In this article, we’ll cover:
- What is Positive Psychology
- Common Positive Psychology Topics
- Personal Growth Books
- Best Books for Positive Psychology
- Best Books on Positive Psychology
The best books for positive psychology are the ones you’ll read! Seriously, this growing field of research is perfect for anyone who wants to live a more fulfilled life or help others do the same. But it’s also just that—a field of research. Many of the most comprehensive books on positive psychology are also academic.
I aim to provide a reading list that anyone can dive into. I’ll be covering some of the basic textbooks, yes, but also breezier tomes influenced by positive psychology’s body of work. Books that were written to inspire—with newbies in mind.
What is Positive Psychology
Let’s talk about what I mean by “positive psychology.” For this, we go right to the sources, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, two psychologists who wrote the very first article introducing the concept in the January 2000 issue of American Psychologist. You can read the entire article, Positive Psychology An Introduction.
In it, Seligman (considered the father of the positive psychology movement) explains that before World War II, the field of psychology was focused on treating mental illness, but it was also focused on making life more fulfilling and on nurturing talent.
After World War II, the dominant mission of the field became treating mental illness. The other two facets were somewhat forgotten. This led to a valuable body of work and the treatment of numerous disorders. However, the time has come, say the authors, to look back in the direction of human potential. “Our message is to remind our field that psychology is not just the study of pathology, weakness, and damage; it is also the study of strength and virtue.”
The Positive Psychology Center at Seligman’s home base, The Univerity of Pennsylvania, boils this down into a concise definition: Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”
Common Positive Psychology Topics
There are numerous strengths to be studied. Positive psychology books commonly dive into a few important areas including:
These themes do not represent the entire body of work. They do give you a flavor for the fascinating and uplifting topics that are now getting the full attention of psychologists, doctors, teachers, coaches, and creators around the world. Keeping these wide-ranging topics in mind, it’s important to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi that the scientific process remains at the center of the field. Much of what’s being studied can overlap with other areas such as spirituality, or even wander into self-help practices that the professors might consider fads. “It tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behavior presents to those who wish to understand it in all its complexity,” they write.
In researching this piece, happiness seemed to come up most often, with many of the other topics supporting that age-old pursuit. I’ll leave it to Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught the most popular course in Harvard history, Positive Psychology 1504, to say it best, “Happiness, not money or prestige, should be regarded as the ultimate currency—the currency by which we take the measure of our lives.”
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Personal Growth Books
Positive psychology influences books in many genres such as personal growth, finance, business, and career life. Below are a few excellent examples to kick us off. While these books do not fit directly into the positive psychology canon, they are easy, fun reads. Each one contains many of the concepts covered in the heavier tomes you’ll see deeper in our list. Most lists like this one start out with theory-based books and get into practice-based books later. I’m doing the opposite. Let’s start with taking action. If you like how it’s going, you can work your way down the list and get into all that gratifying theory once you’re fully engaged.
Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson Ph.D.
The author of Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson, is a clinical psychologist with a relatable voice that he uses throughout this book to ensure anyone can benefit. His aim: Teach you to build new neural structures in your brain to make contentment and a powerful sense of resilience the new normal.
Hanson starts off by explaining how our brains have evolved over time to treat bad experiences as more important and memorable than good ones. From there, he lays out a simple process for recognizing this phenomenon, which works against us in today’s world, and moving past it into a place where you see, appreciate and remember good experiences. With time and practice, your brain can “take in the good” and function as a refuge and the power center of calm and happiness it’s truly meant to be.
Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People by Vanessa Van Edwards
Do we all feel comfortable moving forward with the assumption that having relationships with other humans is, indeed, one of the central tenants of positive psychology? If yes, then Vanessa Van Edwards is our kooky tour guide into the land of Better Social Skills.
I love her book. She starts, very briefly, with interesting studies. Then she uses them to run real-life experiments. Finally, she distills her data down into bite-sized chunks we can all easily try for ourselves. Her writing voice is super-relatable and she peppers funny stories throughout her well-organized chapters.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
Cal Newport does something so radical in Deep Work that I want to hug his book. He enables us to concentrate again. He even cites a study on flow by Csikszentmihalyi, revealing that deep work is a gateway to the flow state. The flow state makes us happier. “To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction,” he writes.
Next, he really goes for it, proving that an alarming number of digital tools we use voluntarily (social media) or prescriptively for work (email, messenger tools) are designed to distract. Each one robs time and attention from our happiness-producing deep work. Maybe you already know this. You’ll do something about it after reading Newport. Namely, you’ll try some of his incredibly practical rules to reclaim your mental powers and feel better.
