“We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”David Foster Wallace
I didn’t really know what depression felt like until 2021. It was then that I started suffering from it in a way that was just as obvious as my previous bouts of anxiety and PTSD. I realised that depression wasn’t so much about feeling sad, but rather feeling numb, stuck, and empty.
My own way out of this required time, gentle kindness, and eventually being able to change my environment. I also accepted that I’d likely feel depressed again at some point, so I wanted to find some self-help tools I could turn to in the future.
One strategy to help heal my depression was, of course, reading – or bibliotherapy. I found comfort in a few different types of books, of which these were my favourites (and you can read on for more):
- The best self-help book about depression: The Upward Spiral
- The best feel-good book for depression: A Psalm for the Wild-Built
- The best book to remind you of the beauty of life: All the Light We Cannot See
- The best unputdownable book to escape into when you have depression: Daisy Jones & the Six
The best books to read when you’re depressed (that have helped me)
I’ll share more of the best books that have helped me with depression next, but a quick note: books can provide comfort, but can’t fix everything.
If you can access and afford it, I’d absolutely recommend working with a mental health professional if you’re struggling with depression. I’m not a therapist, and these are just the books that have helped me.
The best books about depression for self-help
The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb, PhD
Read The Upward Spiral for… neuroscientist Alex Korb’s guide to setting in motion an upward spiral to help you start feeling better.
Depression isn’t something that you can just pull yourself out of and deal with. But as neuroscientist Alex Korb explores in The Upward Spiral, you can gradually try and do more things to take the best care of yourself.
The Field Guide for Depression: Tools to Motivate, Reframe, and Connect by Therapy Notebooks
Read The Field Guide for Depression for… a gorgeous hardcover self-help book for depression that’s been developed by therapists.
Therapy Notebooks offer some of the most beautiful self-help notebooks I’ve come across to navigate our personal mental health journeys, including this beautiful Field Guide for Depression.
Get your own copy to explore different evidence-based tools for depression that address your motivation, internal dialogue, and relationships – the areas of life that most impact our ability to thrive. You can read more of my thoughts here.
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
Read Reasons to Stay Alive for… one of the best books about depression from the last decade – and one of the most popular too, by the talented and comfortingly honest Matt Haig.
Reasons to Stay Alive is Matt Haig’s story of depression, written with the trademark honesty and vulnerability that he’s become so well-known for in the last few years. In particular, it’s one of the best books about depression for men.
It’s packed with memorable takeaways to revisit on the most difficult days, including a reminder that, with time, the light will come back into your life.
Feeling Great: The Revolutionary New Treatment for Depression and Anxiety by David D. Burns
Read Feeling Great for… Dr. David Burns’ fast-track way to start working through your depression yourself (or accompanied by a professional) and finding your way back to joy.
According to Dr. Burns in this accessible book for depression, our negative thoughts don’t result from what’s wrong with us, but rather what’s right with us.
Our minds are trying to tell us something, and our job is to listen. Only then can we realise that we don’t need most of these negative thoughts anymore.
The Illustrated Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris and Bev Aisbett
Read The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris for… a mindfulness-based guide that offers a different perspective on the idea that we’re always supposed to be happy… which is, quite frankly, making us all miserable.
In this self-help book for depression, Russ Harris offers a user-friendly introduction to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): a simple, self-administered therapy based on mindfulness.
It’ll help you start living more fully, reduce stress, and treasure the range of emotions that make up a satisfying life.
Feel-good books for depression
What about lighthearted and uplifting books for depression? Sometimes these books are welcome, but other times you might wish that the cheeriness would shut up.
If you want to add more uplifting books to your reading list though, here are some of my best picks. You might also like my recommendations for the best feel-good books of all time.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
Read A Psalm for the Wild-Built for… what Martha Wells describes as “an optimistic vision of a lush, beautiful world”, offering feel-good vibes and hope for the future.
For uplifting and utopian books, read Becky Chambers. In this hopeful sci-fi world, it’s been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness, laid down their tools, wandered together into the wilderness, and faded into myth and urban legend.
But one day, the life of a tea monk is turned upside down by a robot at their door. And most problematically, the robot wants an answer to the question of “what do people need?”
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
In this classic feel-good story, the gardens surrounding the property are orphaned Mary Lennox’s only escape from her uncle’s grand house.
When Mary discovers a secret garden enclosed by walls and locked with a missing key – as well as two unexpected companions – she becomes determined to bring it back to life. I find that reading this book brings me back to life, too.
Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Read Good Omens for… a winning combination of the laugh-out-loud humour of Terry Pratchett and the gravity and dark comedy of Neil Gaiman for a wonderfully inventive take on the apocalypse.
“As silly as it seems, Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett has been my go-to book whenever I’m in a rough spot for going on seven years now. It’s fun and easy to read and makes me feel like if the characters in the story can take the Apocalypse in stride and with humor, I can handle whatever less-Apocalyptic troubles I’m having.”
Books about the beauty of life
For hope and a reminder of the good in the world, take a look at these next books on the list. You can also read my post on the most soothing books about the beauty of life.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Read All Thing Light We Cannot See for… a heartbreaking yet beautiful book that will take you on an emotional rollercoaster and make you feel everything.
All of the friends to whom I’ve gifted a copy of All Thing Light We Cannot See have loved it.
It’s the story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. I really hope you find it as memorable and well-crafted as I did.
“But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”All the Light We Cannot See
How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery
This gorgeous book is a wonderful reminder of the kindness, generosity, and love that are innate parts of you, just like the other creatures that accompany us through life.
Your Life in Bloom by Lucy Fuggle
Read Your Life in Bloom for… the book I wrote during my bout of depression, compiled of musings on re-discovering my strength, courage, and direction forwards, supported by the natural world around me.
“Commit to falling in love with the good in the world. Stop to notice the beauty in all things. And with time, but no rush, remember how you are just another part of the universe, just like the birds, trees, mosses, and animals that warm your heart.”
Unputdownable books to escape into
If you’re feeling lost and disconnected from the world, gripping can’t-put-down books can give you something to occupy some of your thoughts and look forward to. Here are some of the best unputdownable books (and you can find more here).
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
Read Project Hail Mary for… a fantastically nerdy and lighthearted sci-fi hit that’s easy to read and difficult to put down.
If you loved The Martian, Andy Weir’s latest bestseller is one of the best new books to read next. Here’s how Bill Gates described it:
“[Project Hail Mary] is a wild tale about a high school science teacher who wakes up in a different star system with no memory of how he got there. The rest of the story is all about how he uses science and engineering to save the day. It’s a fun read, and I finished the whole thing in one weekend.”
Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Read Daisy Jones & the Six for… the perfect novel if you’re struggling to find a book that can grab your attention. Over the last year or so, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s books became my go-to for escapist reading.
I flew through the excellent audiobook edition (featuring a whole cast of voice actors) of Daisy Jones & the Six in a couple of days. Walking around the park, cooking dinner, tidying the house… I was always listening to it. Definitely give this a go if you don’t know what to read.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
Read The Count of Monte Cristo for… the same gripping themes of wrongful imprisonment and justice as Shawshank Redemption, just 150 years earlier.
The Count of Monte Cristo is an unlikely contender for a binge-worthy book. For one, it was originally published in 1846. Secondly, the Penguin paperback is 1276 pages long. But it’s so, so good.
Reddit user Mammoth-Corner shares my thoughts in this comment: “Monte Cristo is ridiculously good. I put the audiobook on while I was taking a walk and wound up going in loops for two hours because I didn’t want to go back inside and turn it off.”
Books that are actually depressing themselves
Sometimes, knowing that someone else has been through tough times can actually help you feel better. This strategy doesn’t work well for me, but research suggests that depressing books can help some readers feel better.
The Terror by Dan Simmons
Read The Terror for… an Arctic expedition in the 1840s that absolutely does not offer uplifting reading, but might make you feel slightly better. (Personally, when I’m feeling low I’d rather read feel-good books.)
“I find that depressing books provide weirdly satisfying escapism because they make my own life seem fantastic in comparison. I’ve been reading The Terror, about an Arctic expedition in the 1840s, and I’ve been so happy while reading it because I’m not in brutal cold, dying of scurvy and starvation, and having a demon polar bear stalking me. Life is good and I have plenty of Vitamin C.”
Looking for more books to add to your to-read list? You might like…
- The best new feel-good books for 2023
- The best self-help books for when you can’t get to therapy
- Sydney Smith’s list of 20 antidotes to low spirits from 1820, including “amusing books” and “good blazing fires”
Remember that mental health challenges are a normal part of life, and so is asking for help. If you can, I’d absolutely recommend working with a professional to help you through depression. These are just the books that have helped me and what you find helpful may vary.