My Favorite Books in 2016

Once again, reading was a rewarding and enriching aspect of my year. I am excited to share my second annual list, roughly, by the order in which I read the books listed in each genre, of my favorite books from a year of reading.

Memoir is one of my favorite genres, and it was interesting to note how many of the books I most enjoyed in 2016 came from that category. A number of them were about epic journeys of one type of another. I love the idea of a quest for personal growth and soul searching. Many of my bike rides become those in miniature for me. Vicariously, I learn and grow from the memoirists’ quests, and they inspire me to explore the idea of setting out on adventures of my own, whether geographic or metaphorical in nature.

These are the books that I gave four or five stars in Goodreads during 2016.

Business

Health

History

Memoir/Biography

Nutrition/Cooking

 

Personal/Professional Development

  • Retire Inspired: It’s Not an Age, It’s a Financial Number, by Chris Hogan—I felt motivated to take action toward improving my financial future after reading this book. Unfortunately, I haven’t followed through on everything that I planned at that time, but I do intend to refer back to this competent guide.
  • What I Know For Sure, by Oprah Winfrey—I just love Oprah, and this collection of her popular column, “What I Know for Sure,” in O Magazine is light, easy reading that imparts a lot of quotable wisdom.

Social Justice

True Crime & Justice

Writing

Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, a Book Review

Walking on Sunshine, by British author Rachel Kelly, is a quick, easy read that is not really intended to be read through all at once. In a similar vein to Jon Cousins’ Nudge Your Way to Happiness, Walking on Sunshine provides bite-sized ideas for increasing happiness. In this case the happiness prescriptions are delivered one week at a time for one year, instead of one day at a time for one month, as was the case in Cousins’ book.

Kelly organized this book by seasons, beginning with spring, loosely defined as March, April and May. Personally, this organizational calendar did not appeal, for two primary reasons. The main one stems from one of my own happiness struggles—self-diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder. Just seeing the word “Autumn,” although less depressing than its alternative, “Fall,” causes me to feel heaviness in my body. In a book intended to promote happiness, that feels counterproductive. I recognize that is my own issue, and others may not have the same visceral reaction to the season that I do. The second reason that I would prefer a different structure is that it seems somewhat potentially difficult for someone to pick up the book and start at the “right” week, since the weeks are numbered, but begin with March, not January. Maybe there is no real “right” way to use the book, but for those of us who like order and logic, this feels a bit unnerving.

Those minor criticisms aside, I really like Kelly’s message, which, like Cousins’, is essentially that we have some power to help ourselves when we are feeling down. It does not always have to involve prescription medication or weekly therapy (although those things may have their places). Proactively brightening our own spirits can be as simple as a self-administered relaxation exercise, connecting with a beloved animal companion or volunteering for a worthwhile cause.

As someone who reads a lot of positive psychology and has made significant conscious effort to boost my own mood in a variety of ways, Kelly’s simple, accessible suggestions resonate with me. She makes references to poetry in several places. While it is not poetry, specifically, that centers me, words are extremely important to my mood management. My collections of quotes are some of my most powerful happiness boosts. Kelly seems to find some of her strongest boosts in poetry.

I recommend this book for its simplicity and accessibility. There is nothing Kelly suggests that can be harmful, and her easy-to-implement strategies may be just the spirit boosts someone needs.

Book Review: Nudge Your Way to Happiness, Jon Cousins

I initially read Nudge Your Way to Happiness, by Jon Cousins, all the way through because I wanted a feel for the entire book, but it is not really meant to be read that way. The book is designed to provide a customized, 30-day program for edging up one’s happiness. Reading it through initially, I found myself annoyed because Cousins frequently made statements such as, “Right now, when things are better . . .” and “Although you may be feeling well at the moment . . . .” I kept thinking, “How does he know how I am feeling right now?” Then, it dawned on me that the issue was with how I was reading the book vs. how it was meant to be read. Actually, a unique and interesting feature of the book is that Cousins provides three possible “nudges” each day. The reason he might make a statement about how the reader was feeling is that the particular nudge was designed for either a low-mood day, an average day or a high-mood day. Once that occurred to me, I was better able to appreciate the features of each exercise.

I read a lot of positive psychology and happiness literature, and Cousins utilizes strategies from many well-respected researchers and authors. The exercises he recommends are solid, practical and simple. They are brief enough and accessible enough that even someone experiencing depression could perform them.

