Many of the issues that plagued us in 2020 and into 2021 require widespread cooperation. We won’t change the course of the pandemic, racism, climate change, or human suffering if we can’t bridge our differences and learn to work together.

Many of our favorite books from this year tackle society’s divisions head on. They show us how to rethink our cherished positions, listen more objectively to our inner dialogues, fight against bias, and communicate in ways that connect rather than divide us.

At the same time, we all need to nurture our own well-being. Otherwise, we won’t have the energy to stay engaged and thrive. That’s why many of this year’s favorites also address Greater Good’s bread-and-butter issues—how to release anxiety, manage trauma, practice self-compassion, avoid burnout, and stay cognitively fit.

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Though there are always too many great books to read and review, these were some of our staff’s favorites in 2021.

The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning, by Paul Bloom

Ecco, 2021, 304 pages.

It’s considered a universal fact of life: We will always go toward pleasure and comfort and away from pain and danger, given the choice.

Except when we don’t. Why do people listen to sad songs, eat incredibly spicy food, sky dive, run marathons, watch horror movies, engage in sexual practices that involve pain, or seek out physical violence?

This is the question University of Toronto psychologist Paul Bloom sets out to answer in The Sweet Spot. While we won’t give away the many fascinating scientific insights he shares, the answer seems to boil down to the fact that suffering makes life more meaningful, while a life without any suffering can come to seem meaningless.

The Sweet Spot might not change your life—in some ways, it’s a frustratingly inconclusive book—but it will help you to understand a great deal of otherwise puzzling human behavior, perhaps even your own. Suffering has “risks, practical and moral,” writes Bloom. “But still, chosen suffering—in the right way at the right time in the right doses—adds value to life.”

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, by Oliver Burkeman

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021, 288 pages. Read an essay adapted from Four Thousand Weeks.

What if we paid more attention to the limited time we have on the planet and lived our lives accordingly?

This question is at the heart of journalist Oliver Burkeman’s provocative and amusing book, Four Thousand Weeks. While most time-management gurus focus on how to maximize productivity, Burkeman provides a well-reasoned and more humane approach to time management. His tips include avoiding multitasking, focusing on only a few goals, prioritizing your relationships, and even practicing doing nothing. According to him, treating your life as if it were an opportunity for wonder rather than something to micro-manage can help you step away from the rat race and find happiness.

“When we recognize the shortness of life—and accept the fact that some things have to be left unaccomplished, whether we like it or not—we are freer to focus on what matters,” he writes.

Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind, by Judson Brewer

Avery, 2021, 304 pages. Read our review of Unwinding Anxiety

There are a million and one tips out there about what to do when you feel anxious. But psychiatrist Judson Brewer’s book Unwinding Anxiety takes a different approach. In fact, his whole point is that tips alone won’t help those of us who struggle with anxiety. 

Based on his own research, Brewer shows how anxiety exists inside the habits that make up our everyday lives. And habits are sticky. Before we cultivate new, calmer habits, we have to examine the old ones, observe how they’re hurting us, but also understand what we’re getting out of them that makes our brains cling to them. For example, even worrying can be rewarding, because it makes us feel like we’re solving problems or preventing future disasters.

The process of looking closely at our anxiety habits should naturally loosen their grip on us, Brewer argues. Then, we actually have space for new habits, like practicing mindfulness, curiosity, and loving-kindness toward our thoughts and feelings.

Unwinding Anxiety gives us the tools to work with our brains, rather than constantly feeling like we’re fighting against ourselves.

Trauma: The Invisible Epidemic: How Trauma Works and How We Can Heal From It, by Paul Conti

Sounds True, 2021, 200 pages.

The discerning reader might be forgiven for thinking that Trauma—with a foreword by Lady Gaga and endorsement from Tommy Hilfiger—is a lightweight book. It’s certainly not an academic one.

Instead, it provides a confident, accessible overview of the research into the causes and treatment of trauma, brought to life by stories of its author, psychiatrist Paul Conti, and his patients.

Again and again, in many different ways, Conti emphasizes how trauma and its consequences “operate in secret,” which is why it’s so important for clinicians, policymakers, individuals who have suffered trauma, and others to arm themselves with an understanding of how it works. More than that, though, “we’re not meant to face trauma alone,” he writes. In short, the way to prevent and treat trauma is a combination of knowledge and connection.

