America the Anxious: Why Our Search for Happiness Is Driving Us Crazy and How to Find It for Real is written in an entertaining style by a newly-transplanted Brit who takes a wry look at the antics of northern Californians in quest of happiness. Of course, thinking that mainstream Americans spend their time on children’s playground painfully translating their toddlers’ tantrums into words– or that everyone checks Facebook as compulsively as she does — leads to rather ridiculous adventures, from EST-inpired seminars to a gratingly patronizing visit to Mormon Utah .
There are some funny, if overdone comparisons, as when she notes that lunchtime at Facebook, when harassed moms drag children to see dad for a little while, feels like prison visits. But it’s not entirely clear that she actually realizes that prison visits are a lot less fun. On the whole, the book is better seen as a satire than a rational inquiry.
Breaking Sad: What to Say After Loss, What Not to Say, and When to Just Show Up is a compilation of personal stories from people who experienced various losses and who share their stories and their recollections of best and worst comments and help they received afterwards. Some of the “bad” comments are astonishingly insensitive; it would be most charitable to think that people are intimidated by death and blurt out these things without thinking.
What was more interesting to me were the recommendations for what to do and say. There were so many different approaches, reflecting the preferences of the receivers, so that piece of advice #1 is probably just that: adapt to the mourner. And don’t think you have to fill the silence with any words at all. Maybe that’s the hardest part.
Written by an academic, The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others explores sometimes counter-intuitive studies that show that our peculiar, not-so-rational minds can be influenced by the right stories or by the emotions of others (rather than rational statistics), while we knowingly ignore information that does not conform to our preconceived ideas, We also prefer being in control (even when letting someone else make decisions for us would be preferable), and we want to get information early but if it’s likely to be bad, we withdraw instead.
I would have wished to see a bit more connective tissue between the various chapters, and connecting the results to practical actions, but it’s an enjoyable read.
Seamlessly moving from music to politics, movies, and fine art, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction explores the uncertain phenomenon of fame — and as you may surmise there is a large dash of luck in every hit. Still, the most intriguing aspect of popularity is the balance between innovation and familiarity, since humans need a bit of both. The author illustrates his argument with fresh, deftly told stories, and he is not afraid to expose the darker side of applying the psychological methods he explains. The book is easy to read but the ideas will stay with you.
I often felt like an alien reading You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, as it twists around stories of women who seem so extremely caricatured that they don’t much resemble the ones I know, let alone my friends. It seems that none want to speak plainly, leaving others to misinterpret their desires or opinions, and that all find hidden meanings in the most innocent of actions or comments. How complicated and perhaps not so representative of the real world.
The author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked takes sometimes meandering path through the psychology of behavioral addiction, and especially how manufacturers of electronic devices and apps exploit our built-in vulnerability to keep us checking our phone and our Facebook account at all hours. It’s just a little sad that all these smart programmers are basically toiling to bind us more tightly to our screens.
Perhaps it will inspire us to give it a rest and take our revenge on the whole conspiracy.
It’s hard to read This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression and not feel deeply sad for the author, whose euphemistically tagged “treatment-resistant” depression has followed her since childhood, with multiple severe episodes following stressful life events. But she seems to attribute most of her problems to her upbringing, which was clearly cold, even neglectful but not out-of-bounds cruel — just clueless. It made me wonder whether holding on to the notion that she deserved a better childhood may not have made it even more difficult for her to live with her illness. It also made me wonder why she clung to a mother whom she describes as indifferent and callous well into adulthood. Wouldn’t she be better off to put some physical and mental space between her and her mother? In any case, the book is a reminder of the great travails of depression, and the gap still to be bridged by medicine when it comes to treating it.