Nearly anyone with an interest in health, fitness, or self-help has come across some version of the same promise: follow this meticulously crafted plan and change your life. But life is hard enough as it is, says Kelly Snowden, associate editorial director at Ten Speed, without adding another layer of unforgiving goals on top of daily pressures. “So much of wellness and habit-change has felt regimented. People are looking for something that feels flexible enough to fit into their real lives.”
Arriving amid societal challenges few could have foreseen, forthcoming wellness titles presciently acknowledge that readers don’t need—or want—another strict set of rules that are only achievable under pristine circumstances. Instead, these authors home in on the small but meaningful tweaks that readers can implement regardless of how messy life gets.
Rapid change can overwhelm the unprepared, Bruce Feiler (The Secrets of Happy Families) explains in Life Is in the Transitions (Penguin, July), which PW’s review called “insightful.” “The once routine expectation that people will have one job, one relationship, one faith, one home, one body, one sexuality, one identity from adolescence to assisted living is deader than it’s ever been,” Feiler writes. “It obliges us all to navigate an almost overwhelming array of life transitions.”
Feiler says he didn’t intend to write about transitions when he first conceived this book. Almost a decade ago, after several personal and family setbacks, he launched the Life Story Project, collecting personal narratives from more than 200 people across the U.S. in an effort to understand how the stories people tell themselves about their lives help them through difficult times. He was astonished to find his interview subjects were experiencing about three dozen major life changes during adulthood: “That’s an average of one every 12 to 18 months,” he says.
The process of transformation can be broken down into discrete parts, Feiler says, and his book suggests strategies to help readers weather unexpected turbulence. “Navigating life transitions is the most important skill right now. If people have a framework and understand that this period that seems so overwhelming and intimidating has a structure, then they can feel empowered to go through it.”
Kristi Nelson, executive director of A Network for Grateful Living, also has experience with major upheaval: at age 33, she was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma that had metastasized to her spine. Post-treatment, navigating life as a cancer survivor prompted a shift in perspective. In Wake Up Grateful (Storey, Nov.), she offers what PW’s review called a “thorough guide” to “flourishing amid uncertainty.”
Nelson draws a distinction between finite, in-the-moment gratitude, and gratefulness, which, she writes, “delivers the connective tissue between moments and experiences, allowing us to be grateful even when our circumstances don’t deliver what we want.” In other words, gratefulness “is all-encompassing,” she writes. Daily exercises and other prompts help readers understand and put into action the guiding principles of gratefulness, including “When you take nothing for granted, life is abundant.”
Similarly, forthcoming books extolling the virtues of life lived offline favor positive reinforcement as a way to help readers develop good habits. “We wanted to create something that felt hopeful and reminded people of the simple and profound things that we’re not doing when we’re staring at our phones,” says Rachel Hiles, senior editor for food and lifestyle at Chronicle Books, of Goodbye Phone, Hello World (Nov.), written by Paul Greenberg and illustrated by Emiliano Ponzi.
Greenberg, a James Beard Award winner for 2011’s Four Fish, suggests dozens of alternatives to spending time with one’s phone and explains the benefits: deeper sleep, more vivid dreams, and more intimate relationships. “Have the last interaction before bedtime be a real-time exchange of words and looks with your partner,” Greenberg writes, rather than looking at the phone, which a study of 2,000 adults found was the number one activity before going to sleep.
Barbara Ann Kipfer, whose self-help books include 8,789 Words of Wisdom (112,000 print copies sold, per NPD BookScan), proposes a bountiful number of activities in 5,203 Things to Do Instead of Looking at Your Phone (Workman, Sept.). She recognizes that phones have their uses, and a few of her suggestions, such as “take a selfie with your pet,” incorporate the device without encouraging mindless scrolling. Other ideas include the painstaking (“Train a bonsai tree”) and the practical (“Get your car washed”), and she lists them in no particular order, beginning with her opening suggestion to “smile at a stranger.”
Behind closed doors
As the recently launched New York Times section “At Home” suggests, readers are seeking ways to pass the time that don’t involve scrolling through the latest bad news. Anna McGovern explores the quiet contentment that can arise while performing simple household tasks in Pottering (Laurence King, Oct.), illustrated by Charlotte Ager.
In 2017, McGovern, a digital producer, began taking one day off a week to potter, which she describes as a pleasant way to occupy oneself without a definite plan or much of a purpose. If the kitchen cabinets are looking dingy, for instance, she suggests taking a toothpick and poking around the grooves that get missed during a routing scrubbing. Or if the measuring tape goes missing, she recommends making do with a string and a ruler. “Pottering is not glamorous,” she writes. It’s about “making the best of your circumstances and the resources you have on hand.”
Those seeking to inject a bit of self-indulgence into their household routine can turn to Moon Bath by Dakota Hills and Sierra Brashear (Chronicle, Sept.) for what the authors call their “epic bathing rituals.” Inspired by an Ayurvedic teaching that hails the benefits of immersing oneself in water, salt, and intention, Hills and Brashear concoct “bathing recipes” that combine readily accessible essential oils with a dash of dried botanicals and meditation practices. No bathtub necessary: a hand or foot soak can be just as restorative, they write.