After reading the book through once, I began my journey to work through the book day by day. Today is Day 21. Reading and utilizing the book as it was designed to be used is more rewarding than simply reading it as a typical book. Cousins suggests doing the exercises first thing in the morning, and that is what I am doing. I think the most important thing is to choose a consistent time.

I like the checklist that Cousins provides each day, creating an opportunity to check in with myself and see how I am feeling across 10 variables. As someone who is very introspective, I find myself looking forward to my morning assessment. Perhaps even more interesting or useful is the graph at the back of the book that provides an opportunity to plot the trends in my happiness score throughout the project. Each day, Cousins asks the question, “What happened?” This allows me to reflect on the reason for my current happiness score and to better understand the peaks and valleys in the graph.

Nudge Your Way to Happiness is a simple, but well-written and useful, book that draws from the existing happiness and positive psychology literature and translates it into a practical formula for thinking about our own level of positive vs. negative emotions and reflecting on the reasons for those levels. In addition to providing daily exercises that can serve as tools, not just during the 30 days of working through the book, but on an ongoing basis. The book’s value derives from both those tools and from the introspection the daily tracking inspires. Understanding more about the things that boost our mood and the things that drain us of energy and joy allows us to take action to incorporate into our lives more of the former and less of the latter.

I recommend this book for people who are seeking to enhance their happiness, ward off seasonal blues, push back a natural inclination toward the melancholy or to combat depression. It is a strategy that can do no harm and certainly can teach us something that may help us in both the short term and the long term.

Some of My Favorite Resources for Vegan Eating

Bookshow-not-to-die

How Not to Die: Discover the Food Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease, Michael Greger: Terrific guide to evidence-based nutrition. My number-one recommendation.

The Campbell Plan: The Simple Way to Lose Weight and Reverse Illness, Using The China Study’s Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet, Thomas M. Campbell II: Based on the .research presented in The China Study

The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet Weight Loss and Long-term Health, T. Colin Campbell: Just what the subtitle implies—impressive science.

Skinny Bitch: A No-Nonsense, Tough-Love Guide for Savvy Girls Who Want to Stop Eating Crap and Start Looking Fabulous! Rory Friedman & Kim Barnouin: This was the book I read when I was ready to learn the truth. I immediately transitioned from vegetarian to vegan.

The Engine 2 Diet, Rip Esselstyn: Tasty recipes and interesting background.

The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World, John Robbins: Written by a member of the Baskin-Robbins family, discussing his conversion away from animal products, including dairy.

The PlantPure Nation Cookbook, Kim Campbell: My favorite cookbook, lots of great recipes.

Thrive Books, Brendan Brazier: A whole series of books about plant-based eating and exercise.

Unprocessed: How to Achieve Vibrant Health and Your Ideal Weight, Abbie Jaye: Interesting story and cookbook with some creative solutions to minimizing processed food.

Vegan for Her: The Woman’s Guide to Being Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet, Ginny Messina & J. L. Fields: Woman-specific guide to nutrition

Vegan for Life: Everything You Need to Know to Be Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet, Jack Norris & Ginny Messina: Comprehensive guide written by dietitans.

Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook, Isa Chandra Moskowitz & Terry Hope Romero: Classic vegan cookbook, one of the first I owned.

Vegan’s Daily Companion: 365 Days of Inspiration for Cooking, Eating and Living Compassionately, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau: Short daily readings to provoke thought and motivation for living the vegan lifestyle.

Websites

http://fatfreevegan.com/: Great resource for healthful vegan recipes.

http://www.joyfulvegan.com/: Inspiration and information, podcast.

http://nutritionfacts.org/: Source of endless information on evidence-based nutrition. Daily videos.

http://www.veganessentials.com/: Online store with a wide range of vegan products.

Other

Daily Dozen app: Fun way to track daily consumption of the most important foods for health. I use it every day.

Happy Cow app: Source for locating vegan restaurant options.

Is It Vegan? App: Allows you to determine if a product or ingredient is vegan.

Beans in My Smoothie and Other Life-Saving Habits

Beans_in_My_Smoothie“How can I add beans to this?” Dr. Michael Greger asks himself at every meal. This is just one of several simple tweaks I have adopted since reading his new book, How Not to Die.

I cannot overstate the value of this book and its companion app, Daily Dozen. Information about both is available at www.nutritionfacts.org. I absolutely loved the book and, although it was long, I was sad to see it end. This is a book that will stay with me for the long haul, however, because I have incorporated the lessons into my daily life.

