This year was another banner year for books on the science of a meaningful life. Many books we encountered looked at broader, societal issues that affect our well-being, giving us practical advice for weathering hard times or for making a difference in the lives of those around us.
Culled from hundreds of books, our choices listed below offer insights on subjects ranging from cultivating resilience to finding purpose in life to doing our best work to channeling our anger for good. Many have relevance for our workplaces, as well as our personal lives; one is a lovely treatise on how to keep romance alive, while another looks at how timing matters for well-being. All of them are focused on making us happier and healthier as individuals and as a society.
Here are some of our favorite books of 2018. Enjoy!
Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts, by Brené Brown
While many of us associate success in business with a “crush or be crushed” leadership mentality, Brené Brown disabuses us of that notion in Dare to Lead. Through her research involving hundreds of interviews with companies and organizations around the world, she’s found that work teams are most productive and successful when leaders provide psychological safety at work, so that everyone is free to share ideas, take creative chances, and ask for help when they need it.
In other words, the best leaders lean into their vulnerability.
How can they do this? By focusing on honest self-reflection, daring to admit to mistakes, and encouraging others to own their power and lead, Brown says. That means accepting messy emotions—especially shame and vulnerability—as part of the equation. Daring to have difficult conversations about troubling issues instead of ignoring them can help everyone feel accepted and valued, which is central to a functioning workplace. Great leadership also involves positive role-modeling: being honest, kind, empathic, and trusting; allowing time for play and rest; inviting diverse perspectives; and more.
Leaders following Brown’s advice—presented with her trademark humor and storytelling—will likely reap a committed, productive workforce, and a lot more personal satisfaction.
The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, by Nadine Burke Harris
When Dr. Nadine Burke Harris set up the Bayview Child Health Center in 2007, she immediately noticed an association between traumatic experiences and health outcomes in the children she treated. “Day after day, I saw infants who were listless and had strange rashes,” she writes in her new book, The Deepest Well. “Kids just entering middle school had depression. And in unique cases…kids weren’t even growing.”
To understand what she was seeing in her clinic, Harris searched the scientific literature—and found evidence that childhood trauma leads to more physical and mental illness in adulthood.
Harris’ book synthesizes a huge amount of experience and research into a compelling story about the lasting impact of childhood trauma—and how we might overcome it.
Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, by Soraya Chemaly
Anyone left wondering about the response to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing will appreciate reading Rage Becomes Her. While Ford seemed credible because of her vulnerability, others found Kavanaugh believable because of his anger—a double standard that can put women at a disadvantage.
Anger is an emotion associated with power and strength, writes Chemaly. But women aren’t always comfortable expressing it, in part because their anger is often misconstrued. But not expressing anger has costs for women: “Anger, not sadness, is a way to actively make change and confront challenges. Anger, not sadness, leads to perceptions of higher status and respect,” she writes.
Chemaly reveals how repressing anger not only disempowers women, but also affects their health and well-being. Her book provides tips for channeling anger in constructive ways, including accepting your anger, developing body confidence, practicing assertiveness, cultivating allies, being brave, and owning your power. Any woman—or man—who cares about gender equality would do well to read this book.
The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, by Dolly Chugh
Many of us think we are good people—devoted to the ideals of fairness and opportunity for all. But we often fall short of those ideals, inadvertently propping up the very racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism we hope to defeat.
To change this, we must learn to recognize the headwinds that people from different social groups face, then find ways to support rather than thwart their efforts to achieve parity. In the workplace, we can offer concrete solutions to counteract discrimination—like making sure everyone’s perspectives are heard and given consideration at meetings, being careful to share credit for team achievements, and providing opportunities for leadership and networking that might not otherwise be available to some folks. We can also enact simple changes to our hiring and promotion practices to help stop the preferential treatment of people who look like us.
Chugh’s book offers a wealth of research showing how these strategies make a difference, as well as illustrative stories about leaders who have become champions for inclusion.
Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, by David DeSteno
To succeed at our goals, we need to push ourselves and practice willpower so we can stay focused and not be tempted to slack off, right? Wrong, researcher David DeSteno says. When we are faced with choices between pleasure now and reward in the future, we often choose the former, because making hard choices to delay gratification is too costly for our cognitive resources. The more we have to do to resist temptation, the more primed we are to give in to it.
Instead, he suggests that people should focus on cultivating three key emotions: gratitude, compassion, and pride. These social emotions effortlessly bring out our better nature and strengthen our relationships. They also improve decision-making and encourage a long-term view of our present-day actions, which leads to real success.
DeSteno’s book is full of research findings that show the advantages of practicing gratitude, compassion, and pride, as well as several tips for cultivating them in yourself.
How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, by Marc Freedman
Tech billionaires may be hoping to cheat death with cryopreservation and artificial intelligence. But Marc Freedman argues that people who want to “live forever” should wake up to what really matters in life: our generativity, or making the world a better place for the generations coming after us.
Through fostering relationships across generations, older adults can find purpose, put their wisdom to use, and make their later years more joyful and productive, Freedman suggests. He provides illustrative stories of successful intergenerational programs that have made a difference in the lives of seniors and younger people alike. Anyone interested in bridging the “age divide” will find ample ideas and resources in the book for doing so.
Freedman makes a strong case for tapping into seniors’ potential for contributing to society. People are living much longer these days, and giving to others and finding purpose in later life are what will keep us vital as we age.
Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More, by Morten Hansen
If we want a prestigious career and a sizable paycheck, do we have to settle for unhappiness at work? According to University of California at Berkeley professor Morten Hansen, the answer is “no.”
