The best books on navigating the road to the good life

Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson Author Of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts
By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Who are we?

We are both listed among the “50 Most Influential Living Psychologists in the World” –which we guess makes us at least modestly expert in our field! Our best-selling book Mistakes Were Made (but not by ME): Why we justify bad decisions, foolish beliefs, and hurtful acts, reflects our combined areas of expertise and research. Social psychology is the field of psychology that examines the power of the situation and of other people in influencing our thoughts, behavior, and beliefs—and we are passionate about the contributions of our profession to understanding, and even changing, the apparently irrational habits of humanity. For us, learning to admit mistakes and then learning how not to repeat them are central skills in navigating the road of life. That’s why we welcome this opportunity to recommend books that we believe will help people do just that.

We wrote...

Book cover of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

What is our book about?

When we make mistakes, cling to outdated attitudes, or mistreat other people, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so, unconsciously, we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right—a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong. Backed by decades of research, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) offers a fascinating explanation of self-justification—how it works, the damage it can cause, and how we can overcome it. Extensively updated, this third edition has many relevant and revealing examples, including the application of dissonance theory to divisive social issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement and “he said/she said” claims. It also features a new chapter that illuminates how cognitive dissonance is playing a role in the currently polarized political scene, changing the nation’s values and putting democracy itself at risk. 

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

The books we picked & why

Stumbling on Happiness

By Daniel Gilbert,

Book cover of Stumbling on Happiness

Why did I love this book?

Most people take the Declaration of Independence’s assurance that we are all entitled to the “pursuit of happiness” literally, and off they go, pursuing it in all directions. But do they capture it? Dan Gilbert weaves the scientific research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and behavioral economics into an engrossing story of why we humans are so bad at predicting what makes us happy—or miserable, for that matter. After the first flush of excitement, why doesn’t winning the lottery make people happier? After the first shock of disappointment, why doesn’t failing to get into the college of their dreams make students more miserable? The answers will surprise you and speak to our human adaptability. This book is not a “how-to” pursue or achieve happiness, but by helping us understand our own emotional thermostats, Gilbert gives us something more valuable: showing how resilient humans are at surviving disappointments and even disasters.

By Daniel Gilbert,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Stumbling on Happiness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bringing to life scientific research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and behavioral economics, this bestselling book reveals what scientists have discovered about the uniquely human ability to imagine the future, and about our capacity to predict how much we will like it when we get there. 

• Why are lovers quicker to forgive their partners for infidelity than for leaving dirty dishes in the sink?

• Why will sighted people pay more to avoid going blind than blind people will pay to regain their sight?

• Why do dining companions insist on ordering different meals instead of getting what they…

Book cover of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Why did I love this book?

When Neil Postman wrote this book in 1985, few realized how brilliantly it would predict our present media-saturated times. Postman foresaw how the blurring of news and entertainment would eventually turn politics into theater; how the allure of quick and sensational news bites would diminish our ability to focus on serious, sustained issues; how glitzy if appealing entertainments would shrink our attention spans; and, most dangerous of all, how the immersion in “amusements,” a seemingly benign and enjoyable process, would have dire consequences for human happiness, well-being, education, journalism, and politics. We highly recommend this book because navigating the road to the good life means knowing when and how to control our amusements instead of letting them control us.

By Neil Postman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Amusing Ourselves to Death as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What happens when media and politics become forms of entertainment? As our world begins to look more and more like Orwell's 1984, Neil's Postman's essential guide to the modern media is more relevant than ever.

"It's unlikely that Trump has ever read Amusing Ourselves to Death, but his ascent would not have surprised Postman.” -CNN

Originally published in 1985, Neil Postman’s groundbreaking polemic about the corrosive effects of television on our politics and public discourse has been hailed as a twenty-first-century book published in the twentieth century. Now, with television joined by more sophisticated electronic media—from the Internet to cell…

Book cover of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

Why did I love this book?

This book offers an overarching analysis of good ideas gone wrong—across the political spectrum. Among young people, rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are rising, and that was before the pandemic. Liberals and conservatives alike are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to expose themselves to ideas from the “other side,” taking cover in shouting down the opposition with the justifications of the righteous. Between the rising prevalence of censorship and self-censorship on one hand, and the rising incidence of hate speech and hate crimes on the other, how do we navigate? Law professor Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt examine the social trends that have led to today’s polarization. These include overcontrolled, “fearful” parenting, which prevents children from exploring, learning on their own, and making the mistakes that will teach them to improve; the echo chambers of social media; and endorsement of what they regard as three incorrect ideas that have long been discredited by psychological science: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people. These ideas and their resulting “culture of safetyism,” the authors write, impede young people from becoming autonomous adults who are able to accept setbacks, criticism, other points of view, and pitfalls on life’s journey.

By Greg Lukianoff, Jonathan Haidt,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Coddling of the American Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

New York Times Bestseller * Finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction * A New York Times Notable Book * Bloomberg Best Book of 2018

"Their distinctive contribution to the higher-education debate is to meet safetyism on its own, psychological turf . . . Lukianoff and Haidt tell us that safetyism undermines the freedom of inquiry and speech that are indispensable to universities." -Jonathan Marks, Commentary

"The remedies the book outlines should be considered on college campuses, among parents of current and future students, and by anyone longing for a more sane society." -Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson,

Book cover of Life After Life

Why did I love this book?

And now, a novel, a brilliant, thought-provoking novel. Looking back, most of us tend to tell our life stories in order: we did this, and then we did that, and then this happened … and it all seems inevitable and obvious. But life is often wilder, less predictable. We did this—but then we came to a fork in the road and had to choose which way to go. What about the fork we didn’t follow? Would taking it have been better or worse for us? In the unruly calculus of life, some of our decisions turn out to be wise and right; others, unexpectedly, turn out to be disasters; and some turn out to be disasters that give us opportunities for action and improvement we would never have imagined for ourselves—let alone voluntarily chosen. No matter how carefully we try to plan our lives, we will encounter unexpected chance events that can lead to a spectrum of outcomes. This highly imaginative novel starts with the birth of a baby on a cold and snowy night in 1910: either she dies of birth complications, or the doctor arrives in time and she lives. As her heroine’s life unfolds across the tumultuous events of the twentieth century, Atkinson makes us acknowledge the role of chance in any human life, showing us “what would have happened if ….”

By Kate Atkinson,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked Life After Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What if you could live again and again, until you got it right?

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.

Does Ursula's apparently infinite number…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in mass media, pop culture, and happiness?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about mass media, pop culture, and happiness.

Mass Media Explore 22 books about mass media
Pop Culture Explore 125 books about pop culture
Happiness Explore 278 books about happiness