The best books to help you find meaning in your life

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been interested in purpose and meaning since I snuck into a high school philosophy class when I was 10 years old. Since then, I have not only worked on my own quest for meaning in my life but also helped dozens of others through these types of questions as an executive coach and business leader. I believe that having an answer to the question “why am I here?” is the crucial ingredient to living a happy and fulfilled life, and I’ve been working for years to distill all that I have learned on the subject into a useable and accessible collection of insights.


I wrote...

Intention: The Surprising Psychology of High Performers

By Mike James Ross, Sekoul Theodor Krastev, Dan Pilat

Book cover of Intention: The Surprising Psychology of High Performers

What is my book about?

We’re stuck. Stuck to the couch. Stuck scrolling. Stuck at work. Stuck in worn-out paths of habitual action. Stuck in patterns and echo chambers of thought. Stuck in carefully curated lives where we’ve traded our agency for endless comforts that wrap us in existential angst.

This book is a practical guide to unsticking yourself and infusing purpose into your life in a deliberate and evidence-based way. Through a combination of inspiring stories about unlikely high performers and evidence from the bleeding edge of behavioral science, philosophy, leadership theory, and psychology, Intention presents you with a toolkit for learning five very trainable skills to help you realize your potential and live at your best.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living

Mike James Ross Why did I love this book?

This is a little-known book that delves deeper and more effectively into the challenges of defining oneself than any other book I have read.

The book is an attempt by a famous critical theorist to speak to the common person who is struggling with the various pieces of advice and guidance that they receive from different sources. It is more complex and difficult than the others on the list, but I got so much out of it. 

By Mari Ruti,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Call of Character as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Should we feel inadequate when we fail to be healthy, balanced, and well-adjusted? Is it realistic or even desirable to strive for such an existential equilibrium? Condemning our current cultural obsession with cheerfulness and "positive thinking," Mari Ruti calls for a resurrection of character that honors our more eccentric frequencies and argues that sometimes a tormented and anxiety-ridden life can also be rewarding. Ruti critiques the search for personal meaning and pragmatic attempts to normalize human beings' unruly and idiosyncratic natures. Exposing the tragic banality of a happy life commonly lived, she instead emphasizes the advantages of a lopsided life…


Book cover of Man's Search for Himself

Mike James Ross Why did I love this book?

May’s book was a game-changer for me. His focus on the challenge and importance of finding meaning in your life helped me to see how this is a worthwhile endeavor and provided me with a wonderful guide to my own exploration of the topic for myself.

Despite having been written in the 1950s, it is as relevant today as it was then. Anxiety and a sense of “what is the point of it all” have only increased in the last 70(!) years, and May’s clear writing and stories really spoke to me. 

By Rollo May,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Man's Search for Himself as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Book cover of Existentialism Is a Humanism

Mike James Ross Why did I love this book?

This is an amazing and brief explanation of what existentialism is and why it should matter to anyone looking for meaning in their life.

I love that Satre demystifies his philosophy, making it accessible and understandable to anyone. The book is actually the transcription of a lecture he gave, so it is wonderfully readable and full of examples and situations that I learned a lot from.

He also defends existentialism from some of its common critiques, which makes the book even more useful as an introduction. Many of my questions were answered here!

By Jean-Paul Sartre, Carol Macomber (translator),

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Existentialism Is a Humanism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It was to correct common misconceptions about his thought that Jean-Paul Sartre, the most dominent European intellectual of the post-World War II decades, accepted an invitation to speak on October 29, 1945, at the Club Maintenant in Paris. The unstated objective of his lecture ("Existentialism Is a Humanism") was to expound his philosophy as a form of "existentialism," a term much bandied about at the time. Sartre asserted that existentialism was essentially a doctrine for philosophers, though, ironically, he was about to make it accessible to a general audience. The published text of his lecture quickly became one of the…


Book cover of The Mandarins

Mike James Ross Why did I love this book?

What I love about The Mandarins is that in describing the life of de Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus and their contemporaries in Paris at the end of the Second World War, it provided me with greater insight into how an existentialist approach to meaning in life can be put into practice.

I also really enjoyed the book for the quality of its writing and its interesting plot. It is fiction, but so close to what actually happened as to almost be history.  

By Simone de Beauvoir,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mandarins as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In her most famous novel, The Mandarins, Simone de Beauvoir takes an unflinching look at Parisian intellectual society at the end of World War II. In fictionally relating the stories of those around her - Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, Nelson Algren - de Beauvoir dissects the emotional and philosophical currents of her time. At once an engrossing drama and an intriguing political tale, The Mandarins is the emotional odyssey of a woman torn between her inner desires and her public life. "Much more than a roman a clef . . . a moving and engrossing novel." - New…


Book cover of A Confession

Mike James Ross Why did I love this book?

What amazes me about A Confession is that here is Tolstoy, one of the giants of world literature, at the top of his game, lamenting that there is no meaning to his life. This made me realize that there is no one immune from this feeling of purposelessness and that there are no prizes, accolades, awards, or other external things that will prevent you from feeling existential angst.

The book also shows how Tolstoy worked through his crisis, and although I do not agree with his conclusions, the path that he takes in the book was very useful for me in my own journey to meaning. 

By Leo Tolstoy, Aylmer Maude (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Confession as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Despite having written War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, at the age of 51, looked back on his life and considered it a meaningless, regrettable failure. A Confession provides insight into the great Russian writer's movement from the pursuit of aesthetic ideals toward matters of religious and philosophical consequence.
Authentic and genuinely moving, this memoir of midlife spiritual crisis was first distributed in 1872 and marked a turning point in the author's career as a writer: in subsequent years, Tolstoy would write almost exclusively about religious life, especially devotion among the peasantry.
Generations of readers have been inspired…


You might also like...

Book cover of Leora's Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II

Joy Neal Kidney Author Of What Leora Never Knew: A Granddaughter's Quest for Answers

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm the oldest granddaughter of Leora, who lost three sons during WWII. To learn what happened to them, I studied casualty and missing aircraft reports, missions reports, and read unit histories. I’ve corresponded with veterans who knew one of the brothers, who witnessed the bomber hit the water off New Guinea, and who accompanied one brother’s body home. I’m still in contact with the family members of two crew members on the bomber. The companion book, Leora’s Letters, is the family story of the five Wilson brothers who served, but only two came home.

Joy's book list on research of World War II casualties

What is my book about?

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one; all five sons were serving their country in the military–two in the Navy and three as Army Air Force pilots.

Only two sons came home.

Leora’s Letters is the compelling true account of a woman whose most tender hopes were disrupted by great losses. Yet she lived out four more decades with hope and resilience.

By Joy Neal Kidney, Robin Grunder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Leora's Letters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one, all five sons were serving their country in the military. The oldest son re-enlisted in the Navy. The younger three became U.S. Army Air Force pilots. As the family optimist, Leora wrote hundreds of letters, among all her regular chores, dispensing news and keeping up the morale of the…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in life satisfaction, existential philosophy, and self-perception?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about life satisfaction, existential philosophy, and self-perception.

Life Satisfaction Explore 211 books about life satisfaction
Existential Philosophy Explore 12 books about existential philosophy
Self-Perception Explore 30 books about self-perception