The best books on living well together

Niki Harré Author Of Psychology for a Better World: Working with People to Save the Planet
By Niki Harré

Who am I?

As a psychologist with environmental interests people often ask me about hope. It goes something like this: “Climate change is pushing us toward disaster! What is your source of hope?”  I finally figured out that I only have one source of hope. It is that we, as people, are able to work together just well enough to keep it all afloat. There’s a lot involved in working together – learning to listen with compassion, run good meetings, empower everyone to give of their best, and rebuild trust when it starts to break down. I’ve been researching these topics in community settings for the past 15 years. 


I wrote...

Psychology for a Better World: Working with People to Save the Planet

By Niki Harré,

Book cover of Psychology for a Better World: Working with People to Save the Planet

What is my book about?

Psychology for a Better World is for people who believe it is worth trying to make a world in which both ourselves and the ecological systems we are part of can flourish. It is based on the latest research in psychology and is jam-packed with action strategies. It offers new ways to think about how people interact in social settings, and how the same characteristics that keep us hooked into unsustainable practices can be used to move us forward. It includes a guide to help you analyse what you can do to contribute to a better world while simultaneously increasing your personal wellbeing.

Our intuitive approaches of arguing more aggressively with our perceived opponents, and telling others how wrong they are, are often not effective ways to get lasting behavioural change. Instead, Niki provides a wide range of evidence to show that boosting positive emotions, role modelling, understanding the power and dynamics of identity, and moral context all need to be authentically applied if we are to be effective change agents.

The books I picked & why

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Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology

By Andreas Weber,

Book cover of Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology

Why this book?

This book stopped me being scared of death – well almost. It is a wonderful read about how we are embodied creatures of planet Earth. Our very being is relationship. Take breathing for example. As you sit there you breathe in oxygen, nitrogen, and a little carbon dioxide. When you breathe out you release extra carbon dioxide – with that carbon coming from your body itself. You gift a little of your being in exchange for the oxygen - fragments that may end up in that tree outside your window. Once we understand that exchange is the essence of life, it helps us live well on our shared planet. As Weber explains, joy comes when we sense that life is increasing – for us and for others.

Our task then becomes to nurture life – the creative striving of all living things to become themselves and connect with others. Weber describes what I feel to be my foundational narrative – that we are all at home in this world, and working together is what matters most. 

Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology

By Andreas Weber,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Nautilus Award Gold Medal Winner, Ecology & Environment

In Matter and Desire, internationally renowned biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber rewrites ecology as a tender practice of forging relationships, of yearning for connections, and of expressing these desires through our bodies. Being alive is an erotic process-constantly transforming the self through contact with others, desiring ever more life.

In clever and surprising ways, Weber recognizes that love-the impulse to establish connections, to intermingle, to weave our existence poetically together with that of other beings-is a foundational principle of reality. The fact that we disregard this principle lies at the core of…


The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

By Karen Armstrong,

Book cover of The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

Why this book?

The Spiral Staircase is the book I’ve read the most number of times as an adult. It is the autobiography of Karen Armstrong who was a Catholic nun for six years in the 1960s in the UK. The book picks up after she leaves her convent and is studying English literature at Oxford University. She is also suffering from mysterious episodes of fainting and memory loss, and so we are taken into her struggles with both academia and the psychiatry of the 1970s. She then spirals through other careers and eventually returns to God – not now as a person of faith but as a writer about religion – its beauty and its tension.

This is perhaps the most honest book I’ve read, as it unflinchingly describes the experience of making terrible mistakes – as we almost all do – without blame or self-flagellation. Karen Armstrong learns, in the end, that it is in focusing on compassion to the other that we become most truly ourselves.  

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

By Karen Armstrong,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • The New York Times bestselling author of A History of God delivers the gripping, inspirational story about her own search for God.  

“A story about becoming human, being recognized, finally recognizing oneself…. It fills the reader with hope.” —The Washington Post Book World

In 1962, at age seventeen, Karen Armstrong entered a convent, eager to meet God. After seven brutally unhappy years as a nun, she left her order to pursue English literature at Oxford. But convent life had profoundly altered her, and coping with the outside world and her expiring faith proved to be excruciating. Her…


Finite and Infinite Games

By James Carse,

Book cover of Finite and Infinite Games

Why this book?

After the first edition of Psychology for a Better World was published, I was on the search for a symbol or metaphor to capture the drive of so many people to contribute to the common good. It needed to be something that worked in secular settings and would resonate with the big social movements for the environment, justice, and wellbeing. I heard Carse speak about the infinite game on a podcast and immediately bought his book.

The notion is simple – in life, there are at least two kinds of games: finite games in which the object is to win, and the infinite game in which the object is to keep the game in play. That is it, I thought, life is about keeping the game in play. You don’t have to believe anything, but if you want, you can join the infinite game. Carse describes how these games play out in many different contexts and life experiences.

Finite and Infinite Games

By James Carse,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Finite and Infinite Games as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"There are at least two kinds of games," states James P. Carse as he begins this extraordinary book. "One could be called finite; the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play."

Finite games are the familiar contests of everyday life; they are played in order to be won, which is when they end. But infinite games are more mysterious. Their object is not winning, but ensuring the continuation of play. The rules may change, the boundaries may change, even the participants may change-as long as…


Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed

By Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, Michael Patton

Book cover of Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed

Why this book?

This was the book that introduced me to complex systems. Many people have become familiar with complex systems in recent years as we’ve been exposed to talk of feedback loops and probability through discussions on climate change. Little inputs can make a big difference and big inputs sometimes collapse under the weight of their own inertia. This book has one of those titles that work their way into your imagination – getting to maybe?

It does not suggest you set goals and work, head down, towards your personal mission. It suggests that you take a look around, gather with others, invite ideas based on people’s passions, and get started. It is all about experimenting and learning together. Then, maybe, something will good will happen. The book offers plenty of inspiring examples of significant social change as a result of genuine innovation and listening to many voices.

Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed

By Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, Michael Patton

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Getting to Maybe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A practical, inspirational, revolutionary guide to social innovation

Many of us have a deep desire to make the world around us a better place. But often our good intentions are undermined by the fear that we are so insignificant in the big scheme of things that nothing we can do will actually help feed the world’s hungry, fix the damage of a Hurricane Katrina or even get a healthy lunch program up and running in the local school. We tend to think that great social change is the province of heroes – an intimidating view of reality that keeps ordinary…


Community: The Structure of Belonging

By Peter Block,

Book cover of Community: The Structure of Belonging

Why this book?

This book describes what it takes to invite people into a conversation that leads to new ways of being together. Block is full of practical wisdom. For example, he discusses the importance of the physical setting – which is why I sometimes spend hours preparing for what a meeting will look and feel like. Our aim, he writes, is for people “to feel as if [they] came to the right place and are affirmed for that choice”. To do this, we need to gather everyone in – bringing them and their gifts to the centre of the process. Like my other recommendations, Block has huge optimism for what people can do when treated well.

Community: The Structure of Belonging

By Peter Block,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

We need our neighbors and community to stay healthy, produce jobs, raise our children, and care for those on the margin. Institutions and professional services have reached their limit of their ability to help us.

The consumer society tells us that we are insufficient and that we must purchase what we need from specialists and systems outside the community. We have become consumers and clients, not citizens and neighbors. John McKnight and Peter Block show that we have the capacity to find real and sustainable satisfaction right in our neighborhood and community.

This book reports on voluntary, self-organizing structures that…


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