The Best Books On The Meaning And Purpose Of Life

The Books I Picked & Why

The Denial of Death

By Ernest Becker

The Denial of Death

Why this book?

This book is a landmark in the fields of existential and depth psychology. It’s a recasting of psychoanalysis based especially on the existential writings of Otto Rank and Soren Kierkegaard and gives us one of the most penetrating theories of both human creativity and human destructiveness extant. As contemporary social psychological research indicates, the denial of death (and death anxiety) tends to be at the root of individual and collective efforts to buffer such vulnerabilities, such as mass movements, dogmatism, and even many of the structures we call “culture.” By contrast, this research suggests that the encounter with and integration of death anxiety tends to promote greater humility, tolerance of uncertainty, and awe-inspiring forms of creativity.  My first book The Paradoxical Self (1990/1999) was based on Becker’s masterwork, and it has profoundly influenced all my subsequent writings.


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The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

By William James

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

Why this book?

This is a breakthrough book featuring in-depth, profound testimonials about the meaning, value, and experience of religious and spiritual states. James digs deep in this masterwork to show that religious and spiritual experiences can be life-transforming and extraordinarily valuable to the evolution of both individuals and societies. He also does not shy away from the potential shadow sides of these experiences, and argues in the end that those religious and spiritual experiences that engage the paradoxes of our condition—our smallness and fragility as well as our greatness and capacity for transcendence, appear to be the among the most sustaining and enriching experiences that can be acquired.


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The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness

By R.D. Laing

The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness

Why this book?

This book comprises one of the most illuminating and intimate descriptions of what it means to be labeled schizophrenic in contemporary society. Laing’s rich qualitative description of the nature, course, and first-hand accounts of schizophrenia and related psychoses has not in my experience been matched, and in fact, has been severely and tragically overlooked in the headlong leap into drugging and re-conditioning as distinct from inquiring about and attempting to understand some of our most troubled individuals. Laing’s humanistic “treatment” of such individuals has also been sacrificed in the 40 or so years since his pioneering “safe houses” that provided intimate relational alternatives to conventional psychiatric settings.


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The Courage to Be

By Paul Tillich

The Courage to Be

Why this book?

Tillich’s work is foundational for any “mystery-based” religiosity, or to put it another way, “awe-based” spirituality, and The Courage to Be is one of his most accessible and popular works. The Courage to Be, which influenced generations of humanistic and existential-oriented thinkers and therapists is about the willingness to face the anxieties of existence in the service of maximal participation in the life-space we are granted. It is all about boldness and risk-taking, with full awareness of limitation and fragility, to meet the demands of creative participation in love and work. 


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The Great Gatsby

By F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby

Why this book?

In my view (and that of wonderful mentors, like Rollo May), this book is the great American novel, until proven otherwise. The book captures both the wonder and possibility of our vivacious country, while at the same time, pulling no punches about our “shadow” side.  It’s all here—ambition, boldness, the breaking into fresh terrain, romance; but also and equally, greed, bigotry, lust, and disillusionment.  The book also covers an underappreciated shadow side—“carelessness.”  Poignantly, the work shows that “careless” people, such as Nick and Daisy (as well as Gatsby at points) are the result of a too often corrupt and fear-driven system, that has such promise and potential for a more life-affirming and flourishing world.


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