It’s hard to address important issues in our lives or in society if we are stressed, depleted, and isolated. Perhaps that’s why many of this year’s favorite books offer approaches for real self-care. They focus on how to manage stress, find more happiness in life, seek wonder and inspiration, appreciate art, understand our personal strengths, or change our mindset in healthy ways.
But our well-being isn’t just tied to what we do individually. It’s also dependent on the strength of our relationships and the organizations and workplaces we are part of. If any of these are suffering, we suffer, too. So, some of this year’s favorite books are aimed more toward bridging differences, preparing for a changing and challenging work environment, and cultivating a sense of “being in it together” to solve world problems.
In each of these books, the authors aspire to help us find greater health and happiness as we cope with life in the present, while working toward a healthier, more compassionate world for all.
Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, by Arthur Brooks and Oprah Winfrey
Most of us think happy people don’t suffer. But, as Arthur Brooks and Oprah Winfrey write in Build the Life You Want, experiencing sorrow and pain is inevitable. At the same time, we can still be happier if we learn to stop chasing the impossible and embrace life’s complexities.
“If you believe you have to eradicate your feelings of unhappiness before you start getting happier, you’re going to be unnecessarily held back by the perfectly normal negative feelings of everyday life,” they write. “Unmitigated happiness is impossible to achieve . . . and chasing it can be dangerous or deleterious to our success.”
To become happier, they argue, we must learn to deal better with life’s setbacks while focusing more on what matters—our relationships and meaning in life. To that end, they suggest learning emotion regulation strategies (like pausing and mindfully paying attention to your feelings when upset), finding the good even in the midst of difficult situations (practicing gratitude), and becoming less self-focused and more other-focused (by practicing kindness or finding purpose in life).
Applying these and other happiness practices to our lives may not bring us eternal joy, but will definitely move the happiness needle in the right direction.
Chasing We-ness: Cultivating Empathy and Leadership in a Polarized World, by William Marsiglio
In Chasing We-ness, University of Florida sociologist William Marsiglio raids research from multiple academic disciplines to summarize why and how people discover a sense of being part of a group and how that helps them build bridges with other groups. In the process, he traverses quite a lot of ground, making use of examples in almost every domain of life, from the family to work to sports to Congress to countries around the world.
From this research, Marsiglio identifies four strategies for cultivating healthy we-ness, represented by the acronym MEAL: Mindfulness, Empathy, Altruism, and Leadership. Why mindfulness? Because, he writes, “We must establish our own bearings first before we can find a clear path to appreciate our bonds with those in our immediate orbit or humanity more broadly.”
Empathy and altruism are two pillars of social connection that make groups good for their members. A leader, Marsiglio argues, is crucial to we-ness because they are the ones who take responsibility for finding the potential in people and getting those people to work on behalf of a common identity or group goals.
“Wanting to feel connected to others is who we are,” concludes Marsiglio. “But establishing we-ness with a loving, mindful intention that honors our interdependence is who we must become.”
Eve: How the Female Body Drove 200 Million Years of Human Evolution, by Cat Bohannon
How did humans evolve to be so commanding as a species? There are two common theories: First, we used our big brains to make fire, weapons, industrialization, and technology, making us the fittest to survive. Second, we developed language and culture, and figured out how to collaborate and take care of each other, which bestowed strength and power to the collective.
Cat Bohannon’s book, Eve, offers evidence to support the latter. Using data from fossils to modern medicine, she catalogues an extended lineage of slight, yet dramatically influential evolutionary shifts and incremental adaptations that have helped females (across animalia) handle challenges that ultimately posed extinction-level threats. She explains how human females ended up with outsized metabolic endurance and why gynecology and midwifery (assistance during childbirth) have been central to the survival of Homo sapiens.
“[Early humans] probably lived in collaborative groups, desperately trying to outlearn and outrun a world full of muscled, toothy things that were happy to eat them. . . . And they were surviving, in no small part because of the same sort of behavior that produced their stone tools: They were working together.”
Eve is a corrective for knowledge disproportionately focused on male bodies. With wit and warmth toward all gender configurations and identities, the book offers a deeper look into what it means to be human.
Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things, by Adam Grant
When it comes to spotting people’s potential, we often dismiss them too readily, not fully understanding what leads to greatness. In Hidden Potential, Adam Grant shows how anyone can get better at what they want to achieve by focusing on the right skills and having the right supports in place—meaning, nurture matters more than nature.
“Neglecting the impact of nurture has dire consequences,” he writes. “It leads us to underestimate the amount of ground that can be gained and the range of talents that can be learned.”
Grant challenges conventional wisdom around innate talent, hard work, or past performance as predictors of success. Instead, he argues, it’s those who’ve persevered through adversity, been willing to learn from mistakes, and sought out mentors who believe in them who tend to succeed.
