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Clinical Psychologist specialising in
Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness

10 Books that Changed My Life

My favourite psychologist, William James, suggested that the greatest discovery of his generation was that human beings can change their lives by altering their attitudes. He also said, “If you can change your mind, you can change your life.” This discovery is even more important when facing the questions that the second half of life raises – How did I get to this point in my life? What’s most important to me now? What legacy am I leaving? What have I learnt? How can I find peace? Where can I find happiness? How should I spend the time I have left?

My studies and interests have allowed me the opportunity to explore the enduring wisdom of western and eastern philosophy, along with the critical insights provided by contemporary psychology. I’m often asked by my clients and students to summarize what I’ve learnt and which books provide the very best guides for transforming our lives.

So here are 10 of the best along with a short comment on the key insight each provides. Read them. Share them. Study them. LIVE them…

1. Meditations  by Marcus Aurelius

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“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breath, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor and world leader during his day. Among his powerful insights was to realize the importance of cultivating a peaceful state of mind. To do this we need to stop worrying about the things that are beyond our control to change and instead focus on the things in our lives that represent our good fortune. This is not an argument for resignation, but rather the recognition that the only things we truly control, our judgments, determine our state of mind and therefore our emotions. The book is a kind of ancient Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.

2. The Art of Living  by Epictetus

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“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding the things that lie beyond our control.”
Epictetus was born into slavery about A.D. 55. Sold as a child and crippled from beatings from his master, Epictetus understood that it’s not always possible to control life, only how we respond to it. In a series of ninety-three, witty and wise instructions he guides us as to how we can successfully meet the challenges of everyday life to become happier and more effective. “If you wish to be an extraordinary person,” he says, “then you should explicitly identify the kind of person you wish to become.”  The book is a kind of ancient Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.

3. Principles of Psychology  by William James

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“If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.”
Written in 1890, Principles of Psychology was recently described by one leading historian as “The most literate, most provocative, and at the same time most intelligent book on psychology that has ever appeared” – I couldn’t agree more. Harvard philosopher and psychologist William James’ major insight which he described as like “bottled lightening” was that it is not necessary to change our feelings in order to take action. Rather, James is emphatic, “If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.” In other words, taking responsibility and choosing to act despite how you feel, is likely to have a powerful impact on who you become – bottled lightening indeed!

4. Happiness: A Guide To Developing Life
by Matthieu Ricard

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“By happiness I mean the deep sense of flouring that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind.”
This is a revolutionary book from an extraordinary author. Matthieu Ricard obtained a Ph.D. degree in molecular genetics before abandoning his scientific career to concentrate on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. Although the spirit of Buddhism pervades the book, he writes more from a sociological, psychological, and evidence-based perspective. This is a convincing guide that shows happiness is not just an emotion, but also a skill that can be developed. This is also one of the first books on happiness that doesn’t ignore the reality of injustice and the extent of global suffering – “we make ourselves happy by making others happy.” Each chapter provides a series of practical exercises to train the mind to respond intelligently to life’s challenges and improve emotional wellbeing.

5. Genuine Happiness: Meditation as The Path to Fulfillment
by B. Alan Wallace

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“[Meditation] is like a drilling platform from which to begin fathoming our inner natural resources.”
If you’ve ever been interested in meditation or in understanding the source of genuine happiness as described in the principles of Buddhism, then this is one of the most concise books you’ll ever read. Some years ago, I spent a month with Alan Wallace in the mountains of Thailand at a spiritual retreat and had the opportunity to examine these teachings closely in practice. Alan is recognized as an authoritative scholar on Buddhism – the Forward is written by the Dalai Lama. He is also an experienced practitioner who eloquently presents the elements of Buddhist meditation as they relate to cultivating exceptional states of mental wellbeing. Genuine happiness is not stimulus-driven but rather arises from within as the mind achieves balance. Here Alan provides clear guidelines for relaxing the body and stabilizing and clarifying the mind. Although unapologetically Buddhist, this is a meditation manual without the cultural baggage and faith based ritual. It distills the universal principles and practices for discovering the source of genuine happiness.

6. The Power of Now  by Eckhart Tolle

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“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.”
This is a masterful synthesis of the great eastern and western spiritual traditions and an urgent call to be more present in the details of our everyday lives. Tolle argues that most of us are never fully present because we believe that our happiness exists in the future. He argues that we tend to think compulsively about the future at the expense of being aware of the present moment. Once we learn to still our thoughts and observe our minds we can detach from distressing emotions and get a burst of appreciation for the present and everything around us – mindfulness. Practice, practice, practice!

7. Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative  by Ken Robinson

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“Creativity is the greatest gift of human intelligence.”
Before Ken Robinson was known around the world for his celebrated TED Talk that has been watched by more than 19 Million people, he wrote ‘Out of Our Minds.’  It’s a book about why the power of creativity matters so much. Creativity is one of those subjects that excites some and irritates others, but in this totally absorbing book Robinson calls for radical changes in the way we think about intelligence, education and human resources. Creativity is a universal talent that everyone has and this is a mind-opening, exciting guidebook to help us realize our true creative potential and foster it in our children, colleagues and communities.

8. Learned Optimism  by Martin Seligman

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“Success requires persistence, the ability to not give up in the face of failure. I believe that optimistic explanatory style is the key to persistence.”
For a book about optimism it’s ironic that it draws much of the evidence from studies on depression and helplessness. The author, distinguished psychologist Martin Seligman, spent many years clinically testing the idea of learned helplessness and reviewing the research on depression. Seligman found that the ability of some people to bounce back from setback is not due to a ‘triumph of the will’ (as we thought) or due to having some inborn greatness, but rather, the way people explained events to themselves — their ‘explanatory style.’ No, this is not a book about the endless possibilities of positive thinking or ‘whistling in the dark.’ Rather, it provides the scientific foundation for the validity of personal change as well as a blueprint for dealing with difficulties, solving problems, and recognizing opportunities that keep us moving towards accomplishing our goals. Share the approach with your children and your best friends.

9. In The Absence of God  by Sam Keen

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“Without some vision for the sacred, what will be the source of compassion, sacrifice, and mutual care, without which there can be no commonwealth.”
I first read Keen as a young guy during a period in which I was leaving the traditional belief system in which I was raised and that I once passionately loved. Keen writes with compassion for those who search for meaning and an authentic spirituality to guide them. This is his most recent book and he challenges traditional notions of religion and points to primal emotions as a way of recovering authentic spirituality and the sacred in everyday life. By appreciating emotions like wonder, gratitude, joy, grief, compassion, and hope we find ourselves again in the presence of the sacred – which we find in recognizing the beauty of the world and a passionate commitment to social justice. It’s a small book (200 pages) and an easy read, but full of big ideas for those of us who have a sense of gratitude toward our religious heritage, but search for a more inclusive and universally relevant spirituality.

10. The Leadership Challenge  by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner

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“Credibility is the foundation of leadership… If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.”
Although a book about leadership in organizations, this book made my list because of its impact in reminding me of my responsibilities towards others and myself. Leadership is about how ordinary people get extraordinary things done, not only at work, but also in life. Leaders bring out our skills, capacities and values and, as Kouzes and Posner suggest, leadership is everyone’s business. Leadership development is ultimately self-development, and the challenge is personal. What motivates you to do your best, day in and day out? What skills do you need to rise above mediocrity and resist the gravitational pull of stress? Now in its fifth edition, the book describes five leadership principles and ten actions that challenge us to become the best leader we can be. A kind of Awaken the Giant Within ’for quiet achievers who want substance and strategy and don’t like attending mass motivational rallies.