In my never-ending quest for greater health and happiness, I'm a ravenous consumer of health-related non-fiction books. As I've explained before, bad past experiences have made me quite guarded against pseudoscience and quick-fixes, so I go for books written by scientists, journalists and credible industry-insiders who are well-researched, transparent in their sources, and who are willing to explore the nuances and complexity of topics, ideally without being dull – all of which is a tall order, I know.
So without further ado, here are my reviews of the top five books that have changed my life this year. Feel free to share your own book recommendations in the comments below.
Lost Connections, by Johann Hari
My summary – A revelatory new look at depression, which offers solutions that might actually work.
Johann Hari is a widely-acclaimed and influential independent British journalist who self-funds his investigative journalism. He also suffered from deep and debilitating depression for 13 years. In Lost Connections, he goes on a journey to uncover the real causes of depression and candidly reveals his struggle in coming to terms with the fact that the story he once believed and widely disseminated in his mainstream media work – that depression is a chemical imbalance and that the solution is pharmaceutical – is only one part of a much bigger picture.
I found his honesty enthralling and the real-life characters he portrays to be compelling. But this book is a tough read if you’ve experienced mental health problems either for yourself or through the eyes of a loved one and been steered down a pharmacological dead-end. Hari thoroughly busts the myth that we need only take a pill and all will be sunshine and rainbows.
To be clear, this is not a book encouraging people to quit anti-depressants cold-turkey. Rather, this is a nuanced investigation into the biological, psychological and social causes of depression. As a journalist with a chronic illness, who’s work focusses on the evidence exploring the connection between our mind, body and health, you can imagine that this was right up my alley.
Hari’s ultimate message is that recovering from depression is complex and must be approached at both an individual and societal level. But hope is not lost because he also shows that this new science-backed understanding of the real causes of depression gives us an opportunity to develop new strategies – ones that might actually work.
Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright
My summary – How and why meditation works from the perspective of Mother Nature.
Don’t let this book’s title put you off. It sounds as though it’s trying to covert to you to a religion. It’s not. It’s written by an evolutionary psychologist who’s not talking about reincarnation or the supernatural, but rather about his view that aspects of Buddhism are spot-on in explaining the human condition, and that the Buddhist practice of mindfulness is highly effective and urgently needed in modern times.
From his perspective as a Vipassanā meditator, journalist and philosophy expert, Robert Wright draws on neuroscience, psychology and secular Buddhism to make a case that humans are not designed by natural selection to ever be happy and that we’re hard-wired to be perpetually unsatisfied in our pursuit of pleasure and our avoidance of pain. The solution for our suffering and for the suffering of the world, in Wright’s view, is secular mindfulness.
This book had an enormous impact of me and opened my eyes to the pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance behaviours that drive me every day. Wright, along with the work of people such as Stephen Bachelor and Sam Harris is paving the way for what I hope is a new wave of mainstream insight and understanding into meditation. It appealed to me because I’m put off by the esoteric aspects of Buddhism as well as the “glowing balls of light” in pseudo-spiritualism. (Read my piece Why I Stopped Looking for Miracles And Started Reading Science if you’d like to know why.)
I suspect that devoted Buddhists as well as atheist science-nerds would find this book equally interesting, but each would take away different things. As for me, I liked the evolutionary-science-meets-secular-Buddhism take but would have been just as satisfied if it were titled “How And Why Meditation Works.”
How Emotions Are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett
My summary – The mind-blowing new science of emotions.
Lisa Feldman Barrett is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, where she applies psychology and neuroscience to explore human emotions. As I wrote in my blog Scientists Are Re-thinking How Emotions Are Made And It's Mind Blowing, in this book Feldman Barrett endeavours to completely rebrand emotions. She takes on the so-called “classical view” of emotions, which holds that emotions are universal and automatic, and puts forward her own theory that emotions are a type of learned social knowledge, dependent on culture and context.
The book directly and controversially challenges some of the most respected emotions researchers in the world such as Paul Ekman. As one good reads reviewer commented, “That's mad ballsy.” But while I found it refreshing to read a book about the science of emotions that doesn’t just resuscitate the same old positivity-equals-healthy, negativity-equals-unhealthy narrative, I think that by taking an adversarial position Feldman Barrett hasn’t quite left enough room for a more nuanced conversation. Given that I’d just read Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True and found it's to be so profoundly enlightening, I thought that a conversation between Wright and Feldman Barrett would be a thing of magic. You can see their conversation here. They didn’t hit it off.
