The main idea behind the book ‘A Guide To Rational Living’ is that our irrational thoughts and beliefs are the root cause behind most of the emotional disturbances that we experience.

The author, Albert Ellis (1913 – 2007) was one of the most influential psychotherapists to have lived. He pioneered Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) which gained widespread popularity in the 1960s and is the foundation for this book.


Read this book summary in 10 Minutes

A Guide To Rational Living



  • “People and things are not in themselves upsetting. Rather, it is our telling ourselves that they are upsetting which upsets us.”
  • “Rational living, like all aspects, is a process, an ongoing attempt, an experiment; it is hardly a product or a final result.”
  • The aim of adopting Rationality is not to be more happy, but rather –to straighten out one’s thinking so that one is chronically less unhappy.
  • Irrational Philosophies: “Isn’t it terrible that…?” “Wouldn’t it be awful if… ?”
  •  DISPUTE Irrational Philosophies: “Why would it be so terrible that…?” “Would it really be so awful if…?”
  • The three musts that hold us back: I must do well, you must treat me well and the world must be easy.
  • “The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the economy, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.” 
A Guide To Rational Living Summary

“A Guide To Rational Living” by Albert Ellis Summary




Not only do we have the ability to think, but we also perceive, feel and act at the same time. To depend entirely on one’s reasoning ability to navigate through life would be foolish, as the author clarifies:

“Reason, when carried to extremes can become inefficient and self-sabotaging. If every time we reasoned whether tying our shoelace or with any other mundane task- whether it was the ‘right’ or ‘best’ thing to do, our reason would be of hindrance and lead one to be unhappy yet rational.”

Addressing the misconception that many critics of rational therapy tend to hold, Ellis clarifies that adopting rationality is not synonymous to living a cold, unfeeling and mechanical existence. On the contrary, he argues:

“Human reason… includes and decidedly makes allowances for emotionality, unthinking habit performance, and whatever else is needed for an effective, anxiety-minimized existence.” 

“…human emotion, sensitivity, creativity, and art are normally as rational as they could possibly be.“

Ellis clarifies: “…life is truly rational only when it is experienced for the purpose of making the liver less unhappy and more satisfied with his existence.”



“The human individual has four basic processes, all of which are indispensable to his behaving adequately and all of which are interconnected: ( 1) He perceives or senses-that is, sees, tastes, smells, feels, hears. (2) He moves or acts-walks, eats, swims, throws, climbs, and so forth. (3) He feels or emotes-loves, hates,  fears, becomes guilty, feels depressed. ( 4) He reasons or thinks, remembers, imagines, hypothesizes, concludes and solves problems.

Ordinarily, these four basic processes are not experienced in isolation by the human adult. Take, first of all, perceiving. If a man perceives or senses something (for example, sees an apple), he also tends, at the very same time, to think about it (figure out whether it is suitable food). And, to have some feelings about it (to desire or not to desire it); as well as to do something about it ( to pick it up or throw it away).” 

“…We function, then, as a single organism-perceiving, moving, thinking, and emoting simultaneously and interrelatedly. These four basic life processes are not distinctly different ones, each of which begins where the others leave off. Instead, they all significantly overlap and are in some respects aspects of the same thing.”  [p18; Albert Ellis, A Guide To Rational Living.] 



Some people perceive, move, THINK and feel, whereas others perceive, move, think and FEEL. The latter predominantly feel, whilst the former are those who predominantly think.

Here’s an example to clarify:

The thinking person may notice moldy bread, remember that eating the moldy part of the bread previously made them ill, and therefore cut the moldy part and eat the remainder. One the other hand, the emotional individual may see the same piece of bread and remember so violently or prejudicially -his previous experience with the moldy part, that he throws away all of the bread!

In this scenario, the thinking person uses maximum information available to him (moldy bread is bad, but not-moldy bread is good). The emoting individual, however, uses only part of the information (moldy bread is unpleasant).

Thus, Ellis argues, the thinking individual is a person who is able to make better, more informed decisions because he is less biased by previous experiences. Also, he can consider his past experiences without being overwhelmed by them.



“Man, in competition with other animals, once had the problem of seeing, moving, and thinking better than they did, in order to ensure his own survival. Today, after inventing eyeglasses, radar, aircraft, electronic calculators, and other perceiving-moving-thinking aids, he rules supreme on this earth and is literally seeking other worlds to conquer.

 Only in the emotional area has man as yet made remarkably few advances. In spite of amazing progress in other areas, he still is not appreciably more emotionally mature, stable, and happy than he was in past centuries.” Indeed, he is in some ways more childish, emotionally uncontrolled, and mentally ill than ever.” [p18; Albert Ellis, A Guide To Rational Living.]



To put simply, there are two types of pain that an individual may experience. The first, is physical pain which one may experience from eg. a headache, being physically assaulted, an accident, etc. The second is psychological pain, which is experienced over e.g. rejection, the loss of a family member, or from being anxious or depressed.

With physical pain, you don’t have much control over, as something could literally fall on you or you could be in an accident. Although these events are unfortunate, Ellis tells us that one can make the pain that they experience as a result of the event significantly worse, merely with the attitudes they hold.

