Feeling Good summary
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Feeling Good Summary | Book by David D. Burns

The New Mood Therapy

Life gets busy. Has Feeling Good been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, learn some of the key ideas now.

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Feeling Good includes an explanation of the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy. It details ways to improve a person’s mood and life by identifying and eliminating common cognitive distortions. Additionally, Feeling Good provides methods to improve communication skills. Exercises are presented throughout the book to help the reader identify cognitive distortions and replace them with healthy beliefs. A revised edition was published in 1999. In 2013, the book was one of 30 titles approved by The Reading Agency as part of one of their projects. The project aimed to recommend self-help books to people suffering from mental health issues.

David Burns’ Perspective

David D. Burns, M.D., is a clinical psychiatrist. His bestselling Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy has sold more than three million copies to date. In a recent national survey of mental health professionals, Feeling Good was rated the most frequently recommended self-help book on depression. This survey included a list of more than one thousand books. His Feeling Good Handbook was rated number two in the same survey.

Dr. Burns has become a popular lecturer for general audiences and mental health professionals. Plus, a frequent guest on national radio and television programs. He has received numerous awards, including the Distinguished Contribution to Psychology Through the Media Award from the Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology. David is a magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Amherst College. Plus, Dr. Burns received his medical degree from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

How Depression Occurs

In the United States, 5.3% of the population has depression. The lifetime risk of depression is 7-8% in adults and higher for women. Forty years ago, the mean age for the onset of depression was 29.5. Today, it has halved to 14.5 years. This reduction in age can be attributed to more significant mental health awareness and social media’s impact on the younger generation. Though rates differ around the developed world, the incidence of depressive illness has risen dramatically since 1900.

Prior to the 1980s, depression had been the cancer of the psychological world. Depression was widespread but difficult to treat. Additionally, the taboos associated with it made the problem worse for most people. Many of these same problems still persist today. As with cancer, finding a ‘cure’ has been the holy grail of depression. Everything from Freudian psychoanalysis to shock treatment has been applied to the problem. Although some of these treatments have had initially promising results, the improvements have not been substantial and are unsustainable. Subsequently, anti-depressants and other medications have been introduced. Although these medications have changed some people’s lives, the problem of depression is still more impactful today than in the past.

Dr. Burns provides an outline of how depression occurs:

  1. An event takes place in the outside world that has the potential to be experienced by you.
  2. You interpret the event through a series of thoughts. These thoughts are called your internal dialogue and impact on how you process the event.
  3. Your feelings are created by your thoughts and not the actual event. In other words, the way you think in any situation will determine how you will feel about it.

Seeing Through Black Magic

In the history of psychiatry, depression has always been seen as an emotional disorder. As a result, most therapy has aimed to help patients get in touch with their feelings. Subsequently, most therapists have believed that maturity means opening up and expressing what’s inside. This is an assumption based on the view that one’s feelings “…represent a higher reality, a personal integrity, a truth beyond question.”

Despite these assumptions, there is a wealth of evidence suggesting depression is not an emotional disorder. This point is supported by one of the most effective depressive treatments, cognitive therapy, not focusing on emotions. Instead, cognitive therapy identifies cognition, or our thoughts, as the cause of depression. The bad feelings associated with depression all stem from negative thoughts. Therefore, treatment must focus on challenging and changing those thoughts.

Burns includes a list of ten ‘cognitive distortions,’ such as all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, disqualifying the positive, jumping to conclusions, and giving ourselves labels. By understanding these distortions, we can better understand the idea that ‘feelings aren’t facts.’ Instead, feelings are only the reflections of our thoughts.

Cognitive Distortions

After introducing readers to the importance of cognition, David Burns outlines the underlying factors. When you interpret an event as negative, you are engaging with cognitive distortions. Burns describes these interpretations as cognitive distortions as you are creating distorted thoughts that lead to unpleasant emotions. Occasionally, events are genuinely unpleasant and need to be interpreted accordingly. However, we still have to remain realistic about these interpretations. For people who suffer from mild levels of depression, those cognitive distortions become habituated. Subsequently, these individuals start perceiving everything in black and white. The following sections will cover the most common cognitive distortions identified by David Burns

All-or-Nothing Thinking

Let’s say that you want to learn stand-up comedy. You took some classes. Then, after a month, you decided to give it a shot and go live. You go on stage and start cracking the lamest jokes because you are nervous, and it is your first time. The audience gets bored and leaves. As a result, you start to think that you never have a chance to become a comedian. In fact, you might even think that you are never going to be good at doing anything. This kind of cognitive distortion is called “All-or-Nothing Thinking.” In essence, you are holding a belief that you will either be good at this skill now or I never will be. This type of cognitive distortion is conveying an exaggeration of a negative event. The event itself is negative, but instead of perceiving it as a passing experience, you hold on to the negative associations.

Mental Filtering

This leads us to the second cognitive distortion, which is called Mental Filtering. Mental filtering involves taking one negative experience from any situation and dwelling on it for an extended period of time. No matter how much time you put into making valuable content, there will be that one guy or girl who will leave a negative comment. They will filter all the value and just leave a comment about the wrong punctuation in one paragraph. People who perceive reality from a mental filter will always find something negative. Therefore, no matter how hard you try to convince them that the event is actually positive, you will fail. Subsequently, David Burns recommends never dwelling on the past as you no longer have control over those decisions. Similarly, do not dwell on others’ opinions as people will always find the negatives in any situation. Plus, you have no control over others’ opinions and decisions.

