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12 Self-Improvement Books

Summer reading with a purpose.

Pexels, Public Domain
Source: Pexels, Public Domain

Are you up for some psychologically helpful summer reading?

It's not surprising that a well-chosen book would aid self-improvement in the general population. But meta-analyses also report bibliotherapy’s effectiveness in helping teens with mild depression or anxiety, as do individual studies of mild depression with young adults, and of mild to moderate depression in older adults.

So here are 12 books that my clients and I have found helpful in self-improvement. Because I’m a career and personal coach, not a psychotherapist, these books, except for one book (The Noonday Demon), aim at self-improvement for the general public, not specifically for those with clinical anxiety or depression, although they could be helpful to them as well.

With the exception of the book that's listed last, I’ve included only books that have stood the test of time both with the public and with me: Even though I read them years ago, they're still helpful.

ChangePower by fellow Psychology Today blogger, Meg Selig. Despite being a self-help writer myself, I view askance much of such writing, but not this book. It favors the tried-and-true practical over pop-psych nostrums. For example, the book suggests rehearsing your upcoming day:

Conjure up any people or situations that might trigger a lapse and imagine yourself coping successfully. After you’ve made it through the day, have a talk with yourself: How did you do? Jog your thinking by filling in these blanks: “I liked that I _______. I wish I had ____. I could strengthen my plan by ______.

The book’s subtitle, 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success, implies that those tips are atomistic, stand-alone suggestions. In fact, they’re presented in a sequence that could well comprise an overall step-by-step plan for improving your life.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. The seven habits reduce to 1) Have a personal vision that you’d be proud to aim for. 2) Seek first to understand, only then to be understood. 3) Keep learning. Those are obvious but too often not done, so they're useful reminders, dispensed in plain English.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I chose not to look back at the book before writing this so that I could mention only what has stuck in my head all these years. In sum, it’s: To get what you want, you have to give people what they want, and what most people want is to feel good about themselves and to get their problem du jour solved. This book written in 1936, has sold more than 15 million copies and today, its Amazon sales rank is still, among self-help books, #13.

How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie. My favorite page is “Part One in a Nutshell” Here’s its essence:

Rule 1: Live in day-tight compartments. Don’t stew about the future. Just live each day.

Rule 2: The next time Trouble with a Capital T backs you into a corner, ask yourself: a) What’s the worst that can happen if I can’t solve my problem? b) Prepare yourself to accept the worst if necessary. c) Calmly try to avoid the worst.

Rule 3: Remind yourself of the exorbitant price to your health that you can pay if you worry excessively.

Three-Minute Therapy by therapist and fellow Psychology Today blogger Michael Edelstein. The book helps readers create a customized three-minute exercise, which if repeated daily, within weeks, often significantly reduces mild to moderate anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. This novel is derided by some as insufficiently considering external factors that could militate against a person’s success. But most of my clients (and I) who have read this story of an architect who triumphed over powerful individual and societal forces, found it empowering, that we needn’t necessarily be the victim of externalities. It’s also an enjoyable and quick read.

The Myth of Male Power. Written by the unofficial leader of the men’s rights movement, Dr. Warren Farrell, this book provides solid support for the many men who feel unfairly targeted because of their gender. Academically oriented readers might want to read Legalizing Misandry by Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young.

The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon. This National Book Award winner offers an in-depth personal look at severe depression. It helped me to viscerally understand what I knew intellectually: that when an episode of severe depression hits, there may be no willing it away—you may just have to ride it out, and with most people, within a few days, it does subside.

The Giving Tree and the book it inspired that I wrote, Venus and Iris. Although they’re short picture books, ostensibly for young children, they explore the question of how much to sacrifice for love.

My Exaggerated Life by Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides, The Great Santini) with Katherine Clark. I am reading this now. Pat’s father was a monster, an alcoholic who beat Pat near-constantly for essentially nothing, and unpredictably—Pat never knew when his father would “go off.” Despite a childhood poisoned by that and additional travails along the way, Pat was able to become not only a highly successful author but create a life that ended up, as the publisher’s summary put it, “filled with family and friends, as well as love and happiness.”

This is part of a four-part series on self-improvement tools. The others are 10 Self-Improvement Musts, Feedback, and Journaling for Personal Growth.

I read this aloud on YouTube.