 To demonstrate: if you have a headache and keep telling yourself how terrible the pain is and how unfair it is that you have been afflicted with it, then you will tend to prolong and intensify your discomfort. If you tell yourself that it is unfortunate that you have a headache and that it is not so bad since it is something that happens to people… then you don’t add to the discomfort and the pain eventually subsides.

The author further clarifies: “Sustained emotion, in particular, normally stems from sustained thought. And, since adult human beings usually think in terms of internalized phrases and sentences, or self-talk, they sustain their emotions by talking to themselves or by telling themselves certain kinds of sentences.

In general, negative emotions, such as feelings of depression, anxiety, anger, and guilt are intensified and sustained by such self-propagandizing sentences as “This is awful!” “I can’t stand that!” And positive emotions, such as love, joy, and elation, are intensified and sustained by sentences such as “This is fine!” or “I like that!” Because this is so, human emotions can often be radically controlled or changed by determining precisely the kind of sentences lying behind them and then by changing these sentences.


A Guide To Rational Living Summary


“No matter what a person’s past history may be… he only remains disturbed because he still believes some of the unrealistic and illogical thoughts which he originally imbibed.

 To become undisturbed, therefore, it is only necessary that he see what his present irrational self-indoctrinations are. Then he needs to energetically and consistently work at de-indoctrinating and re-indoctrinating himself in these connections.

 His understanding of how he first became neurotic may be of some help, but it is most unlikely that it will be truly curative.

 The job of the neurotic is to uncover and understand the basic unrealistic ideas with which he is disturbing himself; to see clearly the misinformation and illogic behind these ideas. Then, on the basis of better information and clearer thinking, to change the notions which lie behind and keep creating his disturbance.” [p51; Albert Ellis, A Guide To Rational Living.]



What we tell ourselves, or in other words –our internal dialogue, is one of the main causes behind our depression.  

A patient of the author who was seeking therapy argued liked many -that their depression was brought on unconsciously and that they had no control over it, to which Ellis advised:

“The best you can do, at first, is to observe your depressed states after they have already arisen. And then to see, by theoretical analysis and inference, that you must have brought them on by telling yourself some nonsense.”

 “…this will often be difficult. For once your depression sets in, as you noted a while ago, you don’t feel like un-depressing yourself again; you almost want to stay depressed. And unless you combat this feeling, and actively go after your underlying sentences with which you created your depression, you will, of course, stay quite miserable.

 Thus, in one sense, the depressed individual faces a dilemma: to remain depressed indefinitely or to force themselves to tackle those negative feelings by observing what they did to create it in the first place.

  “A tough choice,” writes Ellis… “But if you keep taking the lesser of these two evils. That is –combating your negative feelings, then eventually the time comes when your basic philosophy of life matures. As a result, you will depress yourself much more rarely to begin with and have an easier time getting yourself out of your vile mood when you do unconsciously put yourself in one.” [p192; Albert Ellis, A Guide To Rational Living]



“When you are, for any reason, overwhelmed with anxiety, anger, depression, or guilt, you should always realize that it is invariably not outward people and events that are causing you to feel these negative emotions, but your own illogical internalized sentences. Even in the midst of these feelings, you can still generally look objectively at your own verbalizations. You then ferret out the irrational links in their chains (the shoulds, the oughts, and musts which you have illegitimately woven into them), and vigorously question and challenge these irrationalities.”



Anxiety is very much approachable and controllable by straight thinking, Ellis tells us. In fact, he says, most of our anxiety-related issues in modern life stem from an over-concern about what others think of us.

To overcome anxiety, disputing one’s present irrational philosophies is essential, as outlined in the book:

“Track your worries and anxieties back to the specific sentences of which they consist. Invariably, you will find that you are telling yourself:

“Isn’t it terrible that…” “Wouldn’t it be awful if…”

 Forcefully ask yourself:

“Why would it be so terrible that…?” “Would it really be so awful if…?”

Certainly, if this or that happened it might well be inconvenient, annoying, or unfortunate. But would it really be catastrophic?

 In addition, to overcome any specific anxiety, Ellis writes:

 “…verbal and active de-propagandization are usually essential. You must first realize that you created the anxiety by your internalized sentences, and you must vigorously and persistently ferret out these sentences and challenge and contradict them. Then you must also push yourself to do the thing you are senselessly afraid of and act against your fear.” [p141; Albert Ellis, A Guide To Rational Living]



Here are 2 insights collected from the book, to help an individual effectively deal with past influences:

“Accept the fact that your past is important and that you are bound to be significantly influenced by it in many ways. But accept, equally, the fact that your present is your past of tomorrow. You cannot today make a single right-about-turn and be an entirely different person from the one you were yesterday. But you can start changing yourself significantly today so that eventually you will be quite a different individual. By doing new kinds of thinking and undergoing new experiences in the present.” 

Objectively acknowledging your past errors, instead of moralistically blaming yourself for them, you can learn to use your disadvantageous past for your own present and future benefit. Instead of automatically repeating your past mistakes because you once made them, you can calmly observe and question these misdeeds.” [p161; Albert Ellis, A Guide To Rational Living]


Get Your Copy of the book: A Guide To Rational Living by Albert Ellis

Or, Read More Book Summaries…


Leave a Reply