I have eaten a generally healthful diet for a long time, but HNTD gave me so many good ideas for easy, evidence-based tweaks. Since January 1, 2016, I have further optimized my nutrition with the very handy, free Daily Dozen app, available through Google Play Store and the App Store.

Dr. Greger has dedicated his career to promoting health and wellness through nutrition. He introduces the book with the inspirational story of his grandma who was sent home in a wheelchair to die of heart disease when he was a child. She saw a 60 Minutes segment featuring Nathan Pritkin’s then-new lifestyle medicine center and traveled across the country to give herself one last chance by checking into it. After adopting Pritkin’s plant-based diet and beginning to exercise, she left death’s doorstep at age 65 to live a rich, full life, until she died at 96. Dr. Greger was so moved by his grandma’s amazing recovery that he vowed to become a physician and help people transform their own lives through the way they lived them.

This wonderful book is the most well-researched, comprehensive nutrition and lifestyle book I have ever read . . . and I have read quite a few.

Part One is a fascinating, detailed presentation of solid scientific evidence for using nutrition and lifestyle to prevent, fight and even reverse 15 leading causes of death: heart disease, lung disease, brain disease, digestive cancers, infection, diabetes, hypertension, liver disease, blood cancer, kidney disease, breast cancer, suicidal depression, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease and iatrogenic (caused by medical care) causes. Chapter by chapter, Dr. Greger highlights scientific studies in each of these areas and presents evidence illuminating the most health-promoting foods, as well as the riskiest ones, for each health condition.

Then, in Part 2, Dr. Greger introduces his Daily Dozen, from which the app was born, and explains chapter by chapter why he strives to include each component in his day. I love this app and am using it every day. I truly believe that the adjustments I have made to achieve the Daily Dozen goals have taken my largely whole-food, completely vegan, diet to a new level of wholesomeness and quality. I am not perfect, but I do my best to set myself up to achieve each Daily Dozen objective.

The components of his Daily Dozen are these:

Beans: Dr. Greger makes a compelling case for consuming three daily servings of beans (including tempeh or tofu, which are soy foods). Toward this end, I have adopted the practice of adding some variety of bean to my morning smoothie. I put so many good things in there anyway, and beans add a wonderful creaminess. I also have simplified the lunches I pack for work: a variety of bean, a large serving of greens (heated together at work) and guacamole. It may sound boring, but it is wonderful . . . and simple.

Berries: A daily serving of berries is easy and delicious to include in a smoothie or as a snack. They are so full of antioxidants and fiber that they are widely recognized as a “super food.”

Other Fruits: Dr. Greger cites studies indicating that increased fruit consumption is correlated with better weight management. This is just one of many reasons he recommends three additional fruit servings per day.

Cruciferous Vegetables: Sulforaphane is the component in cruciferous vegetables that earns them a separate category in the Daily Dozen. Dr. Greger presents persuasive evidence that sulforaphane is a cancer-fighter.  It has been shown to have potential benefits for vision, nasal allergies, type 2 diabetes and autism. Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, bok choy and Brussels sprouts are just some of the tasty routes to accomplishing the daily cruciferous vegetable serving goal.

Greens: I have added greens to my smoothies for years, and Dr. Greger presents many strong reasons to incorporate at least two servings of raw or cooked greens into our diets each day, on top of whatever cruciferous vegetable we are eating. I firmly believe, and Dr. Greger presents corroborating evidence, that these are some of the most healthful foods we can eat.

Other Vegetables: Besides a serving of cruciferous vegetables and two servings of greens, eating two more vegetable servings each day will add a variety of other valuable nutrients to our dietary profile. Most of us have heard the recommendation to “eat a rainbow.” Dr. Greger explains that richness of color matters not just in greens, but in other fruits and vegetables, too. For instance, red onions have more phytonutrients than white onions, and sweet potatoes are more nutritious than white potatoes.

Flaxseeds: Omega-3 fatty acids and lignans have been shown to be protective against cancer and to promote heart and brain health. Dr. Greger recommends a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds per day. I already made sure to include an Omega-3 source in my daily smoothie—flax, chia, hemp or walnuts—and now I include flax and possibly one of the others, but always flax, at minimum.

Nuts and Seeds: Sure, nuts and seeds have a high fat content, but it is health-promoting monounsaturated fat. Because these foods are satiating, one serving a day can nourish us with healthful fat and protein, while lessening the chance of overeating less healthful foods.