“Trauma tries to convince us that compassion, community, and humanity aren’t possible,” he writes. “I want that to change—as quickly as possible—and this book is my change agent.”

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, by Adam Grant

Viking, 2021, 320 pages. Read our Q&A with Adam Grant.

In a rapidly evolving era—like the one we are living through now—rigid thinking can set us on the wrong course. We need to be open to new information and let our views evolve. Otherwise, we risk being seen as pompous or out of touch with reality.

In Think Again, organizational psychologist Adam Grant presents fascinating research on what helps people remain flexible in their thinking and sway others toward becoming more open-minded. The ability to “rethink,” argues Grant, is not only a crucial skill for facing crises like the pandemic, it’s also better for our relationships and personal well-being.

His book provides several takeaways that can be applied in everyday conflicts—like admitting your own vulnerabilities, being willing to listen with curiosity to others, not diluting your arguments with endless facts (keeping it simple), and giving others permission to call you out when you’re being obstinate. Reading his book is like a blueprint for becoming a more thoughtful person.

“Too many of us get trapped in mental prisons of our own making,” says Grant. “But if we could be committed to rethinking, we might have a slightly more open-minded society.”

Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age, by Sanjay Gupta

Simon & Schuster, 2021, 336 pages. Read our review of Keep Sharp.

Many older people worry about developing dementia as they age. But there is a lot you can do to keep your brain working well at any age, writes CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta in his book, Keep Sharp—if you take the research on brain health to heart, that is.

In his book, Gupta gives us five main take-home messages culled from neuroscience research: We need to move our bodies regularly (even mild exercise helps), get solid sleep, eat well, connect with others, and find meaning in life.

Along the way, he busts myths around aging and dementia: For example, it’s not true that older adults don’t have cognitive strengths, forgetfulness is a sure sign of oncoming dementia, or doing puzzles staves off Alzheimer’s. He also identifies the main dementia risk factors, which can appear in younger as well as older folks, making his book relevant to everyone.

“The brain can be continuously and consistently enriched throughout our life no matter your age or access to resources,” he writes. If you change your lifestyle, even a little, he promises, “Your brain—no, your whole body—will love it.”

Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, by Katharine Hayhoe

Atria/One Signal Publishers, 2021, 320 pages. Read our Q&A with Katharine Hayhoe.

Climate change needs to be on everyone’s mind, says climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. But too many of us feel overwhelmed and avoid talking about it, which keeps us from recognizing the need to address the problem now and stave off disaster.

In her book, Saving Us, Hayhoe offers a course correction around how to talk about climate change with anyone and everyone. She argues that making climate change feel more personal and immediate, appealing to people’s moral values, and sharing specific steps they can take to lessen their carbon footprint can help people overcome inertia.

Her book is full of inspirational stories of convincing people why they should care about climate change—even traditionally resistant groups, like American evangelicals, Libertarians, or conservatives. By focusing on how we can successfully encourage everyone to take climate change seriously and do their part, she offers hope for avoiding disaster through collective action.

“The hope of a better future depends on you, and me, and all of us,” she says. “Ordinary people have changed the world before, and we can do it again. How do we begin? By using the most powerful force we have, our voice.”

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, by Ethan Kross

Crown, 2021, 272 pages. Read our review of Chatter.

One of the biggest contributors to our happiness is something we barely pay attention to: the voice inside our own heads.

As psychologist Ethan Kross describes in his book Chatter, that voice is constantly analyzing the situations we’re in, reflecting on the past and future, and telling us who we are. While sometimes friendly and optimistic—it’s OK, everything’s going to work out!—it can also be critical and downbeat. Our inner voice can berate us for mistakes or decide our life is ruined. It can ruminate on negative emotions and experiences, dredging them up without any kind of constructive resolution.

According to Kross, there are three main ways we can turn down the chatter in our heads: shifting our perspective so we’re not so immersed in our problems, talking with others to get support, and changing the environment around us to promote calm. Not only can we reduce the negativity in our minds, but we can also cultivate a calmer, kinder, and more helpful perspective on our lives.

The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It, by Jennifer Moss

Harvard Business Review Press, 2021, 256 pages. Read our review of The Burnout Epidemic.

Burnout is rampant in many workplaces in the United States. But, though organizations might put their focus on wellness programs to increase worker resilience, the roots of burnout likely lie elsewhere—in the organization’s work policies and culture, says journalist Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic.

