivations, and goals and give you the tools to inspire a sense of meaning in the lives of your clients, students, or employees.
The following four books are bestselling classics of the genre and are all based on solid psychological research. They have helped millions of people understand themselves better and can all be found in most bookshops with a self-help/mental health/wellness section.
Texts included here are based on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, logotherapy, and positive psychology principles. Pick the ones that most resonate with your personal preferences.
1. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy – David D. Burns
The science underpinning David Burns’s Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy may no longer be cutting edge, but its core message remains a powerfully relevant one.
It is based on the premises of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Burns explains fundamental CBT principles clearly and convincingly, and provides numerous examples and anecdotes from his clinical practice to illustrate them.
Feeling Good shows us how our feelings are shaped by our thoughts. It tells us we are not our thoughts — that we can distance ourselves from negative thoughts and learn to question their validity.
The book shares some great techniques for training our minds to question and disempower negative thinking about ourselves and others. Psychotherapists have repeatedly nominated it as one of the best and most efficacious self-help books on the market.
2. The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living – Russ Harris
While CBT remains a powerful technique for addressing negative thoughts, we are, of course, not purely rational creatures. Sometimes, our attempts to control our thoughts can even become counterproductive.
In The Happiness Trap, the doctor Russ Harris explains the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) — a third-wave cognitive behavioral intervention that also integrates insights from ancient wisdom practices.
Harris invites us not to try to control our negative thoughts or uncomfortable feelings, nor to attempt to reason them away, but simply to de-fuse with them. He suggests we accept them and then try to let them go.
So-called negative thoughts, Harris argues, are a natural part of being human. If we accept that we don’t always think happy thoughts and will also experience feelings such as sadness, anger, and shame occasionally, these thoughts and feelings will come and go more naturally.
By stopping our attempts to try to control thoughts and feelings, we will also have more energy available to commit to value-based action.
3. Man’s Search for Meaning: The Classic Tribute to Hope From the Holocaust – Viktor Frankl
According to psychiatrist, founder of logotherapy, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, our most important task in life is to furnish it with meaning.
Indeed, we must find meaning even in our suffering. In his deeply moving book, Frankl observes that those who did this when they were interned in Nazi concentration camps had a much higher chance of survival. If there is a powerful “why” that drives us, he writes, we can tolerate almost any “how.”
While meaning making can take many forms, including loving, creating, and contributing to the wellbeing of others, Frankl insists on one limitation: Meaning has to be situated in the world rather than in our own psyches.
Our life’s purpose cannot just be the desire to become our best possible self. The self is a very poor site for meaning, Frankl argues. We need projects that transcend the self. We need to feel part of a community or contribute to it by making something or caring deeply for someone.
4. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being – Martin Seligman
One of the founding fathers of positive psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, proposes a new perspective on human wellbeing in his book Flourish.
Merely striving for happiness, he writes, is not sufficient for a fulfilling life. Instead, Seligman argues that human flourishing involves five key elements, which can be summed up by the acronym PERMA:
Seligman emphasizes the importance of experiencing positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, and contentment.
Seligman also highlights the significance of being fully and deeply engaged in activities that provide a sense of flow and absorption.
Seligman recognizes the value of positive social connections and emphasizes our need for healthy relationships. Building and nurturing strong connections with others are major contributing factors to wellbeing. They generate a sense of belonging and community.
Like Frankl, Seligman argues that finding purpose and meaning in life is crucial for flourishing. We therefore need to pursue activities that align with our values, strengths, and beliefs, and that provide a sense of fulfillment and direction.
Finally, we need to set and aim to achieve meaningful goals. Seligman promotes the pursuit of mastery and accomplishments in various areas of life to foster a sense of competence and personal growth.
Children, too, can benefit enormously from books about mental health. It is important and rewarding to help your children develop emotional literacy and awareness from an early age.
The books below are all well received, much praised, and suitable for different age groups. They provide children with emotion-related vocabulary and concepts, as well as inspiration for looking at our emotions with curiosity and a growth mindset.
1. The Feelings Book – Todd Parr
This colorful and engaging book helps very young children explore different emotions, ranging from happiness and excitement to sadness and anger.
It encourages open conversations about feelings, normalizes emotions, and promotes self-expression.
Being a teenager is far from easy at the best of times, and it is especially hard in times of social media-fueled mental distress and in the age of climate change.
Teenagers can benefit enormously from books that normalize the changes and experiences they may go through, and that provide encouragement and inspiration for embracing their strengths and uniqueness.
The following books are examples that are particularly well written, authored by two award-winning journalists and by the excellent School of Life collective.
1. The Confidence Code for Girls: Taking Risks, Messing Up, & Becoming Your Amazingly Imperfect, Totally Powerful Self – Katty Kay & Claire Shipman
This book is aimed at girls. It offers insights and practical advice on building confidence, overcoming self-doubt, and embracing our unique strengths.
It empowers teenage girls to navigate challenges, take risks, and develop resilience. The book contains many valuable practical tips and powerful and inspiring anecdotes that teach girls to become bold, brave, and fearless.
It was a New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller and is written by the bestselling authors of The Confidence Code.
The following three books do not address specific mental health problems.
Rather, they provide more general timeless guidelines on living fulfilling and meaning-rich lives, by optimizing our ability to connect with other people, living more fully in the present moment, or practicing altruism.
