Need a Happiness Boost? Read a Good Book.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now.

I’m in four book groups, if you can believe it, and one recurring challenge for each of the book groups is picking the next book. At the last meeting, as we were debating various options, one of my friends said, “I just really want to read something that I love. It’s been a while since I read a book that was great.”

I knew exactly what she meant. I read a huge amount, both for fun and for work (in fact, one of the things I love about my work is that it gives me way to make reading a billable hour). I love many different kinds of book, and I read many different kinds of books. But when I read a book that I love, I always get a chill and think, “Yes, THIS is what reading is about!”

I’ve noticed that some people make reading a bit of a chore. They choose books that they think they “ought” to read. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun! Of course, it’s worthwhile to read challenging books and books about weighty subjects, but I also make sure to read plenty of books just because I want to read them.

I’ve altered my reading habits, to make sure that I have enough time to read the books I want to read: I now stop reading a book if I don’t like it; I re-read as much as I want; I read according to my inclinations, instead of reading what I think I “need” to read. For example, right now, for reasons I can’t explain, I feel compelled to read the complete journals of Thomas Merton, and I’m not even a big Merton fan. I remind myself of what Samuel Johnson observed: “What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.” (Here are additional tips on how to get more reading done.)

If you’d like to read about the subject of happiness, here is a list of some of my favorite books in various categories. Ah, it makes me happy just to read the titles of these books! They’re all so good. And of course, there’s always The Happiness Project if you haven’t read it yet.

Have you read anything terrific lately?

* Awwww, completely sentimental little video. A howling baby calmed by a howling dog, a la Nana. (Speaking of good books, if you’ve never read J. M. Barrie’s strange, brilliant Peter Pan, get your hands on a copy now. It’s not what you expect.)

* If you’d like to volunteer as a Super-Fan, to help me from time to time, email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com (just write “Super-Fan” in the subject line) or sign up here. I so appreciate your help!

  • LivewithFlair

    The Blind Contessa’s New Machine is just out today (written by a friend of mine). I hear this book is awesome, and I’m headed to get my copy. I’m reading The Prayer Room by Shanthi Sekaran, and it’s lovely! I heard once that we read books to remind us what we love. I love that. And, of course, I paraphrase Kafka that “literature is the ax that crushes the frozen sea inside of us.”

  • I just started reading the Twilight series two weekends ago and I’m already almost finished with the third book. I love them so much. At first I was embarrassed by how much I enjoyed them, but then I thought “Why should I be embarrassed? They’re beloved around the world!” I haven’t felt this way about a book I’ve read in a long time. I’ve been staying up too late reading, wanting to spend every free moment back in the fantasy world of the story. After I got over my initial embarrassment, I realized just how happy reading the books made me! Of course, the flip side to this is knowing how disappointed I’ll be when I finish the final book and have no more to read!

    • Louise Curtis

      If you like the Twilight series, I recommend Cassandra Clare’s mortal instruments trilogy. Both have vampires and a full of passionate romance, but the female characters in Clare’s books are more active.

      Louise Curtis

    • Cindy

      Nicole, I am right there with you. I read all of the books in like 4 days. They are delightful to read; I think it is the whole thrill of first love and the fact they are so intimate but innocent at the same time. Plus, Edward is hottt! I used to feel embarrased that I loved them so much, but I have embraced my love for Twilight now. And despite the fact that I will always love Classics and harder books, there is always room for just plain old fantastic storytelling.

  • Mike Crosby

    Reading is such a joy. Even a visit to the bathroom finds me with book in hand.

    I’ve always thought I’d be a fiction reader once I have more time, but its proven not to be.

    As boring as it sounds, I read “how-to” books. I especially enjoy reading and rereading books on nutrition by Pritikin, McDougall and Esselstyn. I’m a vegetarian that eats a lot of carbohydrates and I’m continually amazed (and dumbfounded) how carbohydrates are considered a bad food.

    I’m now rereading Robert Pritiken’s “The Pritikin Weight Loss Breakthrough” and a book I read recently that blew me away was “The Big Short”.

    I’m not a big fan of US copyright law. It seems that an author has copyright protection throughout his life plus 50 years. That too long.

  • Debra

    Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books helped me (age 45) and my mom (age 73) through a hard time. I just finished reading all 9 books + On The Way Home + Laura’s Album, and I feel such a loss. I don’t know where to turn now. I see “The Golden Compass” has wonderful reviews. Maybe we’ll give that one a try.

    • gretchenrubin

      These books are such masterpieces. Every adult should read (or-read) them.
      And Cherry Jones reading them for the audiobook is AMAZING.

      Run, don’t walk, for Golden Compass. So, so, so good.

      • Jordan Bell

        I literally just finished reading The Amber Spyglass for the second time, 20 minutes ago. Such an incredible series!

    • Louise Curtis

      Debra, “The Golden Compass” is brilliant, as are the two books that follow it in the series (but be aware the author is a passionate, almost fundamentalist atheist). Everything Philip Pullman writes is written well. Everything.

