Probably 95% or more of the greatest self-help advice I have ever come across has been found in books. Reading books is the greatest educational shortcut the world has ever known.
If someone with a really great mind walked the earth during recent generations and accumulated a lifetime worth of wisdom, they probably wrote these lessons down in a book. If reading is not a current habit of yours, it needs to be.
“The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” – Mark Twain
So with that in mind, here are the books that I consider to be the top ten best self-help books of all time.
You may notice that most of them were written in the past ten years or so. This shouldn’t be too surprising when you consider that all these authors had the benefit of being able to access all the great self-help books that have been written before them. So they can stand on the shoulders of earlier giants.
Also, serious scientific research is now being done in the field of positive psychology. What makes people really thrive? What makes happy people even happier? These are the sorts of questions that are now being studied by serious researchers at top universities like Harvard and Stanford. So their findings are making their way into more recent books.
This isn’t to say that you can’t glean some great, timeless advice from self-help classics like How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie. You often can. But these classics are sometimes also strewn with homespun theories that do not hold up to the rigorous scrutiny of serious scientific examination.
In other words, self-help books can be a minefield. This list provides you with a surer reading path.
Just because this list is only ten books long does not mean that I believe you should only read ten self-help books in your lifetime. There are many other great books that contain important advice that it would be a shame for you to miss out on. But you have to start somewhere. This list is designed to give you an awesome start on your lifelong path of never-ending self improvement.
I suspect that you will not have heard of some of these books. It’s a shame, but it seems that in the self-help field, popularity does not always equal quality. Actually, some of the most popular books of the past few decades are among the worst. But I suppose if misguided self help gurus can promise people that radical life change is a cinch, and that self improvement never requires any effort whatsoever, it’s no surprise that many uniformed people will bite.
These 10 best self help books on my list don’t always offer effortless solutions to your personal development problems. They simply offer solutions that actually work.
(Honest disclosure: These reviews include affiliate links, which means that I may receive a small commission from Amazon if you buy one. The price of the book will be the same to you regardless.)
#1 Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
If someone asked me what is the one book that anyone who is interested in changing their life should absolutely own, it would be this one. Hands down!
Author Carol Dweck, the renowned professor of psychology at Stanford University, brilliantly explains how the way we think about our own talents and abilities shapes just about everything we do in our lives. But not in the way you might imagine. She doesn’t argue that we need to think more highly about our own abilities. It’s not about self-esteem in the way it has been popularly taught. In fact, learning that form of self esteem might be the worst thing you can do for your success. And teaching that sort of self-esteem might be the worst thing you can do for your children. Instead, Dweck explains that it is the specific way that we think about the dynamics of talents and abilities that shape our capacity for greatness.
This book was a giant eye-opener for me. It revolutionized my thinking about fears, procrastination, success, and many other topics that I’m certain will be of great interest to you.
Trivial side note: It’s interesting that one year after the worst book in self help history was released, (yes, I’m talking about The Secret), this book, Mindset, was released, which I consider to be the best book in self help history. Yet, tragically, most people have never heard of it.
My only criticism is that I wish that Dweck (and other proponents of her ground-breaking research) had the marketing knack that the authors of modern day snake oil like The Secret have. But, admittedly, Dweck does not have the luxury of selling the preposterous (yet shockingly popular) notion that you can simply lay back and wish your dream life into existence. Dweck is a true scientist. So she only gets to argue notions that are well tested and backed by impeccable research. Still, I wish that she had a huckster’s gift for gab so that these life-changing lessons would jump off the page more and grab you by the throat as they should, saying, “Hey, pay attention! I’m giving you the real secrets of life, right here!”
#2 Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
We go to the east coast of the U.S. this time to find the renowned professor of psychology at Harvard University, Daniel Gilbert.
In what I (and many others) consider his masterpiece, Stumbling On Happiness, Gilbert delivers another eye-opener. You might think that a couple simple notions we could all agree upon are: 1) that each of us is relatively unique, and 2) that each of us knows what makes us happy. Think again!