Herbs and Spices: Specifically, Dr. Greger recommends ¼ teaspoon daily of turmeric because of its documented ameliorative benefits for a host of conditions ranging from pulmonary disease to rheumatoid arthritis. This is easy to incorporate into my daily smoothie, if I am not going to be eating other foods that lend themselves to turmeric flavoring. Dr. Greger encourages the liberal use of most herbs and spices to add a range of phytonutrients, while minimizing the need for salt.

Whole Grains: Dr. Greger promotes the consumption of three servings daily of whole grains because of evidence that they are associated with reduced risk for stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. There are so many from which to choose, and Dr. Greger recommends eating a variety of different grains.

Beverages: Water is high on Dr. Greger’s list, but he also presents evidence for drinking green, white, black and herbal teas. Green tea has particularly healing benefits. Dr. Greger acknowledges that hydration needs are quite individual and even vary within a given person, depending on weather and exercise conditions. However, he recommends five servings as a minimum each day.

Exercise: Although not a food, exercise is part of Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen because of its well-documented benefits for physical and mental health. Rather than sell the public short with his recommendation, he prefers to provide evidence for a relatively high dose of exercise daily. Especially during the cold, dark off-season from cycling, it is difficult for me to meet Dr. Greger’s exercise recommendations every day, but I give it my best effort, within the confines of real life. I remember the mantra from my graduate Exercise Science program, “Any exercise is better than no exercise, and, to a point, more is better than less.” I have lived this for a long time. Even if I can’t go for a bike ride every day, I exercise daily, and I love (often to my son’s frustration) to build in opportunities for exercise, like parking as far as possible from a store, taking the long way to or from the bathroom at work or walking, instead of driving, to a basketball game here in my small town. It all adds up.

Besides his Daily Dozen, Dr. Greger promotes eating according to a “traffic light” system. Foods that get the green light—unprocessed plant foods—should be emphasized. Yellow-light foods are processed plant foods and unprocessed animal products. These foods should be minimized. Processed animal products and ultra-processed plant foods comprise the red-light category. These should be avoided completely.

Dr. Greger defines “unprocessed” as “nothing bad added, nothing good taken away.” Ultra-processed plant foods have no redeeming nutritional value.

His simple model is an easy way to make choices on a daily basis. He sees room for yellow-light foods to the extent that they promote consumption of more green-light foods. His example is his fondness for hot sauce that contains added salt. He eats more greens because he likes them with this hot sauce, so it has a place in his diet. While I have long emphasized unprocessed plant foods, I have taken that to a higher level after reading HNTD. For example, I am using dates in place of agave nectar or maple syrup when my smoothies need a sweetener. Dates are whole and unprocessed, while agave nectar and maple syrup are processed. Vegan yogurt (Daiya cherry!) is a treat for me. I eat more whole-grains and berries, as well as nuts and cacao nibs, when I eat it, so I have continued to eat it as an occasional treat, although it is a yellow-light food, since it is processed. The bulk of my daily food is unprocessed plant-based goodness, though, and this feels wonderful.

Dr. Greger states that he is not promoting a vegan diet, so much as he is promoting an “evidence-based” diet. It just so happens that the diet that promotes health and minimizes sickness is also one that increases compassion in our world. He entered the plant-based world because of its demonstrated health benefits, but he has become a strong supporter of the ethics behind veganism over the years.

I respected Dr. Greger’s work before reading HNTD, but I am a true fan now—so much so that I plan to become a regular donor to his foundation because it aligns with all of my most important core values: compassion, excellence, integrity and fitness.

I will end this post with the quote that Dr. Greger used to conclude his book. Dr. Kim Williams, upon assuming the post of president of the American College of Cardiology in 2015, explained his rationale for eating a completely plant-based diet this way, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want it to be my fault.” I love that. We all have so much power to maximize our chances for a long, healthy life. Yet, so many of us abdicate our responsibility for our own well-being, relinquishing this power to genetics or chance or fate. Yes, things happen. Yes, we will all die of something. Yes, sometimes people who lead apparently very healthful lives die prematurely of cancer or heart disease or stroke. These things are all true, but it is also true that many more deaths and so much suffering could be prevented if we all took the steps Dr. Greger recommends in How Not to Die. His book is a tremendous gift in an immensely readable and highly accessible package. Please read it, adopt this lifestyle and save yourself, the animals and the planet in the process.

