5 Books to Genuinely Increase Your Happiness This Year
Timeless wisdom to help you give less f*cks, deal with pain, hone your creativity, and lighten up.
Self-help books sell like hotcakes because most of them suck. People spend a large amount of time reading them, only to painfully discover there’s no shortcut, formula, and Secret™ that’ll deliver them from their misery. Then, they turn to the next one.
I’m one of those people. Fascinated by the science and concept of happiness and our relentless pursuit of it, like you, I too want to be happy.
We all want to be content, masters (not slaves) of our emotions and find delight in the little things of life. Nevertheless, trivialities send many of us into raging despair while we’re sadly unequipped for disturbing events of a bigger magnitude.
In the past years, I read 100+ books about personal development so you don’t have to. They all promised me happiness and a powerful arsenal to battle hardships. Most of them didn’t keep their word.
In the end, I resurfaced with these five shining diamonds from my deep dive into self-help and they made it all worth it.
These books help me deal with pain, unhappiness, unworthiness, and so much more, long after I read the last page. They inspire me to cultivate powerful techniques and healthy habits to bring joy into everyday life.
They don’t promise quick wins and simple formulas. Instead, they help you understand yourself, why you’re ecstatic at times and miserable at others and what you can and can’t do about it.
They’re the five books about happiness everyone should read.
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman
“Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, [you end] up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that [you] can’t persuade [yourself] to believe are good. And such things will happen.”
The power of positive thinking and manifestation is a lie — delusional at best and harmful at worst. It’s insane there’s a billion-dollar industry telling us to think ourselves out of illness, poverty, and injustice and into happiness.
The Antidote is a refreshing, no-BS alternative. It’s a page-turning mix of the current scientific knowledge about human happiness and the contemporary application of ancient philosophies.
After years of learning and practicing Buddhism and Stoicism, it still came with an abundance of new insights. Compared to more philosophical books it’s highly applicable. You don’t just learn ancient wisdom but will know how to use it.
Key takeaways of the book:
- Happiness is counterintuitive. The more you try to obsessively achieve it, the less it works.
- You don’t need goals and an obstinate quest to achieve them for a fulfilled life. Goals require great sacrifice and goal-free living makes for happier humans. What a relief!
- Everything will not be fine. When we accept this and prepare for the worst-case scenario, we're better off than when we compulsively tell ourselves the worst won’t ever happen.
When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön
“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”
Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön’s book changed my life. I quote it in many articles and gift it to my dearest friends to make them happier.
When Things Fall Apart is a powerful ode to life in all its facades. Chödrön teaches us to find tenderness in our roughest moments and encourages us to embrace and persevere in the present even when it hurts like hell.
Most importantly, she reassured me I don’t have to be happy. Pain and unhappiness aren’t testimonies of personal failure. You don’t feel them because you did the wrong move. Instead, they’re inherent parts of existence.
Negative feelings aren’t the problem. The problem is we’re made to believe we must escape and abandon them for positive feelings. This keeps us running around in endless circles. It’s what ultimately causes suffering.
Key takeaways of the book:
- Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
- Tenderness lies in the roughest episodes of life.
- Nothing is permanent. Things come together and fall apart again. This is the nature of life. The more we try to control our experiences and avoid impermanence, the more we‘ll suffer.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
“A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life.”
As a creator, I devoured this book.
Elizabeth Gilbert illustrates the joys and pains of a creative life beautifully. From a writer who waits tables to a writer who earns millions since Eat, Pray, Love she saw all sides of the artists’ spectrum.
This book made me happier because it assured me I can trust the process when it comes to my art (writing). In fact, it’s the only way to go.
Back when I started my journey of self-employment I wanted to follow my passion (classic!). I was obsessed to never work again in my life because my work would fill me with so much joy it wouldn’t be work anymore. I spent 9 months and almost all my savings on my first passion project — a book almost nobody has read.
Ironically, the time I spent writing the book was one of the most stressful, dreadful, and unfulfilling times of my life. Once I finally hit publish and was confronted by reality (i.e. the ridiculously small amount of people interested in my baby I now hated) I became so miserable I almost quit writing entirely.
You can’t fall in love with something that desperately must make you money. Passions cease to be passions as soon as you burden them with the enormous responsibility to provide you a living.
Your art should be the icing on your cake called life. It mustn’t be the whole fundament, because inspiration and creativity are too fleeting and fragile.
While I learned this the hard way before I read Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert managed to take away all the pressure and morosity from my writing.
Through Big Magic, I learned to put all my focus on the one thing I control when it comes to my writing: time. I diligently write for two hours every day. I do my best to master the craft. I’m happy if it pays off financially. However, I’m not unhappy if it doesn’t. Most importantly: I don’t rely on it.
Key takeaways of the book:
- Passions cease to be passions as soon as you burden them with the enormous responsibility to provide you a living.
- There’s no glory in being a tortured artist: Don’t work your ass off while you do something you hate. Don’t live like a churchmouse so you can do what you love. Put real effort into a good balance instead.
