The best books on the core desires that guide human behavior

The Books I Picked & Why

The Birth and Death of Meaning

By Ernest Becker

The Birth and Death of Meaning

Why this book?

This is to me is the best book ever written for understanding what human beings are, how we are similar to and different from other animal species, how we develop from helpless newborns to fully functioning adults, and what we are striving for in our lives. Most nonfiction books make a point and then repeat it over and over with examples and anecdotes. In contrast, The Birth and Death of Meaning begins with evolution and progresses logically from its first page to its last. When you finish this book, you will have a much better understanding of yourself, the people in your life, historical and current events, and problems ranging from anxiety and depression to interpersonal conflict to prejudice.  


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The Denial of Death

By Ernest Becker

The Denial of Death

Why this book?

This is the next step for Becker after The Birth and Death of Meaning. This Pulitzer-Prize-winning book delves deeper into the problem of death and pierces through the reader’s own denial of death. It is a truly harrowing experience, but a very worthwhile, and often a life-changing, one. Becker shows how our efforts to manage the fear of death contribute to the most noble and ignoble things we humans do. He clarifies how it contributes to hero worship and the historical rise and appeal of charismatic leaders such as Hitler, to consumerism, to romantic relationships and sex, to depression, anxiety, and neuroses, to creativity, and to intergroup conflict.


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Otto Rank: A Rediscovered Legacy

By Esther Menaker

Otto Rank: A Rediscovered Legacy

Why this book?

This book summarizes the contributions of Otto Rank, the brilliant and influential psychoanalyst. Rank focused on two core psychological motivations, the desires for psychological security on the one hand, and for stimulation, growth, and creativity on the other. His work illuminates how these desires often work in concert but also often can be in opposition over the course of the lifespan, contributing to guilt, anxiety, and stunting growth. Rank’s analysis inspired the development of both existential psychology and humanistic psychology. Rank’s approach to psychological well-being is based on accepting and even affirming the limitations of life, understanding what you really want in life, and developing the will to move creatively toward achieving those goals so that one can live an authentic and satisfying life.   


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Existential Psychotherapy

By Irvin D. Yalom

Existential Psychotherapy

Why this book?

Contrary to its technical-sounding title, this is a very down-to-earth, readable book focused on four central concerns that everyone must cope within their lives. As with Becker, one of these concerns is how to function well despite the knowledge of our mortality. The second concern is how to lead a meaningful life rather than feel trapped in a meaningless one. The third concern is with isolation. How can we maintain fulfilling relationships even though no one can know fully your inner subjective experience and you can’t know anyone else’s? The final concern is with freedom. How to live autonomously, the way you authentically want to live, despite social pressures and other constraints, and the responsibilities and uncertainties that living freely entail.


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Twice-Told Tales

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Twice-Told Tales

Why this book?

Many works of fiction explore the core human motivations and how they guide human behavior, but perhaps none more thoroughly and incisively than this collection of Hawthorne short stories. Hawthorne’s stories undoubtedly inspired The Twilight Zone and countless other works of fantasy and science fiction that convey messages about how human desires and cultural worldviews lead people toward thwarted goals and tragic outcomes. As such, they nicely complement the analyses conveyed by the other four books I have recommended. His stories explore guilt, anxiety, and ambition, as desires for security and growth conflict with the values of prevailing worldviews and often lead to misguided or fruitless efforts of people trying to make a lasting mark on the world.


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