People tend to have fierce opinions about the books in the “mind, body and spirt” section. Some are on a quest to find life changing self help books that actually work, while others think it’s all a load a pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo and avoid such books like the plague.
If you’re in the latter camp, you’re definitely reading the wrong article, and probably the wrong blog!
I’ve read a LOT of these books and – yes – there’s some garbage out there. But there are also tomes that have provided me with truly transformational insights and inspirations.
In some cases, I’ve read self-help books that have sent my life onto a different (and better) path. There are books on this list where my life was fundamentally different before and after reading them.
A bold statement, maybe. But there ARE life changing self help books that actually work. In this article I share the seven that I most recommend.
Build Your Own Rainbow
Described as a “workbook for career and life management,” Build Your Own Rainbow was – I think – the first self-help book I ever read. I was around 21 at the time.
This shows the books age (and mine!) It was originally published in 1984, but has been updated over the years.
Build Your Own Rainbow really is a “work book.” There are lots of charts and exercises to fill in, all intended to help you unravel what makes you happy, what you most care about, and what careers you would find most fulfilling.
Since this is a personal blog, I shall provide a quick personal anecdote about the power of this book. If I recall correctly, my mother bought it for me when I was feeling directionless in my early career. I’d left school at 16, and my first real summer job at a supermarket morphed into me becoming a stock control manager, looking after a team of around 15 people – all older than me – by the age of 20.
When I was ready to move on, the book helped me identify the parts of my job that made me happy, and the parts that made me miserable. It truly helped to inform my decisions around what to do next.
I revisited Build Your Own Rainbow several times through my later career, and it always opened my eyes to valuable insights that I was somehow blind to. One I have a particularly powerful memory of was when I’d landed in a much better-paid and (theoretically) more suitable IT job, only to find it didn’t tick nearly as many of my important boxes as that first job in a supermarket!
That’s enough anecdote, but hopefully I’ve made my point. The best self help books are those that provide you with mind-blowing insights and help you know what to do next – and this one does that beautifully.
The Power of Habit
This self help book changed my life in a simple but fundamental way: It finally got me exercising regularly and actually wanting to do it.
And that’s no small thing, because I spend DECADES trying to get to that point. I’m not lazy, as such, but I’m not sporty either, and always found sticking with exercise a grind.
The Power of Habit taught me the psychology around how habits are formed. Put very simply, I learned that I had to teach myself to crave exercise, and miss it if I didn’t do it. As I write this, I’ve had a particularly hectic week and not done as much as normal, and I now find that hugely frustrating.
But that’s a good thing, because it means I’ll be out there pounding the pavements and catching up this weekend.
The Power of Habit isn’t about exercise, but about habits in general. It’s a good read whether you keep doing something you’d rather not be doing, or keep failing to stick at something you know you should be doing. And it’s a really engaging read too.
My Age of Anxiety
Here’s an ironic story for you: On the day I bought this book, I had a panic attack in the bookshop!
I have anxiety, and it’s a massive pain. It’s not gone away, but I’m way better at managing it these days. I credit much of that to how much I’ve learned about the neuroscience around it. And I learned a lot of it from this book.
The book is detailed and far-reaching, and for those averse to anything “wishy-washy,” it’s very much based on science. There’s a lot of dense text to read, but it’s way more accessible and easy-going than it appears from a quick flick through.
From how much anxiety is caused by nature vs. nurture, to which parts of the brain contribute to panic, this book has given me a tremendous understanding of why I’m how I am. It’s also helped me to judge myself a little less for it.
It’s the first book I’d recommend to anybody suffering from anxiety – and I’ve read a LOT of books on the subject.
The School of Life
Of all the self help books here, this is the one I’ve read most recently, and it’s particular poignant and relevant in this pandemic era we all find ourselves in.
Alain de Botton is well-known for being the accessible face of philosophy, and I’ve enjoyed several of his books over the years. He’s not afraid to “tell it like it” is, and this book is a serious example of that. (An aside: one of De Botton’s books, The Consolations of Philosophy, was a self help book that I really struggled with, because it seemed to suggest to me that most philosophers live and end their lives in despair!)
The School of Life presents a stoical standpoint. If I were to try to summarise what I learned from it, I’d say that the key messages were “appreciate what you have in the moment, because everything could get a LOT worse,” and “nobody will ever fully understand you, so stop hoping they will!”
It doesn’t sound uplifting, but on many levels it is. I read this one on a short break, and found it a great tonic, especially during “Covid times.” Everybody I’ve recommended this to has enjoyed it too.
This article is about life changing self help books that actually work. So how could I not include a book that not only helped me to quit drinking (relatively) effortlessly, but put me in a place where I don’t remotely miss it.
I won’t wax lyrical too much about it here, because I’ve already written an Alcohol Explained review. But, suffice to say, this was a game-changer for me. It’s not hyperbole to say it completely removed my cultural blinkers around alcohol. It didn’t help me to stop drinking, it made me just not want to – and that’s a powerful thing.
I should also probably emphasise that I read a LOT of “quit lit” before I read this, and nothing resonated (or worked) like Alcohol Explained.
If you’re in any way uncomfortable with (or uncertain about) your relationship with alcohol, don’t hesitate, get this now!
I’m sitting here typing this on a Friday evening (bobbing around to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” if you must know!) completely happy and comfortable with the fact I don’t drink alcohol anymore. And I never thought I could be that person.
On Becoming a Person (Carl Rogers)
Definitely the heaviest and most “academic” of the self help books I recommend, “On Becoming a Person” is a book psychology students and trainee therapists find on their reading lists. But it’s a great read for anybody looking to better themselves and understand themselves more.
I’ve completed several years of psychology study and counselling training. Trainee counsellors often gravitate towards certain schools of therapy that resonate with them, and it was Carl Rogers’ “person centred” approach that most appealed to me. Essentially it’s about giving people the space to talk, explore, and uncover those “knowledge bombs” for themselves.
This book isn’t the easiest read on this list. Some reviewers find the transcripts of real-life therapy sessions heavy going, but they are fascinating to me. This book is perhaps not for everyone, and not as accessible as the “pop psychology” you’d find at an airport – but I still recommend it whole-heartedly.
This last one is really interesting.
If “My Age of Anxiety” is the book I’d prescribe for anxiety, “Factfulness” is the one I’d recommend for depression. It pulled me out of a funk when I read it, and suspect it could do the same for many people.
Factfulness uses statistics to demonstrate that however dreadful the world can feel sometimes, things are actually “better than you think.” For example, globally speaking, far fewer people live in poverty nowadays than they once did. The general message is that while things may seem to “get worse” at times, if you take a more informed and distant view, the world is actually steadily becoming a much better place.
However, there is a bitter irony here.
I read Factfulness in January 2020. Towards the end of the book, there’s a section entitled “The Five Global Risks We Should Worry About.”
And guess what’s at the top: a global pandemic.
We all, of course, know what happened next.
As such, Factfulness has in some respects become inadvertently dated. But I do still recommend it highly. I suggest getting the illustrated edition, and it’s full of fascinating graphs and charts that will make you look at the world in a different and more positive way.
So that concludes my eclectic selection of life changing self help books that actually work.
We’re all very different people, so I can’t promise you that every book I’ve suggested here will resonate with you as it did with me. However, I look upon all of these books fondly, and they’re titles that will always remain on my shelves regardless of the gravity of my next clear-out.
I hope that you find some of them inspiring and helpful.
While You’re Here
- If you prefer to listen to books, several of these self help books are available on Audible. You can grab a trial and get one of them as a FREE download.
- If you never have time to read the books you’d like to, you MUST check out Blinkist! Find my review of it here.