“Yoga, vacation time, wellness tech, and meditation apps can help people feel optimized, healthier,” she writes. “But when it comes to preventing burnout, suggesting that these tools are the cure is dangerous.”

Moss reviews the most common causes of burnout: overworking, not having enough autonomy, lacking recognition, poor relationships, and more, providing tips on how to address these problems. While she acknowledges that individual psychology plays a role, and some people are more susceptible to burnout than others, she argues there is still much we can do to make workplaces more humane places to be.

Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive, by Kristin Neff

Harper Wave, 2021, 384 pages. Read an essay adapted from Fierce Self-Compassion.

Psychologist Kristin Neff has studied self-compassion for many years and found it to be a useful wellness tool, helping people cope with personal suffering. In her new book, Fierce Self-Compassion, Neff makes a slightly different case in favor of practicing self-compassion: It can give you the courage to recognize when you and others are being wronged—and to stand up for social justice.

“By aiming compassion inward as well as outward, we can better confront the pain of injustice without being overwhelmed, and find the strength and energy to fight for what’s right,” she writes.

Neff argues that, too often, women are told not to get angry, to play nice, and to defer to those around them. But this is not a good way to protect yourself, she writes; women need to honor their anger, understand what it’s telling them, and fight against oppressors, when required. Though the book is aimed primarily at women, it is instructive to men, too, as it explains the insidious effects of inequality on the human condition.

The End of Bias: A Beginning: The Science and Practice of Overcoming Unconscious Bias, by Jessica Nordell

Metropolitan Books, 2021, 368 pages.

We all make unconscious judgments about people based on their social identities and the cultural stereotypes that cling to them. But bias can be disastrous for its targets, affecting their health, success, and happiness, writes journalist Jessica Nordell in her book, The End of Bias. If we don’t do something about reducing our bias, we will have more inequality at home, at work, and elsewhere, making our vision of a fairer society out of reach.

While bias may seem intractable, Nordell offers hope for change, providing examples of interventions that have successfully reduced bias individually and institutionally. (Spoiler alert: Workplace diversity programs are usually not the answer.)

What’s needed, she writes, is the willingness to look honestly at ourselves and our institutions, recognize privilege when we have it, and consciously root out bias wherever we see it. In that way, we can give everyone the opportunity for a better life—including those of us who are more privileged.

The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World, Nichola Raihani

St. Martin's Press, 2021, 304 pages. Read our Q&A with Nichola Raihani.

When it comes to cooperation, humans are a mixed bag. In our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, we’ve seen immense cooperation around masking and vaccination—while other people chose more individualistic paths.

Why we don’t always cooperate is the subject of evolutionary biologist Nichola Raihani’s book, The Social Instinct. As Raihani explains, humans have survived well because of their ability to interact and work with people outside their immediate family groups, organizing around shared needs—like agriculture, trade, and protection from outside threats.

But evolutionary forces also act against cooperation, such as when the drive to protect one’s family’s interests (and, so, pass on one’s genes) conflicts with community needs for a fair distribution of resources. The fear of not having enough to go around can lead to narrower (and more problematic) forms of in-group cooperation, too, like nepotism and corruption.

To increase global cooperation, Raihani argues that we must expand our circle of care and share resources more fairly. Luckily, in the long run, our cooperative nature tends to win out.

High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, by Amanda Ripley

Simon & Schuster, 2021, 368 pages. Read our Q&A with Amanda Ripley.

Amanda Ripley believes that conflict can be good. “We need healthy conflict in order to defend ourselves, to understand each other, and to improve,” she writes in her book High Conflict.
According to Ripley, things go south when conflict becomes a “good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them.” When we’re trapped in this “high conflict,” we don’t discover new solutions or come to understand another point of view. Instead, we get sucked into a downward spiral where we dehumanize our adversary, obsess over our differences, and want only to defeat the other side. The conflict takes on a life of its own.
We’ve all been there. But what makes High Conflict so powerful and timely is how Ripley explains why and how high conflict can take root so deeply in the lives of individuals, communities, and entire societies.
Fortunately, she also shows that high conflict isn’t inevitable: The second half of the book offers ways to avoid or extricate yourself from this all-consuming, us-versus-them mentality. High Conflict ultimately provides a valuable guide to navigating our personal relationships as well as a hopeful vision for escaping the tribal conflicts tearing our country apart.

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