10 Books on How to Live Well

Kim Ukura

Staff Writer

Kim Ukura is a book lover, recovering journalist, library advocate, cat mom, and lover of a good gin cocktail. In addition to co-hosting Book Riot’s nonfiction podcast, For Real, and co-editing Book Riot’s nonfiction newsletter, True Story, Kim spends her days working in communications at a county library system in the Twin Cities area. Kim has a BA in English and journalism from a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, and a master’s in journalism from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. When not getting to bed before 10 p.m., Kim loves to read nonfiction, do needlework projects, drink tea, and watch the Great British Baking Show. Instagram: @kimthedork Twitter: @kimthedork

Sponsored by Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old by John Leland, published by Sarah Crichton Books – FSG.

The New York Times journalist John Leland set out to meet some of the city’s oldest inhabitants for a series on America’s fastest-growing age group: those over eighty-five. He wondered: Is there a threshold at which life is no longer worth living? The six elders Leland interviewed took him in a different direction. Beyond illuminating what it’s like to be old, physically and materially, they provided a life-changing education in resilience and joy. Happiness Is a Choice You Make is a rare, intimate glimpse into the end of life, and the insight that can enhance the years preceding. What he finds is deeply heartening: Even as our faculties decline, we still wield extraordinary influence over the quality of our lives. Happiness is a choice we make.

Like a lot of people, the flip of the calendar from one year to the next always gets me thinking about what I can do to make myself and my life better in the new year. Sometimes I get bogged down by specific resolutions—declutter my books! go to the gym! pack health lunches!—while other years I feel a more general pull to be a better friend, coworker, sibling, and partner; to live well and fully in the life I have now.

The idea of “living well” is pretty broad, but I think these books provide some useful guidance from smart people on ways to embrace traits like persistence, resilience, courage, and kindness in pursuit of a life that is lived well and lived with joy.

The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama XIV and Desmond Tutu

In 2015, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu met in India to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday and spend five days exploring a big question—How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering? This book is an account of their conversation and includes some of each of their stories and lessons about joy, recent science on happiness, and the rituals that each man uses to help find balance and joy each day. If there are any two people who can best give guidance on living well, it’s these two leaders.

The Distraction Addiction by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

This book starts out with another good question: “Can we stay connected without diminishing our intelligence, attention spans, and ability to really live?” Pang opens the book with the Buddhist idea of the “monkey mind,” a mind that “leaps about and never stays in one place.” The book explores ways we can think more carefully about the way we interact with our devices based on sound scientific research and philosophy. I’ve read a lot of books about mindfulness in a digital age, but this one is by far my favorite.

Treating People Well by Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard

In our current social and political climate, we all could benefit from a book on “the extraordinary power of civility at work and in life.” Berman and Bernard are both former White House social secretaries, so they know a bit about how to work with people who think and behave very differently. This book isn’t just about etiquette, it’s about how to be your best self in all situations and treat all other people with dignity and respect.

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown

I don’t think anyone is allowed to write a book list of “self-help” titles without mentioning the amazing Brené Brown. While all of her books are excellent—and worth reading in order to see the evolution of her thinking and advice—I’m including her most recent on this list because it feels the most relevant now. Braving the Wilderness is about learning to truly belong and connect with other people, through believing and belonging to ourselves first.

The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith

In this book, Emily Esfahani Smith, an instructor in positive psychology, explores how to find personal meaning in a secular world through the four pillars of building a meaningful life—belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. Her book includes a range of examples of everyday people who have made large and small changes to their lives in search of purpose, and looks at cultural challenges to finding space for introspective thinking. I enjoyed it immensely, and feel like this is a book I’ll be returning to over time.

Grit by Angela Duckworth

Although we often like to attribute success to talent alone, Angela Duckworth argues that the secret to success is focused persistence, aka grit. Duckworth uses her own meandering career trajectory coupled with stories from fields around the world to show how passion and perseverance can lead you to success. The book is about “what goes through your head when you fall down, and how that—not talent or luck—makes all the difference.”

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

This book was one of the most popular of 2017, and it’s easy to see why. Manson argues that positive thinking isn’t the key to happiness that we’ve been taught that it is. Instead, he argues that we need to learn understand our limitations and “embrace our fears, faults and uncertainties” to learn perseverance. It’s a book about deciding what matters and pointing our energy in that direction, rather than worrying about everything.

Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

If there is one thing we all have in common, it’s that we will all experience loss. This book is about how we face that adversity by building our own resilience and learning to find joy again. The narrative of the book is about Sandberg’s sudden loss of her husband, but it’s built deeply around Grant’s research into resilience as part of his work as a psychologist at Wharton. This is a lovely, sad, thoughtful book that I’ve recommended often.

Awakening Your Ikigai by Ken Mogi

I like books that explore how other cultures approach questions of happiness and well-being. Awakening Your Ikigai is about the Japanese phenomenon of “ikigai” or “your reason to get up in the morning.” This can be anything, big or small, that contributes to passion and joy in your life. Mogi uses examples from “Japanese history, philosophy, and modern culture” to show how to bring more ikigai to your life.

Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson

And finally, meditation! There are lots of books you could grab to read about how to meditate and the benefits of a meditation practice, I like this one because it has a lot of science. Goleman and Davidson use recent research to show what meditation can actually do for us, as well as how to develop a smart practice that actually brings about the many benefits that other suggest meditation can have. Sold!