New Self-Help Books – The New York Times

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Recently, a friend posted on Facebook that after years of battling two different types of cancer, she was going into palliative care. She’s smart, funny and fearless. Her heartbreaking news generated the expected outpouring of love and support, including a number of messages repeating current popular sentiment: you have this.

She has what ? I was wondering. Is she supposed to feel reassured by this? Congratulations, you are going to rock death! you have thisis the popular rallying cry to a number of painful scenarios, from “My flight was delayed” to “I’m getting a divorce” to, well, this. sometimes we don’t I got it. Perhaps that’s why several new happiness books also address the negative side of positivity – pointing out that while the pursuit of happiness is a laudable goal, relentless positivity doesn’t really get us there and can end up harming us. Happiness scholar Tal Ben-Shahar compares the relentless pursuit of happiness, happiness as assess, in sunlight. The sun is vital for life on earth, but if you stare directly on it, you can go blind.

“The jargon of positivity lacks nuance, compassion and curiosity. It comes in the form of general statements that tell someone how to feel and that the feeling they currently have is wrongwrites therapist Whitney Goodman in TOXIC POSITIVITY: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed With Being Happy (TargerPerigee, 304 pp., $26). In other words, if it’s wrong to assault someone’s softness, sometimes it’s worse to soften someone’s harshness. The book is an invigorating tonic meant to counter societal pressure to be a living, breathing smiley emoji. “Toxic positivity,” Goodman explains, stems from an understandable desire to fix things — but when we can’t, we become stressed and feel helpless.

She details situations where positivity ends up being, as she puts it, “a band-aid on a gunshot wound”: when dealing with grief over death or abandonment, job loss, racism and homophobia or mental health issues. Sometimes all we want is for someone to recognize how awful a situation is and just sit down with us. We don’t need advice or someone telling us how resilient we are.


Much of Cy Wakeman LIFE’S MESSY, LIVE HAPPY: Things don’t have to be perfect for you to be happy (St. Martin’s, 256 pp., $28.99) is a conventional palaver of happiness, and some of it just seems wrong to me. (“Stress and pain don’t come from reality, they come from the stories we make up about reality.” Really? Tell that to the poor woman in Mississippi who needs an abortion.). She also contradicts herself. At one point, when decrying victimhood, she states, “Anything but gratitude is just a tantrum” – and a few chapters later she tells us to “feel whatever you feel”. Hmm. What if I feel like I’m gonna punch the next person who tells me to be grateful?

But what’s helpful about this book — by an executive business coach who’s been broke, homeless, and alone at times — is that it encourages us to let go of the idea that control is essential to happiness. In fact, says Wakeman, this belief can be one of the biggest obstacles to contentment.

Wakeman is an excellent storyteller, and her stories are particularly useful for discussing how to navigate through a time of loss – and how other cultures are significantly better than us at dealing with death. She describes an African father whose 6-year-old daughter died in a bicycle accident. What’s worse? Social workers who met him did not think he was rightly sad – but, writes Wakeman, “his daughter had a short and blessed life. When he thought of her, he told me, he could only feel grateful and happy. “She tasted the sweetest part of life,” he said. We can’t always force ourselves to reframe tragedy, but I will think of this story the next time I hear about the death of a beloved child.

HAPPY PEOPLE ARE BORING (HarperOne, 256 pp., $26.99) is not, as I thought when I picked it up, a traditional self-help book on taming the pathologically gay among us. Rather, it’s a fun and smart memoir from Nickelodeon actor and YouTube star Josh Peck, whose life checks all the boxes on how comedians are fueled by sadness. But it does offer some interesting insights into the role of poverty as a motivating factor.

After a childhood without a father (or rather, a childhood knowing that he had a father somewhere – a great father for the other children – but not one interested in knowing him), Peck spent years filling that void with food, drugs and alcohol. This quest for happiness resulted first in obesity, then, deftly replacing one substance with another, years of drug addiction. When he stopped chasing the excuse of happiness and started spending time in AA, he began to reclaim his life. Here, Peck learned to “be in the effort, not the results” – because with the effort, the results will follow. Although he does not give us precise GPS directions to transform our lives, the changes he has made in his own life, his focus on others and not himself, suggest a map we can follow. .


Judith Newman is the author of “To Siri With Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son and the Kindness of Machines”.


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