My Favorite Books in 2016

Once again, reading was a rewarding and enriching aspect of my year. I am excited to share my second annual list, roughly, by the order in which I read the books listed in each genre, of my favorite books from a year of reading.

Memoir is one of my favorite genres, and it was interesting to note how many of the books I most enjoyed in 2016 came from that category. A number of them were about epic journeys of one type of another. I love the idea of a quest for personal growth and soul searching. Many of my bike rides become those in miniature for me. Vicariously, I learn and grow from the memoirists’ quests, and they inspire me to explore the idea of setting out on adventures of my own, whether geographic or metaphorical in nature.

These are the books that I gave four or five stars in Goodreads during 2016.

Business

Health

History

Memoir/Biography

Nutrition/Cooking

 

Personal/Professional Development

  • Retire Inspired: It’s Not an Age, It’s a Financial Number, by Chris Hogan—I felt motivated to take action toward improving my financial future after reading this book. Unfortunately, I haven’t followed through on everything that I planned at that time, but I do intend to refer back to this competent guide.
  • What I Know For Sure, by Oprah Winfrey—I just love Oprah, and this collection of her popular column, “What I Know for Sure,” in O Magazine is light, easy reading that imparts a lot of quotable wisdom.

Social Justice

True Crime & Justice

Writing


Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, a Book Review

Walking on Sunshine, by British author Rachel Kelly, is a quick, easy read that is not really intended to be read through all at once. In a similar vein to Jon Cousins’ Nudge Your Way to Happiness, Walking on Sunshine provides bite-sized ideas for increasing happiness. In this case the happiness prescriptions are delivered one week at a time for one year, instead of one day at a time for one month, as was the case in Cousins’ book.

Kelly organized this book by seasons, beginning with spring, loosely defined as March, April and May. Personally, this organizational calendar did not appeal, for two primary reasons. The main one stems from one of my own happiness struggles—self-diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder. Just seeing the word “Autumn,” although less depressing than its alternative, “Fall,” causes me to feel heaviness in my body. In a book intended to promote happiness, that feels counterproductive. I recognize that is my own issue, and others may not have the same visceral reaction to the season that I do. The second reason that I would prefer a different structure is that it seems somewhat potentially difficult for someone to pick up the book and start at the “right” week, since the weeks are numbered, but begin with March, not January. Maybe there is no real “right” way to use the book, but for those of us who like order and logic, this feels a bit unnerving.

Those minor criticisms aside, I really like Kelly’s message, which, like Cousins’, is essentially that we have some power to help ourselves when we are feeling down. It does not always have to involve prescription medication or weekly therapy (although those things may have their places). Proactively brightening our own spirits can be as simple as a self-administered relaxation exercise, connecting with a beloved animal companion or volunteering for a worthwhile cause.

As someone who reads a lot of positive psychology and has made significant conscious effort to boost my own mood in a variety of ways, Kelly’s simple, accessible suggestions resonate with me. She makes references to poetry in several places. While it is not poetry, specifically, that centers me, words are extremely important to my mood management. My collections of quotes are some of my most powerful happiness boosts. Kelly seems to find some of her strongest boosts in poetry.

I recommend this book for its simplicity and accessibility. There is nothing Kelly suggests that can be harmful, and her easy-to-implement strategies may be just the spirit boosts someone needs.


Book Review: Nudge Your Way to Happiness, Jon Cousins

I initially read Nudge Your Way to Happiness, by Jon Cousins, all the way through because I wanted a feel for the entire book, but it is not really meant to be read that way. The book is designed to provide a customized, 30-day program for edging up one’s happiness. Reading it through initially, I found myself annoyed because Cousins frequently made statements such as, “Right now, when things are better . . .” and “Although you may be feeling well at the moment . . . .” I kept thinking, “How does he know how I am feeling right now?” Then, it dawned on me that the issue was with how I was reading the book vs. how it was meant to be read. Actually, a unique and interesting feature of the book is that Cousins provides three possible “nudges” each day. The reason he might make a statement about how the reader was feeling is that the particular nudge was designed for either a low-mood day, an average day or a high-mood day. Once that occurred to me, I was better able to appreciate the features of each exercise.

