We learn psychology to understand how the mind works and why we behave the way we do. To change our thinking, psychology books come in handy. I am so interested in psychology I read almost every psychology book I come across. I’ve read many, including college textbooks, but here are some psychology books that I find impactful so far.
The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-control by Walter Mischel
Mischel conducted the marshmallow test by placing 4-year-olds in a room and offering them marshmallows (among other treats). Would you like a marshmallow now, or two later? He left the kids in the room with a marshmallow right in front of them. If they decided to have the marshmallow, they would ring a bell and he would come in and offer the marshmallow. If they chose to have two later, they would wait, for an unknown amount of time until the researcher returned and offered two marshmallows. Of course for the kids, it took a lot of self-control. They didn’t know how long the researcher would be gone for!
This test measures the ability to delay gratification. When you delay gratification, you become more self-controlled and develop will power which will have you achieve success in many areas. Resisting temptation rather than succumbing to short term gratification indicates a capacity for great achievements. Self-control applies in our daily life more so I have observed this when studying procrastination. It seems that the main reason we procrastinate is that we fail at delaying gratification. Since the task we should be performing does not make us feel good, we choose to feel good now by avoiding the task, rather than feeling good later which we would if we took on the task, even when it is unpleasant.
The marshmallow test explains how we need self-control to live a happier life. Imagine how life would be if you always sought to seek gratification. If you gave in to every temptation to get snooze and sleep for an extra hour or go catch up with friends instead of going to work. Self-control keeps us responsible and productive.
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed people that seem to get a lot in life, not just creative professionals but surgeons and business leaders as well. They all described a similar sensation that they go through whereby they are deeply engaged in an activity where they lose a sense of them and everything seems to come to them with ease. This is termed as the state of flow.
Flow occurs when the challenge of the activity matches your skill. If a task is doable but demands your concentration. It is a state of mind in which is totally focused, feel a sense of serenity, timelessness and inner clarity. Flow gives you increased happiness and productivity. You gain so much satisfaction with working on purpose. In a state of flow, work seems fun and easy, you have a goal or purpose and you can measure progress.
A state of flow occurs when there is a balance between easy and difficult. It happens when the task you are taking on is not easy enough to cause boredom but difficult enough to require effort and engagement. To increase flow, you need to reduce distractions so you can enhance concentration. Curiosity, grit, and persistence will help you enter flow. Engaging in an activity that we love and enjoy and yet it challenges our skills, we become absorbed in that activity and achieve a state of flow.
In his book, Emotional Intelligence which I discuss later, Goleman shows that flow is the delicate balance between anxiety and boredom. A balance of ability and difficulty is what leads to flow. If your skills are not up to the task, you develop anxiety. If the task is too easy for your set of skills, this leads to boredom. Flow happens at the balance of these two scenarios.
Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman
Seligman conducted an experiment that involved dogs. He locked dogs in a cage and administered electric shocks. The cages were locked so the dogs didn’t have the option of getting away. Other dogs were put in a cage that was open and they could get away when they wanted. When given an electric shock, the locked-in dogs just stayed there and whimpered until the pain stopped. Even when the door of their cage was opened, dogs that initially didn’t have the option of getting away still stayed there and took in the shock until it stopped. They developed helplessness. However, for dogs that they knew they had the option of getting away, they were quick to bolt when the shock was administered.
As seen in the experiment (which I really don’t like because I love dogs), learned helplessness is a thing. You can learn to be helpless when you see that there is no way out of your troubles. Learned helplessness leads to depression as when faced with a tough time, a person sees that there is no way out of their situation. The same way you can learn to be helpless is the same way you can learn to be positive, optimistic and happy. You have to cultivate and learn to be positive and optimistic. Optimists achieve more, are healthier and live a happier life. Optimism shows that situations are not permanent. You think that whatever is going on with your life is just one wrong thing and it doesn’t define life in general. You need balance since too much optimism, what I call blind optimism can make you delusional. You need to be realistic. You should be optimistic but not to the point of being unrealistic.