His book Great at Work pinpoints where performance and well-being intersect—the strategies that (according to his research) are linked to being both successful and happy at work. For example, he recommends that we “do less, then obsess”: focus on a few tasks and then devote intense energy to them. In choosing those tasks, we should prioritize what we can do well, efficiently, and with great benefit to others.
Hansen illustrates these strategies and more with case studies from around the world. He hopes readers will be inspired to experiment with how they do their jobs—trying something new, observing the results, and tweaking accordingly. More than anything, that spirit of constant learning may be the path to less burnout, more work-life balance, and more satisfying work.
Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, by Rick Hanson and Forrest Hanson
When we’re dealing with challenges and adversity in life, it’s often recommended that we delve into the pain—by examining our mistaken beliefs or investigating the childhood origins of our tender feelings. But psychologist Rick Hanson’s approach is different: He believes that resilience comes from cultivating positive inner strengths.
Resilient (co-authored with his son, Forrest Hanson) explores a dozen of these strengths, from gratitude to calm to generosity. When we experience a strength in everyday life, rather than letting it pass by, we can learn to savor it and absorb it into ourselves, the Hansons explain. That way, we develop our internal resources and promote lasting change in the brain.
Based on Rick Hanson’s stories, you get the sense that he has applied these techniques to overcome the wounds of his past—and wants to help readers do the same. This book offers not just a series of tips, but also a framework for learning and growth that can be applied to many things we want to improve.
Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, by Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James Pawelski
We all want everlasting love. But loving relationships require some effort to maintain; otherwise, the early relationship spark tends to dim.
Luckily, positive psychology experts Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James Pawelski have some simple suggestions for how to infuse your love life with energy and passion. Drawing from positive psychology research, they recommend four key habits that will help your relationships stay strong: nurturing your shared passions, deliberately cultivating positive emotions, savoring the good times, and building character strengths together.
Though this may sound daunting, their book is full of fun, easy-to-implement ideas for practicing these keys and reaping the benefits. For example, couples can schedule play time together to encourage more shared positive emotions, express gratitude for each other’s good qualities to help savor the good times, and take turns trying out new activities that nurture a partner’s character strengths. Working on building intimacy and closeness will give you a buffer of positivity to counteract the effect of everyday stresses and strains on your relationship.
When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, by Daniel Pink
Does being a morning person or a night owl matter to our productivity? According to Daniel Pink, the answer is definitely “yes.” When we do something matters almost as much as how we do it.
Research shows that we all have peak moments during the day when we are at our best, and Pink warns us to save tasks requiring concentration for those times of day. Understanding how timing works can save us countless hours of low productivity. “Whatever you do, do not let mundane tasks creep into your peak period. If you’re a boss, understand these…patterns and allow people to protect their peak,” he writes.
His book provides numerous “time hacks” that tell us when it’s best to engage in different activities—like when (and how long) to take breaks during the workday, when to jump ship from a stalled project, and when (and how) to welcome new employees to your company. Timing also matters for your personal life—when you marry, go to school, have a baby, change jobs, and more. In short, Pink agrees with the adage that “timing is everything.”
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker
With all the bad news today, it’s easy to believe that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. But if you look at large data sets and research, says Steven Pinker, you’ll actually find that people are generally better off than they were, say, 100 years ago.
In his book Enlightenment Now, Pinker outlines all the ways in which life is improving for people around the world. He points out that we’ve seen decreases in the number of people living under extreme poverty, in crime—particularly violent crime—and in deaths from accidents (and even from wars). On top of that, people live longer and have better health.
Why doesn’t it seem like this is true? Because we have trouble seeing the big picture when we’re blasted with fear-inducing, sensational stories. Pinker argues that reason, science, humanism, and progress are all factors that have led to our increased well-being, and that we should not give up on them now if we want to solve world problems.
The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, by Jonathan Rauch
Why do so many of us go through a midlife slump in happiness? As this pattern is observed around the world, it likely has a biological or evolutionary cause, says Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve. Even having a “perfect” life—a good job, a stable marriage, supportive friends and family, good health—won’t necessarily protect you.
The good news is that if we wait long enough, this dip will reverse itself. Research shows that as we age, we tend to lower our expectations, feel more grateful for what we have, and develop coping skills for dealing with life’s inevitable setbacks. “Positive feedback replaces negative as disappointments become pleasant surprises, and as growing satisfaction and gratitude reinforce each other,” Rauch says.
That doesn’t mean we should ignore our midlife malaise. Instead, Rauch suggests we face this challenge head-on by finding ways to lower our stress, contain our inner critic, accept our feelings, and share our difficulties with supportive others. His book is a delightful guide on how to weather our midlife blues more gracefully.
Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence—The Groundbreaking Meditation Practice, by Daniel J. Siegel
The Wheel of Awareness is a meditation practice that Dan Siegel developed over many years and has offered to thousands of individuals around the world. In his new book, Aware, he shares that tool with readers to help us cultivate greater presence in life.
With tips and stories, Siegel teaches three specific practices: focused attention (on your senses, your body, and your thoughts), open awareness, and loving kindness. He also illuminates the neuroscience behind them, looking at what happens in the brain when we train our minds. And he ends with a speculative foray into quantum physics to contemplate how the Wheel of Awareness relates to the fundamental nature of energy.
Aware is both practical and abstract, offering a powerful meditation exercise alongside a fascinating exploration of the nature of consciousness. Like many students before them, readers can hope to use Siegel’s guidance to nurture more happiness, health, and connection in their lives.
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.
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.
Kira M. Newman is managing editor at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, where she also writes and produces content.