I read a lot of positive psychology and happiness literature, and Cousins utilizes strategies from many well-respected researchers and authors. The exercises he recommends are solid, practical and simple. They are brief enough and accessible enough that even someone experiencing depression could perform them.

After reading the book through once, I began my journey to work through the book day by day. Today is Day 21. Reading and utilizing the book as it was designed to be used is more rewarding than simply reading it as a typical book. Cousins suggests doing the exercises first thing in the morning, and that is what I am doing. I think the most important thing is to choose a consistent time.

I like the checklist that Cousins provides each day, creating an opportunity to check in with myself and see how I am feeling across 10 variables. As someone who is very introspective, I find myself looking forward to my morning assessment. Perhaps even more interesting or useful is the graph at the back of the book that provides an opportunity to plot the trends in my happiness score throughout the project. Each day, Cousins asks the question, “What happened?” This allows me to reflect on the reason for my current happiness score and to better understand the peaks and valleys in the graph.

Nudge Your Way to Happiness is a simple, but well-written and useful, book that draws from the existing happiness and positive psychology literature and translates it into a practical formula for thinking about our own level of positive vs. negative emotions and reflecting on the reasons for those levels. In addition to providing daily exercises that can serve as tools, not just during the 30 days of working through the book, but on an ongoing basis. The book’s value derives from both those tools and from the introspection the daily tracking inspires. Understanding more about the things that boost our mood and the things that drain us of energy and joy allows us to take action to incorporate into our lives more of the former and less of the latter.

I recommend this book for people who are seeking to enhance their happiness, ward off seasonal blues, push back a natural inclination toward the melancholy or to combat depression. It is a strategy that can do no harm and certainly can teach us something that may help us in both the short term and the long term.


Reflections on #100HAPPYDAYS

When I started my #100HAPPYDAYS journey, I did not take time to calculate when it would conclude. Although just a happy coincidence, as I drew closer to completing my quest and realized that it would culminate along with 2015, I thought there must be some symbolism to that—or at least I could assign significance to it.

I could let this be an ending, or I could turn it into another beginning.

Concluding at the end of the year, it felt appropriate to reflect on what the project had meant to me and how I had changed by participating in it. The number-one influence that the #100HAPPYDAYS project had on my daily life was inspiring a proactive daily search for the positive. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have a daily practice of writing in my journal each night about “3 things that have gone well today.” This practice allows me to recognize and appreciate something encouraging, even on very difficult days.

Rather than retroactively reflecting on the positive bits that I could tease out of my day, #100HAPPYDAYS required me to look for, think about where I might find, or sometimes even create, happy moments that could be captured in a photograph. This was beneficial to my overall outlook because it empowered and challenged me to insert happiness into each day.

This was easier or more obvious on some days than on others. I found myself at the end of rough days, in a less than stellar mood, thinking, “What (the heck) am I going to photograph today for my #100HAPPYDAYS?” On those days purposefully looking around reminded me of the good fortune that that has permeated my life as a whole—a photo of my much-loved grandma, a box painted by a special friend, the mischievous smile on my active little boy’s face. This was an effective way of “counting my blessings,” even on days that were characterized more by stress than by bliss. Our lives are generally dominated by mundane tasks and obligations, rather than by dramatic highs (or, thankfully, lows). So, this habit of noticing the good on an ordinary day was a healthy one.

On some days, it would have been easier not to post, and there were times that I worried that my Facebook friends must be sick of seeing pictures from my life or that I would look like I was seeking attention. The bottom line, though, is that I value keeping the commitments I make to myself. I am what Gretchen Rubin calls an “Upholder,” someone who “responds readily to inner and outer expectations.” If I set a goal, especially one with a clear finish line and specific parameters, I am generally determined to meet it—whether it is posting for 100 straight days about something that makes me happy, training for and completing a marathon or finishing an 82-mile bike ride in torrential rain and 45-mph wind. This perseverance is what makes Kenny call me stubborn (among other adjectives), but it is something I consider a strength and a characteristic for which I am grateful.