His book provides tips for individuals who want to nurture their own hidden potential, and for organizational leaders who want to stop weeding out people who could make important contributions. His goal is to prevent underdogs or “late bloomers” from being overlooked and, instead, support their path toward growing into greatness—benefitting not just them, but all of us.
Real Self-Care: A Transformative Program for Defining Wellness (Crystals, Cleanses, and Bubble Baths Not Included), by Pooja Lakshmin
“Self-care” has been doled out as a cure-all for all types of stressors caused by our modern, fast-paced lives. But we’ve been hoodwinked with astonishing claims of the benefits of faux self-care, like juice cleanses, face creams, and spa retreats—especially women, explains psychiatrist Pooja Lakshmin in her book, Real Self-Care.
Lakshmin shares that real self-care involves ongoing internal self-reflection and regular practice of four principles: setting boundaries, practicing self-compassion, connecting with your values, and asserting your power. In her book, she includes numerous practices and strategies to put each principle into action—for example, scripts for saying no, naming your inner critic, and identifying what gives you hope.
Compelling personal stories of women from her private practice and her own journey of failing and succeeding in practicing real self-care help illustrate her points, while research grounds her message. Importantly, she shows how personal self-care is related to collective well-being.
“Internal and individual changes made by many are a prerequisite for system change,” she explains. “The two, individual and systemic, must occur together, but the good news is that they can form a positive feedback loop whereby individual changes inspire and give permission for women to make their own internal shifts, which in turn puts pressure on the system to reorganize.”
Self-Care for Black Men: 100 Ways to Heal and Liberate, by Jor-El Caraballo
“Self-care” has been called a marketing gimmick, a product of privilege, and an individualistic indulgence. In the cultural scrum, few remember that the term “self-care” was formulated by Black feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” she writes in her book A Burst of Light.
In Self-Care for Black Men, Jor-El Caraballo takes that feminist proposition seriously and applies it specifically to the lives of a population of Americans who are more likely than any other group to become targets of violence and incarceration. What makes this book different from many self-help manuals is that Caraballo sees turning toward community as key to self-care for Black men.
He writes: “Black men face unique challenges in fostering community due to long-standing stereotypes of the ‘cool’ Black man who doesn’t need the same support and care that everyone else does. . . . Existing in-community gives you space to thrive and embrace radical healing. Being in spaces with other Black men enables you to embrace the kind of authenticity that other environments discourage or identify as harmful, unprofessional, or inappropriate.”
For Caraballo, as for Lorde, self-care is an act of resistance to the forces that “suppress hope and well-being”—as an essential step toward building stronger families and communities that can fight for their own needs.
Sensitive: The Hidden Power of the Highly Sensitive Person in a Loud, Fast, Too-Much World, by Jenn Granneman and Andre Solo
About 30% of the population are highly sensitive people, which means they are more attuned to others’ emotions and to sensory information in their environment. Though this can be a gift in some ways, it can also lead to overwhelm—not to mention stigmatization and misunderstanding from others.
In Sensitive, Jenn Granneman and Andre Solo explain what high sensitivity means and uncover the superpowers of highly sensitive people. For example, sensitive people tend to be more empathic and creative, see patterns more easily, and feel more deeply, which can make their lives richer.
“If you are a sensitive person, your body and mind respond more to the world around you,” the authors write. “You respond more to heartbreak, pain, and loss, but you also respond more to beauty, new ideas, and joy.”
On the other hand, high sensitivity can also lead to overwhelm. The authors provide many tips to avoid that, including taking breaks when needed and self-soothing. But the book’s main goal is to make sure sensitive people are understood and supported—and not chastised for being themselves.
“Rather than seeing sensitivity as a weakness, we need to start seeing it for what it actually is—a strength,” write the authors. “It’s time we embrace sensitivity and all it has to offer.”
The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz
The longest-running happiness study in the world is the Harvard Study of Adult Development. White men from different parts of Boston were followed over decades to see how their attitudes and life circumstances affected their health and well-being over time.
The study’s findings, captured in Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz’s book, The Good Life, are somewhat surprising: “Contrary to what many people think, it’s not career achievement, or exercise, or a healthy diet” that makes for a good life—though those things matter. Instead, “one thing continuously demonstrates its broad and enduring importance: good relationships.”
Research shows how important social support is for resilience in the face of life’s hardships. That’s why the book promotes nurturing stronger social connection—whether with family, friends, or communities—and recommends things like paying more attention to the health of our relationships, adapting to changing social needs as we age, becoming more reflective (and less reactive) when facing conflicts, and letting people know how much they matter to us:
“Think about someone, just one person, who is important to you. . . . Now think about what you would thank them for if you thought you would never see them again. And at this moment—right now—turn to them. Call them. Tell them.”