While her theory may be controversial, the practical take-aways that come from it are not. The ultimate message is simple – eat well, sleep enough, exercise more, and mindfully pay attention to how you’re feeling. What’s new is Feldman Barrett’s exploration of how my mind, brain, body and the world around me works together to create my reality. She made me see the importance of context in all my emotional responses and has got me paying more attention to my emotional granularity. Things are no longer black and white. It’s well worth reading if you’re working in psychology or healthcare.
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier
My summary – Shattering the illusion of the benefits of social media.
With his floor-length dreadlocks and dreamy mannerisms, Jaron Lanier does not look or sound like a best-selling author or tech-industry heavy weight. But this man is a founding father of virtual reality and was nominated in the TIME 100 list of most influential people in 2010, so when he wrote a book with an ironic click-bait-eque title; Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, I decided to take notice.
This is not a polished book, but it is a hugely important one and it goes to the heart of the recent backlash against Big Tech in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data-harvesting scandal.
At the core of Lanier’s 10-point manifesto is the fact that social media is inextricably bonded to an advertising agenda and an always-on, omnipresent, supercomputer-come-tracking-device. My illusion that the mission of social media companies is to provide a community service that connects us and make the world a better place was completely shattered.
Although I found his twee metaphors and accronyms off-putting at times (Facebook and Google aren’t simply “Big-Data”, they’re “BUMMER machines” which stands for Behaviours of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent) and many of his arguments are unsurprising (“Social media is making you unhappy,” “Social media is turning you into an asshole,” “Social media is undermining truth” etc), there’s an overriding message which sat with me long after I’d finished reading….
Lanier made me see that my attention is valuable. If social media companies want to make billions of dollars from it, they’ll have to pay me. You might like to read my post My Name Is Shannon And I'm Addicted To My Phone... Again for my latest musings on this.
If you don’t want to read Lanier's whole book, his TED talk How To Remake The Internet cuts right to the point.
How To Change Your Mind, by Michael Pollan
My summary – The new science and life-changing potential of hallucinogenic drugs.
When I heard that one of my favourite journalists, Michael Pollan had written a book in which he systematically takes hallucinogenic drugs in the name of “science” I thought he’d gone off the deep end. Pollan is perhaps best known for his best-selling book, The Omnivore's Dilemma which changed the way many of us think about food. In this book, he changed the way I think about drugs.
This is a post-hippie, critical-thinking investigation into the new science exploring the potential for psychedelic drugs and mental health, in which Pollan persuasively argues that our concerns about “turning-on, tuning-in, dropping-out” are misplaced when it comes to hallucinogens, most of which are not addictive.
To be clear, this is not a book arguing for recreational drug-use or the performance enhancement micro-dosing culture which is currently popular in Silicon Valley. It stresses that this is about drug-aided therapy, administered by trained professionals, who Pollan calls “White-Coat Shamans.”
In his simultaneously poetic yet relatable style, he describes how he drops acid, munches on mushrooms and smokes the crystallized venom of a Sonoran Desert toad, all the while exploring the history of psychedelic drug research and the quirky modern-day characters studying their potential for treating addiction, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and treatment-resistant depression.
Some months after reading this book, there’s one story that still sits with me and sums up the book’s thesis – The story of Patrick Mettes, a 54-year-old American news director with terminal cancer who, as Pollan puts it in a piece for The New Yorker, “read an article on the front page of the Times that would change his death.”
Mettes became part of a clinal study in which he was administered psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic" mushrooms) to see if it could treat his anxiety and “existential distress.” Poignantly and powerfully, Mettes and others in the trial are described as gaining a lasting sense of oneness with the universe, so that approaching death no longer seemed lonely or terrifying, but rather, a transition.
This book changed me in 2018 by making me think quite deeply about consciousness, existence and the neuroscience of the human mind. As a result, I’m reading more about and the egoless realm of consciousness described by people taking hallucinogens and it’s striking similarity with what some of my more devoted meditating friends report. And while I currently have many more questions than answers, it’s fascinating stuff.