My 3 R’s

According to Wikipedia, the concept of the “3 R’s” as the foundation of a solid education probably originated in a 1795 speech by Sir William Curtis. The 3 R’s generally refer to “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic,” although arithmetic may have been “reckoning” in the past, as that was the term commonly used for math during the era when the catchphrase was popularized. The mnemonic has been borrowed by a number of other sectors outside of education, such as the environmental movement’s familiar 3 R’s of solid waste: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

While on a bike ride a while back, it occurred to me that I have my own personal 3 R’s: Reading, ‘riting and Riding (or I could call them my 3 B’s: Bikes, Books and Blogging—with “Blogging” standing in for writing, in general). I think all of us need to determine those things that are foundational for us, those things that are central to our identities and to how we navigate the world. There may be more or fewer than three, and they may not lend themselves to such neat alliteration, but we all have activities without which we would be very different people. I think these are passions, but also habits—those things we regularly do that shape our days and our thoughts.

It takes time to determine what these key activities are, and they may change over time as we grow with life experience. Recognizing the importance of our 3R equivalents is valuable because doing so allows us the opportunity to emphasize them in our lives, enabling them to anchor us and advance our evolution.

I have loved to read since I was very young, and I have always read a lot. After years of reading primarily textbooks, journal articles and other assigned works, I can still remember the amazing feeling, after completing my first Master’s degree, when I realized suddenly, “I can read whatever I want!” Once I adjusted to that freedom, I happily undertook a fervent and intentional lifelong learning journey, fueled primarily through reading nonfiction books across a wide range of genres.

When my brother gave me a Kindle for Christmas several years ago, I wasn’t sure if it would appeal to me because I was an avid user of the public library. Now, Kindle has become my primary reading medium. The downside is that I spend more money on books because I have generally found library Kindle offerings to differ from my preferences. The convenience offered by Kindle has made the cost worthwhile for me. Instead of struggling to find time in my full schedule to get to the library, now, when I learn about a book I want to read, I can have it on my electronic book shelf within a minute. When I travel, I can easily take multiple books with me. I always have my Kindle in my bag when I leave the house. Reading calms me and prevents my mind from going places I don’t want it to go. It allows me to learn about virtually any subject. It helps me grow personally and develop professionally. Reading generates ideas within me that I can then process through my other two R’s.

I have loved to write since my time in Catholic schools. Sr. Boniface introduced me to diagramming sentences in the fourth grade, spawning an enduring passion for grammar and language and a recognition of the power in understanding how to structure sentences and arrange them in compelling ways. I started college as an English major because I loved English in high school and felt relatively competent in my use of language. Although my major changed, my love for writing didn’t. I have always been grateful for my strong early foundation in writing skills.

My relationship with writing has fluctuated throughout adulthood. Sometimes, I have written only for myself, in my journal. Writing was one of the aspects of my undergraduate and graduate programs that I most enjoyed. I have often felt that I am able to articulate my ideas more capably in writing than in conversation. The urge to do something more with writing has nagged me sporadically, sometimes strongly. For years, despite bursts of ambition, I tucked away my desire to expose my writing to scrutiny from a broader audience than the academic, professional and voluntary settings in which I had written. Finally, late last summer, the pull became strong enough that I was moved to start this blog. It felt like a risk to put my writing out there and make it public, but it also felt like something I needed to do. Taking steps to expand my writing gives me hope beyond feelings of constraint and pushes me to pursue a larger vision.

And then there is riding, my third (but certainly not tertiary) R. Before there was cycling, there was running and other exercise for me, but cycling has been my true athletic passion for many years now. I am still awed by the distance that can be covered on a bike. My bike is the place where what I read is often masticated, pedal stroke by pedal stroke, and digested into what I write. My time on the bike clarifies my ideas about the things I am reading, the stressors I am facing or the puzzles I am pondering. Several of my blog posts have been written largely in my head, while on my bike. The same is true for previous presentations and strategic plans.

Of course, I love the physical challenge and benefits of cycling, but the mental and emotional boosts are what make it so foundational for me. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the concept of flow. “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. . . .  The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” I have certainly found this to be true. My thinking is so much clearer, and I feel energized for hours after a ride where I have pushed hard.

Other people, things, projects and work are important to me, but these 3 R’s center and focus me, help me regain equilibrium when I am thrown off balance by life and help me remember who I am.

