6 Happiness Books that Mental Health Experts Trust
Can you read your way to a sunnier, savvier, and more-grateful perspective? Here are some happinesss books mental health experts recommend.
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Reading as an act of self-care
Just as there is no one definition of happiness, there isn’t one type of self-care that works for all people. Landing on a self-care method that works for you takes some experimenting and often plenty of trial and error. (In case you missed it, here’s how to build a self-care plan, according to experts.)
But one thing we know for sure: Nearly all of us could benefit from more self-care and less stress at the moment. About 19 percent of adults say their mental health is in worse shape than it was just a year ago, according to an August 2020 national survey conducted by The Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association.
When things feel out of control (ahem, during a global pandemic), finding ways to center yourself and meditate can be priceless, explains Crystal Burwell, PhD, the director of outpatient services for Newport Academy, an Atlanta-based teen rehabilitation center.
The power of reading
“Reading promotes relaxation and inner calm. Research proves that a regular reading habit is correlated with less depression, higher self-esteem, better sleep, and lower stress levels, compared to non-readers,” Burwell says. “Plus books can provide healthy distractions during stressful times. This is especially true right now, during the pandemic, when we’re unable to schedule those spa days or take vacations. A book can be an inexpensive way to transport us to a calm space.”
(This is why reading is important for your brain.)
When you become immersed in a story and tune out other disruptions around you, your attention is on the page in front of you (rather than, say, the news or arguments on social media). You’re inadvertently shutting out other stressors in a healthy way, adds Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University in New York City. Reading can also combat feelings of loneliness and transport you to another place.
“Reading can help a person to practice mindfulness without them even being aware they are doing it,” Hafeez says.
What to look for in a happiness book
For maximum mood boost per page, think back to the tomes that stick with you from years past. There are many genres and formats of books that can boost happiness, and what you’ve enjoyed in the past might offer a hint of what you’ll love in the future. Or a similarly styled book may offer a pleasant dose of nostalgia.
Just remember: “Books shouldn’t be used as a substitute for professional help. If you’re dealing with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues that are impacting your life, it’s important to speak with a therapist or other professional,” Burwell says.
Happiness books that therapists trust
After the Rain: Gentle Reminders for Healing, Courage, and Self-Love
Part memoir, part guide, After the Rain: Gentle Reminders for Healing, Courage, and Self-Love by Instagram celebrity and self-care storyteller Alexandra Elle (@alex_elle) recounts Elle’s journey from self-doubt to self-discovery to self-love. It includes 15 lessons about overcoming obstacles, improving confidence, and living a more honest and fulfilling life.
Read, reflect, then put the motivating mantras into practice.
“Books can help you on the path to change, give you inspiration, a new way to view life, increase your knowledge and let you know that you are not alone in the thoughts, fears, and anxieties,” Hafeez says. That being said, “They can’t do the work for you and are not magic potions. If you’re reading a self-help book to exercise more or have a more positive perspective, you are still the one who is in control as to whether or not that happens. The book or its author cannot do the work for you.”
(Here are some self-love quotes to remind you of your value.)
Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success
While many self-help books that focus on success talk about being ruthless to succeed, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by organizational psychologist Adam Grant takes a novel approach to the subject—which is why it earns top marks from Hafeez.
“Grant demonstrates that people who give [to others] can win too,” she says. “He discusses how when we stop just focusing on our own self-interest, a larger world opens where we can ‘win’ along with others taking the journey with us.”
While this was designed as a tool to boost your business acumen, it can translate to other areas of work and home life, as Grant has researched everything from motivation to generosity to creativity.
(These are the life skills for health, wealth, and success.)
The Magic of Thinking Big
It’s never too early to start a happiness book habit. Starting at a young age, “my parents placed a high premium on books and reading,” Burwell says. “I quickly developed a strong relationship with books that significantly impacted my life.”
Some of her personal (childhood and lifelong) favorites include The Giving Tree; A Guide to Rational Living; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; How the Mind Works; and this book—The Magic of Thinking Big.
The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz “challenged my thinking because I was able to connect with themes in the book. … it made me feel alive and ignited a sense of joy, excitement, and curiosity,” Burwell says.
This happiness book suggests that rather than exceptional talent or a super-high IQ, what it really takes to find happiness and success is the right mindset.
(Adopt a positive attitude with these positive thinking quotes.)
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World
Nobel Peace Prize winners the Dalai Lama (the spiritual leader of Tibet) and archbishop Desmond Tutu (a South African cleric, theologian, and human rights activist) spent five days together discussing how they discovered joy through their hardest moments. This includes a collective 50 years of exile, oppression, and violence. The results land in this happiness book, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, which recounts their weeklong joy journey. It ends with them landing on “Eight Pillars of Joy” that the duo say can build the foundation for lasting joy.
Burwell appreciates how inspirational books educate, guide, inform, and inspire readers to create positive changes in their lives—especially books, like this one, that directly deal with the topic of life satisfaction. “They can provide tips on how to manage stress, deal with anxiety, handle difficult relationships, and more, which can lead to increased happiness and mental wellness,” she says.
(Want to boost your mood? Here are some Amazon products to feel happier.)
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
Rather than fretting about the future or ruminating on the past, this self-help book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle, proposes that you focus on right here, right now.
“I love this book because it stresses the importance of living in the present moment, literally living life one day at a time,” Hafeez says. “During this pandemic, it has been helpful because life can become overwhelming if you think too far in advance.” That may potentially foster feelings of being out of control or lead to undue worry or stress.
(Restock your bookshelf with some of the best self-help books.)
The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love
Activist and poet Sonya Renee Taylor believes that “radical self-love” is the antidote to modern societal trends that say there’s only one way to look to be beautiful and worthy. Feeling good in your home (aka body) is a key component of feeling happy, Hafeez believes.
“This book goes beyond just self-love and self-acceptance, which is something so many women struggle with,” she says. “It breaks down the societal reasons why we struggle with or dislike our bodies, and then serves as a call to action on how to improve ourselves.”
If you read and love this happiness book, The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love, you can keep the journey going through Taylor’s related online community.
Next, learn how walking can boost your mood.
- Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University in New York City
- Crystal Burwell, PhD, director of outpatient services for Newport Academy in Atlanta
- American Psychological Association: "Stress in America 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis"