As you’ve likely noticed from the bathing suit ads and travel-focused commercials, summer is upon us. While many of us daydream about the carefree summer breaks of our youth, summer as an adult doesn’t have to be a complete wash. For starters, we have more daylight hours to play with. Plus, a “summer bod” is not the only way to improve yourself this season. When you’re relaxing at the beach or pool, consider reading self-improvement books to add extra value to your downtime.
At the pleasant risk of sounding a lot like Oprah, I can’t imagine the person I would have become if I didn’t have books in my life. Reading stories has transported me into the shoes of many others who are often wiser, kinder, smarter and funnier than me. I’ve found when you have the chance to test run upgraded shoes, it has a curious way of inspiring you to rise to the occasion.
When it comes to personal development, there’s no better season to dive in than the present. To supplement your staycations and highly recommended poolside lounging, below is a collection of self-improvement books to help you put your best foot, or sandal, forward:
6 self-improvement books that help improve habits
By Gary John Bishop
You may think you don’t self-sabotage. But Bishop breaks down how even the smallest “I’ll go to the gym… tomorrow” affects your success in the long run. This is a short, intense jolt to your way of thinking that tells it straight. After all, our futures don’t have time for sugarcoating. Bishop helps readers get in touch with their individual psychological machinery to nip negative thoughts and behaviors in the bud and build new thinking patterns that allow readers to find success in the areas previously inaccessible due to all the s–t in the way.
Favorite quote: “Inspiration, motivation, passion and whatever else you are looking for in your life is on you. That has been the case in the past, it is the case in the present and it will be the case in the future.”
This book is akin to: Your no-bulls–t older brother having a heart-to-heart with you over a scotch at midnight. You’ll laugh, you may cry, but at the end of the night, you’ll be better for it.
By Anna Katharina Schaffner, Ph.D.
Contrary to what you may believe, self-improvement is not a recent concept—far from it. In fact, author Anna Schaffner finds that the practice extends back centuries. But the use of those practices isn’t what she’s here to discuss. The Art of Self-Improvement is not a typical self-improvement book, full of actionable practices and personal anecdotes. Instead, the book explores 10 enduring methods and ideas of self-improvement, from “know thyself” to “simplify” to “mentalize.” Schaffner discusses how these practices have differed and evolved within cultures and over centuries, why they have lasted even into present day and what these methods of self-improvement reveal about our goals, fears and overall nature.
Favorite quote: “It is from these enduring ideas about how we can improve ourselves that we have most to learn. For new is not always better. Sometimes, we forget what we already know. History holds many answers to our most pressing contemporary challenges.”
This book is for: Anyone interested in a scholarly discussion of the history behind the current personal development industry, and what past and current practices reveal about the people and cultures who utilized them.
By Katherine Morgan Schafler, LMHC
You might believe perfectionism, in any form, is harmful to your well-being and work performance. And plenty of articles would agree with you. But perhaps perfectionism isn’t all bad—in fact, it may even be helpful, according to author and psychotherapist Katherine Schafler. In this self-improvement book, Schafler discusses the five types of perfectionism and how we can make them benefit instead of hinder us—to turn it to purpose instead of trying to rid ourselves of an ingrained facet of our being. Topics include a deeper dive into perfectionism, replacing self-punishment with self-compassion and building habits for long-term growth.
Favorite quote: “Everyone is punitive with themselves at times, but perfectionists take punishment to a whole other level. Perfectionists are the Olympians of punishment. Perfectionists have perfected punishment. Perfectionists go to law school.”
How to use this book: To change existing habits to your benefit, instead of trying to get rid of an already-cemented trait.
By Brianna Wiest
Be honest. How much of what is holding you back in life is due to external forces, and how much is due to you sabotaging your own success and potential? Wiest compares the challenge of overcoming our internal adversaries to climbing a mountain. It’s difficult and perhaps even seemingly impossible, but achievable with dedication and the right mindset. From behaviors that indicate self-sabotage to building emotional intelligence to uncovering and releasing the past, The Mountain Is You shares how we can master ourselves and, in doing so, get out of our own way.
Favorite quote: “Self-sabotage is what happens when we refuse to consciously meet our innermost needs, often because we do not believe we are capable of handling them.”
This book is not for: Anyone who isn’t willing to believe they are getting in their own way, or who isn’t willing to put in the work to climb their personal mountains.
By BJ Fogg, Ph.D.
So you’re looking to change your habits, but you’re not sure how to do so—or how to get started. Fogg, founder and director of Stanford University’s Behavior Design Lab, is here to help. Based on two decades of research and Fogg’s experience coaching thousands of people, he created and tested his “Tiny Habits method” before sharing it with the world via this self-improvement book. With chapters including “ability—easy does it,” “emotions create habits” and “untangling bad habits: a systematic solution,” Fogg guides readers through a step-by-step process for designing and cementing our new positive habits.
