The best books on altruism

4 authors have picked their favorite books about altruism and why they recommend each book.

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A Paradise Built in Hell

By Rebecca Solnit,

Book cover of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

Rebecca Solnit is one of my favorite thinkers. In this book, she discusses how utopian communities often come about in response to disaster and explains as well as anything I’ve read how activist communities are forged. She does this by showing how natural or manmade disasters can bring out the best in people when social and economic boundaries become less important than helping one another survive. Using examples ranging from the San Francisco and Mexico City earthquakes to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, she demonstrates that when disparate individuals discover a shared and larger purpose, even the most terrible circumstances can create joy. 

Who am I?

I’m a nice gay Jewish former wannabe actor turned AIDS activist. I joined ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, in 1987, and for the next eight years, I chaired committees, planned protests, led teach-ins, and facilitated our weekly meetings. I visited friends in hospitals, attended far too many AIDS memorials, participated in over a hundred zaps and demonstrations, and earned the title of ACT UP’s unofficial “Chant Queen.” It was the hardest, most intense, most rewarding, most joyous, and most devastating time of my life. Aware that I had witnessed history, it became my mission to record what happened and to make sure our story was not forgotten. 

I wrote...

Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York

By Ron Goldberg,

Book cover of Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York

What is my book about?

Boy with the Bullhorn is an immersive, chronological history of the New York chapter of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and a memoir of my coming of age and activist education during the darkest years of the AIDS epidemic. Told with great heart and surprising humor, it offers an intimate look into ACT UP's tactics and strategies as we successfully battled politicians, researchers, drug companies, religious leaders, the media, and an often-uncaring public to change the course of the AIDS epidemic. Combining personal accounts with diligent documentation, it captures the spirit of ACT UP and the adrenaline rush of activism―the anger and grief, but also the love, joy, and camaraderie.

Compassion in Action

By Ram Dass, Mirabai Bush,

Book cover of Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service

Compassion, for self and others, can be an overlooked aspect of practicing at home. I found this book when I was awash with judgmental thoughts about people, and feeling spiritually more evolved or spiritually superior to people. And then I was judgmental against myself for having judgmental thoughts about other people all the time!

This book helped me understand and move through this phase in the spiritual journey. In the first half of the book, Ram Dass talks about his journey. In the second half, Mirabai Bush talks about practical steps for being of service in the world. It was Ram Dass’s journey that really spoke to me initially – especially when he tells the story of having to return to his family home at the age of 55 and take care of his aging father. It is a must-read for those wishing to develop more compassion on the yogic…

Who am I?

My journey into home yoga practice began in 2004 when I moved to a small mountain town with no yoga classes. I started practicing for the health of my mind and body and kept practicing because it became an integral part of my identity. In 2006, when I began teaching yoga, I committed to practicing yoga every day so that I could be the best possible teacher for my students. These were the books that helped me keep that commitment. Many of them I’ve read multiple times, and all of them helped me show up to the mat, and understand both my bodily and psychological experience of home yoga practice.

I wrote...

Forty Days of Yoga

By Kara-Leah Grant,

Book cover of Forty Days of Yoga

What is my book about?

Packed full of ingeniously practical worksheets and examples from Kara-Leah's own life, this book invites readers to reflect honestly and creatively on their own process and aspirations for a home yoga practice. Kara-Leah takes readers on a journey into their psyche and helps them design strategies to make daily yoga practice possible in their life - no matter what that life is like.

Kara-Leah has a no-nonsense approach that is practical, down-to-earth, and also light-hearted. She's encouraging and supportive but leaves no excuses left standing. By the end of the book, you'll know what supports your yoga practice, what undermines your practice, and exactly what you need to do about it.

Unto Others

By Elliot Sober, David Sloan Wilson,

Book cover of Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior

In his bestselling book on The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins saw genes as the key drivers of evolution. Dawkins rejected the idea that groups were objects of selection in human evolution. Instead, his focus was on the “selfish” struggle of the gene to survive and replicate. Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson show clearly and convincingly where Dawkins went wrong. In human societies, evolutionary selection operates on multiple levels, including groups and individuals. Human groups are adaptive units. Individuals depend on themselves and on others to survive. Consequently, group adaptations such as altruism, morality, and cooperation can bestow survival advantages for a group, and hence for its individual members, as Darwin himself pointed out. This breakthrough book has stimulated a huge amount of productive research in this area.

Who am I?