Best Books for Positive Psychology
Our next set of books focus on the application of positive psychology to your own life, and the lives of those around you. This set gets into the theory on the way to helping you put your newfound knowledge to work.
The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky
Here we have a book that breaks down the elements of what makes us happy. It is backed by science, but it’s also a an easy-to-use workbook. Imagine if in school you’d had a class on finding and sustaining joy (and why isn’t this a class, by the way)? This could be the textbook.
From The New York Review of Books: “Lyubomirsky’s central point is clear: a significant portion of what is called happiness is up for grabs. Taking some pages out of the positive psychology playbook, she coaches readers on how to snag it.”
Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton
The full title of this one is “Now, Discover Your Strengths: The revolutionary Gallup program that shows you how to develop your unique talents and strengths.” And it doesn’t disappoint. The authors present 34 different, specific human talents they’ve identified based on a Gallup survey of millions of people who have found success in their careers.
They don’t stop there. With the 20th anniversary edition of “Now, Discover Your Strengths” comes an access code to the Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment. This will help any reader find, name and develop your own unique talents. Once there, you can use insights in the book to turn those talents to full-blown strengths! This is a simple but mightly concept in positive psychology: you can build your life around developing your strengths instead of fixing your weaknesses.
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers, Ph.D.
I say the title phrase of this book to my kids all the time. I actually use the version we learned in Thomas and Friends: Tale of the Brave. “Being brave isn’t the same as not feeling scared. Being brave is about what you do even when you feel scared.” But still.
The full title of this book conveys the same message, updated for grown ups, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway®: Dynamic techniques for turning Fear, Indecision and Anger into Power, Action and Love.”
The glowing recommendation from social psychologist Dr. Kinga Mnich sold me on this book. She writes, “I love this book. I have used so many of Susan Jeffers’s techniques on myself and my clients.” Real case studies back up Jeffer’s ideas. The language is accessible.
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
Called “A pop-psych smash” by The New Yorker, Grit is a journalistic book that uses tons of storytelling and real-world examples to bring scientific principles to life. Through her interviews with highly-successful people in stressful situations ranging from the National Spelling Bee to coaching in the NBA, Duckworth uncovers a simple truth. Persistent effort matters more than talent. It probably comes as no surprise that Duckworth is a professor at Seligman’s home base, The University of Pennsylvania. She runs her own Character Lab, studying non-IQ competencies including grit and self-control.
I love the way People’s review put it: “It really isn’t talent but practice—along with passion—that makes perfect, explains psychologist Duckworth in this illuminating book. Inspiration for non-geniuses everywhere.” This book is full of science and inspiration that will get you thinking about how you, and if you are a parent, your kids, react to setbacks and cultivate long-term commitment.
Best Books on Positive Psychology
We have arrived. The books below will help you learn about positive psychology itself. With these, you will dive more deeply into theory and practice.
Positive Psychology In a Nutshell: The Science of Happiness by Dr. Ilona Boniwell
The title says it all. This book is both info-packed and reader-friendly. It will introduce you to the field of positive psychology and give you some actionable steps to apply the basic principles to your own life.
“Positive Psychology in a Nutshell” is an excellent starting point and a top recommendation of Seph Fontane Pennock, founder of PositivePsychology.com, a resource for professionals interested in using positive psychology. “We recommend this book for absolute beginners because it describes positive psychology as it is rather than attempting to influence future research directions, so it is an excellent way to just learn about the field,” he writes.
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt
In “The Happiness Hypothesis” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt takes us along on a journey to examine ten great ideas from past civilizations through his scientific lens. He puts each to the test. Do modern-day studies align with adages we’ve all heard many times before? He even tackles The Golden Rule.
This book is a comprehensive introduction to positive psychology for anyone who takes a more philosophical view of things, while also embracing scientific research. Best of all, it’s an engrossing read. As June Sawyers of Booklist said, “Fascinating stuff, accessibly expressed.”
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
In this classic, Csikszentmihalyi dives deep into the branch of positive psychology known as Flow. He refers to Flow as a “total involvement with life.” Just consider that phrase for a second.
Seems pretty damn important, right? That’s why it’s here. Being able to recognize that feeling of complete engagement, and all the good it does for us, means we can invite more of it into our lives. And from there, the possibilities are endless.
Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being by Martin Seligman
Fifteen years after pioneering the positive psychology movement, Seligman took a step back, looked at all that had been learned, and refined what well-being means for all of us, using five pillars:
In its pages, you’ll find research and application ideas for each pillar. While this book is often used as a textbook in positive psychology courses, it is also written for a wider audience and provides a sweeping overview that is both understandable and deep.