The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health, by Ellen J. Langer
We’ve all heard about “mind/body connection.” But do we fully understand its implications for our health and well-being?
Not according to Ellen Langer’s book, The Mindful Body. Langer reveals a whole world of fascinating research looking at how our beliefs about aging, risk for contracting disease, and the effectiveness of potential treatments affect health, and how changing our mindset can lead to surprisingly better results.
For example, one study found that giving people information about their (fictitious) level of risk for obesity changed their metabolism and how they felt about exercise and hunger (regardless of their actual level of risk). Another found that messing with people’s perception of time affected how much energy they expended doing a task.
In other words, expectations matter; so, we must be careful what we put in our minds lest it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Diagnoses, while useful, direct attention to only a fraction of lived experience; context influences our physical responses,” writes Langer.
To that end, she suggests we become more mindful about our inner experience and outer circumstances—and more skeptical of dire predictions. By paying attention to our ever-changing experience, she argues, we might all change the trajectory of our health—and enjoy happier lives.
The Stress Prescription: Seven Days to More Joy and Ease, by Elissa Epel
Though this book came out late last year, it was too important not to mention for this year’s favorite books. Elissa Epel, a premier stress researcher, has put together a short primer on how to life a happier, healthier life through effective stress management.
As Epel writes, not all stress is inherently bad; so, we shouldn’t aim for a stress-free life. We need our physiological stress response to survive and to respond to challenging situations. But if we are constantly vigilant—which many of us are these days—it ages us unnecessarily.
How can we use stress to our advantage and soothe it when it’s overwhelming? Epel has several evidence-based tips, including learning how to embrace uncertainty, let go of uncontrollable outcomes, and recognize our stress response’s utility. We can also deliberately seek more joy, time in nature, small stressors (to build resilience), and occasional deep rest (where we are free from responsibility or our ubiquitous cell phones).
As Epel writes, “Anything worth doing will have aspects of stress woven through: challenge, discomfort, risk. We can’t change that. But what we can change is our response.” Changing your relationship to stress by taming it is key.
Tomorrowmind: Thriving at Work—Now and in an Uncertain Future, by Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and Martin Seligman
Now that workplaces are emerging from the intense demands of the pandemic, they are in an unprecedented position to reflect and try to transcend outdated approaches to organizational structure, policy, and culture. In Tomorrowmind, coauthors Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and Martin Seligman offer an abridged history of organizational thinking and design, then draw from scientific research, case studies, and in-depth interviews to share key insights and actionable strategies for real and impactful organizational transformation.
Part of what Tomorrowmind covers is the topic of thriving at work, the science behind it, and why it’s important. To promote thriving at work, the authors recommend several strategies to help organizations enhance resilience, strengthen connection, make sure people know they’re valued, and provide a courageous, aspirational shared vision.
To increase workplace resilience, for example, Tomorrowmind recommends slowing down and reinterpreting difficult experiences, doing the “Best Possible Self” practice to increase optimism, learning to put setbacks and failures into perspective, and acting with more self-compassion.
With an eye toward future challenges—like AI and climate change—Tomorrowmind also offers clear strategic guidance to help organizations nurture a culture of thriving and recast traditional structures and policies to maximize creativity, minimize wasted effort and time, and “future-proof” themselves against possible catastrophe in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous landscape.
Your Brain on Art: How Art Transforms Us, by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross
Even during our earliest history, humans made art. This suggests an evolutionary purpose—that engaging with art somehow helps us survive.
Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross’s book, Your Brain on Art, shows us why that might be the case. Appreciating or making art—in all its forms, whether viewed in a museum or crafted yourself—involves using many parts of your brain, including those that process our senses and are involved in emotion, memory, and cognition. It also brings us pleasure and insight.
“There is a neurochemical exchange that can lead to what Aristotle called catharsis, or a release of emotion that leaves you feeling more connected to yourself and others,” write the authors.
Studies show that engaging in art can do much for our brains and bodies. It improves our heart health and cognitive fitness, and helps us heal from illness and trauma. Art also nurtures curiosity and emotional intelligence, while making us think differently about life, embrace ambiguity, and feel awe.
This means we should all incorporate art into our daily lives for more well-being, argue the authors.
“The arts can transform you like nothing else. They can help move you from sickness to health, stress to calm, or sadness to joy, and they enable you to flourish and thrive.”
Also, though we don’t want to blow our own horn, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention two books that came out this year written by Greater Good staff:
Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, by Dacher Keltner, where Keltner reveals the science of awe and how it can make us happier and more connected to something greater than ourselves (Penguin Press, 2023, 335 pages; read an essay adapted from Awe).
Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World, by Scott Shigeoka, where Shigeoka shows us the importance of being curious for bridging differences and transforming our world (Balance, 2023, 256 pages; read an essay adapted from Seek).