I have always wondered why people choose and act in particular ways, from heroism and altruism to selfishness and greed. Human society is a kaleidoscope of changing actions and fortunes. Social science tries to explain why. But I was dissatisfied with its answers. Then I discovered writers who used evolutionary ideas to help explain social and economic change. I realized that evolution did not mean reducing everything to biology. I became fascinated by Darwin’s deeper and wider ideas about human society, cooperation, and motivation. I read widely and joined with others of similar mind. It is an exciting and rewarding intellectual landscape to explore. I strongly recommend a long visit.

I wrote...

Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution

By Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Thorbjørn Knudsen,

Book cover of Darwin's Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution

What is my book about?

Darwin hinted at the possibility of applying his ideas to other complex systems, including language and the evolution of human society. Previous authors have tried to do this. Recent developments in social science, philosophy, and elsewhere have empowered renewed efforts to generalize Darwinian ideas to social and economic evolution. A central problem is to generalize Darwin’s core explanatory principles of variation, selection, and replication so they apply to socio-economic as well as biological phenomena. What are the social units of evolutionary selection? How do they replicate? How and why do they change? The approach outlined in this book does not provide all the answers, but it sets up a framework to enable further and deeper enquiry. Darwinism becomes a meta-theory that guides and inspires research. 

Into the Magic Shop

By James R. Doty,

Book cover of Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart

We are born with so much untapped potential and Dr Doty’s techniques can really help us transform our lives through a series of visualisation and relaxation exercises. From humble and difficult beginnings Dr. Doty has had considerable achievements in his lifetime and has been so generous in sharing what he has learned over the years. Being a neurosurgeon, Dr. Doty has a wealth of experience of the inner workings of the mind. His self-development journey brought him to create amazing tools to increase confidence, positivity, and self-expression.

Who am I?

Dominique Antiglio is a Qualified Sophrologist, former Osteopath, and best-selling author based in London. Sophrology is a simple practice for mental well-being supporting everyone to tap into the unlimited resources of consciousness and become empowered in daily life. Having used Sophrology to overcome her own issues as a teenager, Dominique is passionate about how each one of us can find resilience and meaning through difficult times. She is a world-leading Sophrologist, founder of BeSophro, a leading Sophrology clinic in London and a Sophrology platform so everyone can learn to practice the method based on relaxation, breathing, visualisation and movement. Dominique gained her Master's in Caycedian Sophrology under Professor Caycedo.

I wrote...

The Life-Changing Power of Sophrology: Breathe and Connect with the Calm and Happy You

By Dominique Antiglio,

Book cover of The Life-Changing Power of Sophrology: Breathe and Connect with the Calm and Happy You

What is my book about?

In a world that can feel uncertain and overwhelming, this comprehensive guide on the practice of Sophrology will help you access resilience, confidence, and serenity in your daily life.

Sophrology is a mental well-being practice and self-development system already extremely popular in Europe, growing worldwide, and used successfully by people from all walks of life, including athletes, CEOs and mum-to-be. This simple method combines Western science and Eastern wisdom using relaxation, breathing, body awareness, and visualisation into a step-by-step practice which has the power to radically transform your life. Featuring practical tips, case studies, and 13 audio downloads, this leading book on Sophrology is a must-have self-help resource.

Doing Good Better

By William MacAskill,

Book cover of Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others, Do Work That Matters, and Make Smarter Choices about Giving Back

For those of us who want to live an ‘ethical life’ and help others, it’s not always easy to know what to do. Will gives one answer: the principles of effective altruism. The book sets out a practical guide to increasing your impact through your charity, volunteering, purchases, and choice of cause. We think it’s a really valuable tool to understand how you can have a positive impact.

Who are we?

We’re a nonprofit that aims to help people have a positive social impact with their careers. Since you have, on average, 80,000 hours in your career, what you decide to do with that time might be your biggest opportunity to make a difference. Over the past ten years, we’ve conducted careful research into high-impact careers, and have helped thousands of people plan a career that has a high positive impact. 

We wrote...

80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career That Does Good

By Benjamin Todd,

Book cover of 80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career That Does Good

What is our book about?

Based on years of research alongside academics at Oxford, this book aims to help you find a career you enjoy, you’re good at, and that tackles the world’s most pressing problems. 

Our book is full of practical knowledge and tools to help you plan a career that's fulfilling and does good, including: what makes for a dream job, and why “follow your passion” can be misleading; how to set yourself up for success at every stage of your career; how to compare global problems in terms of their scale and urgency; and when to challenge the conventional wisdom to achieve maximum impact.

