It’s all good if you give in to February’s promises of romance and curl up in bed with a swashbuckling romance, but this year, we’re making a case for a holiday of self-care, self-help and perhaps even a radical brand of self-love — the kind built on books.
How to Overcome Your Childhood
Alain de Botton
When philosopher and author Alain de Botton founded The School of Life, a global organization grounded on the belief that “the journey to finding fulfillment begins with self-knowledge”, we were already seeing the rise of a modest but strong movement advocating better-engineered tools for self-discovery and self-development that would go beyond empty catchphrases and lifestyle trends. The group’s most popular offerings are its stable of books that turn the self-help genre on its head — think pop psychology and pop philosophy coming together for readers in need.
This book acknowledges the inevitability of how our personalities — and how we deal with life itself — begin to form more surely through adolescence. And it argues that the reader must recognize and address the events of the past, this very formation, to liberate ourselves from any haunting holds: “Building up an emotionally successful adult life is possible so long as we reflect with sufficient imagination and compassion on what happened to us a long while back.”
In this slim volume (it’s a two-hour read!), we learn about how character is developed, and how we can evolve emotionally from this knowledge. The book draws on ancient and modern philosophies, dispensing wisdom in accessible and often-wry language.
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
“Nothing is harder to do than nothing,” begins the artist and educator Jenny Odell in her radical manifesto against busy-ness. “In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily.”
Our free time, she argues, has been conquered by a virtual life that takes energy and resources to maintain and let flourish — a blanket “screen of distraction” invading moments that we used to be allowed to turn off. And so, Odell offers a field guide to doing nothing as an act of resistance; How to Do Nothing, she points out, is a plan of action.
It would be a shame to dismiss this book or its author as anti-technology — there are no arguments for unplugging, or for razing your social media presence to the ground. This is a book that instead serves as a manual for mindful abstention from the more treacherous offerings of a life online, for measured unproductivity as we navigate the digital world.
Right from the start, Odell assures, “the villain here is not necessarily the internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy and distraction.” She cautions that the cult of individuality and personal branding online has affected our perceptions of our offline selves.
Take care: This is a challenging one. The author herself concedes that it is “an activist book disguised as a self-help book”. But we all need galvanizing now and then, if only to return us to the truer centers of ourselves, where we relearn what it’s like to exist without the need for an audience.
How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well
Professor Catherine Wilson makes a case for finding genuine and lasting happiness via Epicureanism — a system of philosophy established in ancient Greece that proves “living life to the fullest” is not just a modern-day motto.
Wilson urges the reader to consider that this school of thought isn’t equivalent to materialism or reckless abandon; it’s a celebration of the good and the delightful in the world. It is going beyond just having a good time, to finding contentment and inner tranquility because we’re powered by good times. And that this joyfulness and eventual peace are grounded on reason, respect for nature and reverence for our fellow human beings.
Wilson draws you in from the very first page, dexterously balancing her knowledge of the considerable source material with accessibility and relatability. She applies the ancient tenets of Epicureanism to contemporary conflicts — from self-care routines and romantic entanglements, to issues of public policy and social justice. We’re fans of this merging of classical philosophy and the self-help genre, a welcome confirmation that some nuggets of wisdom can truly be timeless.
Here’s self-care in action: Make a list of what you appreciate. The list can be made up of anything from the very basic motions (“woke up today”) to the giddily indulgent (“finally took that solo trip to Bali”), from everyday moments (“walked my dog”) to big changes (“got the promotion I worked so hard for”). At its simplest, keeping an appreciation journal is to list the things, people, places and events that you are thankful for. This journal is an inventory for the reminders of the pockets of joy, no matter how mundane, to be found in our days; for the reminders of our self-worth and our uniquely formed motivations, or that there will always be something to be hopeful about.
Remember that it will be harder to find easy fulfillment from gratitude journaling if you don’t do it mindfully. So pay attention to what you’re writing — and most of all, pay attention to your day-to-day experiences in anticipation of filling your list. Be open to appreciation and keep a faithful record.