The Cheesiest, Cheapest Book That Just Might Change Your Life

The Cheesiest, Cheapest Book That Just Might Change Your Life

“FEELING GOOD feels wonderful! You owe it to yourself to FEEL GOOD,” italicized red font set against a yolky yellow cover declares. The combined effect is terrifically basic, but as the adage advises, judge at your own risk. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy is the cheapest, cheesiest self-help book that just might change your life.

While Feeling Good’s author David D. Burns, M.D., didn’t invent cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), he’s credited with having brought it to the average Jane back in 1980. Until then, psychodynamic therapy, also known as insight-oriented therapy and pulling from the Freudian model, ruled supreme. But for many of those who didn’t connect to psychodynamic therapy, Feeling Good provided welcome relief.

Nearly 40 years after it was published, Feeling Good rests in the #1 Amazon spot for books on depression and remains one of the most popular psychotherapy books ever written. More than four million copies have been sold in the US alone.

For many of those who didn’t connect to psychodynamic therapy, Feeling Good provided welcome relief.

Over the years, Feeling Good has become a multifaceted brand, inspiring a Silicon Valley-based institute, workshops, a podcast, and free trainings, most of which are oriented toward practitioners. But if you have $6, you can buy the book new and get 700 pages of super-clear, actionable guidance to set you on your way. Here’s a summary of why it’s actually amazing.

The checklist

You should know that CBT, whether self or practitioner-guided, involves lots of checklists. The first one is called the “Burns Depression Checklist.” You answer 25 questions that gage the level of depression you’re experiencing, using common criteria like fatigue and motivation levels.

Cognitive distortions

The book then rolls into a comprehensive, example-filled explanation of 10 “cognitive distortions,” which are basically like common tricks that your brain plays on itself. “Disqualifying the positive,” “jumping to conclusions,” and “should statements” are my BFFs, but I consider all of the cognitive distortions party friends. You’ll have your own problematic favs, but here are a few examples:

  • All-or-nothing thinking
“You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.”
  • Disqualifying the positive“You reject positive experiences by insisting they ‘don’t count’ for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.”
  • Jumping to conclusions
“You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion. A) Mind reading. You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out. B) The fortune teller error. You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that prediction is an already-established fact.”

Got all that? Now go write Burns’ go-to phrase on the chalkboard of your mind until you get down with it: “Feelings aren’t facts.”

Practical applications

Next is a couple of chapters on simple things (lol) like how to build self-esteem, overcome a sense of worthlessness and “do-nothingism,” learn how to talk to your brain, defeat guilt, and calm your anger in the moment. As a right-brained person, I despise charts, but charts really work here because they make things that feel huge when you’re depressed tangible. Take this example:

  • Automatic thoughtI’m always late
  • Cognitive distortionOvergeneralization
  • Rational responseI’m not always late. That’s ridiculous. Think of all the times I’ve been on time. If I’m late more often than I’d like, I’ll work on this problem and develop a method for being more punctual.

Imagine having a brain that talked to itself like that. Burns takes you through how to do it. I come back to this chapter every now and then because, despite years of practice, I am still very far from perfect and love to freak out about everything.

Realistic depressions

Bless Burns, who was among the first in his field to deeply underscore (rather than do a little footnote on the fact) that we may be depressed because the world is actually very shitty sometimes and maybe we’re broke, or terminally ill, or our loved ones have died. He walks us through how to sort these “realistic depressions” from cognitive distortions and how to address them in turn. Might I recommend checking out the “human worth” scale, which is the most succinct explanation of why what you accomplish is not who you are and essentially distills the core of multiple religious texts into an x-y axis?

There are a few other chapters, like “Prevention and personal growth,” “Defeating hopelessness and suicide,” “Coping with the stresses and strains of daily living,” and “The chemistry of mood” that dig into these ideas deeper. People-pleasers, love junkies, work addicts, read on; Burns has recommendations for each of you (OK, fine, us). My favorite chapter in the second half of the book is called “Dare to Be Average! Ways to Overcome Perfectionism.” If any of you enterprising readers make “Dare to Be Average!” tshirts, I’d buy, just sayin.

Multiple scientific peer-reviewed studies have affirmed the efficacy of the Feeling Good methodology.

Unlike many contemporary wellness gurus, Burns, who has taught at Stanford, Harvard, and U.Penn, won’t encourage you to flush your meds or meditate in salt caves or take other drastic approaches to strengthening your emotional wellbeing. Multiple scientific peer-reviewed studies have affirmed the efficacy of Burns’ method; a number have found that Feeling Good “bibliotherapy” (reading therapy) is as effective as in-person therapy or antidepressants. As Burns readily admits, the book needn’t be used as a substitute for either and should be augmented by both if your depression is persistent or severe.

When I found Feeling Good, I didn’t have regular access to IRL therapy; I was living off of a grant that was being dispersed in odd dribs and drabs and feeling painfully homesick in a small country with one therapist that treated English-speaking Westerners. In the intervening years, I’ve replaced my copy close to ten times, as I keep lending it to friends who never give it back.

If you find Feeling Good a self-evident bore, then you’re down $6 and you have this cheesy ’80s gem to display on your shelf. And if you find it helpful, pass it on.