My Top 20 Psychology Books (5-1)

This is the final post in the countdown of my all-time top 20 popular Psychology books.

For details on my selection criteria as well as further information on books 20 through to 6, please check out parts one (20-16), two (15-11) and three (10-6).

Here are the titles that have been included so far:

20. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQDaniel Goleman (2005). star rating = 4.1/5

19. The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You – Elaine Aron (1997). star rating = 4.3/5

18. The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone-Especially Ourselves – Dan Ariely (2013). star rating = 4.4/5

17. The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live – and How You Can Change Them – Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley (2012). star rating = 4.4/5

16. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength – Roy Baumeister and John Tierney (2012). star rating = 4.4/5

15. Outliers: The Story of Success – Malcolm Gladwell (2011). star rating = 4.4/5

14. Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships – Eric Berne (1967). star rating = 4.4/5

13. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business – Charles Duhigg (2014). star rating = 4.5/5

12. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition – Robert Cialdini (2006). star rating = 4.5/5

11. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and It’s All Small Stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things From Taking Over Your Life – Richard Carlson (1996). star rating = 4.5/5

10. Reinventing your Life: The Breakthrough Program to End Negative Behavior and Feel Great Again – Jeffrey Hayes (1994). star rating = 4.5/5

9. Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love – Amir Levine and Rachel Heller (2012). star rating = 4.6/5

8. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT – Russ Harris and Steven Hayes (2008). star rating = 4.6/5

7. The Relationship Cure: A Five-Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships – John Gottman (2002). star rating = 4.6/5

6. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change – Stephen Covey (1990). star rating = 4.6/5


Now onto my top 5…


5. The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients – Irvin Yalom (2009) star rating = 4.7/551AhAh8zAUL._AC_US320_QL65_

Why it’s good: Yalom writes about being a therapist, and the therapy process, in such an open, honest and engaging way that it is really is quite refreshing. There hasn’t been a book of his where I haven’t learned something, been reassured, or been entertained. My favourite book of his is ‘Existential Psychotherapy’, but ‘Creatures of a Day’, ‘Momma and the Meaning of Life’ and ‘Love’s Executioner’ are also great.

The main reason that I chose the ‘The Gift of Therapy’ for my countdown is that I consider it to be essential reading for all new therapists. It is also useful for any patients who are wanting to understand why therapists do certain things or how they can get the most out of their own therapy experience. Yalom had been inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, and wanted to be able to offer similar wisdom and guidance to anyone who is beginning their therapy journey. It consists of 85 short chapters, each of which offers specific advice or warnings towards the young therapist. Some of my favourites are:

  • Remove the obstacles to growth for each patient
  • Avoid diagnosis (except for insurance companies)
  • Empathise and look out the patient’s window
  • Let the patient matter to you
  • Acknowledge your errors
  • Express your dilemmas openly
  • Create a new therapy for each patient
  • Check into the here-and-now each hour – it energises therapy
  • Engage in personal therapy
  • Be real and transparent
  • Encourage patient self-disclosure
  • Provide feedback effectively and gently
  • Talk about life meaning and death
  • Help patients assume responsibility for their own lives
  • Focus on resistance towards making decisions
  • Encourage self-monitoring
  • Look for anniversary and life-stage issues
  • Learn about the patient’s life from their dreams
  • Therapy is a dress rehearsal for life
  • Cherish the occupational privileges

Read it if: You would like to understand more about what therapists do, why they do it, or why therapy really is a gift that can help people to grow and become more satisfied with their relationships, themselves and their life.


4. The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life – Tal Ben-Shahar (2009) star rating = 4.7/5 41B+GLvBBqL._AC_US320_QL65_

Why it’s good: Perfectionism is interesting. Most people don’t actually see it as a bad thing, and fail to see the negative consequences associated with it. Sure, Nadia Comaneci received a perfect 10 for her gymnastics routine at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, but how many of us actually ever reach perfection, and what is the cost for always striving to do so?