As I have worked on this blog over the last four months, I have realized that, while cycling was and remains, the primary inspiration for this blog, there are other aspects of my life that intersect with my time on the bike to round out the bigger picture of the story I want to convey. So, for 2016, I have updated my blog purpose to: celebrate my passion for cycling and books, while sharing the lessons I learn and the insight I glean through the intersection of cycling, reading and writing in my life. My 3 R’s.

What are those things that are foundational for you? Central to who you are and how you process life? While yours are likely different than mine, I believe we all have them, and they are vital keys to a rich life. Paying attention to the things that make us feel most alive and allow us to find Csikszentmihalyi’s flow enables us to reap rich rewards and further our personal evolution.

My Favorite Books in 2015

Along with cycling, reading is one of my lifelines. It is an escape, a friend and means to lifelong learning. I read a lot, mostly while doing other things—folding laundry, washing dishes, brushing my teeth, etc.—and before I go to sleep. For several years, I have kept a log in Evernote of the books I have read during a given year, and I have also rated them on Goodreads. I thought it would be fun to post a list of the books I found most enjoyable, meaningful or informative in 2015. I present them here, roughly categorized by genre, mostly in the chronological order in which I read them within the genres. These are the books that I gave four or five stars in Goodreads.
Health
Talking Back to OCD: The Program That Helps Kids and Teens Say “No Way”—and Parents Say “Way to Go,” by John S. March—March explains practical, accessible advice for helping children help themselves cope with and conquer Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande—Atul Gawande is one of my favorite authors. His latest book provides useful, provocative questions to assist loved ones facing end-of-life decisions or to make well-considered decisions about our own mortality.
Foundation: Redefine Your Core, Conquer Back Pain and Move With Confidence, by Eric Goodman—This book led to a life-enhancing daily practice for me. It has helped me significantly reduce hip and lower back pain, increase my cycling speed and efficiency and engage my hamstrings more effectively. I purchased the DVD set after several weeks of daily practice and have given the book/DVD package as gifts. I strongly recommend this book and this practice.
The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, by David Adam—Adam elucidates the suffering caused by OCD, using scientific information, anecdotal accounts and personal experience.
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh—Henry Marsh writes an admirably candid account of his career—and especially his mistakes—as a neurosurgeon. I was in awe of his courageous honesty, which he asserts is critical to practicing good medicine.
The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed or Desperate, by Harriet Lerner—Lerner provides practical guidance for having tough conversations that can be critical to healthy relationships of all kind.
Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us, by Joe Palca—As someone whose sensitivities have increased with age, I found this study of sensory irritation to be fascinating.
Memoir
The Road Less Taken: Lessons From a Life Spent Cycling, by Kathryn Bertine—Bertine’s memoir of women’s professional cycling life demonstrates the differences between men’s and women’s professional cycling, as well as the particular challenge of breaking into professional cycling past age 30.
The Wild Truth: The Untold Story of Sibling Rivalry, by Carine McCandless—In this story behind Into the Wild, by John Krakauer, Carine McCandless details the horrific and complex childhood that led to her brother’s disappearance.
The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician’s First Year, by Matt McCarthy—This candid memoir was both entertaining and informative, as well a little scary.
It Was Me All Along, by Andie Mitchell—Mitchell’s courageous account of her battle with weight would be inspirational to anyone who has struggled with weight or body image.
Hiding From Myself, by Bryan Christopher—In this powerful memoir, Christopher openly shares his painful journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance, as someone who fiercely fought the realization that he was gay, while growing up and coming of age in an evangelical Christian environment.
A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise: 9 Steps to Giving Up Everything So You Too Can: Move to a South Pacific Island, Wear a Loincloth, Read a Hundred Books, Diaper a Baby Monkey, Build a Bungalow, by Alex Sheshunoff—This book was mostly just funny, but with an inspirational, wistful edge.
Nutrition/Cooking
The Campbell Plan: The Simple Way to Lose Weight and Reverse Illness, Using The China Study’s Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet, by Thomas M. Campbell II—A follow-up to The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, this book provides incredibly important information that is not always readily available through mainstream media. Whether or not you care about justice for non-human animals, there is critical health information here.