Daniel Gilbert shows that we are basically clueless when it comes to predicting what will make us happy. This has tremendous implications for the directions we take in life, or more importantly, the directions we should take in our lives.
Gilbert also teaches that it would serve us quite well to learn from what others have experienced in their quests for happiness. If you think you know the path to your own happiness and you are busy trying to get there, read this book before you take another step. You might save yourself decades of wasted effort when you later discover that you’ve been on the wrong path the entire time.
#3 The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
Randy Pausch was a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon stricken with terminal cancer in his mid 40s. Faced with his mortality, he gave a legendary final lecture to his class that became a viral phenomenon. Soon after, he expanded his lecture into a book.
The lecture isn’t really about dying. It’s all about living!
His advice is so insightful and compelling alone, he probably could have had a second career as an incredible self help guru if he had lived longer. But knowing where his perspective comes from gives his lessons an additional powerful wallop that will motivate you to never take another day for granted.
This book is a real treasure.
#4 The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan is best known for making science more popular through his incredible communication skills in bestselling science books and most notably, his award-winning 1980 educational TV series, Cosmos. So you might be wondering how a science book makes it onto the list of the best self help books ever written. Let me explain.
Much of what is most popular in the world of self help is utterly bogus. Countless self help authors and motivational speakers spew nothing but pure nonsense. Their teachings have no factual basis whatsoever and defy logic at every turn. Yet millions of people follow their every word and, unfortunately, their lives are much worse because of it. (In the case of James Arthur Ray, one of the so-called experts featured in The Secret, some of his followers are literally dead because of him.) But without a firm grounding in how to think about things and evaluate evidence like a good scientist would, it is very easy to become susceptible to these charlatans.
Carl Sagan’s book gives you this necessary firm grounding. He teaches you how to think critically and correctly. For example, after reading chapters like “The Fine Art Of Baloney Detection,” you might be better equipped to notice Robert T. Kiyosaki’s baloney in his bestselling financial self-help book, Rich Dad, Poor Dad.
Great self-help advice cannot lift you up nearly as high if bad self-help advice is simultaneously pulling you down. This book will give you the thinking tools to better avoid falling for that destructive, bad advice.
#5 The How Of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky
For centuries, the scientific field of psychology has been focused on treating people with mental illness. Serious academic research has tried to figure out how to fix mental problems so that people could be normalized. It has only been in the past couple of decades that a larger academic movement often called “Positive Psychology” has taken hold.
Positive psychology tries to figure out what makes people thrive. It often focuses on how to increase people’s happiness so that people can be the most that they can be, not simply avoid being the least.
For example, where classic psychology might have tried to figure out how to make a sad person no longer sad, positive psychology might try to figure out how to make a happy person even happier. Many great books in this field by serious academics, who rely on scientific methods to determine what really makes people thrive, have been published in the past several years.
The How Of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky is one of my favorites. She gives you specific instructions on particular exercises you can do to increase your own happiness. She also shows that although 60% of your general happiness levels are determined by your genetics and life circumstances, 40% are completely within your own control.
Perhaps a quote by Daniel Gilbert (the author of the #2 book on this list) best explains how her book differs from most self-help garbage disguised as books. “Finally we have a self-help book from a reputable scientist whose advice is based on the best experimental data… The How of Happiness is smart, fun, and interesting–and unlike almost every other book on the same shelf, it also happens to be true.”
Her subsequent book, The Myths Of Happiness, is also excellent and chock full of even more great self help tips.
Another great happiness book that could compliment your positive psychology learning is:
Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar
Tal Ben-Shahar used to teach a class on positive psychology at Harvard that was the university’s most popular class. It was so popular that many students enrolled in Harvard couldn’t get in. But now in a way, you can, simply by reading all the lessons that he packed into his book.
I could easily find a place for Happier on this list, but since it covers similar subject matter to The How Of Happiness, I figured I’d just mention it here for those interested in further happiness advice.
And who isn’t?
#6 The Now Habit by Neil Fiore
If procrastination is your biggest problem, then this is the #1 book for you.