Ben-Shahar uses Alasdair Clayre as an example of the dark side of perfectionism. He was a star student and scholar at Oxford, a published novelist and poet, had recorded two albums and had written, produced and directed the TV series ‘The Heart of the Dragon’. Although he had achieved a lot, Clayre never considered anything he did to be good enough. At age 48, before his series won an Emmy Award, Clayre committed suicide.

Ben-Shahar believes that becoming an Optimalist is a much better thing to strive for than being a perfectionist. Here are the main differences between the two:

The Perfectionist The Optimalist
Focuses on the destination Focuses on the journey and the destination
Fears failure Views failure as a form of feedback
Rejects failure Adapts to and learns from failure
Rejects success Is grateful and appreciative of their success
Rejects painful emotions Understands and makes room for painful emotions
Is frightened by change Is fascinated by change
Is rigid and static Is adaptable and dynamic
Has low self-esteem Is willing and self-confident
Is harsh towards themselves and others Is forgiving towards themselves and others
Looks for and finds faults Looks for and finds benefits
Is defensive Is open to suggestions
Exhibits all-or-nothing thinking Exhibits nuanced, complex thinking
Rejects reality Accepts reality
Views their life journey as a straight, consistent line Views their journey as an irregular spiral with ups and downs, as well as periods of backtracking and jumping ahead

Read it if: You think that you may be a perfectionist, or exhibit some the perfectionism traits listed above, and want to learn how to become more of an Optimalist. Tal-Shahar says that it takes a lot of time, patience and effort, but it is also “a journey that can be delightfully pleasant and infinitely rewarding!”


3. How to Win Friends and Influence People: The Only Book You Need to Lead You to Success – Dale Carnegie (1998) star rating 4.7/5 41+7Y+I2kTL._AC_US320_QL65_

Why it’s good: It was first published in 1936 and has since sold over 30 million copies worldwide. It has been extremely popular ever since it was first released, and in many ways kick-started the entire self-help literature industry. Even now, it is still ranked as the 13th highest selling non-fiction book on

Carnegie claimed that the book could help people to make friends quickly, improve their conversation skills, increase their popularity, influence others better, and be more ambitious and capable. Psychologists and scientists didn’t love it, but it found it’s audience, and apparently (due to its popularity and its rating) many people still find it very beneficial even to this day.

Although some of the recommendations do seem a bit outdated, amoral or insincere, it is amazing how much many of the other principles really have stood the test of time. Some of my favourite recommendations are:

  • Don’t criticize, condemn or complain
  • Begin in a friendly way
  • Give honest and sincere appreciation
  • Become genuinely interested in other people
  • Remember the other person’s name
  • Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves
  • Make the other person feel important – do it sincerely
  • Show respect for the other person’s opinions
  • If you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically
  • Try to honestly see things from the other person’s point of view
  • Ask questions instead of giving direct orders
  • Let the other person save face
  • Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct
  • Appeal to the nobler motives in others
  • Throw down a challenge to others if you want to motivate them
  • Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to
  • Praise every improvement

Read it if: You suffer from social anxiety or a lack of confidence in social situations, and would like an instructions manual and some guidance for how to be more effective in various interpersonal settings.


2. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror – Judith Herman (1997) star rating = 4.7/5 511+Nl1uNdL._AC_US320_QL65_

Why it’s good: First published in 1992, Trauma and Recovery is highly regarded by academics, clinicians and trauma victims alike. Herman helped me to emotionally grasp and understand the devastating effects that trauma can have, including:

  • difficulties regulating emotions, especially anger, shame and excessive guilt
  • feeling cut-off, dissociated, emotionally numb or powerless
  • distrusting and avoiding being close to others
  • difficulties regulating impulses, leading to risky behaviours, substance abuse, addictions and self-harm

Before this, I had a conceptual understanding of the symptoms that occurred in Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but I had never realised just how severe a problem it actually is on an individual, interpersonal, familial and societal level.

