I’ve always been a voracious reader. Not only does my occupation demand it, but I am genuinely fascinated by the power of the written word in unraveling complex ideas and helping us make sense of the world.
Though I read far and wide, somehow I always find myself coming back to psychology, not least because the human mind is one of the most complex subjects there is.
Here are six psychology books that reshaped my understanding of the mind and the world it inhabits. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I did.
The Evolving Self
Kegan is hard to describe. He’s like the psychologist version of that obscure band/DJ that is absolutely brilliant, yet somehow not famous and none of your friends understand why you like them. Kegan worked in a niche field of developmental psychology, a branch of psychology that studies how people grow and change throughout their lives, particularly from childhood to adulthood.
In The Evolving Self, Kegan goes way beyond psychology though, integrating ideas from biology, philosophy, and sociology to come up with a kind of “grand theory of everything” for human growth and potential. Much of this post (the most popular post the year I published it, I might add) is inspired by his work.
The short version of Kegan’s model is this: we all start out pretty self-absorbed and narcissistic when we’re kids. Slowly, through experiencing failures, we are forced to integrate our sense of self with larger and larger circles of awareness, thus taking our identities from a narcissistic self-absorption, to a communal interactivity, to a societal independence, to a sort of transcendent, flexible identity that is always being redefined.
If that sounds complicated, well, it is. But it’s also awesome. And powerful. And makes a lot of sense once you dive deep enough into it. I loved this book because it scratches all of my intellectual itches: integrates a number of academic fields, gives you brilliant theoretical models with pretty charts to play with, and it dares to define the heart of psychological growth and change. I loved it. And while it’s not an easy read, if you’re up for the challenge, I think you might love it, too.
3 Ideas That Might Change Your Life
The Happiness Hypothesis
That doesn’t happen as often with books. Mainly because it’s rare that we go back and read a book for a second time. And it’s even rarer that we revisit a book that we didn’t absolutely adore the first time. Yet, I found myself in this situation with Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis this year.
To be fair, when I read it seven or eight years ago, I thought it was a fine book. In fact, I thought it was one of the better takes on happiness. Back then, happiness research dominated most of my reading, so Haidt’s book was a welcome entry to my research.
Jump ahead to this year. The questions of character and virtue kept popping into my mind. Both in the context of politics (the idea that perhaps it’s better to elect someone of character regardless of policy views, than someone of poor character who shares your views) but also just in terms of mental health, self-help, and all that stuff. In my research this past year, it’s been impossible to ignore the fact that people who really work on themselves and mature psychologically tend to act more ethically (see Kegan above), and people who act more ethically tend to feel better about what they’re doing with their lives. Whereas feeling good is virtue-independent (you can be happy being a total asshole), truly living a fulfilled and meaningful life seems to partially depend on virtue.
This idea, of course, isn’t new. Like most of these “big ideas” it goes back to the Ancient Greeks—Aristotle, Plato, Epictetus, et al. They didn’t see happiness and prosperity in the modern algorithmic terms that we tend to. They saw it as cultivating virtue and character within oneself. Basically: if you get your shit together, good things will happen to you and, eventually, to the world as a whole.
Which brings me back to Haidt. This was actually the whole point behind The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt draws that link between modern happiness research (showing it’s not something you can chase after) and ancient philosophy. It’s just that when I read it eight years ago, I didn’t care about the character and virtue stuff. I just wanted to read about happiness. This year, it was completely the other way around. And I appreciated the book on an entirely new level.
The Psychology of Money
One thing that few non-fiction authors do, but that I always try to do, is go beyond the obvious questions and look at why we see things a certain way. For instance, in my books, instead of telling people how to be happy, I go through pains to help the reader question why they want to be happy, whether happiness is even the right goal to have in the first place.
Most self-help books don’t ask those deeper questions and I like to think that’s part of why my work has done well.
Housel applies this same treatment to making money. Instead of just telling you how to get rich, he asks the hard questions of what is wealth, how does your life actually change when you become more wealthy, how do your perceptions around money change or perhaps how have they changed already?
The book calls into question all sorts of assumptions people have about wealth, work, investing, getting rich, conspicuous spending, etc. It’s written in easy-to-understand bite-sized chunks and there’s a certain humor prevalent throughout. I read this book in a single day. It’s that good.
Kaufman reimagines Maslow’s theory and updates it with the most recent scientific research on happiness and well-being. For me, the value of the book is two-fold:
- An excellent introduction and overview of Maslow’s work, and
- A comprehensive summary of much of what we know about human well-being right now
As a psychology nerd, I enjoyed all of the great research that was collected and organized. As a writer, I’ll probably use the book for references in the future.
How Emotions Are Made
Many readers recommended this book to me and it definitely made me aware of a perspective on emotions that I was not previously aware of. It turns out, the nature versus nurture argument has invaded the field of emotional psychology, as well.
Whereas most research I was aware of suggested that emotions are innate and universal, Feldman argues that most emotions are culturally constructed and determined by the contexts and experiences of the people feeling them. Anger in the US is not the same as anger in Indonesia or China. People react differently and even understand their sensations differently. It’s an interesting argument and I learned a lot from the book. I’m not sure where I fall on the issue, but it has certainly opened my mind and I’d like to study the subject further.
How to Change Your Mind
I have a strange personal history with psychedelics. I did them frequently as a teenager and in college. I later disavowed them (and pretty much all other drugs). Don’t get me wrong. I had a blast. I goofed off with friends, became one with the universe, giggled myself breathless. But I was done. For the many years since, as they slowly crept back in popularity, I held a, “been there, done that” attitude about them.
Well, I’m slowly coming to the realization that I have to check my ego at the door and get over myself, because books like Pollan’s show that they could be hugely important for psychiatric and medical purposes, not to mention enriching for human well-being. The new research happening in this space is exciting and can potentially do a lot of good in the world.