Tuesday 23 January 2018

Achieving happiness: 20 of the wisest tips from self-help books

When your spirits are low, a little piece of wisdom can go a long way. Here we condense some of the best self-development books ever written into 20 essential life lessons, writes Katie Byrne

A little piece of wisdom can go a long way
A little piece of wisdom can go a long way

Every so often you come across a book - or even just a quote - that changes your perspective, reframes your thoughts and empowers you to overcome the mental hurdles that have been holding you back.

Sometimes it's a profound sentence that helps you transcend your darker hours; sometimes it's a practical coping skill you can put in your toolbox for the next time life gets the better of you.

Bibliotherapy, as it is known, is proven to promote good mental health, but where to start? The selection in the 'Mind, Body, Spirit' section of your local bookshop can look overwhelming and it should be noted that some of these books are considerably more therapeutic than others. With this in mind, we've read through dozens of self-development classics and gleaned the most enduring and empowering advice the authors have imparted.


Psychiatrist M Scott Peck gets straight down to business in the opening chapter of The Road Less Travelled. "Life is difficult," he begins. "This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult - once we truly understand and accept it - then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters."


Many of us believe that happiness is dependent on our circumstances or a state of mind we'll achieve as soon as we get the job/guy/Lotto. Writing in A Year Of Miracles, spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson reminds us that "happiness is the choice I make today. It does not rest on my circumstances, but on my frame of mind. In cultivating the habits of happiness, I attract the people and situations that match its frequency. I smile more often, give praise more often, give thanks more often and am glad more often. For such is my choice today".


Life becomes considerably easier when we get into the habit of focussing on what we have over what we don't have. Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson put it best. "Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude."


Man's Search For Meaning - Viktor Frankl's memoir about the lessons he learned during his experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz - has profound wisdom on every page. Among his reflections is the idea that we can overcome our own problems by helping others solve theirs.

"The more one forgets himself - by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love, the more human he is and the more he actualises himself," he writes.


The late Wayne Dyer wrote extensively about the fruitlessness of pointing the finger outwards. "All blame is a waste of time," he wrote. "No matter how much fault you find with another, and regardless of how much you blame him, it will not change you.

"The only thing blame does is to keep the focus off you when you are looking for external reasons to explain your unhappiness or frustration. You may succeed in making another feel guilty about something by blaming him, but you won't succeed in changing whatever it is about you that is making you unhappy."


It's all too easy to define ourselves based on the opinions of others. However, Don Miguel Ruiz, writing in The Four Agreements, points out that what others think of us is none of our business. "Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering."


Eckhart Tolle, best known for The Power Of Now, has helped make previously-cryptic Zen concepts more accessible to the masses. His teachings largely focus on staying in the present moment.

"Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry - all forms of fear - are caused by too much future and not enough presence," he writes. "Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence."


Of course, staying in the moment is by no means easy. Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh writes extensively about the use of breathing techniques to centre oneself. "Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor," he writes. He also suggests many mantras that can be used alongside the in-breath and out-breath. "Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile," is one for the toolbox.


In the rush of everyday life, we can forget to stop and take in the scenery. The late Dale Carnegie, author of How To Win Friends And Influence People, had remarkable foresight in this regard. "One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today."


Michael Singer, author of best-selling book The Untethered Soul, seemed to come out of nowhere in a saturated self-development market. His work has struck a chord, in particular his insights on the 'voice of the mind'.

"There is nothing more important to true growth than realising you are not the voice of the mind - you are the one who hears it. If you don't understand this, you will try to figure out which of the many things the voice says is really you. People go through so many changes in the name of 'trying to find myself'. They want to discover which of these voices, which of these aspects of their personality, is who they really are. The answer is simple: none of them."


Everything is in a state of flux, all the time. Sage advice, both for those who fear endings and those who are yearning for new beginnings. "We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved," writes Pema Chodron in When Things Fall Apart. "They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy."


The writings of the late philosopher Alan Watts can be a little hard-hitting, but nonetheless enlightening. "The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing," he wrote in The Wisdom Of Insecurity. "To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet."


There isn't a self-development author in the world who doesn't advocate forgiveness and the overcoming of resentment and bitterness. Lewis B Smedes put it best in Forgive & Forget. "To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you."


Speaking of resentment, the surest way to develop deep-seated resentment is to consistently put the needs of others over your own. As psychiatrist David D Burns, author of Feeling Good, writes: "People who are prone to anxiety are nearly always people-pleasers who fear conflict and negative feelings like anger. When you feel upset, you sweep your problems under the rug because you don't want to upset anyone. You do this so quickly and automatically that you're not even aware you're doing it."


People-pleasers need to learn how to set boundaries, and the clearest boundary of all is the ability to say 'no'. "You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage - pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically - to say 'no' to other things," wrote the late Stephen R Covey in The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People. "And the way you do that is by having a bigger 'yes' burning inside."


Many self-development authors have pointed out that the relationship you have with yourself tends to inform the relationships you have with others. As the saying goes: 'If you don't love yourself... '

Dr Christiane Northrup, author of Goddesses Never Age, takes it a step further. "As a doctor, let me tell you what self-love does: it improves your hearing, your eyesight, lowers your blood pressure, increases pulmonary function, cardiac output, and helps wire in the musculature. So, if we had a rampant epidemic of self-love, then our healthcare costs would go down dramatically. This isn't just some little frou-frou new age notion, 'Oh love yourself honey'. This is hardcore science."


If you can get past the big brand and the too-white teeth, motivational author Tony Robbins has solid advice to offer around the subject of peak performance. "The one reason so few of us achieve what we truly want is that we never direct our focus; we never concentrate our power," he writes. "Most people dabble their way through life, never deciding to master anything in particular."


We tend to confuse solitude with loneliness, when one is a choice, the other a circumstance. What's more, we tend to underestimate the link between occasional solitude and good mental health.

As spiritual teacher Mooji points out: "If you make human company too important, you will not discover your true Self.

"Relationships not based in truth are never entirely reliable and are rarely enduring. Taking time to discover yourself is the best use of time."


The Artist's Way is the go-to book for anyone who wants to unleash their creativity. However, more recent self-development books reflect on the danger of keeping creativity suppressed. In the words of Brené Brown: "Unused creativity is not benign. It metastasises. It turns into grief, rage, judgment, sorrow, shame. We are creative beings. We are, by nature, creative. It gets lost along the way. It gets shamed out of us."


If all self-development books had to be condensed into a single tenet, it would be 'Change your thoughts; change your world'. Self development authors often use a folk story known as 'Two Wolves' to illustrate this point.

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life.

"A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.

"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego."

He continued: "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather which wolf will win?

The old Cherokee simply replied: "The one you feed."

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