Our Favorite Books on How to Live a Happy and Meaningful Life

Thinking about your New Year’s resolutions for 2016? Here are 13 of this year’s most thought-provoking and useful nonfiction books on the science of a meaningful life.

This article was originally published by Greater Good.

Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg

Internet dating and social media have made the path to finding romantic love easier in some ways and more fraught in others, according to Modern Romance, written by comedian Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg. The benefits of online resources are pretty obvious: Your chance of meeting someone that you click with increases with the more people you meet. But the downside of this wealth of opportunity is that people tend to rush to judgment based on superficial information and to constantly second-guess themselves about whether, by dating someone, they may be settling too soon and missing out on Mr. or Ms. Right.

Texting should be used minimally and only to secure face-to face-contact.

The book also tackles how technology has affected ongoing relationships, via sexting, pornography, and opportunities for betrayal. Some of Ansari’s observations provide important food for thought for those of us no longer in the dating scene. He shows that, while the pursuit of romance may have been changed by technology, the desire for romance remains untarnished. Ansari humorously recounts his angst around texting potential dates—like having to decide how soon to respond to someone’s text and spending hours crafting texts that are devoid of clear intentions. Because this can lead to insecurity and confusion, though, he suggests that texting should be used minimally and only to secure face-to face-contact—still the best way to truly connect with someone and to gauge romantic interest.

Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice, by Adam Benforado

There is an ongoing national debate over bias in policing, which has led to some much-needed soul searching around racism and the lack of impartiality in the criminal justice system. In Unfair, law professor Adam Benforado combs through decades of social science research to demonstrate that many of the tools we use to fight crime—from interrogating the accused to solitary confinement for prisoners—are inherently flawed, too often harming the innocent rather than serving justice and keeping our communities safe.

Humans don’t understand the way our minds work and the biases we carry, and therein lies the problem. We tend to see the world and make decisions about others based on gut reactions, circumstantial evidence, and preconceived notions, which leads to an unfair justice system that too often punishes the poor and disenfranchised.

Despite these limitations, there is room for hope. Benforado makes many practical suggestions for overcoming bias—first by learning to recognize it, then changing procedures to counteract it. But, we must also open our hearts if we want change: “Our greatest opportunity for achieving true justice is learning when to override our basic instincts and when to draw on our deep well of empathy.”

Rising Strong, by Brené Brown

We all do things we regret in life. But, when we fail in some way, the desire to push shame away can make us run and hide or blame others for our bad feelings—a kind of fight-or-flight response to the “danger” of difficult emotions. In Rising Strong, Brené Brown, a social-work researcher at the University of Houston, provides guidance on how to process our shame and respond in a healthier, more compassionate way.

Brown explains how our brains are constantly working to put together narratives to explain our experience, and how our narratives can be sidetracked by strong emotions. The book is full of stories of people facing adultery, ineptness at work, and other shaming experiences, and how they overcame shame using Brown’s model of “reckoning, rumbling, and resolution”—meaning, recognizing your emotional reactions and not being afraid to explore them, discovering the stories you tell yourself to explain your emotions and how they may be misleading you, and using this understanding to take a different approach to the situation and to responding to others. If you learn to accept your vulnerabilities and own your strengths, says Brown, you can find more connection, creativity, and safety to be your authentic self.

The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work, by Christine Carter

Do you ever feel like your life is a long to-do list? Christine Carter’s The Sweet Spot is a highly readable, diligently researched advice book that offers concrete tips on how to get off the treadmill of busyness by focusing on what’s important in life, letting go of distractions, and using the science of happiness to discover your “sweet spot” —“that place where you have both great strength and great ease.”

Finding your sweet spot doesn’t necessarily involve making radical changes; in fact, part of the appeal of Carter’s book is that her focus is on making small changes that can be leveraged for greater relief. She suggests getting better control over your Internet use, having routines that eliminate constant decision-making, and saying “no” to whatever takes you away from your priorities, while saying “yes” to getting exercise, finding time to chill, and making time to connect with others—a surefire path to increasing personal well-being and happiness.

Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World, by Megan Feldman Bettencourt

Is there any reason to consider forgiveness as a better option than punishing those who’ve wronged us? Yes, according to journalist Megan Feldman Bettencourt’s Triumph of the Heart. Research has shown that forgiveness helps victims heal from emotional pain and promotes better health and well-being. And, forgiveness can help end cycles of violence and retribution in families and communities, by increasing trust and cooperation over time.