The health and wellness principles stemming from Vedic wisdom are believed to be divinely inspired, explains certified Ayurvedic practitioner Kate O’Donnell in The Everyday Ayurveda Guide to Self-Care (Shambhala, July). O’Donnell’s route to Ayurveda was more earthly: a bout with parasites while traveling through India more than 20 years ago, and subsequent recovery under the guidance of Indian doctors, led her to seek out the fundamentals of what she calls Ayurveda’s “self-reliant healing.” She discusses the Vedic understanding of human bodies and prompts readers to discover the nutritional and medicinal practices best aligned for their particular constitutions, offering formulas that promote clear skin, better digestion, improved sleep, and more.
Like O’Donnell and the authors of Moon Bath, British Indian motivational speaker Jay Shetty, who lives in Los Angeles and has 6.3 million Instagram followers, also looks to Indian tradition. In Think Like a Monk (Simon & Schuster, Sept.), which PW’s review called “a peppy and persuasive work,” he shows how Hindu principles can be used to train the modern mind into stillness.
Shetty, who spent three years at an ashram outside of Mumbai in his early 20s, calls himself a former monk—former because he’s married, for one. But, he writes, the lessons learned from his time in the ashram still influence his daily life: “The monk mindset lifts us out of confusion and distraction and helps us find clarity, meaning and direction.” He walks readers through the stages of adopting that mindset, from examining external influences and internal obstacles that may be causing harm to setting intentions and purpose, and suggests various forms of meditation as an integral part of the process.
Cait Flanders, in Adventures in Opting Out (Little, Brown Spark, Sept.), takes inspiration from the mountains of her native British Columbia along the path to personal growth. By her mid-20s, working in a job she didn’t like to pay for things she didn’t need and consuming lots of alcohol, Flanders realized she was chasing someone else’s definition of success to her own physical and psychic detriment. Changing her life meant giving up alcohol and eventually getting rid of most of her stuff, including a permanent address, says Marisa Vigilante, senior editor at Little, Brown Spark. But drastic measures aren’t for everyone, nor are they always necessary.
Flanders uses the metaphor of preparing for a long hike to show how people assemble the mental tools needed to embark on a life-altering journey, and gives examples from her life as well as those of others who, to varying degrees, opted out of what was expected of them. “This isn’t a book about quitting your job,” Vigilante explains. “It’s about discarding the things that aren’t serving you and carving a path that will feel more authentic to the way you want to live.” For some the changes may be radical, she says, but others may get what they need through simple adjustments to their daily routines.
Discerning which small shifts have the greatest impact is the difference between short-lived, quick results and sustainable long-term results, Robyn Conley Downs writes in The Feel Good Effect (Ten Speed, Sept.). She wasn’t looking to radically change the contours of her family’s life; she just wanted to feel better—less harried, less guilty about not completing all her goals—at the end of the day. Armed with a master’s degree in education and behavioral change, she draws on current research into habits and decision-making and applies those findings to wellness goals such as feeling more calm and centered.
Citing studies that show nearly 80% of one’s happiness stems from activities that comprise only 20% of the day, Downs provides exercises to help readers define what that small slice is for themselves and discourages an all-or-nothing approach that, she says, can lead to feelings of failure. For instance, her five-minute rule: when the thought “I don’t have the time” arises, that’s a trigger to stop and perform five minutes of whatever task feels insurmountable. “If you can do more, great,” she writes. “If not, that’s fine too. Remind yourself that every minute counts.”
The rule may be applied to exercising, journaling, or connecting with a friend, says Ten Speed’s Snowden. “It’s a direct response to the extreme elimination diets or 30-day workout plans that can feel punishing if you miss a day. It’s permission to go easy on ourselves and do the best we can by picking out the things that are most important in that moment.”
In The Little Book of Life Skills (Grand Central, Sept.), Erin Zammett Ruddy, a frequent contributor to various lifestyle magazines, compiles advice on fine-tuning the daily undertakings that together yield “maximum results with minimal frazzle,” she writes. “These are the tasks that can make the biggest difference with the smallest adjustments.”
Ruddy consults celebrity experts on more than 150 scenarios that may pop up over the course of a person’s day, from waking up in the morning to turning in for the night. Today coanchor Hoda Kotb shares her tips on starting every day with a positive attitude, including her practice of “scribbling” in a gratitude journal each morning. Rachel Ray gives hints on streamlining dinner prep: arrange ingredients in the order in which they’ll be used, and set up an empty bowl to collect scraps while cooking in order to cut down on cleanup time afterward.
“This book gives you something practical to manage all the mental gymnastics we go through every day,” says Seema Mahanian, editor at Grand Central. As those machinations grow ever more complicated, books by Ruddy and others offer strategies for achieving the same goal. “The chaotic national mood affects every aspect of how we live our lives,” Mahanian says, “so it’s especially important that everyone find small ways to have more control.”
Jasmina Kelemen is a writer in Houston.
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