As we greet the new year, many of us are not where we’d like to be in life. Whether that means personal relationships that could be improved or bad habits that need to be broken, progress begins when we lace up our shoes and take the first step. A handful of new books each have a different subject in mind, but share a common endorsement of mindfulness as the key to a happier, healthier life.
FRIENDS FOR LIFE
Bette Midler’s signature song used to be “You’ve Gotta Have Friends,” back before she got all wind-beneath-my-wings-y. Carlin Flora’s Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are seconds that emotion, noting the enormous health benefits of friendship along with the idea that our friends shape our personality and choices even more than families do. Flora, formerly the features editor for Psychology Today, discovers that one unexpected benefit of friendship is that it allows us to be altruistic and care about others. This may be why the kids who make friends most easily are those who can quickly change gears and empathize with a wide variety of personality types. (It also helps if their names are easy to pronounce.) If you’ve been thinking of starting a book club with your BFFs, here’s your first assignment.
COMPASSION IN ACTION
A professional relationship with a religious leader led to a great friendship for Victor Chan. He traveled with the Dalai Lama for many years, recording talks and meetings with everyone from sick children to two men on either side of the long-standing “troubles” in Northern Ireland. In The Wisdom of Compassion, Chan recounts a variety of these encounters as they relate to “Overcoming Adversity,” “Educating the Heart” and “Compassion in Action.” We get a good sense of what Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader experiences on a typical day, and his personality, which can be fiery but is more often full of effusive giggling, comes through nicely. Chan inserts himself into the narrative more than is warranted, but the overall message of the book is uplifting and inspiring: If we generate compassion within ourselves, then extend it to all people (not just the ones we like most), we hold the potential to alleviate much of the world’s suffering.
BOOST YOUR BRAINPOWER
If you think attention and mindfulness are just for the spiritually inclined, you may be shortchanging your own intelligence. Sandra Bond Chapman’s Make Your Brain Smarter leads with the advice to stop multitasking and utilize what she calls the “brainpower of none,” emptying the mind to allow your thoughts to sort and settle. From there, focusing on just one thing intently or working only on your top two priorities lead to increased productivity and a healthier brain. While it’s disappointing to learn that crosswords and sudoku do less for brain health than previously thought, Chapman’s program encourages thinking broadly and creatively to stimulate the frontal lobe. Considering that she created a program designed to sharpen the minds of Navy SEALs in the same way their elite training hones their bodies, you may want to toss the crosswords and give this a try.
FOCUS ON SUCCESS
The new year is when we often resolve to take up better fitness habits and put down some of our vices; after all, if you can stick with it for three weeks it locks in, right? Actually, no, says PsyBlog creator Jeremy Dean. In Making Habits, Breaking Habits he argues that one of the keys to changing a habit is—don’t say you weren’t warned—mindfulness. Despite the slew of books raving about the power of intention as the key to personal success, research finds that intention creates false expectations and leads more often to disappointment than to thin thighs or an Aston Martin. Instead, the practice of mindfulness helps us act on our intentions consciously, which reinforces new habits and makes it easier to break old ones despite the social cues that can trigger them. Thinking both abstractly and analytically can also develop the mind’s capacity and flexibility. Begin with the mind, then get on the treadmill, and you’re well on your way to self-improvement.
A PATH THROUGH THE DARK
Sometimes the urge to care for ourselves is slow in coming. When Katrina Kenison’s second son left home, she was confronted with an overwhelming sense of loss. It wasn’t just the empty nest or uncertainties of middle age, but also the shifting terrain of her marriage and the long shadow cast by the death of a friend that weighted her days. Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment follows Kenison for a year in which she gently plumbs her intuition to find new purpose and resilience in the face of sorrow. When her life seems most empty, she realizes, “I do at least know this: . . . I can either run away from my loneliness, or I can practice tolerating myself as I am.” Yoga proves central to her healing, and its focus on mindfulness helps even the darkest places to reveal their beauty.
DOWN TO THE ROOTS
Garden blogger (and Kenison’s writing partner) Margaret Roach pulls together the scientific and spiritual in The Backyard Parables: A Meditation on Gardening, but it doesn’t feel like work when you’re out getting your hands dirty. A year spent in her garden includes a glimpse of her “new spiritual practice—a moving meditation aimed specifically at dandelions, a ritual that brings me into touch with my own powerlessness, and also my own power.” By turns wise and witty, the book is also jam-packed with practical tips for gardeners, from the basics of succession sowing to winning a showdown with chipmunks. Roach, former editorial director for Martha Stewart, followed a passion, cultivated it devoutly and turned it into a career. She doesn’t need to discuss the how-to of mindfulness; her life is the best example of the way love and attention will make things bloom.