Assembling a best books list of any kind is fraught with the potential to disappoint, dissimulate and devolve into controversy about what books did and did not make the list. I must say up front, I just love that! What better way to provoke thought about what has brought us to this point in our profession’s journey than to reflect on the seminal books, thought leading authors and the most influential theories and concepts that guide our work?

Use the comments feature below and join the conversation about books you would like to see on our future best books lists and share your thinking about how the book has influenced your approach to health promotion.

25 All Time Greatest Books in Health Promotion

Review the abridged descriptions of the books below, from me and fellow chief editors at the American Journal of Health Promotion, and then weigh in with your opinions in the comments section.

Recommended Top Ten by Paul Terry

“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. By Anne Fadiman.

Tensions between science and spiritual beliefs always need to be considered when developing health promotion initiatives and Fadiman’s impeccably researched story illustrates how the primacy of culture agitates already fragile tensions.

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Could Cure the World.  By Tracy Kidder.

Tracy Kidder’s biographical treatise on the trials and tribulations of Dr. Paul Farmer puts inspiration on steroids with a story that makes seemingly impossible health promotion challenges seem downright doable.

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, By Sam Quinones.

I regularly commend “Dreamland” when the subjects of addiction or the opioid pandemic arise. What’s more, I have touted Quinones’s research as a “Silent Spring” equivalent.

Saving Gotham: A Billionaire Mayor, Activist Doctors, and the Fight for Eight Million Lives, by Tom Farley.

It is one thing to learn from textbooks about how to affect life-saving changes in smoking and nutrition policies, but it is another thing altogether to learn from a New York City public health department insider detailing the blow by blow advocacy, politics and decision making needed to make epic changes.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. By Rebecca Skloot.

We are at the cusp of an era where genetic testing and DNA abetted ‘personalized medicine’ is showing the promise of preventing tremendous suffering and saving millions of lives. Much of the distrust of health institutions by Blacks can also be traced to the ethics and treatment inequities between blacks and white that Skloot documents so adeptly.

High-Level Wellness: A collection of twenty-nine short talks on different aspects of the theme “High-Level Wellness for Man and Society.” By Halbert L. Dunn, M.D., Ph.D.

Advocates for health promotion approaches that account for culture, meaning and purpose, agency, social justice, life satisfaction and socio-ecological influences will find that Dunn’s vision for wellness may finally be coming close to realization, albeit, co-opted by a different term.

Thinking, Fast and Slow. By Daniel Kahneman.

Kahneman’s book offers rare insights into how human nature can compete with or come up alongside behavior change efforts. Though Kahneman is a psychologist, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics for his research and writing making concepts such as cognitive bias, loss aversion and prospect theory accessible and understandable for scientists and the public alike.

Health Program Planning: An Educational and Ecological Approach. 4th Edition, by Lawrence Green and Marshall Kreuter.

Our profession’s classic textbook for nearly fifty years is the text that prescribes the diagnostics, assessments and planning processes and tools needed to achieve ambitious population health improvement goals.

Health Behavior: Theory, Research, and Practice, By Karen Glanz, Barbara K. Rimer, K. Viswanath.

The book that offers our field the most comprehensive review of theories of behavior change and research into community health improvement. Each new edition has added to the book’s profusion of case studies and compelling illustrations of successes at improving individual and collective well-being in schools, communities and workplaces.

Rose’s Strategy of Preventive Medicine. By Geoffrey Rose, Kay-Tee Khaw and Michael Marmot. Published by Oxford University Press, USA (2008)

The book’s pioneering work focused on a population wide approach to the prevention of common medical and behavioral disorders has become the classic text on the subject.”

Recommended by Sara Johnson

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.

Mullainathan and Shafir provide countless examples of the ways in which the scarcity of any resource (money, food, time) literally captures the mind, automatically and powerfully redirecting attention to the unfulfilled need.

Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade by Robert Cialdini.

Pre-Suasion is all about focusing attention in the moment before a communication is made or an action is requested. Cialdini provides the evidence for “openers” (i.e., frames, mindsets, primes) that create “privileged moments” in which individuals are more receptive to a given message.

Sara Johnson, PhD, Co-President and CEO, Pro-Change Behavior Systems, Inc., USA. Senior Fellow, The Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO). Chair, The Art and Science of Health Promotion Conference. Co-Editor, Knowing Well-Being Well section of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Recommended by David L. Katz

Planetary Health – Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves. Myers S, Frumkin H (eds).

We can no longer legitimately call ourselves “health” professionals if we do no advocate frequently and fiercely for the health of our planet. If that rant were a hymn, Planetary Health would be the bible providing it a home. This comprehensive text covers what we are doing to harm the planet, and what we must do to heal it. May I get an “amen!”?

Going to Extremes – How Like Minds Unite and Divide. Sunstein C. 

Sunstein explains how information is processed selectively to foment our polarized dissent, and how social networks amplify this liability. Sunstein focuses on the roots of radicalized terrorism and how the confluence of misinformation and misunderstanding beleaguer public health across an expanse from pandemic response, to regulation of toxins, to vaccination policies.