In the book, Herman discusses how Freud initially hypothesised that sexual assault played a prominent role in the development of Hysteria, but later changed his theory to repressed sexual desires, because he found it unbearable that so many children and females were victims of sexual assault. But what if his first assertion was actually correct? Every year in Australia, 125,000 women and 45,000 men are estimated to experience sexual violence (ABS, 2006). Considering that in 2006, the population of Australia was less than 20 million people, these numbers are alarming, even more so because these prevalence rates are per year, rather than across a lifetime. They could be even higher if you take into account that only one-in-five sexual assault victims actually report the crime to authorities. We now also know that a history of sexual assault is highly correlated with the later development of Borderline Personality Disorder. It just shows that Freud wasn’t always wrong.

Herman also introduces and discusses her three-stage model of recovery from trauma:

  1. The first stage is all about re-establishing a sense of safety and stability and building up healthy self-care and emotion regulation capacities.
  2. Once safety and stability are achieved, and practical coping skills have been strengthened, the second stage of “remembrance and mourning” can begin. This involves exposure to and reviewing of distressing memories to lessen their emotional intensity and to reframe the meaning that these events have had on one’s identity and their life. It is essential that this is done in a safe setting with someone who can be trusted and has preferably had training in effective treatments for trauma. The second stage allows an individual to grieve and mourn for all that was lost, helps them to see that things were not their fault, and helps them to realise that it is unhelpful to generalise from one experience or one person to all experiences and all people. This then helps them to be in a much better position to move forward without remaining stuck in their traumatic experiences from the past.
  3. The third and final stage of healing focuses on reconnecting with the world, other people, and meaningful pursuits and activities.

Read it if: You know someone who has suffered from a traumatic experience and want to better understand the impact that it can have on them and the steps towards recovery. Or you have suffered from a traumatic experience yourself, but have already re-established a sense of safety and stability, and are wanting to learn more about the sociological or historical aspects of trauma or how to further recover from it.

1. Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl (1997) star rating = 4.7/5 41LpQ6jxLSL._AC_US320_QL65_

Why it’s good: First published in 1946, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ has continued to be popular over the years, and now has over 12 million copies in print worldwide. The book contains two separate parts that are connected together by Frankl’s assertion that having a sense of meaning in life is essential for overcoming the pain and suffering that we all have to experience at times.

The first part is titled “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” and it goes into detail about Frankl’s experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War 2. He found that the prisoners often went through distinct phases in the concentration camps. When they first arrived, they were in shock and horror at the situation and what they had been through and were filled with ideas of suicide, feelings of disgust at the conditions of the camp, and longings for their family and home life. Over time, these feelings subsided as they settled into the familiar routine of long and hard manual labour with little to no comfort or food being provided, and they were replaced by feelings of apathy, irritability and sometimes callousness towards others. Yet some prisoner’s did not succumb to these feelings and remained compassionate and comforting towards others. It was like they were fueled by some inner resource rather than the environmental conditions, and would even give up their last piece of bread to others if they felt that they needed it more.  He concluded that:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.” – Victor Frankl

The second part of the book is titled, “Basic Concepts of Logotherapy,” and goes into Frankl’s school of Psychotherapy that he created to help others to find meaning in their life. Based on his experiences in the concentration camps, Frankl found that having a reason to live beyond the concentration camps (e.g. to write a book, to reunite with family or a lover) was the best prevention for apathy. So much so that Frankl thought that our primary drive or motivation in life is to find real meaning and then to work towards living a meaningful life, not to seek pleasure, like Freud thought, nor power, as Adler thought.

Frankl believed that there are three main ways in which we can find meaning in life:

  1. Connecting with others and interacting with the world in an open and authentic way
  2. Engaging in purposeful work, or giving something back to others through creativity or self-expression, and
  3. Having courage and perseverance in the face of challenge and adversity.

Frankl believed that his meaning in life was to help others find theirs. His book helped him to achieve this goal, and that is why it is excellent!

Read it if: You want to better understand the atrocities that were faced by the prisoners in the concentration camps during WWII, or you want to learn more about Logotherapy and how to find more meaning in your life.


Thanks for reading my countdown! If there are some better Psychology books that I have not included, please let me know, and I will check them out!

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

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