These are the very best books (and one video) I’ve read across a range of areas in psychology over many years. I hope that at least some of these are useful and enjoyable for you, too.
The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon. A very comprehensive book that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about depression. Only if you are really determined to learn it all. (Read the New York Times review.)
The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth by Irving Kirsch. If you are wondering whether antidepressants are right for you, or for someone you love, this book uses scientific evidence to demonstrate that the impact of these drugs is almost entirely from the placebo effect. You’ll learn what alternative treatments exist, treatments that don’t have dangerous side effects.
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Clark Styron. An 84 page chilling account of what it’s like to suffer from depression by this world famous author. If you are struggling to deal with a depressed relative or friend, this will help you better understand what they’re going through.
Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari. Makes a powerful case that the increasing rates of depression are not a result of chemical imbalances but rather our difficulties in connecting: to each other, to meaningful work and to healthy values, among others. Start with this if you want to understand depression -- either your own, or a loved one's.
My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel. Entertaining and informative, Stossel interweaves his own experience of terrible anxiety with the latest research, as well as how thinking on the issue has evolved over the years. (Read the Washington Post review)
The Man Who Couldn’t Stop: The Truth About OCD by David Adam. Most people have some degree of obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior — whether it’s worrying about having locked the door, checking the stove several times before bed, or using buckets of disinfectant every time some dirt gets into the house. This book is built around the author’s experience with his own obsession, stories of other people’s OCD as well as the latest research and treatments. (Read the New York Times review)
Sex and Sexuality
Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us by Jesse Bering. A lighthearted exploration of sexuality, using science and data to demonstrate that what society considers ‘normal’ is actually rare, and that most of us have feelings that we would very much like to keep private. An entertaining appeal for empathy for the human condition. (Read the New York Times review.)
The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing by Daniel Bergner. An in depth — and humanizing — look at four individuals whose desires have made them outcasts in society. The stories may shock you, but by the time you’ve finished, you’ll have empathy for these people…and others like them. (Read the New York Times review.)
The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up For Yourself at Work and in Relationships by Randy Paterson. If you find it hard to say no, or if you tend to lose your temper when trying to get others to do what you want, then this book is for you.
The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Pattern of Intimate Relationships by Harriet Lerner. Despite the title, this is equally useful for many men, as it will teach you how to recognize anger and use it constructively. A New York Times bestseller.
Mental Illness and the Use of Psychotropic Drugs
Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America by Robert Whitaker. If you have an interest in the subject, this is riveting. For casual readers, spend your time elsewhere.
The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth by Irving Kirsch. If you or a loved one are considering going on antidepressants, or if you’re taking them and wondering whether the benefits are worth the side effects, this is one to read. You’ll learn how the western world fell in love with antidepressants, and what the evidence really shows about their effectiveness.
Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients by Ben Goldacre. A more detailed look at how the pharmaceutical industry — along with universities, academic journals and regulators such as the FDA — manage to warp science. Not just limited to medications for mental illness, this is an eye opener. However, the level of detail means that this will be good only for those with an interest in the subject.
The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control by Walter Mischel. If you’ve never seen a video of the Marshmallow Test I guarantee that watching four year olds trying to resist temptation will brighten your day. If this sparks your interest, the book by the Stanford professor who ran the original test will give you insights into improving your self control.
Love’s Executioner by Irwin Yalom. Tales of psychotherapy that read like a novel. If you ever wonder why anyone would want to be a therapist, you’ll understand after reading this.
Modern Love: 50 True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit and Devotion by Daniel Jones. A collection of the best of the New York Times’ Modern Love column and a great way to see how different our relationships can be — and how there are many roads to happiness.
Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (with the help of 50,000 strangers) by Daniel Jones. If you liked Daniel Jones’ Modern Love book, this is a natural follow on.
The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by David Morris. Integrates autobiographical elements with extensive research, making this book both informative and moving.
Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change by Jeffrey Foote and others. Conventional wisdom says that addicts need to quit completely, need help to do so, and if necessary, have to be confronted aggressively with the fact of their addiction. But the truth is that many people stop using substances entirely on their own, and others reduce their use to acceptable levels. And shaming or humiliating these people is counter productive.
Dry: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs. The author of Running With Scissors tells of his struggles with alcohol. You will laugh through your tears.
Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff. If anyone in your family is suffering from addiction, this book is a must-read that will make you feel less alone. (Read the New York Times review.)
The Lost Years: Surviving a Mother and Daughter’s Worst Nightmare by Kristina Wandzilak and Constance Curry. Similar to “Beautiful Boy” this tells the story of addiction from the point of view of addict and mother.
Table In the Darkness: A Healing Journey Through an Eating Disorder by Lee Wolfe Blum. Anorexia is the mental illness with the highest mortality rate. It’s also one of the most painful for family members who watch their child seemingly voluntarily starve themselves, sometimes to death.
Thin. This documentary is filmed inside a center dedicated to eating disorders. It’s a gut-wrenching view of what it’s like to be anorexic or bulimic.
Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher. Another very well written first person account of eating disorders, similar to “Table in the Darkness”.
The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar by Terri Cheney. Very well written account of a bipolar life. For anyone who suffers from extreme mood swings, or has a loved one who is bipolar, this will create acceptance, understanding and empathy.
An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. Perhaps the definitive first person account of bipolar disorder. Jamison is a psychiatrist who specializes in the very problem that she suffers from.
When the Bough Breaks: A Memoir about One Family’s Struggle with Mental Illness by Denise Brauer and Michelle Brauer. Imagine watching your mother swing from deepest depression to wild mania, and back again, culminating in the ultimate horror.