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Four books that shifted my outlook on life

Sometimes, the pursuit of happiness and success can make your mental health worse, not better. Here’s my run down of four books that can help change your outlook on life and what you really need to be happy.

Self-Knowledge | The School of Life

Socrates said the most essential philosophical rule was ‘Know thyself’. But how many of us really do? Self-Knowledge is a succinct tool for exploring your own identity. With questions and tasks to complete as you travel through the book, this led me to some interesting discoveries about my relationships, my work, my value systems, and myself.

Society has no shortage of people and organisations offering to guide us around distant continents, but very few that will help us with the arguably far more important task of travelling around the byways of our own minds.

Affluenza | Oliver James

Beyond the base level of living in comfort, how much money would make you happy? Chances are, once you had it, it wouldn’t be enough. Charting the spread of ‘Affluenza’ through the English-speaking world, this book brought home the importance of differentiating between the things I want and the things I need. The narrative framing is cheesy, at time – but it’s still a thought-provoking read that can help change your outlook on life. Turns out pledging your happiness to the pursuit of wealth, beauty and luxury goods is a fast track to anxiety.

Two-thirds of Britons believe they cannot afford to buy everything they really need […] Remarkably, nearly half of all people with annual incomes over £35,000 felt this was true of them, as did 40 per cent of those earning over £50,000.

Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life | Paul Dolan

I want to be successful, educated, married, and the mother of 2.5 kids. Or do I? Happy Ever After neatly brings together a wealth of interesting studies that lay bare the realities of popular happiness narratives. I found this supremely interesting, particularly the stats about work and having a ‘good job’. (Florists are happier than lawyers and less likely to quit their job. Go figure.) This one had a fairly rapid impact on my outlook on life. It also lays out some fairly brutal realities about who is actually likely to be successful and why.

We know that working-class people are discriminated against in the workplace right from their first day. […] The social Mobility Foundation found that higher grades were demanded of state-school applicants than their private school contemporaries applying for the same job.

Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed | Will Storr

God, I love this book. Storr charts the rise of the ‘self’ from Ancient Greece to the self-esteem movement, right up to the digital age. This last section is particularly interesting – I’d always presumed the pursuit of ‘self-esteem’ could only be a good thing. Turns out loving yourself has a dark side.

If the ever more gamified individualist economy has left us feeling we have to be increasingly perfect in order to get along and get ahead, then it’s easy to see why the self-esteem movement caught on so spectacularly… Although seeking approval from social media followers isn’t inherently a bad thing, […] the cycle of constantly needing it is.

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