Get a free paperback copy on the 80,000 Hours website here. 

Moral Origins

By Christopher Boehm,

Book cover of Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame

For almost four centuries, many philosophers, politicians, and social scientists have considered Thomas Hobbes as having provided great insight into human nature with his “thought experiment” imagining the state of nature as a state of war.  After more than one century, Darwin’s contrary insight in The Descent of Man (1877:125) is finally being given the attention it deserves: the “social instinct” is a more powerful influence on human behavior than “the base principal of selfishness.”  In Moral Origins, one of the best books in this genre, cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues that higher levels of group support increased the survival of hunter gatherer bands and so favored evolution of more altruistic individuals.  Group culture that included gossip, expulsion and other forms of collective social control became ubiquitous as means to suppress free riders and egoistic bullies in human societies.

Who am I?

As a young sociologist, I shunned explanations of human behavior informed by psychology and biology, but over the years my research showed me that individual predispositions and capacities influence social structure, as well as the other way around.  Books like those I recommend helped me recognize how evolutionary dynamics gave rise to our intensely social nature and so explain many social processes.  And as I began this intellectual journey, events in my own life ripped off the psychological seal I had constructed over my childhood experiences of maternal abandonment and paternal suicide and finally enabled me to make sense of them. We can improve our individual and societal health by increasing our understanding of our fundamental social needs.   

I co-edited...

Social Neuroscience: Brain, Mind, and Society

By Russell K. Schutt (editor), Larry J. Seidman (editor), Matcheri Keshavan (editor)

Book cover of Social Neuroscience: Brain, Mind, and Society

What is my book about?

Human beings evolved in the company of others and flourish in proportion to their positive social ties. To understand the human brain, we must situate its biology in the wider context of society. To understand society, we must also consider how the brains and minds of individuals shape interactions with other human beings.

In Social Neuroscience, leading researchers in the fields of neurobiology, psychiatry, psychology, and sociology provide a state-of-the-art interdisciplinary explanation of the mutually reinforcing connections between brain, mind, and society. With a special focus on mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, the book’s chapters highlight the profound implications for human health of emotional damage due to severe social deprivation, neurological deficits resulting from parental abuse, cognitive deficits after neighborhood violence, and the gains in cognition and functioning that can result from systematic socially-oriented rehabilitation programs.

Meaning in Life and Why It Matters

By Susan Wolf,

Book cover of Meaning in Life and Why It Matters

This is the most influential book on my own thinking about meaningfulness in life. Wolf's idea that a meaningful life is distinct from both a happy life and a moral one—although there can be overlapping with these—is both simple and profound. And, unlike many contemporary philosophers, her writing is clear and accessible.

Who am I?

Todd May has been teaching philosophy for over thirty years. He is the author of sixteen books of philosophy, many of which have been praised for their clarity and relevance to people reflecting on their lives. He was also a philosophical advisor to the hit television sit-com The Good Place.

I wrote...

A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe

By Todd May,

Book cover of A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe

What is my book about?

What makes for a good life, or a beautiful one, or, perhaps most important, a meaningful one? Throughout history, most of us have looked to our faith, our relationships, or our deeds for the answer. But in A Significant Life, philosopher Todd May offers an exhilarating new way of thinking about these questions, one deeply attuned to life as it actually is: a work in progress, a journey—and often a narrative. Offering moving accounts of his own life and memories alongside rich engagements with philosophers from Aristotle to Wittgenstein and Bernard Williams, he shows us where to find the significance of our lives: in the way we live them.

The Ant and the Peacock

By Helena Cronin,

Book cover of The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today

The gene’s-eye view of evolution emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Arguing that biologists are better off thinking about evolution in terms of genes rather than organisms was controversial, but still quickly gained popularity. An important reason for this was that it helped make sense of old, long-standing problems in the field. Two of those were sexual selection (how extravagant traits like the peacocks tail can evolve) and altruism (like the sterile worker ant devoting its life to the queen). In The Ant and the Peacock, Helena Cronin shows how the gene’s-eye view provides a powerful way to solve these puzzles. 

Who am I?

I’m an evolutionary biologist and a Wenner-Gren Fellow at the Evolutionary Biology Centre at Uppsala University, Sweden. My research focuses on the biology of genetic conflicts and what they can tell us about the evolution of conflict and cooperation more generally. I develop population genetic theory and perform comparative analyses to ask how and why such conflicts occur and how they fit into models of social evolution. I also work on the foundations of the so-called gene’s-eye view of evolution, also known as selfish gene theory. I studied at Edinburgh and Toronto and was a postdoc at Cornell and Harvard.

