We all know, intuitively, that friendships are pleasurable and close to essential. And yet, scientists have long shied away from studying something so apparently squishy. Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond summarizes studies in humans and animals, starting and ending on an island off Puerto Rico populated by (imported from India 80 years ago) macaques. Macaques live in strict hierarchies so it’s not clear that all the observations with them can be generalized to humans, but many of the social behaviors are entirely recognizable.
In humans, CT scans prove that caressing babies slow down their heart rates, but only if done at a particular speed. People with strong friendships live longer (even if they smoke!) and loneliness can, literally, kill by reducing our bodies’ capacity to fight inflammation. Let’s cultivate our friends, selfishly!
I long resisted reading Nothing to See Here because I had serious doubts about a story that featured self-igniting children. How contrived! How silly! Well, I was wrong. Kevin Wilson has the magic touch when it comes to writing about children (see here and here) and the self-igniting children become completely normal, in a way, as well as symptomatic of the crazy family in which they leave. Also normal is the devotion of their unlikely nanny, strangely loyal to someone who betrayed her in the past. Let’s just say that you will never look at politicians the same way after you read the story.
The CryingBook is a peculiar book mix of personal recollections of grief and exploration of why and how we cry. I may have liked the cover better than the contents.
Want some good news with your summer? The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World shares many studies that show that empathy is a skill, and therefore can grow over time. It also shares many examples of deliberate initiatives in a variety of settings to deploy empathy. And it also describes efforts to be less empathetic, when too much empathy would harm you, as would be the case in some hospital settings. Inspiring!
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed is a delightful mix of what it’s like to be a therapist, how therapists behave when they go see a therapist for their own struggles (and not just to get a second opinion on a client), and the author’s personal, twisted journey into becoming a therapist (it’s LA, so show business in involved, but also med school!)
The three strands come together perfectly and you will close the book wanting more.
There are other books of the genre of Help Me! that show real-life attempts of following self-help books, but none as honest and funny as this one, in which the author undertakes to sort out her drinking, crushing debt, and so far unsuccessful search for a boyfriend by relying on self-help books. (She is a reasonably successful journalist, although impeded by too many hangovers and general disorganization.)
In a Bridget Jones sort of way, she takes us along as she struggles to organize her finances and conquer her fears of just about everything. The best chapter may well be when she decides to seek rejection by making outrageous requests, proving to herself that she can survive all kinds of humiliation (and sometimes get what she can only dream of!) The other hilarious part of the book are the contributions of her mother and friends to her efforts–and they are not all cheering. Perhaps the best part of the book is the fact that she is not the perfect success she was aiming for at the end.
Using simple models for how we can influence others in our network, The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread shows how ideas can spread, including misinformed ones. The authors are professors of philosophy of science so there are many scientific examples, but not just that. And unlike Connected, this book’s diagram are pleasantly laid out and therefore much more understandable. The demonstration of how propagandists can spread fake news is particularly chilling.
The weakest portion of the book is the (very short) one with solutions to the problem. The first encourages scientists to create joint studies, which is a lovely idea, but pretty unrealistic considering the pressure to publish, I think, and the others are no more likely to happen.
Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives explores how our ability to form tight networks makes us susceptible to mass hysteria, contagious suicides, or losing weight together. It also shows how understanding networks can help fight STDs or smoking. Too bad the illustrations of said networks are poor ! Also, with a 2009 copyright the influence of online networks is presented as a new thing, worthy of consideration. Indeed.
Asking for a Friend: Three Centuries of Advice on Life, Love, Money, and Other Burning Questions from a Nation Obsessed gives us three centuries of advice-writing, presenting both well-known advice givers (Benjamin Franklin, Dear Abby, Dr Spock, or Ms. Manners) and lesser-known figures, whom I thought were all the more interesting that they have not yet been chronicled to death. The book is both a series of portraits, interesting on their own, and excerpts of the ever-evolving principles of the advice given, sometimes within the span of the advice-givers themselves.
It’s awfully difficult to break the world into two parts, and while the author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World would very much like us to believe that there are two types of culture in the world, tight and loose, she has to resort to unhealthy contortions (and a few willful oversights) to keep the belief alive.
Not to say that some of her observations are not intriguing. How could it be that 12% of Americans (in a “loose” culture) write with their left hand, while only 3% of Turks do? And we can certainly see how scarcity, disease, and (lack of) diversity would push cultures to be tighter. But there are so many exceptions, which the author waves away (or ignores entirely). It’s annoying. Also annoying is the relentless analysis of recent political changes using the tight/loose distinction exclusively.