Our Ten Favorite Books of 2012By Jill Suttie, Vicki Zakrzewski, Jeremy Adam Smith, Jason Marsh | December 26, 2012 | 0 comments
Greater Good's editors pick ten of the most thought-provoking, important, useful, or moving nonfiction books we read this year.
Nancy Bardacke, a Bay Area midwife, has worked with pregnant women for decades, helping them prepare for the difficulties of childbirth. Inspired by the teachings of Jon Kabat-Zinn—the researcher who developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a secularized version of Buddhist mindfulness meditation that has helped thousands of medical patients decrease their pain and suffering from illness—Bardacke created a mindfulness-based birthing and parenting curriculum, which she has now taught for the last 14 years. Offered through the University of San Francisco’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, her program has been studied and found to be effective at reducing stress, anxiety, and depression in pregnant women.
In Mindful Birthing, Bardacke explains how various meditation practices—like breath awareness, acceptance of moment to moment experiences, yoga, body scans, and others—can be applied to pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenting. Her book includes an outline of her curriculum, detailed descriptions of the exercises, and information on research supporting the practices. Illuminating stories from her course participants, including how they learned to deal with the pain of childbirth using mindfulness, make the book come alive.
Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame, by Christopher Boehm
Christopher Boehm is Director of the Jane Goodall Research Center and professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at the University of Sourthern California. In Moral Origins, he offers a new theory about the evolutionary sources of altruism: that moral outlaws like thieves, freeriders, and psychopaths are the most likely to be the targets of punishment by the group—and conversely, the group will single out altruists for survival. As a result, humans have bred themselves for conscience.
“The original, punitive type of social selection gave us a conscience,” he writes, “but by providing such efficient free-rider suppression, it later made it possible for altruistic traits to evolve as strongly as they have.” This evolution over thousands of generations refined itself into traits like the blush response (a sign of shame in front of the group) and emotional identification with rules. Its from these evolutionary advances that morality was born.
Whether you agree with his argument or not, Moral Origins is a superb primer on evolution and theories of altruism. It ends with an epilogue on “Humanity’s Moral Future.” This reveals that Boehm is no Pollyanna; there is much in our evolutionary history that could feed our destruction as a species. And yet he argues that we can still find hope in that ancient drive towards fairness and equality that we embraced when our species was still in its infancy.
Often the more talkative, gregarious person in a group is considered the most powerful and influential. But Susan Cain makes the case in Quiet that introversion—the tendency to be more reserved and reflective—is associated with sometimes overlooked positive benefits, like creativity, innovation, and perseverance.
Contrary to popular belief, introverts often make the best leaders, because they tend to listen well and have great emotional empathy—skills useful for getting the most out of your team. The propensity toward looking inward and weighing options carefully, rather than pushing through one’s own agenda, is a great asset in business, and something introverts are better suited to do. And, an introvert’s ability to work alone with intense focus has helped spark innovation in many businesses.
Cain sounds the alarm that, as a society, we are losing out on the power of introversion when we structure our workplaces and schools to accommodate extroverts—e.g., with open office plans and school desks pushed into circles to foster more interaction. She suggests we take note of how to nurture introversion or risk losing their important contributions to society.
The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live—and How You Can Change Them, by Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley
Science has been revealing much about how our minds work, from how we make decisions to who we choose to love. But according to the distinguished neuroscientist Richie Davidson, author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain, when it comes to our emotions, the brain is a two-way street: While our brain shapes our emotional lives, we can also influence our emotional makeup through concentrated effort.
Distilling decades of research on the neurological bases of emotions, Davidson claims that there are six dimensions of emotional style—resilience, general outlook (positive or negative), social intuition, self-awareness, sensitivity to context, and attention style (the ability to screen out distractions)—each reflecting activity in specific brain circuits and structures. All of us fall somewhere along a continuum between high and low on each of these dimensions, depending on how our individual brains are wired.
But, science has also shown us that we can change our emotional make up through conscious thought, using techniques like mindfulness meditation. Though many other books making similar points, Davidson’s book gives us a history of the science behind this claim, showing how just how the interaction between our brain and our emotions works.
The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gotschall
We humans spend an enormous amount of time engrossed in stories—whether we’re reading books, watching movies, conversing with friends, or even spinning our own stories through dreams and daydreams. Not only do stories have the power to absorb our attention, they can make us more empathic, help us navigate our complex social world, and even draw us together as a community, writes Jonathan Gotschall in The Storytelling Animal.
Gotschall shows how and why we seem to be so attuned to stories, from an evolutionary perspective. Storytelling may have evolved to provide a way to pass on complex information to others and make it memorable or to act as a kind of social glue to help society members bond with and care for one another.
Whatever the origins, our brains are geared to react to storytelling. Mirror neurons—those brain cells that allow us to experience the emotions of another person, like feeling sad when we see a sad person—also fire when we’re at the movies or reading books or whenever we witness a story character emoting.
Gottschall argues that stories are perhaps “the main cohering force” in human life, helping us learn right from wrong and encouraging us to act ethically.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt
Partisan bickering dominated much of the political dialogue this year, with liberals and conservatives agreeing on almost nothing, it seemed. But in his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt, former psychology professor at the University of Virginia, helps us understand the psychological roots of these differing political views and how it relates to moral foundations—the basis on which people make moral decisions and judgments around the world.
Through studies with tens of thousands of people, Haidt and his colleagues identified six distinct moral foundations. Liberals place greater value on caring for one another and fairness, while conservatives value group loyalty, authority, and sanctity—meaning an aversion to unpure or disgusting things. Both groups rely on the foundation of liberty, though in different ways.
The problem is that most of us—whether liberal or conservative—are locked into our own moral viewpoints in ways that make it difficult for us to understand the moral concerns of others. Even so, Haidt does identify some common ground, such as the value of not doing harm to others.
What’s more implausible than a sitting member of Congress writing a book about mindfulness? How about this: Having that book provide one of the best journalistic accounts to date of the growing “mindfulness movement,” with its many scientific sources and real-world applications.
In A Mindful Nation, Representative Tim Ryan (D-OH) distinguishes himself from most other politicians-turned-authors. Many of them write books that tell their own story of growth and outline their vision for America. But Rep. Ryan’s book is unique not only because it centers on the ancient practice of mindfulness but because of the way he so skillfully widens his lens to report on the work of others—the men and women leading the “quiet revolution” of mindfulness that he sees sweeping this country. That includes clear and thorough reporting on the science of mindfulness, covering the work of pioneers like neuroscientist Richie Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, as well as uplifting descriptions of how mindfulness practice is being applied in schools, health care systems, and the military.
We’re still not entirely sure how Rep. Ryan found time to write A Mindful Nation, but he makes clear why he took this project on: “I believe I would be derelict in my duty as a congressman if I didn’t do my part to make mindfulness accessible to as many people as possible in our nation.” He has definitely done his part. A Mindful Nation is not only a lucid and inspiring treatise on the importance of mindfulness for personal and cultural growth; it’s a top-notch overview of the science and contemporary practice of mindfulness.
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon
All parents love their children, or so we believe. Parents who reject their children seem unnatural, morally reprehensible. Yet there is a gray area in between total parental rejection and the absolute, all-consuming love that we consider normal. In that gray area there are the children whom parents must struggle to love. They are children with disabilities so profound that the parents are denied any possibility of a normal life. They are the children of rape. They are children who grow up to commit heinous criminal acts. They are also children whose identities make them outcasts, such as boys who wish they had been born girls and girls who come to identify as male.
According to author and psychologist Andrew Solomon, these extreme cases reveal something fundamental about the parental condition. “Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity,” he writes in his new book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. How can parents see the world through the eyes of these strangers—and in doing so, love them for who they are, not who we wish them to be?
For Far From the Tree, Solomon interviewed 250 families facing issues that range from schizophrenia and deafness to rape and transgendered identity. The result is a profoundly moving and thought-provoking book about how parents can bridge differences with their children—but it’s also about how groups of people who seem very different from each other can use their own experiences to develop empathic connection and find common ground.
Drawing on research from neuroscience, economics, and psychology, Tough makes the case that character traits such as grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, and optimism are more vital to success than IQ. What’s more, he suggests that these traits can be taught to children not only by their parents but by their teachers, coaches, and other mentors.
To support his argument, Tough describes how the private Riverdale Country School and KIPP Public Charter School—two New York schools at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum—developed this new approach to character development and are now integrating into their school cultures. Working in collaboration with positive psychology experts Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson, the leaders of both schools created a list of character strengths they thought were crucial to academic success, including grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.
Tough believes that students from schools like KIPP may have “character advantages” over their wealthier counterparts because of the hard work it takes for them to succeed. “When a Kipp student graduates from college,” writes Tough, “he will have not only a B.A. but also something more valuable: the knowledge that he climbed a mountain to get it.”
The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, by Paul J. Zak
Move over Adam Smith. Trust, not self-interest, is the basis of a well-functioning economic system, according to Paul Zak, professor of economics and author of The Moral Molecule. Zak studies psychological factors in economic systems and has found that, to a large degree, trust is mediated by the hormone oxytocin—the same molecule released during breastfeeding and sex.
When a person trusts us—or even when we witness acts of trust between two people—our bodies release oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that relaxes us, inspires warm feelings, and makes us act more generously. Reseachers have shown that if you give 10 dollars to study participants and have them inhale oxytocin, they will share more of that money with strangers than they would without the oxytocin. In return, those strangers experience their own surge of oxytocin, which makes them feel generous, a serial reaction that can lead to a cascade of cooperative exchange.
The level of trust in a society is the most powerful determinant of its prosperity. Being able to trust strangers and have that trust rewarded opens up possibilities for cooperation and exchanges that would otherwise not be viable, benefitting all involved. Perhaps that’s why trusting societies are the happiest on earth, and why oxytocin has been dubbed “the moral molecule.”
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About The Author
Jeremy Adam Smith edits the GGSC’s online magazine, Greater Good. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Are We Born Racist?, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!