The 22-Day Revolution: The Plant-Based Program That Will Transform Your Body, Reset Your Habits, and Change Your Life, by Marco Borges—More great ideas for implementing the vegan lifestyle are presented in this book.
The PlantPure Nation Cookbook: The Official Companion Cookbook to the Breakthrough Film . . . With over 150 Plant-Based Recipes, by Kim Campbell—This has become my favorite cookbook! I have made many recipes from it and love them all.
Vegan for Her: The Woman’s Guide to Being Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet, by Ginny Messina—This is the woman-specific companion to Vegan for Life, by Jack Norris and Ginny Messina, which is also great. Here, Messina addresses different life stages and details nutrition and supplementation (minimal) for vegan women.
Cooked Raw, by Matthew Kenney—Although this is more memoir than nutritional guide, it made me want to incorporate even more raw food into my diet. I was also awed and encouraged by Kenney’s persistence in the face of struggle.
Personal/Professional Development
Are You Fully Charged?: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life, by Tom Rath—I have been a fan of Tom Rath’s writing for several years. Here, he draws on incredible personal challenges to share what he has learned about living more fully right now.
Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin—I have enjoyed Gretchen Rubin in the past, but I became an even bigger admirer after reading this smart memoir/how-to about instituting positive habits.
Start Something That Matters, by Blake Mycoskie—This book really lit a spark for me and was the beginning of the inspiration that led to this blog.
Grit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion, and Pluck Take You From Ordinary to Extraordinary, by Linda Kaplan Thaler & Robin Koval—Thaler and Koval share what they have learned about the value of perseverance to success in all aspects of life.
Rising Strong, by Brene Brown—Brown left me feeling encouraged and more confident in owning my whole story shamelessly.
The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, by Shawn Achor—Achor provided a new (for me) take on positive psychology, one that posits that happiness may be the key to success, and not vice versa.
Before Happiness: How Creating a Positive Reality First Amplifies Your Levels of Happiness and Success, by Shawn Achor—I enjoyed Achor’s previous book so much that I read this one to gain a better understanding of the importance of emphasizing happiness before all else.
Happier at Home: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Cram My Day with What I Love, Hold More Tightly, Embrace Here, and Remember Now, by Gretchen Rubin—For some reason, I had resisted reading this book for quite a while, but reading Rubin’s latest book changed my mind. All of her books provide useful suggestions, presented in the context of engaging memoir.
SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient—Powered by the Science of Games, by Jane McGonigal—Totally out of character for me, the concept of living gamefully was presented in such a way that I was inspired to try several challenges and techniques. I just used one yesterday to divert my brain from a direction I didn’t want to go. I came away with useful strategies that I will continue to use, even if I am not playful by nature.
True Crime & Justice
The Innocent Killer: The True Story of a Wrongful Conviction and Its Astonishing Aftermath, by Michael Griesbach—A haunting true crime tale that illustrates how wrongful convictions can happen and how complicated the legal system can be.
2015 Serial Killers True Crime Anthology: Volume 2, by Peter Vronsky (Ed.)—A collection of recent true crime writing about fascinating, terrifying serial killers.
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, by Wes Moore—A young man recognizes how different his life could have been when he reads a news report about a man with his same name, who grew up very close to where he did, but who ended up in prison, instead of in college. Here, the author shares their dual histories and the story of the relationship he forged with the incarcerated Moore.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson—Stevenson tells the stories of his career in social justice and the tragedy that can occur when innocent, indigent people are wrongly convicted.
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy Leagues, by Jeff Hobbs—Hobbs does an outstanding job of telling the story of his friend who seemed to beat the odds, but ended up succumbing to his environment. It is a powerful story of the challenges so many people face in trying to carve a successful, meaningful life for themselves.
Writing
The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr—Karr’s discussion of her love for nonfiction really resonated with me, and I came away from her memoir-writing guide with a strong appreciation for the critical importance of accuracy and clarity in writing memoir.

