I’ve already written a previous post on my top 20 psychology books of all time. These were quite popular and well-known titles, but the most recent publications ‘The Power of Habit’ and ‘The Honest Truth About Dishonesty’ were both written in 2012.
Since 2013, there have been some other great reads that have had a considerable influence on me personally and have helped shape how I approach relationships, work, leisure, psychology and my life in general.
Here is part one of my top 20 reads of the last 5 years, ranked from least star ratings to most on goodreads.com. I hope these give you some ideas for your next holiday reading!
20. ‘The Road to Character‘ by David Brooks (2015). Goodreads star rating = 3.66/5.
Why it’s good: It helped me to clarify my most important values and showed me how they could inform the life that I wanted to live. It does this through many small biographies of various famous people and how they developed their character over the years, including politicians, civil rights activists, and authors.
It made me see that I really don’t desire “resume” virtues, including wealth or status, but do strive towards “eulogy” virtues, including being kind, humble, honest and brave. The eulogy virtues are much more about relationships and less about individual pursuits, and this is the path towards a great character.
Many of the examples of famous people also highlight the importance of self-discipline and self-restraint if you want to develop good character.
Read it if: You’d like to know what the road to good character look likes, how other people have trodden it, and how you could follow it if you wanted to.
19. ‘The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters‘ by Susan Pinker (2015). Goodreads star rating = 3.75/5.
Why it’s good: Utilising the latest findings from the field of social neuroscience, Pinker highlights just how essential face-to-face contact is.
She visits a village in Sardinia, which has the highest proportion of people living to over 100, and finds that social integration within a town or community and close relationships with friends and family are the two most important factors of long-life. This is more important for longevity than not smoking, not drinking alcohol, or exercising (as shown in her TED talk below).
Read it if: You’d like to see just how vital face-to-face contact with friends and family is and how it may be a risk to expect more from technology than we do from each other.
18. ‘Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked‘ by Adam Alter (2017). Goodreads star rating = 3.8/5.
Why it’s good: Alter makes the compelling argument that addictive technologies are taking up all of our spare time that we used to have for leisure, creativity, and social connection. As a result, they are actually making us less happy.
Worse still, how we use our screens is not even consistent with how we’d like to use them. We feel happy engaging with screens when they help us to relax, exercise, read, improve our health or learn something useful. But we spend three times more time just browsing the web, looking at news sites, social media, dating apps, or games and entertainment, which tend to make us feel less happy over time (as shown in his TED talk below).
It also introduced me to the app called ‘moment’, which is helping me to cut down how much screen time I have each week.
Read it if: You are similar to the average person that spends three hours a day using their smartphone and feel that you would like to learn more about how this happened, and what you can do about it. The fact that more of us would prefer a broken bone to a broken phone is a sign of just how severe this problem is.
17. ‘Think Like a Freak (Freakonomics #3)‘ – by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner (2014). Goodreads star rating = 3.83/5.
Why it’s good: I’ve enjoyed all of the Freakonomics books, and still listen to the Freakonomics podcast regularly. The way that the authors use behavioural economics tools to explore and answer all types of strange real-life questions is excellent, including:
- “did the introduction of legalised abortion reduce crime rates?” (YES)
- “do drug dealers make a lot of money?” (ONLY THE KINGPINS)
- “are child car seats safer than regular seatbelts?” (NOT MUCH)
- “do real estate agents leave their own houses on the market for longer than their customers so that they can get a better deal?” (YES)
- “is cheating prevalent in sumo wrestling?” (YES)
- “could we solve climate change by spending less on potential solutions than what we are currently spending on raising awareness of the climate change problem?” (MAYBE)
In Think Like a Freak, they teach you how to approach problems in your life in a similar way and use incentives to help you achieve your goals. They also tell you how to win a hot dog eating competition if you ever wanted to challenge your friends.
Read it if: You want to challenge conventional wisdom or learn more about how to make smarter decisions in your life. Or you could just watch the video below:
16. ‘Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion‘ by Sam Harris (2014). Goodreads star rating = 3.88/5.
Why it’s good: Waking up shows us that it is possible to experience transcendence and to get in touch with a sense of spirituality or something greater than yourself without having to turn to religion. It also explores if there is anything scientific to be gleaned from the various religious and spiritual beliefs.
Alongside love and connection with others, Meditation is suggested as the primary secular way to reach transcendence, and it was this book that encouraged me to try a 10-day silent meditation retreat to fully explore the potential benefits that meditation can bring. I personally would never go again and am more than happy to just stick to my 10-15 minutes meditation practice per day.
