Psychology Classics

Book Cover Image

A Guide To Rational Living
Albert Ellis & Robert Harper

A Guide To Rational Living is one of the most enduring books in the self-help/popular psychology literature, selling over a million copies. Since it was published over 40 years ago thousands of 'inspirational' titles have come and gone, but it continues to change people's lives. Why?

The book brought to public attention a new form of psychology, 'rational emotive therapy' (RET), that went against decades of orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis and sparked a revolution in psychology.

RET says that emotions do not arise as a result of repressed desires and needs, as Freud insisted, but directly from our thoughts, ideas, attitudes and beliefs. It is not the mysterious unconscious that matters most to our psychological health, but the most humdrum statements that we say to ourselves on a daily basis. Added up together, these represent our philosophy of life, one which can quite easily be altered if we are willing to change what we habitually say to ourselves.

Albert Ellis began his career working in the Freudian psychoanalytical tradition, but came to the conclusion that going deeper into a person's history and troubles did not actually have much positive benefit. His focus only on 'what worked' led him to the counterintuitive view that thoughts generate emotions, not the other way around. Reasoning your way out of emotional tangles seems doubtful, but Ellis's pioneering ideas, and four decades of cognitive psychology, have shown that it does indeed work.

Watching your internal sentences

Human beings, the authors note, are language-creating animals. We tend to formulate our emotions and our ideas in terms of words and sentences. They effectively become our thoughts and emotions. Therefore, if we are basically the things that we tell ourselves, any type of personal change requires us to first look at our internal conversations. Do they serve us, or undermine us?

Talk therapy aims to reveal the 'errors in logic' that people believe to be true. If, for instance, you are having terrible feelings of anxiety or fear, you are asked to track back to the original thought in the sequence of thoughts that led to your current anxiety. You will invariably find that you are saying things to yourself such as 'Wouldn't it be terrible if...' or 'Isn't it horrible that I am...'  It is at this point that you have to intervene and ask yourself why exactly it would be so terrible if such and such happened, or whether your current situation is really as bad as you say. And ven if it is, will it last forever?

This sort of self-questioning at first seems naïve, but by doing it you begin to see just how much your internal sentences shape your life. After all, if you label some event a 'catastrophe', it surely will become so. You can only live up to your internal statements, whether they make something good, bad or neutral.

Nearly always a choice

Ellis and Harper challenge the reader to accept that it is not people or things themselves that cause us upset and anguish, but what we tell ourselves about those people or things. They cite the  Roman philosopher Epictetus, who said: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.” Also quoted is the famous line from Shakespeare's Hamlet: “There's nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

People think they are unhappy because of a marriage, or a job, or an illness – but it is always our perception of these things that matters most. The book notes that it is “virtually impossible to sustain an emotional outburst without bolstering it by repeated ideas”. Something will remain 'bad' in your mind only as long as you tell yourself it is. If you do not keep creating the bad feeling, how could it possibly endure? Granted, if you are experiencing physical pain, you cannot simply ignore the pain, but once it is over there is no automatic link between stimulus and feeling. Even with the death of a loved one, you cannot continue to experience depression over the death unless you keep reminding yourself 'How terrible it is that this person is now gone!'.

If you can't accept this, consider the pleasant feelings you have. After you have enjoyed a symphony or seen a play, you cannot keep feeling the positive emotions they sparked without going back in your mind to certain passages or scenes. Emotions need to be generated in order to be felt. Sustained emotion of any type requires thinking, and it is usually thinking of an evaluative type, that is, your judgment about a situation or person.

People make the mistake of thinking that emotion 'just happens' in response to something, but in fact this is rare. Some types of anger are a direct response to a situation which relate to our inbuilt survival mechanisms. These are biologically rooted reactions. Generally though, it is thoughts you generate that determine the quality of your emotional life.

Never being 'desperately unhappy' again

Despite our great technological advances, human beings are little more advanced emotionally than in previous times. How is it that we have conquered space and the atom, but most of us cannot get ourselves out of bad moods? As we have advanced materially, it seems the level of neurosis and psychosis in society has only risen; the main challenge for people today is gaining control over their emotional lives.

In a chapter titled 'The art of never being desperately unhappy', the authors argue that misery and depression are always states of mind, since they are self-perpetuated. When you are dejected after the loss of a relationship or a job, for instance, this feeling is quite understandable.  However, if you allow the feeling to linger, its builds strength. Things snowball so that we become 'miserable with our own misery', instead of trying to see the situation rationally.

