Our Favorite Books of 2014By Jill Suttie, Jeremy Adam Smith | December 8, 2014 | 0 comments
Greater Good's editors pick the most thought-provoking, important, or useful nonfiction books published this year on the science of a meaningful life.
Trust is the social glue that allows us to do more together than we could ever do alone. But trustworthiness is a moving target, argues psychologist David DeSteno, dependent on our moods, circumstances, and competing needs; therefore, it’s best to learn how trusts works if we want to connect with others without being taken for a ride.
As social animals, we’ve developed shortcuts for knowing whom to trust—“gut reactions,” based on subtle cues, like folding arms across one’s chest or leaning back—that signal someone is untrustworthy. While some of these can be quite accurate, others are subject to manipulation and prejudice, which DeSteno demonstrates with ingenious science experiments. Some of his findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom—most notably, the view that trustworthiness is a fixed trait. Instead, he argues, being trustworthy depends on an internal calculus, where we weigh the benefits versus the costs of acting with integrity in any given situation.
Our ability to predict our own trustworthiness—like trusting ourselves to refrain from adultery—is hampered by our inability to predict future cost/benefits and by our tendency to rationalize our own behavior. He argues that we should work toward nurturing our trusting nature and our trustworthiness if we want to succeed in life and contribute to a more harmonious society.
Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, by Nicholas Epley
Though we humans are equipped with a brain specially attuned to predict what others are thinking, feeling, and planning, there are many cases in which our “mindreading” powers lead us astray. Social psychologist Nicholas Epley presents fascinating research on how our social brains work and why we sometimes can’t look beyond our own preconceptions.
Epley suggests we have a tendency to overestimate our “mindreading” abilities, ascribing to people intentions they don’t have, based on our projections of how we would act in a certain situation and on our assumption that others think like us when they don’t. We also err in the other direction: exaggerating perceived differences between members of other social groups and ourselves, which can lead to stereotyping.
The sad conclusion is that we may underestimate the richness and variety of other people’s minds (while not depreciating our own), creating misunderstandings and even dehumanization. To counteract this, we need to better understand the way our minds work and consciously deeply listen to those who are different than us.
Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character, by Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono
Many parents worry that our modern culture, with its focus on materialism, will make their kids spoiled and entitled. But, while culture can have a negative impact, researchers Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono suggest ways parents can avoid this outcome: by helping kids develop gratitude.
Research has shown that grateful kids have all kinds of advantages later in life—better relationships, higher levels of happiness and optimism, and more commitment to community, to name a few. Froh and Bono’s book outlines that research and provides thirty-two research-based tips for parents to encourage gratitude in their children. Much of what they suggest falls into the category of overall good parenting—i.e. being present for your kids, encouraging their talents, and providing needed support. In other cases, their tips involve specific gratitude practices, as well as role-modeling the gratitude behavior you want to see in your kids.
But, their goals go beyond wanting parents to enjoy their kids more: “The ultimate function that gratitude may serve in human development…is to help individuals find their own life story for elevating others and to make a difference in the world,” they write.
The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment, by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener
“Every emotion is useful,” write the authors of The Upside of Your Dark Side. “Even the ones we think of as negative, including the painful ones.”
Kashdan and Biswas-Diener delve deep into the research to understand why “negative” states like anger or sadness have evolved; they also look at what happens when positive emotions aren’t restrained by negative ones that may cause us to reflect, take a stand against unfairness, or speak our minds. Of course, not all anger is useful; not all sadness is healthy. This is where the book shines: The authors tease out the differences between, for example, anger and rage, and then provide very concrete tips for managing negative states so that they don’t run out of control.
But The Upside of Your Dark Side also contains a larger cultural critique of movements for greater happiness and well-being. Positive emotions are good, argues this book, but focusing excessively on them can cut us off from our whole selves.
Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, by Roman Krznaric
Roman Krznaric, a philosopher and founding faculty member of London’s School of Life, explains how we humans are wired for empathy and why empathy is so important to cultivate.
Science shows that we literally have brain circuits devoted to trying to understand how another person is feeling and to “feel with” them. Yet there are social, political, and psychological barriers to feeling empathy that can get in the way. Krznaric’s book argues that we need to understand these barriers and find ways to overcome them if we are to create the compassionate society we want.
Empathy is not about pity or sympathy, he writes, but about truly putting yourself in another’s worldview and treating them accordingly—“Do unto others as they would want you to do unto them.” He outlines six habits of highly empathic people—i.e. immersing yourself in another culture, engaging in conversation with people who don’t share your views, or joining a choir with people from many walks of life—as a way of decreasing prejudice and developing empathy.
Mindful Discipline: A Loving Approach to Setting Limits and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, by Shauna Shapiro and Chris White
Parents may be tempted to yell or punish children who are misbehaving or noncompliant. But while anger, yelling, and punishment may seem like the natural and appropriate response in the moment, research has shown that these responses can be damaging to children’s self-esteem and the parent/child relationship, and can lead to problems like depression, anxiety, or even drug abuse and delinquency in children later on.