      Louise Curtis

    • His Dark Materials is a gorgeous book. You won’t be disappointed!

  • HaveMyelin?

    Since I lost my daughter a year ago I have been in a daze of sorts. A book that is helping me is “Finding Daylight after Loss Shatters your World: Seven Choices” by Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D.

    She lost her husband but the lessons she offers applies to anyone who has lost someone they are close to.

    • BetsyP

      Hi there,

      I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. My friend passed away a couple of years ago and her mother, Meg Tipper, has just released a book called ‘Standing at the Edge’. It is a fantastic read chronicling Meg’s struggle for a year after Maggie’s death. I really recommend it. All the best, x

  • flossattrocbrocandrecup

    Great advice – I find I only read fiction if I love it, but I can read non-fiction with a different sort of attitude, just picking and choosing the bits that seems useful/appropriate and forgetting the rest.

    I read Mansfield Park last month, and then went straight onto the final Twilight book. I love to compare the two – both strongly written and very moral in their own ways, but showing so much the changes in womens’ lives and expectations over the last 200 years.

  • Kate Charles

    I recently had that feeling reading two very different books. One was Jane Austen’s _Persuasion_, which I was startled to realize I’d only read once before. The other was Bruce Sterling’s _SchisMatrix_, which is 80’s cyberpunk posthumanist sf. Both carried the delight of a richly detailed an utterly alien world described by a person who took great care with the language and the coherence of the characters.

  • Pat M

    I flipped to your list of classic books on happiness and recognized Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” as one of the books I took from my dad’s library after he passed away. I opened it today to find it filled with his handwritten notes. What a gift!!

    • gretchenrubin


  • Kate Z

    I don’t know whether anyone has mentioned this book on your blog but Story Like the Wind by Laurens van der Post is excellent. So is House of Sixty Fathers by Meinart de Jong. Both of them are young adult.

  • Yes! I just finished reading Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. So good. It definitely has made my list of favorites and that makes me very happy!

  • Louise Curtis

    Pamela Freeman’s adult trilogy (“Blood Ties”, “Deep Water”, “Full Circle”) and Sandy Fussell’s 100% child-safe “Samurai Kids: White Crane” have both blown my mind this year with their sly gentle humour and haunting emotion. And humour, of course. I also love love love Garth Nix’s YA trilogy (“Sabriel”, “Lirael” and “Abhorsen”) and Philip Reeve’s “Larklight” trilogy – probably the funniest and funnest ever written.

    Louise Curtis (and yes, I like adventure fantasy fiction)

  • Oh wow, reading and writing are 2 of the most important things I do! I always have multiple books in my “queue” at the same time. Right now, I’m reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with researching eastern philosophy, anxiety disorders, and teaching myself HTML and CSS. Mental stimulation for me = happiness! Thanks for the list of books. I’ll put them in my To Read list.

  • katharine

    Interesting how often Jane Austen’s books appear on these lists. I feel the same about George Eliot. I think Middlemarch is about the best novel ever written. This year I enjoyed Major Pettigrews Last Stand by Helen Simonson, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Smoot, When Everything Changed by Gail Collins and So Much for That by Lionel Shriver.
    Reading should be a pleasure not a chore. I just finished Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools which is a tough book by quite unforgettable. So many books, so little time!

  • ALibera

    It’s fascinating to me how the minute that something becomes a “should’ it becomes infinitely harder to accomplish. I have a list of comedy films and TV shows I need to watch for work this summer and suddenly I find the idea of watching season one of Arrested Development exhausting.

    Having said that, I’m thoroughly enjoying “Love’s Shadow” by Ada Leverson. Leverson was a close friend of Oscar Wilde and “Love’s Shadow” is one of a series of reissues through The Bloomsbury Group (a series for which I have high hopes). It reminds me of books like those of PG Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer – adult books that read like the novels I read as a child.

    Also, since somewhere I recall Gretchen mentioning that she had a shelf of old Cricket magazines. I have one as well, and just today for the first time I discovered my eight year old daughter had picked one up on her own and was giggling at the “everybuggie” cartoons.

    • gretchenrubin

      I use “everybuggie” in conversation with my daughters ALL THE TIME. I don’t
      even know if they understand the reference.

  • You make a good point about putting aside something you’re not enjoying. It’s funny how guilty I used to feel about not finishing a book, like a vengeful literary god was going to damn me if I didn’t slog through. Now it doesn’t strike me as a personality defect if I simply don’t appreciate a book; my free time is limited, and I want to savor my leisure activities. Most recently, I found that reading Emma was a chore for me and was taking so long I feared I’d never finish, so I finally gave it up about a third of the way through in favor of My Antonia, which I adored and finished in record time. Now it’s just about time for my annual re-read of my favorite book — Little, Big.