Learned helplessness is the spiral acquisition of pessimistic attitudes in times of low moments such as illness and depression. He shows that focusing on positive strengths rather than focusing on negative weaknesses is the key to happiness. Seligman is one of the founding fathers of modern positive psychology stating that psychology should offer more than just counseling.
Sometime back, I was participating in an online forum and asked why abused women didn’t just walk out of that relationship. A domestic abuse survivor took her time to explain to me that it is not as easy as it may seem from the outsider perspective. A good number of abuse victims develop learned helplessness. Their mind doesn’t show the option of leaving and instead, they sit and take the abuse until it stops. It takes intervention for them to start developing optimism such that they see options and realize that the situation can be different.
Originals: How non-conformists move the world by Adam Grant
Psychologist Adam Grant takes on to study non-conformists, or originals and see what they do differently to achieve success. This book addresses everyday topics such as creativity and productivity, entrepreneurship and risk-taking, self-doubt and fear among others, but from the perspective of a psychologist. This perspective allows us to see more of things than what is easily presented to us. For example, all we read about is how procrastination is bad for productivity, which is true, and this can lead us to conclude that procrastination, in essence, is a terrible thing. Adam Grant shows how procrastination sometimes can be a good thing. Creatives, or non-conformists, when they procrastinate they end up with better outcomes than they would have if they had completed the task as per the plan. Procrastinating something that we have already started allows us to churn it in our mind for a while and as a result, we produce something better.
Grant also offers a different perspective on fear and self-doubt. Think about it, all we read about is how to overcome fear to achieve our dreams. Everyone would like to have that secret equation or concoction to overcome fear and go for what they want. A different perspective to fear is that when you are afraid, you prepare more. Say you required to give a talk or presentation in an auditorium. Fear and self-doubt make you imagine worst-case scenarios. You could get to the podium and fall or be at loss for words. You even start having nightmares about having a wardrobe malfunction in front of the podium. This fear can be gut-wrenching, but it helps you prepare. It helps you cover all angles, to reciting your speech to making sure you have zipped up and this makes you make a better presentation. I recommend this book to everyone from creatives to business people who have the intention to make something out of themselves and their societies.
Grit: The power of passion and resilience by Angela Duckworth
Angela Duckworth is a psychologist that studies grit, which is passion combined with persistence. From her research, which correlates with that of other authors, talent enough is not sufficient. People that succeed in their area have grit. They put in the effort, they are passionate about what they do, and they define their goals and persist on them over a long period of time.
I read this book just when I needed it. I was having a tough time deciding on the way forward on my career. I thought if I was talented in different areas I could pursue all of them. I also thought that I could pick a line and run with it as long as it was lucrative even if I wasn’t passionate about it. It showed me the importance of narrowing down your goals so that you choose one, or a few to persist on. The book also showed me that effort counted twice and talent and intelligence were not sufficient to lead to success.
Most importantly, this book taught me that persistence meant staying on a practice for a long time. I can’t work on something for a year and then move on saying I persisted long enough. It would require long hours and deliberate practice. I also learned that grit is built, and just because you were not born gritty doesn’t mean you are done for. You can develop grit. Grit can be grown.
Mindset: The new psychology of success by Carol Dweck
You know that book that really changes your line of thinking and gives your mind a 180-degree turn? This was it for me. I thought that smart and talented people had their life all sorted out. They didn’t have to try so hard at anything because they were smart and talented. I thought a talented musician had just to pick a guitar and drop an awesome album. I thought a smart person could just climb the corporate ladder and ace being an excellent CEO. In the same line of thinking, I thought that people who were not born so smart were done for. No matter how hard they worked, they wouldn’t be as good as the smart ones. So you can imagine when Carol Dweck described people with a fixed mindset and I was getting embarrassed the more I read because she was talking about me.