I decided that finishing #100HAPPYDAYS on the last day of the year meant that I should begin the new year with a fresh quest. It seemed the perfect segue to a kickoff of the pursuit of what I am calling Vision 2016—my two primary goals for 2016. I am not ready to go public with what those two goals are, but I have adapted the #100HAPPYDAYS format to a strategy to track my progress toward those goals. Rather than posting photos on Facebook, I have created a spreadsheet where I will track my daily activities related to my dual-pronged Vision 2016. This will work for me because I am self-motivated and self-directed and do not necessarily need to make a goal public in order to feel accountable to it. I feel excited at the prospect of this new challenge and am grateful for a structure within which to frame my goal pursuit.

I appreciate my experience with #100HAPPYDAYS and am grateful for my friend Andrea, whose Facebook post introduced me to the idea. I would say that my overall mental health and happiness have tipped a little farther toward the positive. While this emotional uptick is not solely because of this project, I do believe that #100HAPPYDAYS contributed. Even though I won’t necessarily be sharing something positive every day, I hope that I will be able to keep alive the spirit of proactively spotting joy amidst the mundane moments that characterize human daily existence.

Wishing all, human and non-human, a peaceful and happy 2016!


My Favorite Books in 2015

Along with cycling, reading is one of my lifelines. It is an escape, a friend and means to lifelong learning. I read a lot, mostly while doing other things—folding laundry, washing dishes, brushing my teeth, etc.—and before I go to sleep. For several years, I have kept a log in Evernote of the books I have read during a given year, and I have also rated them on Goodreads. I thought it would be fun to post a list of the books I found most enjoyable, meaningful or informative in 2015. I present them here, roughly categorized by genre, mostly in the chronological order in which I read them within the genres. These are the books that I gave four or five stars in Goodreads.
Health
Talking Back to OCD: The Program That Helps Kids and Teens Say “No Way”—and Parents Say “Way to Go,” by John S. March—March explains practical, accessible advice for helping children help themselves cope with and conquer Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande—Atul Gawande is one of my favorite authors. His latest book provides useful, provocative questions to assist loved ones facing end-of-life decisions or to make well-considered decisions about our own mortality.
Foundation: Redefine Your Core, Conquer Back Pain and Move With Confidence, by Eric Goodman—This book led to a life-enhancing daily practice for me. It has helped me significantly reduce hip and lower back pain, increase my cycling speed and efficiency and engage my hamstrings more effectively. I purchased the DVD set after several weeks of daily practice and have given the book/DVD package as gifts. I strongly recommend this book and this practice.
The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, by David Adam—Adam elucidates the suffering caused by OCD, using scientific information, anecdotal accounts and personal experience.
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh—Henry Marsh writes an admirably candid account of his career—and especially his mistakes—as a neurosurgeon. I was in awe of his courageous honesty, which he asserts is critical to practicing good medicine.
The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed or Desperate, by Harriet Lerner—Lerner provides practical guidance for having tough conversations that can be critical to healthy relationships of all kind.
Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us, by Joe Palca—As someone whose sensitivities have increased with age, I found this study of sensory irritation to be fascinating.
Memoir
The Road Less Taken: Lessons From a Life Spent Cycling, by Kathryn Bertine—Bertine’s memoir of women’s professional cycling life demonstrates the differences between men’s and women’s professional cycling, as well as the particular challenge of breaking into professional cycling past age 30.
The Wild Truth: The Untold Story of Sibling Rivalry, by Carine McCandless—In this story behind Into the Wild, by John Krakauer, Carine McCandless details the horrific and complex childhood that led to her brother’s disappearance.
The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician’s First Year, by Matt McCarthy—This candid memoir was both entertaining and informative, as well a little scary.
It Was Me All Along, by Andie Mitchell—Mitchell’s courageous account of her battle with weight would be inspirational to anyone who has struggled with weight or body image.
Hiding From Myself, by Bryan Christopher—In this powerful memoir, Christopher openly shares his painful journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance, as someone who fiercely fought the realization that he was gay, while growing up and coming of age in an evangelical Christian environment.
A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise: 9 Steps to Giving Up Everything So You Too Can: Move to a South Pacific Island, Wear a Loincloth, Read a Hundred Books, Diaper a Baby Monkey, Build a Bungalow, by Alex Sheshunoff—This book was mostly just funny, but with an inspirational, wistful edge.
Nutrition/Cooking