1. How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie
Written during the Great Depression, How to Win Friends and Influence People is still in print for a reason. Carnegie’s classic is teeming with sensible and practical tips for making the best of human relations.
And as many psychologists have shown, the quality, depth, and number of our relationships are a key factor in predicting our overall wellbeing.
Key to Carnegie’s method is the art of mentalizing — stepping into the shoes of others and trying to see the world from their point of view.
Very few of us master this art because it requires the ability to imagine how other people may think and to take their perspective.
2. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment – Eckhart Tolle
Eckhart Tolle’s key message in his bestselling book is simple: We are not our thoughts.
We have the ability to become detached watchers of our thoughts rather than fusing with them. We don’t get entangled in them and observe our thoughts with discernment. By doing so, we can learn to be more present in our lives and cherish what Tolle calls the “power of now.”
Most of our thoughts, Tolle writes, revolve around the past or the future. Our past furnishes us with an identity, while the future holds “the promise of salvation.”
Both are illusions because the present moment is all we ever really have. We therefore need to learn to be present as “watchers” of our minds, witnessing our thought patterns rather than identifying with them. That way, we can relearn to live truly in the now.
This book is spiritual/esoteric rather than science-based, but it touches on felt truths that many of us will recognize.
3. Altruism: The Science and Psychology of Kindness – Matthieu Ricard
In many theologies and wisdom traditions, altruism is the highest moral and spiritual value.
More recently, psychologists have shown that altruistic acts not only benefit the recipient but also lead those who perform them to be happier.
Like human relationships, altruism is a key factor in our overall wellbeing. Engaging in altruistic activities is a necessary component of meaningful and fulfilling lives.
Moreover, practicing altruism, the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard argues in this compassionate and carefully researched book, is the key not just to our personal happiness, but also to solving our most pressing social, economic, and environmental problems.
Altruism enables us “to connect harmoniously the challenges of the economy in the short term, quality of life in the mean term, and our future environment in the long term.”
Grit, Four Thousand Weeks, and Daring Greatly are all much-loved and bestselling recent books that are now available as audiobooks, too.
Grit explains how to strengthen our perseverance muscles and why that matters, while Four Thousand Weeks offers sage advice on how to make the most of our limited time on earth. Lastly, Daring Greatly invites us to be vulnerable — a core prerequisite for living an authentic life with deep and meaningful connections.
1. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance – Angela Duckworth
Grit tops talent every time, according to the psychologist Angela Duckworth.
“Our potential is one thing,” Duckworth writes. “What we do with it is quite another.”
She defines grit as a drive to improve both our skills and our performance with consistent effort.
Importantly, gritty people are always eager to learn and are driven by an enduring passion. They have a growth mindset and learn from their mistakes. They also have direction and purpose and live more coherent lives.
2. Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals – Oliver Burkeman
Four Thousand Weeks is about our time troubles in troubling times.
“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short,” Burkeman reminds us. On average, we have 4,000 weeks. From this simple observation follow various deeper and unsettling truths.
While most of us have infinitely ambitious plans about how to spend our time, we have only a very limited time span to put them into action. We therefore need a radical shift in perspective. We have to embrace our limits and free ourselves of the troublesome set of dominant cultural ideas about time management and productivity.
We have to confront, head on, the fact of our finitude.
All our attempts to master time are in effect avoidance strategies. We try to avoid facing the fact that our time, significance, and abilities are all seriously limited.
We also try to avoid tough choices regarding what we can and cannot dedicate time to. Burkeman invites us to refrain from treating our time as something to hoard and rather to treat it as something to cherish and share.
3. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead – Brené Brown
The inspirational psychologist, bestselling author, and TED-talker Brené Brown challenges what we think we know about vulnerability.
Vulnerability, she writes, is not weakness but strength. Revealing our true selves to others is an act of tremendous courage, and it includes taking risks. And yet, it is also a powerful way of building connections, creating trust, and inviting meaning and purpose into our lives.
Vulnerability allows us to be truly seen and to connect on a basis of authenticity.
If reading about mental health care has piqued your interest in self-care and wellbeing, you might also benefit from one of our many life-changing masterclasses. Why not have a look at the Science of Self-Acceptance Masterclass, for example?
When choosing books on mental health and wellbeing, make sure that you know what kinds of approaches work for you.
Which psychological and philosophical frameworks best reflect your own values and beliefs? Which therapeutic interventions have worked for you in the past?
Are you attracted predominantly to rational reasoning-based models such as CBT, or do the notions of radical acceptance and letting go, which feature more prominently in ACT, chime with you more? Or might spiritual or existentialist models speak to you?
We are all unique and different, and choosing our self-help wisely is an important prerequisite for its chances to be genuinely of help in our growth and healing journeys.
To find self-help that works for us, we need to know our preferences and our preferred learning styles. Once we are clear about that, we will make more empowered choices.
We hope that in this selection of books, which covers a range of approaches, you will find the one that helps you with your own personal breakthrough. Feel free to share your insights and other book recommendations below.
Anna K. Schaffner, Ph.D., is a professional burnout and executive coach and a writer. She used to be a professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent. Anna specialises in helping people overcome burnout and overwhelm and rediscover their passion and purpose. Her unique blend of expertise as both a writer and a coach reflects a lifelong dedication to the art of self-improvement.