Feeling Good

The Big Ideas

  • Events that you experience do not determine your mood.
  • Your thoughts about adverse events determine your mood.
  • Distorted thoughts lead to all sorts of emotional turmoil including depression.
  • Improving the accuracy of your thoughts will help you feel better.
  • Cognitive therapy is at least as effective as antidepressant medications in treating depression.
  • Reading a self-help book or “bibliotherapy” may be as effective as psychotherapy or antidepressant medication.

Neutrino’s Nutshell

Burns contends that feelings are caused by thoughts, and abnormal moods are caused by distorted thoughts. The heart of the book is his list of ten cognitive distortions: all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, mental filtering, discounting positive experiences, jumping to conclusions (which includes the mind-reading error and the fortune-teller error), the binocular trick, emotional reasoning, should statements, labeling, and personalizing.

Distorted thoughts can be fleeting. They can come and go before you are fully aware of them. The main method for capturing and identifying distorted thoughts is to write them down, using a chart where you describe an upsetting situation, the emotions you felt during that situation, your automatic thoughts, the cognitive distortions in your thoughts, and rational responses.

The book shows you how to apply cognitive techniques to many different upsetting situations and emotions, including low self-esteem, procrastination, being criticized, anger, and guilt. It discusses the underlying reasons for emotional distress, including being addicted to approval or to love, basing your value on your work, and perfectionism. In addition to the cognitive techniques, the book also discusses behavioral techniques that are effective in dealing with difficult situations.

The theories and techniques in this book are based on scientific research, which Burns discusses. The book also has a large section on antidepressant drugs, which may now be out of date.

Burns also wrote a book called The Feeling Good Handbook. While there is a good deal of overlap of ideas in Feeling Good and The Feeling Good Handbook, the books do complement each other. Someone who is interested in learning the concepts and techniques might find it worthwhile to read both.


“The question may now occur to you, ‘Is this just another self-help pop psychology?’ Actually, cognitive therapy is one of the first forms of psychotherapy which has been shown to be effective through rigorous scientific research under the critical scrutiny of the academic community.”

IMEO (In My Eudaimonion Opinion)

Although the book is presented as a method for dealing with depression, it may be even more useful for people who aren’t depressed but want an effective way of dealing with common, everyday problems.

For example, one of Burns’ cognitive distortions is the “mind-reading” error, which involves jumping to conclusions about what people are thinking about you, and then becoming so sure of your belief that you don’t even bother to check it out. A common example is when someone doesn’t return your phone call or your email. You may jump to the conclusion that they are deliberately snubbing you – when, in fact, they never got your message in the first place. The mind-reading error here causes unnecessary stress and can even unnecessarily jeopardize a relationship.

By becoming more aware of the cognitive distortions, you are more likely to be able to be able to nip them in the bud before a situation spirals out of control. Instead of fuming, or feeling hurt, because a friend did not return your call, you can be aware that you don’t know why and ask.

Although this is a relatively minor event, the small events of life do add up. By learning to bypass unnecessary feelings of hurt or resentment, you can make your life more peaceful.

Parents can use these techniques to help defuse tense family situations. While the book doesn’t specifically talk about using the techniques with children, some kids might enjoy learning about the cognitive distortions, doing some of the exercises, and filling out some of the simpler worksheets.

Take Action, humanoid!

Here’s a three-step approach to overcoming procrastination when you are avoiding doing a specific task that you know would be good for you, but seems too difficult:

1. Make a list of the good things that will happen as a result of completing the task you’ve been avoiding.

2. Every night before you go to sleep, imagine yourself in a beautiful, peaceful setting. Allow yourself to relax.

3. Picture yourself, in that beautiful setting, having already completed the task. Think about all the good things you wrote on your list, and repeat them to yourself, one by one, as if they were happening now. For each item, say to yourself, “Now I can do [good thing from the list], and I like it.”

The Deets

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy
Author: David D. Burns, M.D
Publication Date: 1999

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