Fiore not only teaches you how to overcome your procrastination habits, he also teaches you where they come from. Here’s a hint: they probably have much less to do with your laziness and much more to do with your fears.
#7 Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen
This is the best time management book that I know of. It is especially great for people who are very busy with complicated lives, such as high-powered business executives.
For people with simpler lives, many of his time management techniques might be overkill, but probably still worth knowing about so that you can pick and choose what works best for you.
Two great tips that everyone can take away from this book are that if you have something on your to-do list that only takes 2 minutes, do it immediately. And if the list of things you need to do are constantly running through your head, then you need a better to-do-list system you can trust and rely on so that you can dump these running thoughts out of your head.
#8 The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
This book is great for a couple reasons. One is that is covers some nice ground on many different self-help topics. The other reason, and probably the reason it made my list, is that it is simply a great example of how you should be going about your life by experimenting more.
The premise of this book is that Gretchen Rubin is not an expert at the outset. She is simply a smart, determined person who sets out to learn as much as she can about various self-help subjects as she experiments with them on a month-by-month basis.
Through her journey, you learn a lot about what works for her. But even more so, I hope that she inspires you to do likewise. Not necessarily a month-by-month experiment on each topic like she does. But simply that you think of your life as a vehicle for further exploration and experimentation.
Maybe she will inspire you to take more action, to discover more great advice, and to refine your behaviors and habits until they form you into a new, improved person, propelling you toward greater happiness and success.
#9 The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow
You will not understand how best to navigate your way through life until you truly understand the role that chance, randomness, and probability have in affecting it.
The author may be a Cal Berkeley trained theoretical physicist who has taught at Caltech, but he writes in a way that anyone can understand.
Fans of self-help often make giant mistakes in understanding what actions affect their lives simply because they do not understand the concept of randomness. (I know, it sounds “random” in the sorority-girl vernacular sense to even talk about this stuff, but it’s true.) As just one little example, if you want to tackle the self-help topic of personal finance, you cannot begin to best understand stock market advice unless you understand randomness. (There are a thousand other examples I could give of how this topic intersects with self help advice.)
I catch self-help gurus uttering nonsense all the time simply based on their lack of basic mathematical understanding regarding statistics and probabilities. I’m not talking about complex calculus equations; I’m talking about simple-to-understand concepts about how the world works, and the dynamics of causes and effects. When Oprah Winfrey discusses self-help topics and often mentions how “there are no coincidences in life,” you will be armed with the knowledge from this book to understand how deeply flawed her thinking truly is.
Like the Carl Sagan book that appeared on this list earlier, this book will help you to think better. And thinking better is the tool that will enable you to better distinguish between self-help strategies that actually work and those that are nothing more than white noise.
#10 Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss
Let’s finish this list on a whimsical note with a book of brilliant self-help advice and inspiration disguised as a book for children. It is no wonder that this book is such a favorite gift to high-school and college graduates, or anyone else making a giant life transition.
If self-help books were judged by their power-per-word ratio, this book would definitely be #1 on this list. It’s a very short book that is very long on wisdom. Heck, sometimes it takes a message with a creative twist to shift our mental patterns. Dr. Seuss probably says more in 10 rhyming sentences about the futility of not taking more action and just wasting your life away in “The Waiting Place” than is said by 10 randomly-selected self help books put together.
If you know someone who is a about to graduate from school, give them this book. If you want to graduate from your rusty, stagnant old life to a shiny, new, improved life, and you want some fun poetry to assist you on your way, then get this book for yourself.
You read the entire list, which means that you are a person with serious interest in improving your life.
But that’s only the first step. If you are really interested in improving your life, you must develop the habit of being proactive. You must develop the habit of taking action.
So get started on that path right now. Go back over the list, click on the one you like best (it will take you to the book’s page on Amazon) and you will be reading it in no time, feeling good about the fact that you are really becoming the type of person who doesn’t just talk or think about bettering their self, but actually does something about it.
In the words of Dr. Seuss from Book #10:
You’re off to great places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
so get on your way!