Even in the 1960s, Ellis was saying that drugs were only OK in treating depression - once a person stopped taking them, they tended to become depressed again. Permanent change  required a person to actually change their thinking so that they could 'talk themselves out of' persistent negative feeling whenever it surfaced. He shrewdly observed that some people secretly enjoy being depressed, because they don't have to take any action to change. In some cases, we have to decide that we will not be depressed, and our feelings alter accordingly.

Presented for the first time with the concepts of rational emotive therapy, many people complained to Ellis and Harper that a more rational frame of mind would surely turn them into an unfeeling robot. Surely it is only human to feel? Yes, they responded, but life does not have to be a roller coaster of emotion in order to be really lived. We need not deny ourselves emotional intensity, but should be able to feel without losing control of our lives; to be sad for an appropriate amount of time when something bad happens, but no longer than necessary. We will be no less human for this.

Final word

Are human beings rational or irrational beings? We are both, this book says. We are brainy - but still go in for puerile, idiotic, prejudiced, selfish behavior anyway. The key to a good life is applying rationality to the most irrational sphere of life, the emotions.

In the emphasis on disciplining our own thinking, and finding a middle way between extreme emotion, there are some definite echoes of Buddhism in the rational emotive approach. It acknowledges that whatever happened in your past, it is the present that matters and what you can do now to alleviate it. Ellis discovered this himself as a boy. With a troubled bipolar-affected mother, and a father often away on business trips, he took responsibility for his younger siblings, making sure they got dressed and off to school each day. When he himself was hospitalized with kidney problems, his parents rarely visited him. Ellis learned that you don't have to get upset by situations unless you allow yourself to be, that there is always room for control of one's reactions. While his brand of therapy may seem hard-nosed, in fact it represents a very optimistic view of people.

This is not an 'inspirational' book, but the effect of reading A Guide To Rational Living can be just that. It helps anyone to understand how their emotions are generated, and crucially, how a reasonably happy and productive life can be yours through more care and discipline in your thinking. Its topics include lessening the need for approval, conquering anxiety, 'how to be happy though frustrated', and eradicating fear of failure. Consistent with its content, the book has a wonderfully clear and straightforward style. Get the updated and revised third edition, which contains a new chapter on research supporting the principles behind, and techniques of, RET.


Source: 50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do. Insight and inspiration from 50 key books (Nicholas Brealey, London & Boston), Tom Butler-Bowdon.

50 Psych Classics Book Cover

50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do: Insight and Inspiration from 50 Key Books

"At long last a chance for those outside the profession to discover that there is so much more to psychology than just Freud and Jung. 50 Psychology Classics offer a unique opportunity to become acquainted with a dazzling array of the key works in psychological literature almost overnight".

Dr Raj Persaud, Consultant Psychiatrist, The Maudsley Hospital London, Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry

"This delightful book provides thoughtful and entertaining summaries of 50 of the most influential books in psychology. Its a "must read" for students contemplating a career in psychology".

VS Ramachandran MD PhD, Professor and Director, Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego

"A brilliant synthesis. The author makes complex ideas accessible and practical, without dumbing down the material. I found myself over and over thinking, 'Oh, that's what that guy meant'.

Douglas Stone, Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, author of Difficult Conversations



Reflections on the great teachings and lessons from self-development, psychology and philosophy. Free, please join!

Your details will not be shared with anyone.

Albert Ellis    

Born in 1913 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Ellis was raised in New York City. He gained a business degree at the City University of New York, and unsuccessfully tried a career in business. He also tried and failed at becoming a writer of fiction.

Having written some articles on human sexuality, in 1942 Ellis entered the clinical psychology program at Columbia University. On obtaining his master's degree in 1943 he launched a part-time private practice in family and sex counseling, and in 1947 earned his doctorate.  He held positions at Rutgers and New York University, and as senior clinical psychologist at the Northern New Jersey Mental Hygiene Clinic.

Ellis’s ideas were slow to be accepted by the American psychological establishment, but today he is considered, along with Aaron Beck, to be the father of cognitive behavior therapy. The Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy, founded in 1959, continues to disseminate his ideas. See also the biography The Lives of Albert Ellis by Emmet Velten.

The author of more than 600 academic papers, Ellis' 70-plus books include How to Live With a Neurotic, The Art and Science of Love, Sex Without Guilt, The Art and Science of Rational Eating and How to Make Yourself Stubbornly Refuse to be Miserable About Anything – Yes, Anything.

Ellis died in 2007. His work is continued by the Albert Ellis Institute.

Robert A Harper is a former president of the American Association of Marriage Counselors and the American Academy of Psychotherapists. He has a PhD from Ohio State University, and since 1953 has been in private practice in Washington DC. Other books include Creative Marriage (with Albert Ellis) and 45 Levels to Sexual Understanding and Enjoyment (with Walter Stokes). ©2015 All rights reserved.
Sf Close