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Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Ten Books to Make Life Easier

Clients are always asking me which books they can read to help with their therapy or just life in general.  Most often I point them at one of ten I mention below.  I have read them all myself and gained a lot from having done so.

The following books certainly cover many aspects of how to make life more bearable, comfortable- and probably more joyous.  You may have other books that you have found useful, but these are very much my own favourites – so, you won’t find any quick cure books here.  For instance, I am not at all keen on The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, as for me it took a simple (and well trodden) idea – “positive thinking helps to make positive results” – and changed it into undeliverable magic – “believe that you can have anything you want and you shall.” As a counsellor, I strongly discourage quick or magic fixes.  Life does not work like that. All of the following books require some commitment, or at least point the way of a more profound way of thinking and feeling.

I also include a group of CDs at the end which I think are useful for finding some peace and in our stressful lives.

Awareness – Anthony de Mello
De Mello was part Jesuit priest (with a Buddhist leaning), part counsellor, part teacher, part author and part philosopher.  I find his books to be both easy to read and amazingly profound.  De Mello declares that the purpose of the book is to do no less than wake people up.  It is his assertion (perhaps following on from Socrates) that most people find little comfort and contentment in their lives precisely because they are not aware of their ways of thinking and dealing with life.  By becoming aware we can change some things and leave other alone.  He also talks about the nature of love, suffering, selfishness and our relationships with self and others.  He has a way of explaining things via his own short parables which make things very easy to follow.  I find the book so useful that I’ve read it through 4 times in the last 2 years, and dip into it regularly.

Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy – Irvin Yalom
Yalom is a great story teller and he has a way of wrapping up important thoughts about life in a simple way.  He writes mainly about what he considers to be the four main problems that people have to deal with in their lives – loss (including bereavement), meaninglessness (which he says is very prevalent in today’s society), isolation and freedom vs responsibility.  Although his stories are all extreme cases of suffering, it is from these extreme cases that we can learn much about ourselves and the nature of what it is to be human.  Yalom offers no quick fixes but he is an expert at making us feel more at ease with the difficulties of life – which are, after all, universal.  When we read of the extreme nature of the problems and neurotic natures of his characters we may come to see that our own problems, though often similar, are usually much less onerous, and thus become easier to bear.

Taming Your Gremlin – Rick Carson
This is really about how to change our internalised habits of negative criticism and low self-esteem.  Carson asks us to imagine that the urge to do things which are causing us suffering (such as that we cannot do something or that we are not good enough) is a gremlin on our shoulders (poking and prodding us like some cartoon demon).  He teaches us how to deal with that gremlin so that it starts to lose its power and eventually gives up.  He deals specifically with a variety of messages that people tend to tell themselves daily – “I should do this” or I shouldn’t do that.”  Many of my clients and friends have been helped by this book, and I use it myself to help with my anxiety about public speaking.

The Road Less Travelled – M Scott Peck
Peck famously begins his book with “life is difficult.”  He doesn’t pull any punches from start to finish, and often retells his own difficult experiences as a way of illuminating his ideas.  He tells us there are no quick fixes and there is no magic.  Changing painful problems is often painful in its itself – at least for a time.  Like Yalom he talks about people wanting to change but being too afraid to actually do so – their old habits, though painful, being safer than the risk of going through the relatively short term pain barrier into the unknown and a better life.  He talks about loving oneself (not in a selfish but in a generous way) and loving others, and about the importance of spiritual growth especially in our important relationships.

Ten Days to Great Self-Esteem – Dr David Burns
This book is different from all the others on the list in that it is a systematic, practical guide.  It doesn’t necessarily seek to solve deep rooted causes of suffering (as some of the other books do) but it’s strength is that it seeks to alleviate symptoms by getting the reader to go through a series of tasks to change the way they think about themselves.  I have found that it has helped many clients – but it is definitely a book to use alongside therapy rather than instead of it.

