It’s a new year, and time for resolutions that won’t last until February. Seriously, what can one do to make lasting changes for improved health, lowered stress, greater attentiveness to simple pleasures, and learning wisdom and courage from the examples of others?
Several new books offer inspiration about how best to achieve those personal ambitions. Their authors could not be more different from one another, making this overview both fun and diverse. Read on, whether you have made (or abandoned) your resolutions this year or not.
“Hello, Habits: A Minimalist’s Guide to a Better Life” by Fumio Sasaki (Norton). The bestselling author of “Goodbye, Things,” and leader of New Japanese Minimalism, once again extracts lessons from his personal journey to explain why so many of us have trouble maintaining constructive habits. Sasaki begins, somewhat surprisingly, with an admission that his family convinced him he had no talents to develop in sports, art or anything else. In time, he came to understand that talent isn’t “heaven-sent,” but rather the result of habit, i.e., constantly, routinely performing the same creative task. From there, Sasaki persuasively explains “why we can’t acquire good habits because we often surrender to the [trigger] reward in front of us,” rather than wait for long-term rewards of health and happiness. Never one to generalize, Sasaki breaks down the tools for adopting good habits into 50 miniature tutorials.
“How to Survive: Self-Reliance in Extreme Circumstances” by John Hudson (Countryman Press). Put this one on a bookshelf next to all those volumes in “The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook” franchise. The author, John Hudson, is chief trainer in extreme survival for the United Kingdom’s military. While he has voluntarily been subjected to privation in some of the most hostile terrain on the planet, his book is largely a series of stories about other survivors who made positive adjustments in terrible situations. Hudson’s goal in writing “How to Survive” is to show how those of us who will never have to make it through a plane crash in the Amazon or Laos can still adapt the psychological tools of extreme survival to everyday life and all its challenges (including a pandemic). Hudson concludes each chapter with a handy summation of its major lessons, from assessing vulnerabilities at home or work to mentally “framing” difficult tasks in positive ways.
“Thinking Again: A Diary” by Jan Morris (Liveright). Travel writer, diarist and novelist Jan Morris, who died Nov. 20, 2020, at age 94, assembled over 100 bite-size, daily diary entries in “Thinking Again,” memorandums that can’t help but inspire a reader to stay engaged with the world until, as Morris cheerfully put it, it’s time to kick the bucket. These brief, often self-effacing pieces are all over the map in terms of subject; whatever the author fancied in a given moment is what went on the page. Writing from her home in Wales, Morris described investigating a decrepit cemetery hidden in a forest; her growing fears about artificial intelligence; and how Peter Norton, the founder of Norton Antivirus software, sent her — and a number of other people he admired but never met — beautiful art objects as an annual gift. Whether or not you’re an octogenarian, if you’re feeling uninspired by life, then this is the book for you.
“The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer and More Resilient” by William B. Irvine (Norton). Some people have a low tolerance for life’s inevitable snafus. Others swallow their rage when things go wrong, chewing themselves up inside. Author William B. Irvine (“You: A Natural History”) suggests a better way: learn from such ancient Stoic philosophers as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca how to reframe setbacks and disasters as challenges to one’s equanimity — and then refuse to give in to emotional chaos. Stoicism, Irvine tells us, has received a bad rap for generations as a stance for hiding or burying feelings. He clarifies that Stoics aren’t trying to be superficially brave; they’re trying to keep perspective during bad times, and reduce the impact of negative emotions. Master this mindset, Irvine says, and it can serve one all the way to the end of life.
“Baseball’s Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues” by Andrea Williams (Roaring Brook Press). This one is for middle-school-and-up readers seeking historical role models of resilience. Who was Effa Manley? Well, for one thing, she’s the only woman in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. An African American, Manley was co-owner (with her husband) of the Newark Angels, one of the barnstorming teams in Negro leagues baseball before integration slowly came to Major League Baseball. Manley was a rare woman in the sport’s executive circles, serving as the Angels’ business manager (and much else), and playing a large part in the running of the entire league. Before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, all-Black teams were the only option for Black players. Manley had a lot to do with how the Negro leagues stayed viable for so long.