The best research-based books on living a fulfilling life

Why am I passionate about this?

When I was a teenager, no one would have predicted I’d live a fulfilling life. I was expelled from two high schools, and later from two marriages, among other failings. But sometimes you learn from making mistakes. Here I am, 75 years old, still alive, having conducted and published research on various psychological topics for a half century. During the last two decades I’ve tried to combine insights from evolutionary biology and positive psychology not only to help my graduate students get publications, but also to help my two sons avoid some of my mistakes. My oldest son coauthored my latest book: Solving Modern Problems with a Stone-Age Brain.  


I wrote...

Solving Modern Problems With a Stone-Age Brain: Human Evolution and the Seven Fundamental Motives

By Douglas T. Kenrick, David E. Lundberg-Kenrick,

Book cover of Solving Modern Problems With a Stone-Age Brain: Human Evolution and the Seven Fundamental Motives

What is my book about?

Compare our lives in the modern world (with self-driving cars, mobile phones, and supermarkets stocked with delicious foods) to those of our ancestors (constantly threatened with starvation, untreatable infections, or violent death from large predators), and we should be giggling with delight. Instead, we moderns are often miserably depressed and anxious.

The book compares our modern selves with our ancestors in terms of 7 fundamental goals: surviving, protecting ourselves from bad guys, making friends, finding mates, keeping those mates, and taking care of our families. Ironically, the mental mechanisms evolved to meet those goals expose us to parasitism by modern technology. The book taps research from evolutionary and positive psychology to suggest ways to solve these problems, and live more fulfilling lives.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want

Douglas T. Kenrick Why did I love this book?

Sonja Lyubomirsky is one of the stars of the field of positive psychology, a social psychologist who has done research comparing people who are happy and unhappy.

In this book, she presents a number of research-based recommendations about how to live a happier and more fulfilling life.

One of the key things I took away from her book is that the research suggests that one of the best ways to make yourself happy is to do things for other people. In fact, there is research suggesting that thinking too much about making yourself happy actually backfires, and makes you more depressed and anxious.

Some of her other (research-backed) recommendations involve cultivating an optimistic outlook on life, avoiding social comparisons with others, and enjoying your work.

By Sonja Lyubomirsky,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The How of Happiness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The key tenet of THE HOW OF HAPPINESS is that every human being has a happiness 'set point' which, depending on how high or low it is, can determine how positive or negative they feel. This book offers a practical approach to help readers increase their set point, and find a level of happiness above that which they would normally feel, and feel more satisfaction in life.

Based on scientific research and trials, this is a groundbreaking book that offers a practical plan to enable readers to achieve a more positive outlook at home, at work and in their personal…


Book cover of How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be

Douglas T. Kenrick Why did I love this book?

Despite being 75 years old and having studied to be a behavioral therapist in my younger days, I’m always struggling to change one or another bad habit – to exercise more, to consume fewer carbs, less cerveza, and more fruits and vegetables, etc.

Although Milkman is trained as an engineer and works in a business college, she has done research on behavior change, and does an amazing job summarizing the behavioral research on how to change.

This book is chock full of practical advice – such as bundling temptations with virtuous activities (listen to an audiobook or some great music while you wash the dishes, for example), and gamifying your work tasks (give yourself points for accomplishing something you’d otherwise not want to do, and store up the points for some big reward at the end of two weeks, for example). 

By Katy Milkman,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked How to Change as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Game-changing. Katy Milkman shows in this book that we can all be a super human' Angela Duckworth, bestselling author of Grit

How to Change is a powerful, groundbreaking blueprint to help you - and anyone you manage, teach or coach - to achieve personal and professional goals, from the master of human nature and behaviour change and Choiceology podcast host Professor Katy Milkman.

Award-winning Wharton Professor Katy Milkman has devoted her career to the study of behaviour change. An engineer by training, she approaches all challenges as problems to be solved and, with this mind-set, has drilled into the roadblocks…


Book cover of Man’s Search for Meaning

Douglas T. Kenrick Why did I love this book?

Victor Frankl was a neurologist and psychologist who had been imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, and lost his bride to the gas chambers.