Research has shown that forgiveness helps victims heal from emotional pain and promotes better health and well-being.

Bettencourt dispels myths that say forgiveness means being weak or letting perpetrators off the hook. Instead, she shows how forgiveness frees the wronged victim more than the perpetrator, allowing a victim to move on with life feeling greater ease and safety, and often gaining a sense of empowerment and purpose. Though not a linear process, there are steps many victims take to forgiveness, including developing empathy for the offender, reinterpreting wrongs as less personal, understanding our common humanity, and finding a sense of purpose for moving forward.

Bettencourt recounts inspiring stories of forgiveness from around the world, highlighting individuals and programs that promote forgiveness through restorative justice and other practices. She encourages us all to do a better job of forgiving others for slights experienced in everyday life, by practicing mindfulness, empathy, and compromise in conflict situations.

The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, by Ron Friedman

In The Best Place to Work, Friedman, a psychologist and business consultant, distills decades of research on motivation, creativity, and performance to provide both business leaders and their employees with useful tips for restructuring work environments to increase innovation, efficiency, and even joy in the workplace.

Some of Friedman’s suggestions to employers are counterintuitive—such as embracing failure in employees and encouraging them to pursue outside interests or take short naps on company time. These techniques, he argues, help employees broaden their thinking and make cognitive connections, which are important for innovation. For employees, he suggests seeking greater challenge and variety in job assignments and practicing gratitude to increase happiness and productivity.

Overall, Friedman recommends three ingredients for better workplace environments for employees: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Though relatedness may be the most overlooked aspect of employee engagement, research shows that having a best friend at work increases employee focus, passion, and loyalty, and decreases sick time and workplace accidents—all good for the bottom line.

The Wisest One in the Room: How You Can Benefit from Social Psychology’s Most Powerful Insights, by Thomas Gilovich and Lee Ross

To be a wise person, it’s not enough to have knowledge; you also need insight and good judgment, which requires an understanding of what makes people tick. In The Wisest One in the Room, renowned psychologists Tom Gilovich and Lee Ross share some of the most salient insights gleaned from social science research to educate readers about why people behave the way they do so that they can increase their success in influencing others and creating positive change in the world.

Science has shown that many of us suffer from biases we are not aware of, such as thinking that we see the world as it truly is and that others are blind, or trusting our own instincts too much, or ignoring information that doesn’t fit in with our worldview. Understanding how these biases function in our lives can increase our empathy, compassion, and insight, making us wiser and better equipped for designing effective interventions to solve problems in our familial relationships, our institutions, and our society at large.

The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life, by Janice Kaplan

Sadly, we humans sometimes have trouble being happy, even when our lives seem to be on the right track. We are so wired to look for the bad in any situation that we easily gloss over the things that are going right, making ourselves—and those around us—miserable.

But, according to journalist Janice Kaplan, there’s an antidote for this: gratitude.

Kaplan spent a year talking to researchers and applying lessons from the science of gratitude to her everyday life in order to be happier. Her book is full of entertaining stories of how she worked on cultivating gratitude and experienced a multitude of rewards, including improvements in her mood, relationships, and health. Also, hearing directly from the experts—people like Paul Piff, who studies the effect of wealth on giving and gratitude, and Robert Emmons, the preeminent gratitude researcher, for example—grounds Kaplan’s personal experience in science, which makes her journey seem all the more relevant and applicable to us all.

The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, by Ron Lieber

Nobody is dispassionate when it comes to talking about money, and parents are no exception. But the way parents avoid sharing information with children about their financial situation—good and bad—leaves kids woefully unprepared to manage their own financial affairs later in life.

In The Opposite of Spoiled, New York Times columnist Ron Lieber argues that parents need to directly teach kids about money—how much things cost, how to save money and spend it, and how to give it away to others in need. He makes some unintuitive suggestions for how best to help kids learn from having an allowance—for example, by not tying allowance to doing chores and by dividing allowance money into separate accounts for different spending and saving purposes.

Most importantly, Lieber recommends passing on your values of generosity and gratitude to your kids, which will go a long way toward putting money in perspective and making your kids happier and more successful to boot.

The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, by Kelly McGonigal

For years, Greater Good (among other media outlets) has warned that stress will kill you, and that we need to do everything we can to control and reduce it. With The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal reports and synthesizes a huge amount of research, helping us see stress in an entirely new light. Sure, writes McGonigal, stress can signal danger, triggering the classic “fight, flight, or freeze” response that we’ve heard so much about. But the research that shaped that view was conducted mainly on men, which means the politics and culture of masculinity affected our conclusions. She highlights an alternative stress response uncovered by research into stressed-out women: “tend and befriend,” which motivates us to connect with other people in order to cope with stressful situations.

McGonigal explains that a tend-and-befriend response may have evolved to help us protect offspring; but the bravery it inspires can translate to any challenge we face. Whenever we care for others, it activates systems of the brain that produce feelings of hope and courage. It’s also true, she argues, that not all stress is bad; it can help us rise to meet challenges and, over time, help build resilience. McGonigal’s forcefully argued book presents a new and more sophisticated vision of stress as an essential part of life, one that is better understood than resisted. Indeed, her tips for transforming stress into courage and connection promise to make an enormous difference in the lives of the book’s readers.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert Putnam

“The American Dream” is fast becoming a fantasy, as inequality depletes the middle class and creates two kinds of families: the affluent, and the ones whose children are locked into poverty, diminished achievement, and even impaired neurology and cognition. In Our Kids, political scientist Robert Putnam brilliantly connects the dots between inequality of opportunity and its destructive effects on the social fabric of our society and our children.

“Every sentient being, even my enemy, fears suffering as I do and wants to be happy.”

While affluent families can still secure the best resources for their children and use “intensive” parenting styles to promote their children’s achievement, poor and “fragile” families are distracted and stressed. Poor children attend inadequate schools and can’t secure good mentors, while their parents are less responsive to their needs, demanding obedience in a chaotic environment. This parenting style disrupts children’s cortisol levels, brain growth, and brain function, so that children living in poverty often have trouble concentrating and learning, and have smaller vocabularies, problems in emotion regulation, and lifelong challenges in physical and mental health.

Of course there are exceptions; but Putnam warns us not to be distracted by the anomalies, nor to label schools and parents as the ultimate cause. The real focus should be on the more universal problem: the alarming inequality of opportunity in the United States.

Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, by Matthieu Ricard

Can people change? Buddhist monk and bestselling author Matthieu Ricard says we are built to change, on physiological, neurological, and even cellular levels. This happens in response to our external environment, he writes—but it can also happen through our intentions.

His new 849-page book, Altruism, is a magisterial summation of decades of research into all the ways that humans can evolve and learn to foster the well-being of others. Studies have shown that meditating for just eight hours on mindfulness, altruistic love, and compassion can change your brain and the way your genes are expressed, so that you can experience less stress, more happiness, and greater health and well-being.

But Ricard takes this insight one step further, into the realm of social transformation. He quotes the Dalai Lama, for whom Ricard has served as French interpreter: “Every sentient being, even my enemy, fears suffering as I do and wants to be happy. This thought leads us to feel profoundly concerned for the happiness of others, be they friends or enemies. That is the basis for true compassion. Seeking happiness while remaining indifferent to others is a tragic mistake.”

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, by Sherry Turkle

Conversational skills, empathy, and intimacy are fast disappearing in our society, in large part due to our overattachment to ubiquitous technology. In Reclaiming Conversation, sociologist Sherry Turkle argues that, instead of throwing up our hands or giving in, we need to reclaim conversation and engage more with those around us. Otherwise, we stand to lose much that makes our society work, including introspection and the ability to work productively and creatively together.

The problem is the allure of technology, with its newness and promise of instant relief from boredom, discomfort, or loneliness. We are inadvertently training ourselves—and each other—to be intolerant of solitude, ambiguity, and quiet reflection, all of which are important for fostering creativity and deeper understanding of ourselves. And, if we rely only on online connections for social contact, we lose perspective, shrouding ourselves in fixed ideas that we share only with our networked circle.

Turkle argues that it’s time to put down cell phones and computers and spend more time face to face, whether at the dinner table, in the classroom, or in our offices. She makes many practical suggestions for how to use technology more wisely in order to preserve our relationships and keep empathy alive.

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Jill Suttie
Jill Suttie is book review editor of the online magazine Greater Good, published by UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, and a frequent contributer to the magazine.
Connect: LinkedIn
Jeremy Adam Smith
Jeremy Adam Smith is the editor of the online magazine Greater Good, published by UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, and the author of The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the American Family.
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Diana Divecha Diana Divecha, Ph.D. is a Berkeley-based developmental psychologist who consults, writes, and speaks about the science of how children, teens and families grow and develop.

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