I wrote...

The Gene's-Eye View of Evolution

By J. Arvid Ågren,

Book cover of The Gene's-Eye View of Evolution

What is my book about?

Few phrases in biology have caught the imagination of professionals and laypeople alike the way Richard Dawkins's ‘selfish gene’ has done, and it changed how both groups thought about evolution. The debate over the value of taking a gene’s-eye view of evolution has raged for over half a century and it pitted 20th-century Darwinian heavyweights such as John Maynard Smith and W.D. Hamilton against Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould in the pages of Nature as well as those of The New York Review of Books. My book is about that debate and I explore the origins and developments of the gene's-eye view: what it is, where it came from, how it changed, and why it still evokes such strong emotions. 

Social Intelligence

By Daniel Goleman,

Book cover of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

For more than three decades now, we’ve seen corporations, nonprofits, and governments go under because one or more of their executive leaders proved emotionally unstable. Those leaders were either narcissistic, paranoid, bipolar, impulsive, or immature (temper tantrums, poor coping skills, crying, withdrawing, pouting).

Without self-awareness—and the awareness to identify emotional instability in others—leaders cannot hope to connect genuinely and build personal influence and loyalty among colleagues and staffers.

I love this book because of its research and real-life case studies. With almost every chapter, you’ll say, “Oh, I know that guy or gal!”

Better: You learn how to cope with them (or maybe more importantly, you learn if it will be impossible to ever cope with them).

Who am I?

Dianna Booher is the bestselling author of 49 books (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, McGraw-Hill), in 62 foreign editions, with nearly 4 million copies sold. More than two dozen of her books focus on communication, and she’s facilitated workshops on the topic for 4 decades. She helps leaders shape their own message in book form at Booher Book Camps.

I wrote...

Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire, and Get Things Done

By Dianna Booher,

Book cover of Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire, and Get Things Done

What is my book about?

People often get promoted to leadership positions without knowing how to communicate an inspiring strategic vision to the people who report to them. So they focus on what they know: tactics, not strategy. As a result, they become stuck in micromanagement mode. Dianna Booher wants to prevent micromanagement before it happens by providing you with the right leadership communication skills. Grounded in extensive research, this book offers practical guidelines to help professionals think, coach, converse, speak, write, meet, and negotiate strategically to deliver results. In thirty-six brief chapters, Booher shows you how to communicate effectively to audiences up and down the organization so you can fulfill your most essential responsibilities as a leader.

Under the Hood

By Stan Slap,

Book cover of Under the Hood: Fire Up and Fine-Tune Your Employee Culture

Stan captures the essence of the mindset needed to Collaborate. To quote Slap: “When an employee culture is repositioned as a newly precious, workable asset, a company will naturally protect it, same as with any asset. An employee culture can’t be protected without protecting their humanity. If we lose humanity in business, we’re all doomed. If we save it we will have saved ourselves. In case you fear this icy hand of altruism will grip your own company by the throat and choke the life out of revenue, not to worry: We’re talking here about making the business case for humanity. In any environment where meaning is determined by metrics, the point of view and processes in this book are going to cause measurable, sustainable results." We agree.

Who are we?

Jim Tamm was a Senior Administrative Law Judge for the State of California with jurisdiction over workplace disputes. In that role, he mediated more school district labor strikes than any other person in the United States. Ron Luyet is a licensed psychotherapist who has worked with group dynamics pioneers such as Carl Rogers and Will Schutz.  He has advised Fortune 500 companies for over forty years specializing in building high-performance teams. Together they wrote Radical Collaboration and are excited to share this list with you today.

We wrote...

Radical Collaboration: Five Essential Skills to Overcome Defensiveness and Build Successful Relationships

By James Tamm, Ronald Luyet,

Book cover of Radical Collaboration: Five Essential Skills to Overcome Defensiveness and Build Successful Relationships

What is our book about?

Collaborative skills have never been more important to a company's success and these skills are essential for every worker today. Radical Collaboration is a how-to-manual for creating trusting, cooperative environments, and transforming groups into motivated and empowered teams. James W. Tamm and Ronald J. Luyet provide tools that will help you increase your ability to work successfully with others, learn to be more aware of colleagues, and better problem-solve and negotiate.

Radical Collaboration is an eye-opener for leaders, managers, HR professionals, agents, trainers, and consultants who are seeking constructive ways of getting the results they want.

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