- Everyone is inherently a creative person. It’s your duty to follow your curiosity and find your creativity. The reward is a more enchanting, amplified existence. N.b. your creative outlet can be anything you pursue with relentless passion. It’s not only art in the classical sense.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
“[H]ere’s the thing that’s wrong with all of the “How to Be Happy” shit that’s been shared eight million times on Facebook in the past few years — here’s what nobody realizes about all of this crap:
The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.”
Mark Manson is a millionaire online entrepreneur and, in his own words, writes about life advice that doesn’t suck.
This book is his applicable illustration of existentialist philosophy — a tool to live an authentic, honest life.
I read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck right after I quit my job to start an online business. I re-read it a year later when I felt like a complete failure and questioned all my life choices.
For the first time, someone told me happiness isn’t the ultimate goal, there’s power in failure, and tenderness often emerges when life f*cks you up.
My parents told me I’m special and talented. In my mid-twenties, it dawned upon me that maybe I’m not. My life wasn’t by far as glamorous as I imagined it would be once I superciliously quit the rat race.
Mark Manson told me we’re raised in a culture in which greatness and being special are the new normal while being average is the new failure. I shouldn’t give a f*ck about glamour and greatness for my sanity, but focus on what’s in front of me.
Before, I read tons of books about positivity and can-do-mentality. While I still believe I can do a lot of stuff, I learned it takes more than the right attitude, positive affirmations, and a good morning routine.
In the grand scheme of things I’m blessed with a ton of privilege and, looking back, I feel embarrassed about how self-centered and demanding of life I was.
Today, I turned my back on manifestation and toxic positivity. I’m a spiritual orphan who identifies most with Buddhism and Stoicism — both are about the acceptance of suffering and the inherent painfulness of life. Mark Manson’s book was the catalyst for this healthier mindset.
Key takeaways of the book:
- Life doesn’t go your way all the time and that’s OK. Hard times are necessary parts of life.
- Failure, too, is a part of life. This is more than a lame calendar motto — it’s how you learn, grow, and become better.
- Self-improvement is about caring less, not more: a better prioritization of values, picking the right battles, and the choice of more important things to give a f*ck about.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally, they reach a point where they can’t live without it.”
Harari’s masterpiece made me rethink the human experience and our whole existence. His profound insights into history make for radical and counterintuitive conclusions about happiness.
It hammers home how progress and happiness aren’t correlated. This is a withering assessment if we consider the emphasis mankind placed on progress (personal, financial, technological, etc.) in the past few centuries.
There’s no evidence we’re an inch closer to happiness than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Quite the opposite: What we know about them indicates their lives were more satisfying: They spent their time in nature, upright, moved a lot, lived in big groups of kinship, and sat around the bonfire in the evenings.
Today, we see this lifestyle as a luxury— something reserved for successful escapists. For most of human history, it was the norm.
It doesn’t need a specialist to tell our days spent crouched in front of a screen in a climatized office aren’t the environment the universe designed us for. It doesn’t make us happy, either.
Harari calls this the biggest fraud of history — what’s all the progress, efficiency, and technology worth if it didn’t make us an inch happier?
When I applied the same chain of thought to my life it made my jaw drop.
In the past years, I learned about efficiency, productivity, how to work from home, and time optimization.
I use technology I couldn't have fathomed 10–15 years ago when I delighted in my Discman.
If I look back on my last 10 years, I see plenty of progress (personal, financial, emotional, etc.).
Am I happier though? I don’t know!
When I look back at my time at uni, for example, they were among my funniest years. I didn’t have more problems but different ones. Progress didn’t significantly enhance my happiness.
Life follows more the rules of the Red Queen Effect: As expectations rise with age, we have to sprint to keep our happiness at the same level.
This realization helped me stop chasing goals, stuff, money, and efficiency. While I want to maintain my lifestyle I don’t have to achieve more at all costs.
The urgency of constant development and achievement is fake. It feels like coming from within but it’s an outside pressure we experience from our earliest age. It’s a lie capitalism tells us so we produce, consume, and keep the system going until we die.
Key takeaways of the book:
- Progress and happiness aren’t correlated.
- There’s alarmingly little study on human happiness throughout history. We researched a bunch of other stuff (politics, society, economics, gender, sexuality, diseases, etc.) but we rarely asked how all these influenced happiness.
- The simple formula of happiness is expectations = reality. Meeting the needs of an overall comfortable life makes sense. After that, to work on your expectations and learn how to be more content will make you happier than your next big achievement.
Most people look for shortcuts when it comes to personal development and happiness. At the same time, they skip something crucial on their quest to bliss. It’s the deep understanding of the science and philosophy of happiness, how it works, and why we struggle to achieve it.
There’s no secret sauce.
Instead, I experienced how learning as much as possible about happiness takes away its pressure. I realized I don’t have to be happy all the time. It’s not a meaningful, ultimate goal as such.
Negative emotions, dark times, and crises don’t happen because you or someone else did anything wrong. They’re a part of our shared human experience.
Once our basic needs are met and we have enough to afford an overall comfortable life, achievement contributes little to our long-term contentment.
To accept and internalize this wisdom with the help of these books counterintuitively made me happier and more resilient. I hope they’ll do the same for you.