Books on taking life from "okay" to "good".
July 11, 2019 8:09 PM   Subscribe

My daily life is at a 4/10. I want to get to a 6/10. All the self-help books seem to say "you're at a 2/10, you have major problems and if you just remove the negative you'll be happy." That's not connecting with me or working for me, so while I'm reading them and putting what I can into practice they're not quite what I'm looking for. Are there books about starting from an okay place and getting to a better place?

So far I've read The Untethered Soul and Mindfulness In Plain English, and I just started Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. It seems the books all think that if I find life a little unsatisfactory, there must be some big issue, deep trauma in my past, or substantial negative thoughts that I'm dealing with. That if I just remove negative from my life, I will be happy. But that doesn't seem the case so none of them really connect with me - if there's trauma I'm running from I haven't found it yet, and it's pretty rare that I have intensely negative thoughts or feelings.

I have a good job and a family I love. I have a lot of things to be happy about in reflection and mindfulness has definitely helped – a bit. But even with a lot of mindfulness practice I find my day to day experience unsatisfactory because I'm tired of being tired, constantly being on other people's schedules, and doing the things society has assigned me instead of doing whatever strikes me as important.

It feels like I'm ready to retire, but that's a ways away so I'm looking for a way to make life better when I'm sick with all the usual problems of a busy modern life. People keep recommending finding a job I like better, but I can't imagine any job that I prefer to my current one: I suspect any task would suck when done 40+ hrs/wk. People keep recommending hobbies. I already have 3, and I don't think another activity is what I need because I'm exhausted and already have very little time to myself, when am I going to find time to get immersed in an even-more-involved hobby?

So I'm looking for books on that - help me take my pretty-good life and make it a bit better. Not less negative, but more positive.
posted by Tehhund to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
This might sound like a strange suggestion but bear with me.

Check out How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World by Harry Browne. You need to know going in that this was written by a man who would eventually become the Libertarian candidate for U.S. President. As such, it's riddled with Libertarian ideology.

But the first part of the book is, quite simply, about choosing and pursuing personal freedom. About doing what is right for you with no fucks given. That doesn't mean screwing people over, but it means not worrying about other people's schedules or doing things society has assigned to you. (In other words, the things you complain about in this question.)

How I Found Freedom changed my life. It was a catalyst that sparked huge, foundational shifts. I've met other people who have read it and who have had the same response. It's an empowering book. It makes you realize that you don't have to "keep on keeping on". You don't have to be stuck in relationships due to sheer inertia. There will always be people who like you, even if you change.

I won't say this is a great book, but it can be powerful for the right person. You sound like the right person.

But, unless you're a Libertarian, be prepared to tolerate strange logical leaps from "I should do what's important to me" to "taxes are evil". The latter half of the book, especially, seems like nonsense to me. But the first half was pure magic.
posted by jdroth at 8:17 PM on July 11 [12 favorites]

I've found books on Ikigai very interesting lately in terms of adjusting my view on life and my daily actions, in particular "The Little Book of Ikigai: The Essential Japanese Way to Finding Your Purpose in Life" by Ken Mogi, which highlighted the small ways Japanese people (and others) lived their lives to the fullest.

In a similar, possibly cliche vein, try "The Secret Magic of Tidying Up" by Marie Kondo. , The Konmari method really does help you figure out what brings you joy in life, one item at a time. Less stuff and a tidy home will also really help alleviate a lot of stress in one's life, in a lot of unexpected ways.

Also take a look at the work by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on finding flow... I found "Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. (1998)" probably the most accessible (since it's pretty short and to the point). I find if you can find something to be passionate about, it will help improve your every day life.
posted by vespertinism at 9:11 PM on July 11 [7 favorites]

If you have a good job and a family you love, are you sure you're not already at 7 or 8/10? Can you get some downtime? You sound like you could really use a break, but you don't sound like a 4/10.
posted by kate4914 at 9:16 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]

Sort of along the same lines as kate4914’s comment: Something about your post made me wonder if you are introverted and perhaps not taking enough time to recharge. It sounds like you have a lot of face time demands placed on you, and that would be exhausting if you’re introverted. Note that I’m not using the word to mean shy or quiet, just someone who needs time away from constant interaction from people in order to recharge.

If I’m right and you are an introvert, you might find Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking to be a useful book. It’s not perfect, it’s unscientific, and it’s not really a self help book. However, it might feel quite affirming to you, and there may be a few ideas in there that you could apply to your life to make it less stressful.

I used to feel like how you describe feeling: my life was good but I felt overwhelmed, with too many responsibilities, obligations, demands on my time—even things I enjoyed, like hobbies and social events. I wanted to change it but found it hard to say no to things. Then in 2014 I had a traumatic and life altering experience that suddenly “gave me permission” to drop everything that wasn’t an actual obligation and to become very picky about where I volunteered my time or how I socialized with people.

It helped me enormously, and something I did as an emergency measure in a time when I had no extra energy to expend has turned into a far more sustainable way to live my life, long term. I still have to be careful, because I am a friendly introvert; I love my people-intensive job, I feel strongly about working for social justice, and enjoy the company of my wonderful friends, so I have a tendency to take on too much. However, I’m far better than I used to be, and my life is much more relaxed and fulfilling.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:46 AM on July 12 [4 favorites]

I really think you'll find Emotional Agility helpful.

I'm not feeling very eloquent this morning so I'll quote from the product description: "Every day we speak around 16,000 words - but inside our minds we create tens of thousands more. Thoughts such as 'I'm not spending enough time with my children' or 'I'm not good enough to present my work' can seem to be unshakable facts. In reality, they're the judgemental opinions of our inner voice. Drawing on more than twenty years of academic research, consulting, and her own experiences overcoming adversity, Susan David PhD, a psychologist and faculty member at Harvard Medical School, has pioneered a new way to enable us to make peace with our inner self, achieve our most valued goals, make real change, and live life to the fullest. Susan David has found that emotionally agile people experience the same stresses and setbacks as anyone else. The difference is the emotionally agile know how to unhook themselves from unhelpful patterns, and how to create values-based success with better habits and behaviours. Emotional Agility describes a new way of living and relating to yourself and the world around you. Become aware of your true nature, learn to face your emotions with acceptance and generosity, act according to your deepest values, and flourish."

I found this book so illuminating for so many facets of my life, from my anxiety to my constant feeling of being rushed off my feet, to my multifarious issues with my working life and the career choices that I have made. It's definitely worth reading for the problems you describe in the OP.
posted by unicorn chaser at 3:40 AM on July 12 [3 favorites]

I wonder if you might like The Happiness Project and Happier at Home , both by Gretchen Ruben.

Like you, the author was broadly content with her lot in life, but felt she wasn’t experiencing enough joy. These books are about figuring out what makes you happy and what makes you miserable, and making small changes to maximise your happiness day to day.
posted by Dwardles at 4:27 AM on July 12 [8 favorites]

Came by to mention The Happiness Project and other books by Gretchen Rubin and found that Dwardles beat me to it. Rubin's work is great for identifying small, practical changes that can make a big difference in daily life.

Also, since you're having trouble thinking of work that might make you happier, you might benefit from something like Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, a twelve-week program to help you get in touch with your creative side. It's geared towards those who want to "make art," but I found it also refreshed my views on life in general.
posted by rpfields at 6:00 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]

I suggest Come as You Are if the relevent are of your life is not 10/10.
posted by bdc34 at 6:53 AM on July 12 [4 favorites]

I know you specifically asked for books, but the course The Science of Well Being is free, on your own pace, and super helpful. Mostly lecture videos, but some reading, and probably most importantly, exercises to put the theory into practice, help you determine what makes you happy, etc. Highly recommended.
posted by hankscorpio83 at 7:36 AM on July 12 [4 favorites]

I don't have a book recommendation, but agree with the recommendations above that you sound *tired*. And no wonder! If you have a family and have a full time job and 3 significant hobbies, that's probably about 30 hours worth of life you're trying to cram into every 24 hour day. Unless you're someone who thrives on having a jampacked schedule 18-20 hours/day, that's a lot for someone to get through, forget about having any zest for life by the end of it.
If you're married, can you talk to your partner about the work that is happening to keep the household running smoothly, and perhaps do some load balancing or agree to drop some things? There's a new Atlantic article that you could even use to spark the conversation:
Can you block off one weekend a month or each quarter for a personal retreat? Send your family out of town somewhere, or take yourself somewhere for an overnight? Because that sounds like it might help as much as giving yourself another piece of homework to "fix" your happiness threshold. Because it sounds like you probably have a lot of homework already.
posted by dotparker at 7:53 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]

If you have 3 hobbies, maybe pick just one. A hobby you don't have time for can start to feel like just another source of stress. I second the recommendation for Quiet. You are tired.
posted by Enid Lareg at 2:05 PM on July 12 [3 favorites]

I think this Ask sets the record for my highest favorite / comment ratio ever, so at least that tells me this is something a lot of people are concerned with and that doesn't have a single obvious answer.
posted by Tehhund at 2:09 PM on July 12 [3 favorites]

You might find something useful at Action for Happiness.
posted by embrangled at 3:52 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]

Feeling Good by David Burns. Changed my life.
posted by suncages at 10:19 AM on July 13

I'll second the suggestion that you look at the happiness books. Here is a good list. The How of Happiness is one I'm really liking, though honestly, I got almost as much out of that blog's summary, at least so far. (I linked to the list, but you can click through for more full descriptions of most books). That book is all science-based and does a great job of explaining what portion of our happiness is under our control and how to take action to feel a little happier.
posted by slidell at 6:25 PM on July 13 [1 favorite]

You might find something helpful in these books:
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner - entertaining writing about visiting all the happy places in the world and investigating what they do/value differently
Habits of a Happy Brain by Loretta Graziano Breuning - pop science but all about the chemicals in our brain that make us feel good or bad, their evolutionary roots and how to get more of the good

In the non-book realm, your question brought to mind Ze Frank's Bust Your Cycle idea: "Busting your cycle is where you take one aspect of your life that's more or less constant and you purposely bust it. By temporarily breaking a routine, you can often experience the world in a very different way. If you bust the right cycle, this shift in perspective can often lead to elation and a sense of possibility."
posted by purple_bird at 4:24 PM on July 17 [1 favorite]

I like the Sedona Method and pretty much anything by Byron Katie. Both are simple, easy to use and they can be transformative in every aspect of your life.

I also will say, I love that you're coming from a place of moving from a 4/10 to a 6/10. I share your frustration with any materials that try to tell me I've got all kinds of problems. It sounds to me like you have a full life and are simply figuring out what comes next as you're moving to a new phase. I think both Byron Katie's Work and the Sedona Method could help.

Best of luck to you!
posted by mulkey at 6:36 PM on August 3

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