Loneliness and Love – Clark E Moustakas
Quite aside from having profound ideas, Moustakas also writes as beautifully as a poet, which makes him a delight to read.  He mainly writes about the joys of solitude and the difficulties of loneliness.  By spending lots of time on his own he came into deep contact with himself and found that this enabled him to build better relationships.  He draws a big distinction between loneliness and solitude.  He experienced both and learned much from them.  It’s a short book , and you feel that you are in the presence of a good, caring and deep soul as you read it.

The Consolations of Philosophy – Alain de Botton
The great philosophers have had much to say on how best to live life and De Botton does a good job of guiding us through that.  Like most of the writers here, De Botton writes beautifully and succinctly about the most profound issues.  Here we get consolations for: a broken heart, lack of money, lack of friends and feeling inadequate.  He quotes Montaigne (one of my favourite philosophers) as saying – “what matters in a book is usefulness and appropriateness to life."  Here, too, De Botton provides us with a book that shows the usefulness of philosophy when we are faced with the trials and tribulations that life inevitably brings – or as Epicurus puts it:  “Just as medicine confers no benefit if it does not drive away physical illness, so philosophy is useless if it does not drive away the suffering of the mind.”  I enjoy this book so much that I have it on tape (for the car) as well as in hard back copy.  I am quite sure that most people who read it will find huge chunks of it relevant to their own experiences.

Total Freedom: The Essential Krishnamurti
This book, a conglomeration of many of the author’s best ideas, is perhaps the most spiritual on this list, but that is not to say that it is overtly religious.  Krishnamurti deals with freedom, life, death, suffering, love, truth, friendship and contentment.  He talks a great deal about how when individuals change for the better, the societies they are in can do too.  Above all, his is a message of the need to take courage.  This is my favourite quote of his: “What is needed, rather than running away or controlling or suppressing or any other resistance, is understanding fear; that means, watch it, learn about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not how to escape from it.”

The Art of Loving – Erich Fromm
This bestselling book is perhaps more of an intense read than any of the other books on this list.  Fromm discusses at length the nature of different types of love – romantic, brotherly, for friends, erotic, religious and for self.  In doing so, he explodes a lot of ideas that you may have taken for granted and makes you rethink them.  His message is that love is an art that we need to develop and that we should start by loving ourselves.  Only if we love ourselves can we love others.  But he is set against all forms of selfishness, arguing that love is not love if it is delivered selfishly.  He argues that man must stop treating his fellows as a commodity and break loose from the modern inclination to do so – people should be loved and valued for who they are not what they do.

Being Human (More Real Poems for Unreal Times) – Edited Neil Astley
As a poet, I know of the healing power of poetry.  Both writing and reading it can bring us great relief and help us to view our problems as universal.  I could recommend hundreds of poems and poetry books, but this one is part of a trilogy that is particularly relevant to making life more bearable –and it contains a good variety of poetry, from the classics to contemporary poets.  There are poems covering such areas as love, death, the stages of life, universal human difficulties, hope and body and soul.  None of them will solve your problems, but they will offer you some comfort and sometimes a new angle on them – and often that’s more than enough.

As a bonus, I would also suggest the range of CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  He is the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society.   He is one of the world’s leading lights in teaching about mindfulness (living in the present moment) and he does this by encouraging people to do breathing exercises.  He has a range of three CDs of Guided Mindfulness Meditation, which I have found very useful, as have several of my clients.  His voice is very soothing and his ideas about meditation are not specifically religious.  Quite simply, it’s all about the power of being rather than doing.  If you have a lot of immediate stress in your life and are looking for something specific to alleviate it quickly then using these CDs can be a wonderful help. I would also like to find room to make the list up to twelve books by adding: May Sarton - Journal of Solitude, and Depression as a Spiritual Journey - Stephanie Sorrell...two wonderful books.

David is a fully qualified and BACP registered Person Centred Counsellor.  You can book a session with him by ringing 07578 100256 or emailing him at


  1. What a great list! I love Alain de Botton and Yalom's writing. I think I may have already tweeted this, but in my session with Yalom he recommended Religion for Atheists - said I would love it. It is on my list and I will get around to it as soon as I can. I regard The Consolations of Philosophy very highly - great choice.

    Will blog my experience with Yalom soon - hopefully this week. Just got back!