#stayathome Top 5 Self-Improvement Reading List
10 minute read - Hadleigh Fischer
For a lot of people, staying at home during the COVID-19 lockdown has been the realisation of several of their worst nightmares. You can’t go out, there’s nothing to do, and you’re stuck with your family 24-7.
For others, it’s an opportunity to catch up on Netflix, do all the things you’ve always wanted to do at home, re-evaluate what it is that you really miss about the real world, and to reconsider what it is that’s most important in life to you.
Between these two extremes are those people who are still able to get a bit of work done, but in general, realise the situation isn’t ideal – especially with all the social restrictions and distractions coming from home – but who want to take the time to learn something new or to make things better when life does return to normal.
Regardless of which of these camps you fall into, it is however possible to consider this ‘great isolation experiment’ as one of the greatest catalysts to self-improvement in modern times. Yes, it’s a challenge, yes our collective mental health may dip because its so strange, and yes we’ve had to adapt to new ways of working.
But as some of our most cherished activities have been taken away, there’s the chance to temporarily replace them with learning, wisdom and something a little more meaningful that Game of Thrones reruns.
With this in mind, I’ve dusted out my old reading notes, and come up with a list of my Top 5 psychology/self-improvement books that I’ve read. Over the past 7 or 8 years, I’ve read several hundred books from ancient Buddhist and Stoic philosophy, positive psychology, neuroscience, well-being theory, behavioural science and just about anything you can think of that might lead to a good and fulfilling life while preparing and writing our Resilience Agenda content and diaries.
These are not simply ‘positive thinking’ books, or ‘The Power of Now’ or ‘The Secret’ which say you can have whatever you want just by asking the universe. Instead, they are based on science, common sense and ancient wisdom. Three of them just happen have happiness in the title simply because that’s how you sell books! So don’t think of happiness as something airy fairy – instead think of it as a popular version of the term ‘well-being.’
In reading these books, each of them also require us to have a little bit of humility to acknowledge that we aren’t perfect as we are, that change is possible, even its hard, and that seeking out improvement and progress is not a weakness, but instead a strength that makes us better equipped for handling setbacks, uncertainty and change.
With our busy day-to-day lives during normal times not offering much of a catalyst for self-reflection, it’s so easy to put off what’s important in figuring out what makes a great life. Too often, we focus on that which is merely urgent, but which ultimately doesn’t always take us where we want to go.
Reading great books that challenge the way we think and live and make us better is one of the most effective and rewarding things we can do with our time.
So amongst all the other priorities you’ve got at the moment, commit now to finding the time to reading for simply 30 minutes each evening, and you’ll make your way through these 5 books in just five weeks.
So here goes.
1. Stumbling on Happiness – Dan Gilbert – 336 Pages
One of the first self-improvement books I ever read over ten years ago, Stumbling on Happiness was the first time I ever encountered the idea that our thoughts can mislead us, that despite being supposedly ‘rational’ creatures we make systematic mistakes, and that we can train or reinterpret the way we think about the world and our lives in practical and creative ways. The main way that these biases affect us is in how we think about the future, and how we are often wrong, when we think about it.
Gilbert’s main premise is that we often think we know what will make us happy, like hitting our goals or winning the lottery, but that when we actually get there we won’t be any happier than we are today. Essentially he says, given that we systematically mis-interpret the past, and are often clouded in our judgements about the present, therefore it makes sense that we ‘mis-predict’ the future.
Gilbert explains how several factors get in the way of making accurate judgements about the future. This is because our future predictions are influenced by our experiences, we make assumptions based on subjective experiences we have had or heard about before, and which can often be incomplete or simply wrong.
Another factor is how in the future, we focus on broad outlines and generalities, not details. Does anyone ever imagine having back-pain on the day they win the lottery?
On the other hand, “most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today” according to Gilbert. This is why the pessimism of COVID-19 is so dispiriting – because it’s hard to see past it if we haven’t built the tools of optimism. But with a broader perspective, we can see that humanity has come through the 1918 flu, two world wars, the threat of nuclear destruction, September 11 and the GFC, and for most people, these feel like specks on the canvas of history.
Finally, we fill in gaps from the past with our overly emotional responses to the present. So when we imagine what life will be like in 12 months from now, its too easy to imagine that we are bound to be living under the weighty impact of COVID-19. We might be. But its not inevitable.
2. How to Win Friends and Influence People - Dale Carnegie- 291 pages
Terrible title. Incredible message. I don’t know how many people I’ve spoken to about this book who imagine that it’s all about cunning tricks for fleecing old ladies of their pensions and manipulating the opposite sex into bed.