Read it if: You are interested in exploring spirituality and getting in touch with transcendental experiences from a secular and scientific perspective.
15. ‘Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Most Changes Everything‘ by Victor J. Strecher (2016). Goodreads star rating = 3.9/5.
Why it’s good: Victor wrote this book after the death of his daughter. She had previously suffered from heart problems following exposure to the chicken pox virus, and knowing that death was potentially around the corner at any moment enabled him and his family to make the most of their lives while she was still with them.
Once his daughter passed, he turned to philosophy to try to understand the meaning of life and explored just how beneficial it is to have a strong sense of purpose. It can help you live longer, reduce your risk of dementia or heart disease, and generally help you to live a more satisfying life.
He also goes into five ways to improve energy and willpower:
E– Eating well
Read it if: You loved ‘Man’s search for meaning’, are interested in the scientific benefits of meaning in our lives, or want to find more purpose in your own life.
14. ‘Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy‘ by Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant (2017). Goodreads star rating = 3.98/5.
Why it’s good: Another book that highlights how to find meaning and cope with grief following the loss of a family member. Sheryl lost her husband suddenly, and never thought that she or her children would experience joy again. Adam showed her the concrete steps that could help her to recover from her life-altering experiences, and they both share these steps in this book.
They also show how many others have rebounded from a multitude of hardships in their lives, including job loss, health problems, sexual assault, war or natural disasters. Resilience is a skill that can be built over time. It is not a fixed resource.
Read it if: You’d like to learn more about how to develop resilience and perseverance and find strength in the face of adversity.
13. ‘Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals‘ by Owain Service & Rory Gallagher (2017). Goodreads star rating = 3.98/5.
Why it’s good: Based on the successful learnings from the UK’s Behavioural Insights team, or “Nudge Unit”, this book is all about scientifically supported interventions for behavioural change, both on a societal and an individual level.
Follow these seven steps if you want to achieve your goals:
- Choose the right goal
- Set a specific target and deadline
- Break it down into manageable steps
- Keep it simple
- Create an actionable plan
- Turn the plan into habits
- Make a binding commitment
- Make it public and write it down
- Appoint a commitment referee
- Put something at stake for a headline objective
- Build good habits through smaller rewards
- Beware of backfire effects
- Ask for help
- Tap into your social networks
- Join a group
- Know where you stand in relation to your goal
- Make feedback timely, specific and actionable
- Compare yourself to others
- Practice with focus and effort
- Test and learn
- Reflect and celebrate
Read it if: You want to learn more about the seven scientifically supported steps of successful behavioural change.
12. ‘Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less‘ by Greg McKeown (2014). Goodreads star rating = 4.0/5.
Why it’s good: If you have ever been stretched too thin by unnecessary work, or feel overworked and busy but not productive, then you need to learn about the Way of the Essentialist.
An Essentialist doesn’t get more done in less time. Essentialists just do the things that actually matter. By being disciplined, they systematically determine what is absolutely essential, and then eliminate everything that is not. This disciplined pursuit of less empowers people to reclaim control of their lives and the choices they make about what they spend their time and energy on. They don’t let society, their bosses, their family or friends choose for them
What if you could do less, but better, in every area of your life?
Read it if: You want to discover why less is sometimes more.
11. ‘Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are‘ by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (2017). Goodreads star rating = 4.0/5.
Why it’s good: Let’s face it. Everybody does lie. On social media, people portray the person that they want to be and how they want to be seen by others, not how they actually are. In surveys, whether they are completed face-to-face, over the phone, or online, people tend to change their responses just a little bit to manage their impression to others or even to themselves.
This is called a social desirability bias, and it appears to be the main reason why the US polls were all predicting that Hillary Clinton was likely to win before the last presidential election. Trump won, and specific big data could predict this based on google search results. The more racist search results there were in an area, the more people voted for Donald Trump. This highlighted that the problem of racism is still explicit, but it is often just kept to behind closed doors.
In general, people have much less incentive to lie to search engines when they are looking for what they want in the privacy of their own home. This could be a google search or a Pornhub search, and most people are more honest with these search boxes then they are with anyone else in their lives. So what if we could pool this data to learn more about what people actually think and feel. This is what Everybody Lies does. It tells us that we lie about how much sex we have and the type of sex that we are having, and it also tells us that more people struggle with mental health difficulties and suicidal ideation than we have been previously aware of. I just hope that these insights can lead to positive changes and earlier interventions for those in need, and help people to see that they may not be as different from others as they fear.
Read it if: You are curious to find out what else people’s search histories can reveal about the state of our current society.
The top 10 will be up next week. Stay tuned!
Dr Damon Ashworth