  • I’m almost done reading Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Food Beyond Factory Farms (by Nicolette Hahn Niman). It’s really interesting–part memoir, part history, part business, and part gastronomy. I don’t agree with everything in the book by any means, but part of the fun of reading is having that inner debate with the book’s author. This is a great introduction to the problem of factory farms (well, I think it’s a problem) and what can be done about it.

  • MD

    Gretchen, I have loved your posts about spiritual masters – St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her Little Way…and now you are reading Thomas Merton!

    I love reading about the lives of saints. I’m currently reading a spiritual memoir of a Jesuit priest called My Life with the Saints. I’m absolutely devouring it!

    Thanks for reminding us all how pleasant reading can be (instead of a chore.) -md

    • gretchenrubin

      I read My Life with the Saints a few months ago. Sounds like we have similar
      tastes in reading!

      • niki37

        I’m reading My Life With the Saints right now too and love it!

        On a related note, Gretchen, this may be too personal, but your *inclination* towards Catholic writings is really interesting. I know you’ve mentioned a couple of times that you aren’t Catholic, but I can’t help wondering, are you sure? You probably know more and carry a great deal more passion about the subject than most Catholics do.

  • Denise

    Whenever I read a good book, I’m on a kind of high for several days after. I guess I’m a junkie that way, forever chasing my high.

  • Great advice, for years I had lists of books that I felt I “should” read. Now I follow my heart and I read whatever feels right for me. If I start a book and I don’t like it, I don’t try to finish it, I just put it aside. Sometimes I come back to it, sometimes I don’t. I value my time and I like to spend it enjoying my reading. A great book is definitely a happiness boost. Thanks for reminding me of this.

  • Plambdin

    I just finished reading “My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne Du Maurier and it was wonderful from first page to the last! I am looking forward to a second read in a couple of months. “Rebecca” has been one of my favorites for years but I hadn’t read anything else by Du Maurier until I found this at a yard sale.

  • Leben131

    I’ve spent the whole weekend reading… an activity I haven’t had much time to do of late so I know what you’re talking about!

  • I often think that people are more mentally linked than they realise, and this proves it.

    I am going through the same thing now. I have to read certain books for my BA Eng Lit, and others that are non-fiction that I feel (or felt) I have to. And part of the reason I also have not been getting so much reading done lately is due to a little 16 month old that entered our lives. I love my daughter. But I thought my brain would turn to jello if I was not able to read like I use to soon. Then a lady in our area sent out an email stating that she was selling her books and I bought a whole lot of books from her, 12, I think. Just fluff. Nothing heavy. I really needed to read something that was not intense or mind-consuming or assigned. Just some light happy reading. The equivalent of watching a romantic comedy to relive stress, except I love books way more than I love Television.

    I read a book in a weekend. Then another in a week. That’s 2 books in 10 days and although it is not as much as I use to read, I still feel like things are normal again. I can’t remember the last time I was so caught up in a book that I had to read until midnight. And the book was just right. Funny, human and with happy endings.

  • Indeed. Reading good books help you a lot. Whenever I”m sad or angry I just know exactly what kind of book I need. It”s a kind of therapy to me.

  • Great point! I use to read books I think I ought to read and then just lost my long time interest for reading for a while, now I started to pick up reading again and Ive decided to not to stress myself out over such an enjoyable thing in my life! Good article

  • Spatialrelationsconsultants

    Great idea!

  • diana

    I have been on a reading spree these past few months, both printed & audio, going author by author. I realize I love authors who do great characters. I’ve been engrossed with Sue Miller, Rebecca Miller’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (found in the library when I was looking for more Sue Miller–a happy discovery), love hearing audiobooks especially memoir read by the author -Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs, Gretchen’s book, Frank Bruni’s Born Round & Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone. I have loved reading Anne Lamott’s newest, Imperfect Birds, and Mary Karr (though I wish I listened to her read it on audiobook.) I’m about to read Wonderboys and listen to Bright Lights Big City and reread David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (after reading the amazing road trip book “Of Course You End up Becoming Yourself”-or something like this.) My perennial favorites for rereading: Lorrie Moore, Mona Simpson, Gish Jen, Laurie Colwin, Anne Lamott, Jane Austen and Richard Ford.

  • Maggie

    The last book I read that I just could not put down is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It’s YA, but pretty dark, so keep that in mind if dark isn’t what you’re looking for, but I thought these books were incredible–and a third is coming out in August!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m a HUGE fan. HUGE. Counting the days until MOCKINGJAY.

      • Sabrinarae77

        I’m re-reading these books to prepare for Mockingjay. Teen lit with so much depth to it… I love it!

  • Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. It’s a memoir in books and she attests to the breathtaking power of literature. She and her students also seem to find a way to be happy despite the political turmoil and lack of freedom in Iran.

  • Selfmanic

    I am really enjoying the Historian but it is a slow read I want to savor. I always read several books at once and have a few lighter reads going at the same time so I don’t get bogged down in any one book.

  • valentine

    Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner is a wonderful book.

  • JerriU

    I just loved THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett. So well written and compelling. Read it in a few days.