Instead, it’s chock full of simple, actionable and relatable advice about how to be a good person and how to develop one of life’s most essential skills – getting along with others. I know, you already think you are a good person, and that your relationships are just fine. So there’s no need to bother any more, is there? Well, that lack of awareness from so many people is why we still have so many problems in our communities and workplace, from relationship issues at home, to territorial disputes with colleagues at work, to a lack of success changing the minds of our friends over climate change.
Granted, maybe I needed this book ten years ago more than most people, but what it taught me and helped me implement have become crucial catalysts for building a successful professional life, having a variety of loyal friends across the world, and being generally absent of any ongoing toxic conflict in my life.
Some of these gems?
- To be interesting in conversation, ask great questions about the other person and genuinely listen rather than talking about yourself and your own plans, opinions or accomplishments.
- Don’t criticise, condemn or complain – especially behind someone’s back. I have a principle that I generally get right to be up front about someone’s weaknesses to their face (if they can handle it), but be only positive and genuine behind their back.
- When giving feedback, or trying to get your way, don’t start off by telling the person how it benefits you, instead begin with a compliment, and outline how getting what you want will benefit them.
- You can’t win an argument, so instead of saying: “you’re wrong” and making the person defensive, instead you say: “Well under different circumstances maybe this is the case.”
- And one of my favorites – if you are going to get criticised or dressed down anyway, start off by admitting fault. It’s so satisfying to be the one who’s self aware, and not to give the satisfaction of something telling you off to someone else.
Before emotional intelligence became a buzzword and the passport to effectiveness at work and with friends, How to Win Friends laid out some of the basic principles of psychology almost 100 years ago that help us get along with people. If everyone read it, the world would be a nicer place. If you read it, you’ll become a better communicator, partner, colleague and the world will go your way more often.
3. The Happiness Advantage – Shawn Achor – 256 pages
The third book on my list is from Harvard psychology professor Shawn Achor. His argument is that we’ve got the relationship between happiness and success completely backward.
Most people think – “if I become successful, then I’ll be happy.” Of course, too often with celebrities and other ‘successful’ people we can see that they are thoroughly miserable, and not living the way we’d expect happy people to live. But we go on anyway with this misguided belief because our interpretation of happiness is so limited, and because the signals that make us pursue a limited version of success are so pervasive.
The alternative is to consider that the very things that make us happy might also be the things that lead toward success. Essentially, if we become happy first, we might become more successful as a result. These include the ability to get along with other people, the pursuit of meaningful goals, and our ability to overcome setbacks.
Some people believe that relationships and connection get in the way of success at work, are a waste of time, and so focus only on the task at hand. We’ve all had a boss like that. However, genuinely successful people make time for those around them, and realise that they can’t do it all alone. They inspire people to follow them, rather than command them, which brings about higher levels of effort and better results in the long run.
Secondly, people who are happy don’t need to achieve a goal to feel positive and motivated. Rather, they need to feel as though they are working their way toward meaningful goals. This creates a spiral effect that leads to more effort, more motivation, and more productivity. Given that we adapt to goals achieved anyway, rather than them leaving us in permanent bliss, working our way toward goals gives us micro-successes that positively impact our motivation.
Thirdly, happy people are able to see problems as challenges and opportunities, not permanent roadblocks and disasters. This is the core principle behind the idea of mindset. If we can change, update or improve our mindset, then we can improve or grow. But first we must admit that we didn’t have it all perfect beforehand.
Essentially, if we want to be successful at work, the key is not to simply work harder and longer or to suck up to the boss. It’s to focus on developing the skills of happiness which will help us do better work, and more importantly, help us become the kind of people others want to be around and have lead them.
Some of these ideas?
- Connect with other people
- Having something to look forward to
- Develop our physical health through regular movement, good nutrition and quality sleep
- Spend our money on experiences which create memories and connection with others, rather than stuff which can create clutter and regret.
4. Happiness by Design – Paul Dolan – 235 pages
The key idea behind London School of Economics Professor Dolan’s book Happiness by Design is that what we do and how we use our time is a vital element in how happy, fulfilled and successful we are.
Dolan’s key argument is that with a few subtle shifts we can actually orient ourselves towards the things that make us happy and healthy, rather than the things which make us miserable and perpetuate the cycle of dissatisfaction that is so apparent in the world.
Dolan draws upon the generally accepted consensus that there are three elements that make up how happy (or mentally healthy) we might be. These are:
- Our genes (even though we are learning more and more these days that how we live impacts our genes through the idea of ‘gene expression’ – roughly 30%
- Our circumstances (for example whether we are born in Australia or Sudan, whether we have two parents or none, or whether we have meaningful work or not – roughly 30%
- Our actions (that what we do and how we think become powerful levers for change in improving our happiness and mental health) – roughly 30% - this is the part we have most control over that the book focuses on.
