“Read Emily Dickinson. Read Graham Greene. Read Italo Calvino. Read Maya Angelou. Read anything you want. Just read. Books are possibilities. They are Escape Routes. They give you options when you have none. Each one can be a home for an uprooted mind.”
– Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive
When I'm facing depression, going through a hard time, or just plain feeling hopeless, I know deep inside that I just need to keep going – it will get better. But that isn't always easy to remember. On the worst days, it can feel like there's no point even trying. Sometimes giving up feels like the only option.
But there are some things I can do to make it easier when life is hard. In the past, seeking out therapy has been the best gift I could allow myself. It's the starting point for recovery, and I'd highly recommend you start there as soon as possible.
In addition to this, though, there are also smaller things I can do to help myself. I can pour a good cup of tea. Get outside. Spend time with loved ones. And, of course, read.
Literature is humankind's archive for every emotion out there – joy, love, depression, loss, excitement, heartbreak, regret, pain, suffering. It's the best value-for-money life coach you'll ever get your hands on. Books can comfort us where we are, show us how to get to where we want to be, and give us the inspiration, confidence, and self-belief we need to keep going. They can take us on a direct flight into a whole new world, departing as soon as you turn the first page.
Some of the best types of books to read when everything seems hopeless are books that help you take care of yourself, books that remind you of the beauty of the world, and immersive books that you can escape into for a little while.
Below are my favourite bibliotherapy books for the hardest days when everything feels hopeless. I hope these novels, memoirs, and self-help books can help you to be extra kind to yourself, find some more hope, and bring you comfort. If you can, make a place for books alongside your self-care, community, and what brights light into your life. They won't solve everything, but they can help.
A first-aid kit of books to read when everything seems hopeless
1. Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May
I recently received an email from a reader who wanted my book recommendations for the really hard days – those when you're in a deep depression and struggling to get out of bed, let alone tick anything off your to-do list. The first book I recommended was Wintering by Katherine May.
It's a beautiful and comforting book about rest and retreat in difficult times, exploring how we can navigate the "winters" that should be seen as just as acceptable as sunny, happy, and high-energy days. Here's one quote I love from Wintering:
“When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favoured child: with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable and that my feelings were signals of something important. I kept myself well fed and made sure I was getting enough sleep. I took myself for walks in the fresh air and spent time doing things that soothed me. I asked myself: What is this winter all about? I asked myself: What change is coming?”Wintering
2. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
When Things Fall Apart is a treasure trove of wisdom for continuing to live when we feel like we can't go on. The book is based on a series of talks that Pema Chödrön gave between 1987 and 1994, as one of the most beloved of contemporary American spiritual authors among Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
On Reddit, swayybe wrote, "Non-fiction and so so beautiful. I read it when my depression was at its peak. It’s not a magical fix for depression, but it was like a warm and loving hug and I felt so validated reading it."
3. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
Reasons to Stay Alive is one of the best books for when you're depressed and feel like everything is hopeless. It's accessible and easy to read, but most of all, it's relatable. I shared some of the main takeaways from the book here, including reminders that bad days come in degrees, and that depression isn't you but rather something that happens to you.
“Depression is also smaller than you. Always, it is smaller than you, even when it feels vast. It operates within you, you do not operate within it. It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky but - if that is the metaphor - you are the sky. You were there before it. And the cloud can't exist without the sky, but the sky can exist without the cloud.”Reasons to Stay Alive
4. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
The Midnight Library is Matt Haig's most popular fictional book, and it's one of my top recommendations to read on the days when you feel like giving up. It's ultimately about a woman trying to find her own reasons to stay alive, and following her healing journey can be transforming for you as the reader, too. A quick warning: the book does start out dark, but if you can handle this, it’s one of the most beautiful books to help you feel grateful and hopeful about life.
At the stroke of midnight on her last day on earth, Nora finds herself transported to a library. There she is given the chance to undo her regrets and try out each of the other lives she might have lived. Which leaves her with the all-important question: what is the best way to live?
5. The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert
Often recommended by therapists, The Compassionate Mind is about learning to have compassion for yourself. Self-soothing is a really important skill, especially on the hardest days, but often one we don't get taught. When you're feeling hopeless and life is hard, try to focus on being kind to yourself – this book will help you to get there.
6. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Meditations is probably the oldest self-help book you can get your hands on, and it's still one of the best two thousand years later. It's a guide to life and its challenges, including finding strength on the hardest days.
“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.”Meditations
7. The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim
The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down is an incredibly gentle, soothing book to read when everything feels hopeless in life. I owe a lot to this book – especially for how it helped me through a difficult breakup a few years ago. When I was learning how to just be without others, I came across the Kindle sample and immediately ordered the little hardback edition.
It's not just about "how to be calm in a busy world", it's about how to live your life intentionally and with kindness, as the most mindful and balanced version of yourself.
8. Your Life in Bloom by Lucy Fuggle
When everything seems hopeless, it's the most important time to remind yourself of the beauty and goodness in the world. This is what I wanted to share in my most recent book, Your Life in Bloom. Read it for a reminder that you will see the goodness in the world again, and that there is still beauty and hope around you, even if you can't see it right now.
Enjoy more from me
- Retreat into my new book, Your Life in Bloom: Finding Your Path and Your Courage, Grounded in the Wisdom of Nature.
- I'm also the author of Mountain Song: A Journey to Finding Quiet in the Swiss Alps, a book about my time living alone by the mountains.
- If you love books, are feeling a little lost right now, and would love some gentle comfort and guidance, join The Sanctuary, my seven-day course to rebalance your life.