A few weeks ago I decided to tidy up the book list on my Amazon wish list. Do you know how many non-fiction books I found in there? More than 150. Now, judging by how fast I add new titles on, it’s fair to say I’m not getting through that list this side of 40. In the last few months, however, I’ve been using an app to help me prioritise. With a strong interest in self-help books, and in particular any that will help me become a calmer, less stressed out mum, I’ve resorted to Blinkist to find the most sought-after books in this category.
Blinkist gives you access to more than 2,000 fantastic book summaries that you can read or listen to in about 15 minutes. Armed with the key messages of a book, you can then decide whether you want to buy and read the full version or leave it on your list for a little longer. So, thanks to the guys at Blinkist, I’m now able to recommend these 3 books to you.
Spoiler alert: be prepared to hear about mindfulness and meditation quite a bit! (Honestly, not my fault. Looks like it’s really the way to go for calmer parenting after all!)
“How To Stay Sane”, by Philippa Perry
Also recommended to me by some friends, How To Stay Sane had been sitting on my list for ages! A successful psychotherapist and author, Perry describes the fascinating way our brain works. In a nutshell, the right side of our brain is where our personality lives. It’s the area of our brain in charge of emotions and instincts. The left side of our brain, on the other hand, is all to do with language, logic, and reason.
Despite what we think (i.e. that we are mainly rational and logical creatures), we actually make a lot of emotional, right-part-of-the-brain-driven decisions in life. Somehow, though, we always at least try (if not succeed) to make sense of them? How? The left part of our brain engages in a process called post-rationalisation that helps us come up with reasons that make our decisions seem logical. Even when they might not be at all!
So how exactly do we ‘stay sane’??
Perry proceeds to say that although we can’t switch our emotions off, we can and should find some space to observe how we feel. She calls this process self-observation and defines it as a key ingredient for holding on to our sanity! By separating ourselves from our feelings and observing them without judgement, instead of engaging with them, we are able to calm our mind down. And how is that done? Simply through focused attention on our breathing. And isn’t that meditation??
But more on that later!
Perry also talks about a topic that’s close to my heart – positive stress. This is something I’ve recently explored when binge-watching some amazing TED talks, and I think it’s great to talk about the positive effects stress can have. Perry states that a small amount of stress, the one that occurs when we engage in something new and challenging, can keep our brains healthy. To create this ‘healthy stress’ we must be mindful of pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone. In other words, we go and do something that makes us a little nervous.
Positivity is another ingredient for ‘staying sane’, and incidentally, I came across this in other books too, so over to them now…
“10% Happier”, by Dan Harris
I first came across this book in the summer, when I attended The Mindful Living Show in London. If you’re a little sceptical about how mindfulness meditation can help you, this is a must-read. It explains, in a really accessible way, how meditation:
- affects our body and mind, for example by helping reverse the effects of too much cortisol (the stress hormone) in our body;
- helps us to cope with the stress of modern life, so we can become less overwhelmed by all the stressors we’re exposed to on a daily basis;
- allows us to live more in the present (i.e. become more mindful);
- helps us manage emotions;
- makes us more self-aware and compassionate;
- makes us more creative and productive, by allowing space for new ideas and thoughts;
- improves our patience, empathy, compassion (towards ourselves and others), our resilience, and impulse control.
What’s your ego, and what is it there to do?
Without getting too bogged down in the definition of ego, Harris explains that we should think of our ego as the author of the commentary that goes on in our head. Our ego is what tells us what to do and what not to do. And by definition, it’s never happy. It always wants more than it already has, it’s obsessed with the past and worries about the future. Essentially, our ego stops us from fully living in the now. So if we learn to control our ego a bit more, we can live healthier and happier lives. And that’s where meditation comes in!
But what is meditation, exactly?
It’s simply sitting comfortably and focusing on your breath. That’s it. And when your mind inevitably wanders, all you want to do is bringing it back to the breath. You let the thoughts pass. You observe them without allowing your ego to engage in the usual commentary. And if you catch yourself doing exactly that, you just return to your breathing as soon as you can.
Sounds simple enough? But there’s another ingredient to being 10% happier, and once again, that’s positivity. (Noticing a pattern here?)
“Positivity”, by Barbara Fredrickson
Seeing that positive thinking and optimism are mentioned in both the above books, it felt just right to have a little deep dive into the topic with this book (Positivity) by Barbara Fredrickson. In it, the author presents the latest research into the positive emotions that are the foundation of our happiness. Positive emotions can:
- change our perception, our reasoning and our creativity;
- make us more open, tolerant, and grateful in our everyday lives;
- give us the energy to get more done;
- make us more resilient, more successful in our careers and relationships;
- give us happier, and less stressful lives overall.
We can all be more positive
The great news is that increasing the quantity of positive feelings such as love, joy, gratefulness or hope is possible for everyone. With a more positive attitude, we can see the good in most situations. We become more open to seeing opportunities and finding solutions. And that’s how we become more resilient against mental problems like anxiety and depression, for example.
So the solution is simple – if you want a happy, fulfilled life, you should aim for a generally positive attitude. And to do that, you should aim to consciously increase the number of positive emotions you experience.
Aim for a 3:1 mix
I love this simple ‘recipe’ for happiness. According to Fredrickson the ideal mix of emotions to strive for 3 positive emotions for every negative one. Put simply, because negative emotions are stronger in their amplitude than positive ones, one moment of anger or sadness drags us down further than one of joy lifts us up. A 3:1 ratio of positivity helps us experience an upward spiral that will lead to more and more happiness. And the way to do this? Just develop habits that make you feel good.
Different things will work for different people. So if you’re willing to experiment with a few ideas, just sign up to my newsletter using the form below, and you’ll receive a FREE 30-day self-care challenge with things that may help you feel better.
Self-knowledge is key
Fredrickson also states that there’s a strong link between self-knowledge and happiness. So, once again, observe yourself.
- Document your own behaviours, find out what makes you feel good, and do more of it. Write down how your feelings change over the course of the day, so you can keep track of the situations you encounter, and which feelings they trigger.
- Keep a gratitude diary. Gratitude is a powerful positive emotion – if experienced frequently, even small doses of it lead to a continuous improvement in your general attitude towards life. You need to find out what situations repeatedly make you grateful, so you can intentionally trigger more gratitude by recreating those situations more often.
- Be mindful. Focus on the present – on what you hear, feel or sense – rather than worrying about your to-do list, for example. This helps you become more aware of both the positive and negative feelings, so you can question yourself over the negative ones in particular and think about changing your perspective.
- If something bad happens, distract yourself, or try and reframe it into a positive experience, by finding some good in it.
So what do you think about this list of books? Have you read any? Will you? Are there others you’d recommend?