Two books tackle the problem of raising recalcitrant kids, by offering solutions that are both more compassionate and successful than traditional disciplinary tactics.
Renner, a nurse and parent educator, suggests four strategies for disciplining kids: using communication that is short and non-blaming; giving your child choices which are real and simple; having consequences for noncompliance that make sense for your child’s developmental level; and fostering connection. The goal in these strategies, she argues, is to help preserve the relationship with your child while working within their developmental limitations to shape their behavior in appropriate directions.
Shapiro, a mindfulness researcher, and White, a pediatrician, argue that parents can best deal with the challenges of parenting by first understanding their own reactions to challenging situations, practicing kind awareness, and developing more emotional regulation, so they can discern the right course of action within any given situation. Their book outlines five strategies aimed at keeping the parent/child relationship strong, while helping kids to become more self-disciplined: providing unconditional love, space for children to be themselves, mentoring that helps children understand how the world works, appropriate boundaries to keep them safe, and opportunities to learn from mistakes.
Both books have their strengths and, in many ways, echo each other. Those readers who want a more prescriptive, entertaining approach may choose Renner’s book, while those seeking a more flexible philosophy of parenting may choose Shapiro and White’s. In either case, these books help fill an important role—of helping parents to keep their cool under pressure so that they can raise self-disciplined, resilient kids.
All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, by Jennifer Senior
While there are many parenting books that give guidance around how to take care of kids, few look at how becoming a parent changes parents themselves. Senior, a contributing editor to New York magazine, fills that gap, examining the formidable challenges of parenting, while explaining how it can also bring meaning and joy to one’s life.
Parenting can decrease everyday peace and happiness, because of physical challenges (like not being able to get enough sleep), relationship challenges (like arguing over divisions of labor), and work challenges (like not being able reach a state of flow). Some of these challenges are caused by unreasonable expectations parents put on themselves; but society also plays a part, urging parents to do more for kids while giving them less support.
Though much of Senior’s book is focused on the dark side of parenting, she does extol its virtues, too—like the ways very young kids help us unplug from our conventional lives, while surprising us with the depth of their knowledge and love. The joy of parenting, she argues, comes in large part from the meaning we find in being parents…which may explain why we continue to have them.
Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, by Daniel Siegel
Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, by Laurence Steinberg
The cultural view that impulsive teen behavior is due to “raging hormones” is outdated and just plain wrong. These two books explain what’s actually going on in teens’ lives and what we can do to support and nurture them on their path to adulthood.
Their advice rests on what scientists now understand about the human brain and teen development. During adolescence, the brain starts to become more efficient by “pruning” out neural connections that are less needed, making adolescence a period of both great neural reorganization and creativity.
At the same time, the social-emotional circuitry of the limbic system becomes amplified, and teens suddenly feel their own feelings more intensely are more sensitive to others. And since the seat of their self-control—the frontal cortex—doesn’t fully consolidate until the mid-twenties, teens are at risk for acting before they think.
Both Siegal and Steinberg advocate that parents maintain close connections and healthy attachments through the teen years. Siegel suggests that parents and teens work on understanding how their emotions drive their behaviors in order to manage their reactions with more insight and compassion—something he calls “Mindsight.” Steinberg suggests an authoritative parenting style, mixing reasonable limits on behavior with responsiveness to their emotional needs. Both suggest learning more about actual teenage needs and responding from a place of understanding and support rather than judgment.
Steinberg, in particular, criticizes policy-makers and educators don’t consider developmental changes when interacting with teens. He has been influential in making social policy changes to support teens—for example, by acting as a key witness in the Supreme Court case that abolished the death penalty for juveniles. His book outlines other ways society can help teens thrive.
Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why, by Scott Weems
You may assume that the appreciation of humor is too idiosyncratic to study scientifically; but you’d be wrong. Psychologist Scott Weems has delved into the science of laughter and come up with an entertaining read about what humor is and what it does for our brains, our health, and our relationships.
It’s true that not everyone finds the same jokes funny. But the common thread in different types of humor is that they all involve dealing with surprise and resolving the ensuing cognitive dissonance in the brain—neural processing that has benefits in other realms of our lives, such as creativity and insight.
Laughing at jokes also releases the feel-good hormone dopamine in the brain, and can increase blood flow and strengthen the heart, much like aerobic exercise does. Perhaps that’s why a sense of humor often tops the list of desirable qualities in a mate.
People say that “laughter is the best medicine,” and laughter has indeed been shown to decrease pain and to reduce stress. Weems suggests laughing at jokes even if they aren’t funny is a good strategy. It will make your life happier and healthier and, because laughter is contagious, spread good feelings to those around you.
Positive Computing: Technology for Wellbeing and Human Potential, by Rafael A. Calvo and Dorian Peters
It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, by danah boyd
Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, by Gabriele Oettingen
Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, by Susan Pollak, Thomas Pedulla, and Ronald Siegel
Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness in and out of the Classroom, by Meena Srinivasan
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About The Author
Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine.