The pursuit of well-being is an ancient quest. And yet it’s also one that is deeply embedded in the present—influenced by our changing modern lifestyles and societies.
This was reflected in the books published this year on the science of happiness. Some of our favorites tackled formidable, timely topics—like how to strengthen our inner resources to challenge racism, how to increase our empathy in a divided world, and how (as people live longer and longer) to prepare for aging and our own mortality. Others address the timeless questions of how we can become more optimistic, connect with our bodies, and outsmart our brain’s biases to achieve more happiness and success.
Although there are many other books worth reading, here are some of our favorite well-being science books of 2019.
A Beginner’s Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death, by BJ Miller and Shoshana Berger
For many of us, it’s hard to think about the end of life. But, for those of us who have cared for dying parents—or faced our own mortality—we know that it can be even harder if we’re unprepared for it.
BJ Miller and Shoshana Berger’s book, A Beginner’s Guide to the End, helps demystify the process of dying, offering solid advice about everything from writing an ethical will to preserving your sanity as a caregiver to choosing a doctor if you have a terminal illness. Their focus on planning for death and infusing more meaning into the process is a welcome reprieve from the usual societal pressures to ignore the inevitable and stay “forever young.” Breaking down the preparation for dying into manageable tasks can help you get your head around the idea of mortality while encouraging you to get the most out of the rest of your life.
Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, by Jennifer Eberhardt
Jennifer Eberhardt’s cutting-edge research on bias is not only fascinating but also important for its direct, real-world applications. Her book explains how biases arise, why they can be so insidious, and how we can use this understanding to combat knee-jerk reactions to difference—racial or otherwise.
To illustrate her points, Eberhardt easily weaves together laboratory science with stories from her life and her work. Her research has exposed how bias affects policing, leading police departments to institute new practices aimed at de-escalating officer reactions to stressful, ambiguous situations. This has helped to save lives—of police officers and suspected criminals. With clarity and compassion, she shines a light on how understanding bias can help us make better personal choices and public policies in service of a safer and fairer world for everyone.
Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life, by Louise Aronson
As a professor of geriatrics and director of health humanities at the University of California, San Francisco, Louise Aronson offers up a radical rethinking of “old age” and shares compelling patient stories in her New York Times bestselling book, Elderhood. For example, why is it that “old” means “dying” in the public imagination? “Elderhood” can last half a century, says Aronson, and so Americans in particular need a more nuanced reframing of what it means to be old.
Just as babies become toddlers and then children, teenagers, and adults, elderhood is yet another developmental stage, not a brick wall. We need to treat this important stage for what it is—a time of learning, growth, new interests, and insights—and we need to push back against ageist stereotypes, argues Aronson. Just as longstanding gender and racial biases persist in the field of medicine, so too does age bias. Elderhood is a welcome rebranding, and appreciation, of those in their later years and will be of interest to not only elders, but their families, communities, and physicians, as well.
The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness, by Rhonda Magee
As a black woman raised in the South, Rhonda Magee suffered racial discrimination and naturally felt confused, angry, and frustrated. When she discovered mindfulness meditation and became an avid practitioner, she found that it helped her to heal her pain and confront racism in less reactive, more compassionate ways.
Now a lawyer who teaches classes about the intersection of race and justice, she finds that many of her students—of all ethnicities—have few tools for handling racism when it arises. To amend that, Magee offers The Inner Work of Racial Justice—an introduction to meditation practices aimed at making us more resilient and more able and willing to withstand the discomfort, pain, and ambiguity that come with responding to racism as a victim, a witness, or an unintentional perpetrator.
Whether or not we realize it, Magee argues, racial discrimination affects us all, because it makes a safer, more cohesive society seem unattainable. Her book arms us with the tools we need to approach difficult conversations about racism and its pernicious effects with clarity and insight, which will help us to heal our fractured society.
The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage, by Kelly McGonigal
As a shy college student, Kelly McGonigal made the bold move to become an exercise instructor—something she’d wanted to do but was afraid to try. This started her on a path of teaching exercise, which not only made her fitter but improved her social and emotional health, as well.
In The Joy of Movement, McGonigal, now a psychologist, reports on people around the world who find happiness through movement and digs into the research on exercise, uncovering how it benefits our minds as well as our bodies. She explains how exercise induces the release of brain chemicals that can help to lift depression and anxiety, strengthen our resilience, and make us more hopeful about our futures, and she also corrects common misconceptions about things like the “runner’s high.” Whether you like to swim, dance, run, bike, or do yoga, McGonigal’s book will bring you new insight into what exercise can do for you and might just motivate you to add more movement to your life.
The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity, by Catherine Sanderson
Research suggests that a more optimistic mindset is good for our mental health, helping us to be happier, more socially connected, and even more successful in life. But, if you’re a natural pessimist—who tends to focus more on what might go wrong than what might go right—how can you possibly turn your mind around?
Psychologist Catherine Sanderson’s new book, The Positive Shift, explains how. Digging into positive psychology research, she provides numerous tips for shifting your mind from a negative to a more positive focus. Some of these include classic psychological techniques, like cognitive reframing—purposefully thinking of alternate ways to look at a setback to see the upsides. Others include practicing self-compassion and gratitude, and finding humor in difficult situations. Not only does Sanderson provide anecdotes to make these tips come alive, but she also supports them with research showing how effective they can be. Even if your glass is half empty, reading her book can help you move toward at least a slightly more positive view of the world.
The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms, by Paul Napper and Anthony Rao
Many of us struggle with making important life decisions. We may procrastinate or avoid moving forward altogether, feeling stuck and anxious. The problem, say psychologists Paul Napper and Anthony Rao, is that we lack agency—the ability to weigh all of our competing needs, find emotional and physical balance, think more clearly, and advocate for ourselves so we can take a course of action that makes sense. In other words, we don’t feel in control of our lives.
In The Power of Agency, the authors show us ways to grow our personal agency and use it to further our personal and professional goals. Their suggestions include learning to control distracting stimuli (like cell phones), affiliating with supportive people and avoiding those who drain us, keeping active and healthy, taking on new learning opportunities when we can, and using intuition wisely. The advice packaged in this easy-to-read book can help you overcome inertia and begin crafting the life you want.
The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It, by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister
Ever wondered why people rubberneck in traffic when there’s been an accident? It’s because of negativity bias—a tendency of our brain to focus on what’s going wrong so we can avoid potential danger and harm in the future. Unfortunately, that same bias means we can easily become overwhelmed by bad news, keeping us from enjoying life, having satisfying relationships, and taking constructive action.
What can be done? In John Tierney and Roy Baumeister’s new book, The Power of Bad, we learn about fascinating research on the negativity bias that illustrates its power over us. But the authors also give us hints about how to combat it, including how to give constructive criticism in a way that will be better received, use incentives rather than punishments to motivate others, avoid negative behavior in romantic relationships (which they argue is more important than building up positive experiences), and much more. Their book is full of unexpected surprises about human nature, paired with a nice dose of humor.
Is dehumanization on the rise? It may be, according to Adam Waytz, author of The Power of Human—with technology being a key cause. We spend so much time online avoiding direct human contact, writes Waytz, that we are losing our capacity to connect with others in meaningful ways—making us lonelier, less empathic, and prone to bullying or being bullied.
The way our brains are wired means we are all capable of dehumanizing others—especially those who are not like us. Sadly, governments take advantage of that vulnerability, trying to paint groups of people as less human than others for their own political gain.
But Waytz sees hope for overcoming our tendency to dehumanize if we understand what triggers it and work on seeing everyone as intrinsically worthy and capable of complex thought, rather than as caricatures. By focusing on our shared identities, practicing perspective taking, understanding power dynamics, and taking time to meet other people face-to-face rather than online alone, we can strengthen the neural networks that support humanization and nurture our relationships—individually and as a society.
The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, by Jamil Zaki
In our current world of political, religious, and racial divisions, it seems harder for many people to empathize with those who are different from them. And that’s a problem for our society: Empathy helps us to understand other people and to care about their welfare, building a sense of trust and connection that greases the wheels of cooperation.
In empathy researcher Jamil Zaki’s book, The War for Kindness, we’re given reason for hope. Presenting the latest research on empathy and kindness, he explains why empathy matters for our relationships, when it’s hard to empathize and why, and what conditions makes it easier to tap into our empathy. He argues that empathy is like a muscle that gets stronger if we exercise it, and his book gives practical tips on just how to do that.