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, Founder and CEO of Diet ID, Inc. President and Founder, True Health Initiative, USA, Co-Editor, Knowing Well-Being Well section of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Recommended by Jennifer Taylor

Reducing Risks for Mental Disorders: Frontiers for Preventive Intervention Research, Editors: Patricia J. Mrazek and Robert J. Haggerty.

This volume is a summary of a national conference based on Institute of Medicine (IOM) workgroups that provides a critical summary of theory and successful prevention/promotion efforts in mental health to that point and set an agenda that has guided work for over 20 years.

Psychology of women’s health:  Progress and challenges in research and application. Stanton, A. L., & Gallant, S. (Eds.)

The authors of this volume have been leaders in the application of psychology to enhancing women’s health and well-being. The volume provides an important summary of both the lessons learned to the date it was published and, perhaps more importantly, provides an agenda for critical research required in the area of women’s health promotion and efforts at prevention of disorder.

Jennifer Taylor, PhD, MBA, Vice President for research at Tennessee Tech University

Recommended by Kerry J. Redican

Is Prevention Better Than Cure? By Louise B. Russell.

While there has been much solid literature documenting cost-effectiveness and cost-benefits to prevention efforts it is good to read Russell’s perspective and be prepared to develop a good response to those critical of prevention.

The Road Less Traveled. By M. Scott Peck.

The late M. Scott Peck was a psychiatrist and his book The Road Less Traveled has the potential to change the way the reader thinks about spirituality. Peck makes no distinction between mind and spirit and he states there is no distinction between the processes of spiritual growth and achieving mental growth. They are one in the same.

Kerry J. Redican, PhD, MPH, CHES, Professor, Population Health Sciences, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA

Recommended by Melinda Ickes

Prescription for a Healthy Nation, by Tom Farley & Deborah Cohen

The authors suggest that the solution to ending the epidemics of major chronic illnesses should not rely on our healthcare system or treatment of symptoms, but rather we should dedicate efforts to prevent behaviors that lead to these illnesses through an ecological lens.

Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink

Drawing on 50 years of behavioral science, Pink references Motivation 3.0, our desire to direct our own lives, to learn, to create, and to better the world (i.e., intrinsic motivation) as a preferred approach. The three elements of true motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—are examined and techniques for putting these into action are given.

Melinda Ickes, PhD, Director of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion. Co-Director of the Tobacco Policy Research Program, University of Kentucky.

Recommended by Michael O’Donnell

Disease Proof: The Remarkable Truth about What Makes Us Well, by David L. Katz, with Stacey Colino.

Katz provides the theoretical framework needed to present a persuasive argument to scientists, policy makers, business leaders and fellow health promotion professionals that not smoking, maintaining healthy weight, being active and eating well could reduce chronic disease for the populations we serve by 80%.

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Society Stronger by Richard Wilkerson and Kate Pickett.

The corrosive link between inequality and health is explained by at least eight mechanism, some of which can be measured in biochemical analysis; and the effects begin in childhood and accumulate throughout a lifespan. Understanding this link between inequality and health helped me understand why it is so difficult for so many people to adopt healthy lifestyle practices.

Michael O’Donnell, MBA, MPH, PhD, CEO, The Art and Science of Health Promotion Institute

Editor’s Note: See also: “Health Promotion in the Workplace” 5th edition, By Michael P. O’Donnell, MBA, MPH, PhD.  To ‘pay it forward’ to our profession, O’Donnell has made this ‘must read’ for those working in workplace based health promotion available as a free PDF online at: https://www.artsciencehpi.com/books

Recommended by Tsitsi Masvawure

The Afterlife is where we come from: the culture of infancy in West Africa, by Alma Gottlieb

This book urges the reader to examine “culture” in relation to the broader context of extreme poverty and global inequities. Written by an anthropologist, the book examines infant mortality among the Beng people in the Ivory Coast and presents a model of how to communicate effectively with infants.

Sizwe’s Test: A young man’s journey through Africa’s AIDS epidemic, by Jonny Steinberg.

Sizwe has to consider the material and reputational costs to himself, his wife and even to his natal family if he tests positive for HIV or if he is seen—by the wrong people—getting an HIV test. The book highlights some unintended negative consequences of health programs.

Tsitsi Masvawure, DPhil, Professor of Practice in Health Studies and Health Studies Program Advisor and Coordinator, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. College of the Holy Cross

Your Opinions on Best Books Wanted!

In a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion I will be publishing full descriptions of the above “Top 25 Best Books of All Time for Health Promotion Professionals.” Any such list is apt to spark a dialogue about what’s missing and I invite you to weigh in with your opinions! Bring on the incredulity! This is your chance to inform a future “top 50” list. Reply with your ideas in the comments section below!

1 Comment

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  1. Nico Pronk 2 months ago

    Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows. The worksite is a complex social system inhabited by people, who are prime examples of complex systems. If we want to really understand how to facilitate change for the better through the pathways of the workplace, we need to grasp, learn, and harness how our complex world really works.

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