Favorite quote: “In order to design successful habits and change your behaviors you should do three things.
- Stop judging yourself.
- Take your aspirations and break them down into tiny behaviors.
- Embrace mistakes as discoveries and use them to move forward.”
This book is about: Making a small start to achieve a big change.
By Mel Robbins
How often do you have faith in or support others, while giving nothing to yourself? How often do you actually take the time to encourage yourself instead of doubting yourself or putting yourself down? Perhaps it’s time to try something new. Take the time to high-five yourself and build your self-confidence instead of breaking it down. In this bestselling book, Robbins shares a plethora of information, including the science-backed benefits of high-fives, the “why” behind our negativity and how it can affect our lives and training our minds toward positivity. Alongside personal anecdotes and the stories of people who have been positively impacted by The High 5 Habit, Robbins teaches readers how to overcome self-doubt, build self-confidence and start putting ourselves first.
Favorite quote: “Your mind is designed to help you achieve your dreams. Your job is to believe it is possible and encourage yourself to keep walking toward it. No matter what, keep believing and give up your timeline for when and how it unfolds.”
To do: Try giving yourself a high-five in the mirror today, then keep doing it every day.
4 self-improvement books that help with relationships
By Koshin Paley Ellison
With a refreshing and surprisingly relatable style considering Ellison is in fact a monk (monks, they’re just like us!), this book teaches you how to expand outward. Ellison uses a blend of the 16 teachings of Buddhism and his personal life experiences to help readers learn to break down the walls we build around ourselves that distance us from connecting with others (and ourselves), and wake up to the world around us to truly live wholehearted.
Favorite quote: “People are afraid of looking at and being with each other. They’re afraid of—and paradoxically long for—honest, loving and ordinary conversation.”
This book feels like: A warm cup of hot cocoa, with extra marshmallows, and a fire crackling in the background.
2. Work Wife
By Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur
The pages of this self-improvement book are practically brimming with girl power. Cerulo and Mazur speak with work wives who’ve created thriving businesses and careers across myriad fields and demonstrate how empowered female friendships can run the business world. The book dives into a range of topics critical to building a successful partnership, “such as being co-bosses, tackling disagreements, dealing with money and accommodating motherhood,” according to the book description. Plus, it leaves readers with a roadmap to fruitful work-wife relationships in business.
Favorite quote: “The unfortunate fact of the matter is that as women we have a rougher go of it in the workplace—whether on a Hollywood set or in a cubicle—and, for all of the camaraderie and mind-melding benefits, being part of a pair also serves as a defense mechanism. Being able to turn to someone and say ‘Am I crazy?’ is a boon because women are made to question their own sanity all the time.”
Best time to read this book: With a bottle of Merlot and your best gal pals on FaceTime.
By Mitch Albom
A memoir, this novel chronicles a series of weekly visits Albom made to his former sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, as Schwartz gradually loses his life to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Their bond is beautifully honest and reminds readers how human connection is at the core of a fulfilled life. In his final weeks, Morrie unloads some hard-won nuggets of wisdom on what happiness is and how to ensure your life is a life worth living.
Favorite quote: “It’s very simple. As you grow, you learn more. If you stayed at 22, you’d always be as ignorant as you were at 22. Aging is not just decay, you know. It’s growth. It’s more than the negative that you’re going to die, it’s also the positive that you understand you’re going to die, and that you live a better life because of it.”
Some friendly advice: If you’re a crier, have tissues nearby.
By Michelle Obama
Part personal anecdotes and part self-help book, The Light We Carry encourages readers to find our strengths and overcome our fears, form lasting relationships, cultivate positivity and make a difference in our own lives and the lives of others. Embedded with discussions about issues tied to “race, gender and visibility,” Obama ties personal stories and struggles into actionable practices including “am I seen?,” “partnering well” and “the armor we wear.”
Favorite quote: “I believe that each of us carries a bit of inner brightness, something entirely unique and individual, a flame that’s worth protecting. When we are able to recognize our own light, we become empowered to use it. When we learn to foster what’s unique in the people around us, we become better able to build compassionate communities and make meaningful change.”
The takeaway: Cultivate your own internal light, then use it to inspire, benefit and brighten the lights of others.
What are some of your favorite self-improvement books?
This article was updated July 2023. Photo by Ahmet Misirligul/Shutterstock
Megan Nicole O’Neal is a writer with a passion for storytelling, traveling and whenever possible, mixing the two. The UCLA alum lives in Los Angeles; more specifically westside coffee shops with equally strong wifi and dark roasts. Connect with Megan on Twitter at @megan_n_onealor her website mnoneal.com.