Jumping to Conclusions

Imagine that you get hit by a car, so you’re on your way to the hospital. The doctors tell you that you just got dizzy, and you’ll be ready to go home in three hours. However, you keep thinking to yourself: “Oh my god, what if I got brain damage? And if my brain is damaged will my girlfriend still want to go out with me?”

This type of cognitive distortion is called Jumping to Conclusions. This distortion involves exaggerating your expectations and projecting to unrealistic conclusions. Specifically, this form of cognitive distortion generally involves making a negative interpretation. This interpretation is made even though no clear facts are supporting your conclusion. 

Jumping to conclusions can be further broken down into two types:

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 your prediction is an already-established fact.

 Since the process of emotion formation happens in a fraction of a second, we have little to no control over it. However, even if those thoughts get distorted, and you fall into a depression, you still have a chance to re-construct them after their occurrence. You have the opportunity to re-frame those distorted thoughts. Subsequently, you also have the opportunity to change your mood. It is scary how one thought can have the power to change someone’s life for the better or the worst.

Magnification and Minimization

“Perfection’ is man’s ultimate illusion. It simply doesn’t exist in the universe… If you are a perfectionist, you are guaranteed to be a loser in whatever you do.”

– David Burns

When you magnify, you look at your errors, fears, or imperfections and exaggerate their importance. This has also been called catastrophizing because you turn commonplace negative events into nightmarish monsters.

In comparison, when you minimize, you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny. Common examples are your own desirable qualities or others’ imperfections. This is also called the “binocular trick.”

Emotional Reasoning

You take your emotions as evidence for the truth. In this instance, your logic is thinking negatively upon yourself, which subsequently convinces you that your whole character is this negative trait. This kind of reasoning is misleading because your feelings reflect your thoughts and beliefs.

Labeling and Mislabeling

“Labeling yourself is not only self-defeating, it is irrational. Your self cannot be equated with any one thing you do. Your life is a complex and ever-changing flow of thoughts, emotions, and actions. To put it another way, you are more like a river than a statue. Stop trying to define yourself with negative labels.”

– David Burns

Labeling refers to your tendency to create a completely negative self-image based on your errors. Mislabeling refers to your tendency to describe an event with words that are inaccurate and emotionally heavily loaded. Both of these cognitive distortions are extreme forms of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to them: “They are a loser.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly emotionally loaded.

Labeling yourself is self-defeating and irrational. Your self cannot be equated with any one thing you do. Your life is a complex and ever-changing flow of thoughts, emotions, and actions. To put it another way, you are more like a river than a statue. Stop trying to define yourself with negative labels.


“Aim for success, not perfection. Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right to be human can, paradoxically, make yourself a happier and more productive person.”

– David Burns

Overgeneralization occurs when you arbitrarily conclude that one thing that happened to you once will occur repeatedly. The pain of rejection is generated almost entirely from overgeneralization. In this instance, you see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

Disqualifying the Positive

Disqualifying the Positive involves transforming neutral or even positive experiences into negative ones. Burns calls this reverse alchemy. Disqualifying the positive is one of the most destructive forms of cognitive distortion. You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for an arbitrary reason. In this way, you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences. If you are unable to even see the positive in positive experiences, then you have a high probability of falling into a depression. 

Should Statements

Should Statements are those that aim to motivate yourself purely by telling yourself that you should do something. However, this is another form of cognitive distortion. Specifically, it means that you are relying on punishment and reward to expect yourself to do anything. The motivation is not truly coming from within. Other common offenders are Musts and Oughts. Burns describes these as precursors to guilt. When you direct Should statements toward others, you will ultimately feel anger, frustration, and resentment. 


Personalization involves assuming responsibility for a negative event when there is no basis for doing so. You see yourself as the primary cause of a negative external event, which in fact, you were not primarily responsible for.

Practical Strategies

David Burns presents us with some practical strategies for dealing with these cognitive distortions.

  1. The first step is to start being mindful enough to catch those automatic negative thoughts and write them down. Don’t let them buzz around in your head.
  2. The second step is to learn precisely how you are twisting things and blowing them out of proportion.
  3. The third step is to substitute a more objective thought that counters the one that made you look down on yourself.

If you hear a thought telling you that you are not good at doing something, then catch that negative thought and write it down. Subsequently, write a more logical and realistic counter thought. Try to identify all the logical reasons for things you are good at, no matter what the thought says. Every morning, read what you have written down. Subsequently, you will wake up to positivity before you go about your day. With time, your subconscious will re-wire itself. So, instead of weighing you down, your thoughts will start naturally boosting your mood. This is the foundation of cognitive-behavioral therapy.


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  1. Loved the summary! I really needed to read this book but had no time – and finally I read the summary. Thank you.

    One suggestion though – please put all the additional links at the end of the summary in a different page. It is very distracting and not pleasing when you see so much detail after reading serious stuff.

    1. You’re welcome and thanks for the suggestion. We’ll look into it!

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