People with a fixed mindset think that ability is fixed. They think that people without natural-born ability cannot improve and people with natural-born ability can get whatever they want, without having to work hard for it. People with a fixed mindset don’t take failure well because they believe they shouldn’t be failing at all, I mean, they are so smart. A fixed mindset makes your ego hurt when you fail or when you are challenged since you believe you should know it all. On the other hand, having a growth mindset helps you a welcome failure. It helps you be open to learning and you don’t ever test as an opportunity to prove how good you are, but an opportunity to learn something you didn’t know. I recommend this book as Dr. Carol Dweck presents how mindsets set apart great leaders from ordinary leaders, great sports people to failed ones, and even great relationships and dysfunctional ones.
Peak: How all of us can achieve extraordiary things
A Hungarian psychologist decided to make chess grandmasters from his children. All three of them, trained in chess from when they were babies, ended up becoming global chess masters. As this story shows, you can learn anything you want to, through deliberate practice.
Anders Ericsson is a Swedish psychologist and an expert in deliberate practice. In this book, he proves that people are not born with more talent, but they adapt. Ability is more of an adaptability, rather than a born trait. People tap into their abilities to be better and the people who achieve great success in their field have tapped into their abilities.
This is achieved through deliberate practice which is purposeful practice. For deliberate practice to take place, you must have a clear goal, then break it down into smaller goals. You must focus, dedicate yourself to the task at hand with no distraction. Deliberate practice also works when you get immediate feedback, so you know how well you did and where you can improve. To put deliberate practice into action, you have to get out of your comfort zone to stretch your mind further. Most importantly, you must have mental representation which is making predictions based on your past experiences. You use your past failures to learn to be better. Have passion and practice deliberately.
If you believe that only certain people with certain talents can achieve certain things, then I recommend this book for you. Ericsson shows how one can learn martial arts even after 50, and become a golf pro after 40. Simply put, if you start to practice on something you want to be better or great at, you can do so.
The body keeps score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
This Dutch Psychiatrist shows how your past traumas affect your brain, body, and mind today. He especially shows how burying past traumas take a toll on our life. The main aim of this book is to bring an understanding of the effects that trauma has on us and propose effective strategies and therapy that can be used to help people recover from trauma and live functional lives. A lot of the problems we put ourselves through are a result of childhood trauma. For example, people who become addicted to drugs or alcohol have a history of childhood trauma. He proposes strategies, such as Yoga, can help detoxify the body and mind as opposed to relying on drugs to heal from trauma. This book can be a bit too technical and more inclined towards medicine but it is a great read.
Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ by Daniel Goleman
Emotions are a significant part of psychology. So, when Daniel Goleman dedicates a whole book to help us manage emotions, it sure is a huge contribution to psychology. Daniel Goleman covers how we can be effective at managing our emotions such as anger, sadness, anxiety, and moods as well. He looked at developing self-awareness which is the basis of emotional intelligence. By becoming self-aware, we learn to observe and understand our emotions as they take place, and from such a point of understanding, we can manage them.
Goleman further discusses self-regulation. How well can we regulate ourselves and our emotions? Where does self-control come in? What happens when you get angry? Do you do or say something that you will regret later, or do you get hold of yourself and calm down before you take action. Emotions such as anxiety are common today and if we don’t manage our anxieties, we will never get anything done. Anything new and uncertain gives us anxiety, and if you want to succeed you must be always be trying new things. How can we manage it so that we are not always crippled by our anxieties?
Further, Goleman discusses how emotional intelligence helps us in forming relationships. We all have a role to play in a relationship. What role do you play in your relationship? How can you improve your emotional intelligence so you can become a better partner in a relationship? Goleman looks at empathy and social intelligence and how we can master them so as to understand others and relate better with them. I recommend that you try out this book to take better control of your emotions.
Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain
If you are an introvert, read this! If you are an extrovert, read this! If you live and work with introverts, read this! Susan Cain started the Quiet Revolution by shedding light on how our societies have undervalued introverts for the longest time. It’s always assumed that charismatic, witty and sociable individuals make better leaders, friends, partners and the like. People who are soft-spoken, quiet, sometimes even neurotic and don’t attract attention to themselves are hardly ever listened to. They are often dismissed in favor of the loud ones in meetings and group discussions. Susan Cain, an introvert, shows that introverts have more to say, and sometimes even better things to say and should be given more chances.
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