The Campbell Plan: The Simple Way to Lose Weight and Reverse Illness, Using The China Study’s Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet, by Thomas M. Campbell II—A follow-up to The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, this book provides incredibly important information that is not always readily available through mainstream media. Whether or not you care about justice for non-human animals, there is critical health information here.
The 22-Day Revolution: The Plant-Based Program That Will Transform Your Body, Reset Your Habits, and Change Your Life, by Marco Borges—More great ideas for implementing the vegan lifestyle are presented in this book.
The PlantPure Nation Cookbook: The Official Companion Cookbook to the Breakthrough Film . . . With over 150 Plant-Based Recipes, by Kim Campbell—This has become my favorite cookbook! I have made many recipes from it and love them all.
Vegan for Her: The Woman’s Guide to Being Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet, by Ginny Messina—This is the woman-specific companion to Vegan for Life, by Jack Norris and Ginny Messina, which is also great. Here, Messina addresses different life stages and details nutrition and supplementation (minimal) for vegan women.
Cooked Raw, by Matthew Kenney—Although this is more memoir than nutritional guide, it made me want to incorporate even more raw food into my diet. I was also awed and encouraged by Kenney’s persistence in the face of struggle.
Personal/Professional Development
Are You Fully Charged?: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life, by Tom Rath—I have been a fan of Tom Rath’s writing for several years. Here, he draws on incredible personal challenges to share what he has learned about living more fully right now.
Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin—I have enjoyed Gretchen Rubin in the past, but I became an even bigger admirer after reading this smart memoir/how-to about instituting positive habits.
Start Something That Matters, by Blake Mycoskie—This book really lit a spark for me and was the beginning of the inspiration that led to this blog.
Grit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion, and Pluck Take You From Ordinary to Extraordinary, by Linda Kaplan Thaler & Robin Koval—Thaler and Koval share what they have learned about the value of perseverance to success in all aspects of life.
Rising Strong, by Brene Brown—Brown left me feeling encouraged and more confident in owning my whole story shamelessly.
The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, by Shawn Achor—Achor provided a new (for me) take on positive psychology, one that posits that happiness may be the key to success, and not vice versa.
Before Happiness: How Creating a Positive Reality First Amplifies Your Levels of Happiness and Success, by Shawn Achor—I enjoyed Achor’s previous book so much that I read this one to gain a better understanding of the importance of emphasizing happiness before all else.
Happier at Home: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Cram My Day with What I Love, Hold More Tightly, Embrace Here, and Remember Now, by Gretchen Rubin—For some reason, I had resisted reading this book for quite a while, but reading Rubin’s latest book changed my mind. All of her books provide useful suggestions, presented in the context of engaging memoir.
SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient—Powered by the Science of Games, by Jane McGonigal—Totally out of character for me, the concept of living gamefully was presented in such a way that I was inspired to try several challenges and techniques. I just used one yesterday to divert my brain from a direction I didn’t want to go. I came away with useful strategies that I will continue to use, even if I am not playful by nature.
True Crime & Justice
The Innocent Killer: The True Story of a Wrongful Conviction and Its Astonishing Aftermath, by Michael Griesbach—A haunting true crime tale that illustrates how wrongful convictions can happen and how complicated the legal system can be.
2015 Serial Killers True Crime Anthology: Volume 2, by Peter Vronsky (Ed.)—A collection of recent true crime writing about fascinating, terrifying serial killers.
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, by Wes Moore—A young man recognizes how different his life could have been when he reads a news report about a man with his same name, who grew up very close to where he did, but who ended up in prison, instead of in college. Here, the author shares their dual histories and the story of the relationship he forged with the incarcerated Moore.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson—Stevenson tells the stories of his career in social justice and the tragedy that can occur when innocent, indigent people are wrongly convicted.
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy Leagues, by Jeff Hobbs—Hobbs does an outstanding job of telling the story of his friend who seemed to beat the odds, but ended up succumbing to his environment. It is a powerful story of the challenges so many people face in trying to carve a successful, meaningful life for themselves.
Writing
The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr—Karr’s discussion of her love for nonfiction really resonated with me, and I came away from her memoir-writing guide with a strong appreciation for the critical importance of accuracy and clarity in writing memoir.

I always love suggestions for great nonfiction reads and hope you enjoy mine. If you have read a great book this year, please share it in Comments.