Frankl argued that, even faced with dreadful situations, we can still choose how to act, think, and feel. He described a dying woman choosing to spend her final hours not fearing death but admiring a budding tree outside her sickroom window, which she saw as a sign of immortal life.

Frankl developed the idea of self-transcendence, emphasizing that the more you can devote yourself to another person or an important cause, the more you can transcend the miseries and anxieties of everyday life. Research by my team has found that meaning in life is in fact closely related to the fundamental human goals of caring for family members and friends.

By Viktor Frankl,

Why should I read it?

43 authors picked Man’s Search for Meaning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the outstanding classics to emerge from the Holocaust, Man's Search for Meaning is Viktor Frankl's story of his struggle for survival in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. Today, this remarkable tribute to hope offers us an avenue to finding greater meaning and purpose in our own lives.


Book cover of The Selfish Gene

Douglas T. Kenrick Why did I love this book?

This book is a classic for understanding how to think about human nature in evolutionary perspective.

But in later editions, Dawkins lamented that many critics did not even read past the title – presuming that the book recommended being as selfish as you possibly could.

Although our genes are selfish, our ancestors survived by frequently being very cooperative with one another, and people who always put themselves first often end up being rejected by others (ironically, decreasing the success of their selfish genes).

Dawkins even added an extra chapter to later editions arguing that nice guys finish first. So although it might seem like a funny choice for a book on living a fulfilling life, The Selfish Gene in fact reinforces one of the central premises of positive psychologists such as Lyubomirsky, if you want to serve yourself well, serve others.  

By Richard Dawkins,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Selfish Gene as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The million copy international bestseller, critically acclaimed and translated into over 25 languages.

As influential today as when it was first published, The Selfish Gene has become a classic exposition of evolutionary thought. Professor Dawkins articulates a gene's eye view of evolution - a view giving centre stage to these persistent units of information, and in which organisms can be seen as vehicles for their replication. This imaginative, powerful, and stylistically brilliant work not only brought the insights of Neo-Darwinism to a wide audience, but galvanized the biology
community, generating much debate and stimulating whole new areas of research. Forty…


Book cover of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Douglas T. Kenrick Why did I love this book?

Reading the daily news might make you think that the world is falling apart, and that it’s futile to even try to move forward. But in this book, Pinker provides a data-based antidote for everyday pessimism, and the perennial tendency to think that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

He reviews substantial evidence to show that, in contrast to the lives lived by our ancestors in the “good old days,” our lives in the modern world are better in many many ways – we live longer, healthier lives, we are literate, we are less likely to be the victims of homicidal bad guys coming over the hill to burn our village.

People used to accuse evolutionary psychologists of focusing on the negative aspects of human nature, on sex and aggression, for example. Ironically, Pinker has been accused of being overly optimistic and positive in this book. But he’s not saying there are no problems in the modern world, only that, looked at in the bigger historical perspective, there is reason to hope for the future. 

And without hope, it’s hard to muster the energy to work for improvement.

By Steven Pinker,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Enlightenment Now as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2018
ONE OF THE ECONOMIST'S BOOKS OF THE YEAR

"My new favorite book of all time." --Bill Gates

If you think the world is coming to an end, think again: people are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives, and while our problems are formidable, the solutions lie in the Enlightenment ideal of using reason and science. By the author of the new book, Rationality.

Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? In this elegant assessment of the human condition in the third…


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The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams Author Of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

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Why am I passionate about this?

I was first a clinical social worker and then a social work professor with research focus on older adults. Over the past few years, as I have been writing my own memoir about caring for my parents, I’ve been drawn to memoirs and first-person stories of aging, illness, and death. The best memoirs on these topics describe the emotional transformation in the writer as they process their loss of control, loss of their own or a loved one’s health, and their fear, pain, and suffering. In sharing these stories, we help others empathize with what we’ve gone through and help others be better prepared for similar events in their own lives.

Kathryn's book list on Memoirs illness aging death moving vivid prose

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief…

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her English scholar and poet mother and her pianist father. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' father finds himself single and flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with…


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