This page contains a list of the best books on well-being and the good life. The first thing you should note is that there is no single best book on what it means to live a good life. The best book for you will depend on your preferred learning style and the amount of time that you want to spend learning about conceptions of the good life. An 800-page scholarly overview may not be best for someone looking for a short beginner-friendly introduction, for example. This list aims to take this ambiguity into account by featuring books that will appeal to a variety of learning styles.
Secondly, this is not a list of personal recommendations. It was created by compiling recommendations from a variety of online sources including bibliographies, course syllabi, and community recommendations. You can find out more about this process here. Links to the sources used are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a wider range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best books on well-being and the good life in no particular order.
The Philosophy of Well-Being: An Introduction – Guy Fletcher
Well-being occupies a central role in ethics and political philosophy, including in major theories such as utilitarianism. It also extends far beyond philosophy: recent studies into the science and psychology of well-being have propelled the topic to centre stage, and governments spend millions on promoting it. We are encouraged to adopt modes of thinking and behaviour that support individual well-being or ‘wellness’.
What is well-being? Which theories of well-being are most plausible? In this rigorous and comprehensive introduction to the topic, Guy Fletcher unpacks and assesses these questions and many more, including:
- Are pleasure and pain the only things that affect well-being?
- Is desire-fulfilment the only thing that makes our lives go well?
- Can something be good for someone who does not desire it?
- Is well-being fundamentally connected to a distinctive human nature?
- Is happiness all that makes our lives go well?
- Is death necessarily bad for us?
- How is the well-being of a whole life related to well-being at particular times?
Annotated further reading and study and comprehension questions follow each chapter, and a glossary of key terms is also included, making The Philosophy of Well-Being essential reading for students of ethics and political philosophy. This title is also suitable for those in related disciplines such as psychology, politics and sociology.
The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being – Guy Fletcher
The concept of well-being is one of the oldest and most important topics in philosophy and ethics, going back to ancient Greek philosophy. Following the boom in happiness studies in the last few years it has moved to centre stage, grabbing media headlines and the attention of scientists, psychologists and economists. Yet little is actually known about well-being and it is an idea that is often poorly articulated.
The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being provides a comprehensive, outstanding guide and reference source to the key topics and debates in this exciting subject.
Comprising over 40 chapters by a team of international contributors, the Handbook is divided into six parts:
- well-being in the history of philosophy
- current theories of well-being, including hedonism and perfectionism
- examples of well-being and its opposites, including friendship and virtue and pain and death
- theoretical issues, such as well-being and value, harm, identity and well-being and children
- well-being in moral and political philosophy
- well-being and related subjects, including law, economics and medicine.
Essential reading for students and researchers in ethics and political philosophy, it is also an invaluable resource for those in related disciplines such as psychology, politics and sociology.
The Good Life – Charles Guignon
Organized around themes such as harmony with one’s self and with the world, right relation to God, the use of reason, self-exploration, and living in a disordered world, the selections in this anthology explore traditional philosophical thought from Plato to de Beauvoir on the topic of human flourishing.
The Republic – Plato
Publisher description: The revised edition of Grube’s classic translation follows and furthers Grube’s noted success in combining fidelity to Plato’s text with natural readability, while reflecting the fruits of new scholarship and insights into Plato’s thought since publication of the first edition in 1974. A new introduction, index, and bibliography by Professor Reeve are included in this new rendering.
Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
Publisher description: The Nicomachean Ethics is one of Aristotle’s most widely read and influential works. Ideas central to ethics—that happiness is the end of human endeavor, that moral virtue is formed through action and habituation, and that good action requires prudence—found their most powerful proponent in the person medieval scholars simply called “the Philosopher.” Drawing on their intimate knowledge of Aristotle’s thought, Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins have produced here an English-language translation of the Ethics that is as remarkably faithful to the original as it is graceful in its rendering.
Aristotle is well known for the precision with which he chooses his words, and in this elegant translation his work has found its ideal match. Bartlett and Collins provide copious notes and a glossary providing context and further explanation for students, as well as an introduction and a substantial interpretive essay that sketch central arguments of the work and the seminal place of Aristotle’s Ethics in his political philosophy as a whole.
The Nicomachean Ethics has engaged the serious interest of readers across centuries and civilizations—of peoples ancient, medieval, and modern; pagan, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish—and this new edition will take its place as the standard English-language translation.
Philosophy and the Good Life – John Cottingham
Publisher description: Can philosophy enable us to lead better lives through a systematic understanding of our human nature? John Cottingham’s thought-provoking study examines three major philosophical approaches to this problem. Starting with the attempts of Classical philosophers to cope with the recalcitrant forces of the passions, he moves on to examine the moral psychology of Descartes, and concludes by analyzing the insights of modern psychoanalytic theory into the human predicament. His study provides a fresh and challenging perspective on moral philosophy and psychology for students and specialists alike.
The Best Things in Life – Thomas Hurka
Publisher description: For centuries, philosophers, theologians, moralists, and ordinary people have asked: How should we live? What makes for a good life?
In The Best Things in Life, distinguished philosopher Thomas Hurka takes a fresh look at these perennial questions as they arise for us now in the 21st century. Should we value family over career? How do we balance self-interest and serving others? What activities bring us the most joy? While religion, literature, popular psychology, and everyday wisdom all grapple with these questions, philosophy more than anything else uses the tools of reason to make important distinctions, cut away irrelevancies, and distill these issues down to their essentials. Hurka argues that if we are to live a good life, one thing we need to know is which activities and experiences will most likely lead us to happiness and which will keep us from it, while also reminding us that happiness isn’t the only thing that makes life good. Hurka explores many topics: four types of good feeling (and the limits of good feeling); how we can improve our baseline level of happiness (making more money, it turns out, isn’t the answer); which kinds of knowledge are most worth having; the importance of achieving worthwhile goals; the value of love and friendship; and much more. Unlike many philosophers, he stresses that there isn’t just one good in life but many: pleasure, as Epicurus argued, is indeed one, but knowledge, as Socrates contended, is another, as is achievement. And while the great philosophers can help us understand what matters most in life, Hurka shows that we must ultimately decide for ourselves.
This delightfully accessible book offers timely guidance on answering the most important question any of us will ever ask: How do we live a good life?
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
Interested in philosophy but don’t know where to start? Check out these resources:
- An Organized Collection of Online Philosophy Resources and Reading Lists
- A History of Western Philosophy in 66 Quotations (and 300+ online resources)
- A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations
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