In essence, what we choose to focus on, or where we choose to direct our attention is what determines the quality and happiness of our lives. So he offers us three pathways for delivering happiness in our lives.
- Deciding happiness – here we work on choosing and articulating our values in the first instance. We actually sit down, brainstorm and rank what makes us happy and what makes us unhappy. Then we resolve to actually do these things.
Then, as we go along, we need to become more aware of how we feel about what we do and use that as feedback. If we don’t have to do something, then don’t do it, and if we do, then there are ways to think differently about it so that its not such a chore.
The key is to become aware, and to be decisive.
- Designing happiness – rather than happiness or sadness just ‘happening’ to us, we can actually craft our environment and our days to lead us toward happiness rather than misery.
We can pre-commit to things we know we like doing, rather than just ‘feeling like it.’ We can build habits and systems that make happiness habits automatic. We can prime or nudge ourselves with reminders of our best intentions, which tilts the odds of doing what’s healthy and positive back in our favour.
- Doing happiness – this is all about paying attention as we do something, basically one of the core tenets of mindfulness and being present. It also means removing distractions that prevent us from being present, like finding ways to not interrupt every short gap in day by checking Facebook or the news.
This also means if we are with other people, pay attention to them, and you’ll get a whole lot more out of the experience.
The result is that we can find pleasure and purpose and passion in our everyday life, whether we are at work, at home, or doing our own thing. It’s one of the most practical guides to living well you can find, which is why it deserves a place in my top 5.
5. Wherever you go there you are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Jon Kabat-Zinn was the guy who made mindfulness ‘trendy’ back before it was trendy, or it turned up at work or in coloring books. A medical doctor from the US, Kabat-Zinn wanted to separate the practical and functional benefits of mindfulness from their esoteric and spiritual roots and make them more relevant and engaging to the lives of people living in the west.
Initially, he used the techniques of presence, noticing and meditation to reduce physical pain at his clinic. Eventually, people cottoned onto the fact that even psychological pain like anxiety, depression or stress could be impacted or reduced through some the ideas of mindfulness.
From there, these ideas became known for increasing focus, performance and productivity in the workplace, and spread rapidly around the world.
So what are they?
- Meditation – which can take many forms – is one of the best methods for managing and eliminating stress known to man. Most people simply give up too early.
- Paying attention to physical sensations in our bodies can help with uncontrollable physical pain, and can impact our digestion, sleep patterns and other physical process that affect our energy and motivation levels.
- It’s a bumper sticker quote, but we are human beings, not human doings. So he advises that for just a few minutes a day, we simply do…nothing….
Then, later on, when we are doing our daily activities, we should focus 100% on what it feels and sounds and looks like to do them, rather than thinking about the past or the future.
So when we eat, we only eat. When we brush our teeth, we only brush our teeth. When we are with someone, we devote our attention to them. Fair to say he’s not a fan of multi-tasking.
Kabat-Zinns book explains how no matter what is going on in our lives, there are ways to manage and control our thoughts and emotions through a variety of training methods and thought techniques. What’s not to love about that? We just have to know what the tools are, and how to get started.
By making the case that it’s the way we think about things, rather than our external circumstances which determine how we feel about our lives, Wherever you go there you are shows us how fruitless it can be to try to change our circumstances without changing our thinking patterns and beliefs as well, so that we don’t simply take our old problems to new places.
So there you have it. You’ll notice how several of the themes in these books overlap. That’s no coincidence. Where we place our attention, what we do, how we respond to setbacks, making the time to actually do what we’ve learnt on an ongoing basis, and recognizing our limitations, without beating ourselves up about it.
If you were to read one of these each week for the next five weeks, when you go back to work, you’d be a more capable, caring and more effective colleague and thinker, and you might just feel happier, healthier, and more engaged than ever before.
I’d love to hear about your experiences of reading these books as we go along, any comments or suggestions, and of course, whether there’s a classic out there that I’ve overlooked in my top 5.
Hadleigh Fischer is the Founder and Managing Director of Resilience Agenda - a fast growing Mental Health awareness social enterprise. He holds a MSc and is a qualified Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Instructor.
Resilience Agenda aims to 'Change the Meaning of Mental Health' so that it's more positive, proactive and preventative, by making it more relevant, engaging and inspiring.
"Imagine if we thought about Mental Fitness just like we did our Physical fitness?"
Building on an inspiring story of resilience and overcoming obstacles, Hadleigh's mission is to make Mental Fitness into something each of us do each and every day, just like taking care of our physical health.
Over the past four years Resilience Agenda has become a global trend-setter in the mental health conversation by offering thoughtful and practical gifts and lifestyle products that promote the life-changing Mental Fitness message. During COVID-19 Resilience Agenda is now bringing their popular and down-to-earth workplace seminars online (with no payment necessary until January 2021).
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