I always love suggestions for great nonfiction reads and hope you enjoy mine. If you have read a great book this year, please share it in Comments.

My Happiness Strategies

I am excited to share some of the strategies I am using to boost my happiness and manage stress in a healthier, more life-affirming way, but I am writing this post as much for myself as anyone because I feel the need to collect my strategies in one place. My progress on this journey feels a bit tenuous—like a setback could make me forget everything I am learning about living a more mentally healthy life. If you read my last post, you know that I had been internalizing stress to the point that I felt desperate enough to overdo B6 supplementation, resulting in self-induced B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy.

I see these happiness strategies as dynamic lifelines. Their comparative value may fluctuate as I move through life. They are presented in no hard and fast order. All have value to me, and all are making a difference.

  1. Mantras: I have mentioned previously my love of quotes. My mantras derive from my quote collection in most cases. Usually, a quote inspires me to personalize the words into an affirmation or reminder for myself. Some mantras remain constant for years. Others are more fleeting, serving me well for a time, until I seem to outgrow them or to move into a different phase in my life. I repeat these to myself, usually in my head, sometimes aloud, often many times a day. Here are the mantras that are currently serving me most effectively:
    1. I do what I can do, as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then I let it go. Derived from an Elizabeth Gilbert quote, this mantra is arguably my most important mental lifeline right now. I am in an intensely busy phase at work. There is really no way to get everything done that I would like to get done “within a reasonable time frame.” In order to sustain myself through this intensity, avoid burning out and resist a spiral back into unmanaged stress, I had to redefine what constituted a reasonable time frame and adjust my expectations. This is difficult for me because excellence is one of my core values. But, I cannot sustain excellence if I am so stressed that I am damaging my health. So, I have Gilbert’s quote posted above my computer at work, and I repeat the personalized mantra countless times throughout the day to calm myself and to remember that I am only one person, trying hard to do good work, in a limited amount of time, with multiple responsibilities pulling me various directions.
    2. I am deeply fulfilled by, and grateful for, all that I do. This mantra is a balm to counter resentment at the bureaucracy, the mundaneness and the minutiae of life that can wear me down and leave me feeling discouraged. Louise Hay deserves credit for this mantra, because it was inspired by her words, “Find a way to be deeply fulfilled by, and grateful for, all that you do.” (Also posted above my work computer.) “Finding a way” is a crucial aspect of the effectiveness of this mantra. When I repeat this mantra to myself, I challenge myself to identify meaning in my activities of the day or even the moment. How does what I am doing right now (or what I did today) fulfill me? What meaning have I created? What value have I added? It is a useful mental exercise that helps me to keep or regain perspective, when I feel the threat or reality of being swept up in the tide of constant appointments and/or obligations. When I challenge myself to identify and acknowledge the meaning in what I do, I feel calmer and, truly, more fulfilled.
    3. My thoughts shape my perceptions, determine my actions and behavior and create the world I envision. This mantra has been part of my daily self-talk for years, and I often use it to ward off fear and to remind myself how powerfully I shape my own reality by the way I approach life. Although I don’t fully subscribe to the Law of Attraction, I do believe that how I choose to define myself and my circumstances influences how I experience life. I find myself repeating this quote while cycling as I approach an area where I have had problems with a dog. It gives me strength and feels a bit like a talisman. Whether or not it actually wards off chasing canines, I can’t say for sure, but it allows me to feel more powerful and more capable and it reminds me to expect the best and to do as much as I can to help myself.
    4. I am happy. I am healthy. I am peaceful. I am free. This is an adaptation of the Loving-Kindness Meditation. These words calm me and induce gratitude. I enhance the benefits when I extend the meditation to friends and family, those who don’t understand me and all beings. (e.g., May all beings be happy. May they be healthy. May they be peaceful. May they be free.) My heart expands when I take the time and make the mental effort to extend these wishes to others. I feel more generous, more peaceful and happier.
    5. I choose happiness. I use this to shove unproductive thoughts out of my head. Sometimes I couple this with an emphatic, often audible, “This is my time!” I do this especially on my bike. Processing emotions and issues is one thing; allowing myself to haul the baggage someone else (or a situation) creates is another. I shed the baggage by remembering that I choose happiness, not the weight of victimhood.
  2. Three things that went well today: I mentioned this practice in a previous post. Each night before I go to bed, I write in my journal three things that went well during the day and why. I have done this practice, recommended by Martin Seligman, for several years, and I treasure it as a way to center, reflect on the day and focus on the positive. Even on very difficult days, I challenge myself to find three good things to record. Sometimes they are profound; sometimes they are mundane, but the practice makes a big difference to my overall outlook. I practice on a miniature, mental scale throughout the day. If I leave work feeling stressed, I recall three good things from the day as I walk to my car or drive home. Sometimes, I use a variation of this in the morning. If I feel draggy and reluctant as my alarm sounds, I find three things to which I can look forward that day.
  3. Does it/will it bring me more peace or more stress? This question is a very important strategy for me. I ask myself variations of it many times throughout the day, particularly when I am at a decision point. Will eating this chocolate bring me more stress or more peace? Which item on my task list is causing me the most stress? Once I identify it, completing it becomes top priority. If I attend this function, will it bring me more stress or more peace? To the extent that it is possible, the choice that adds peace and/or minimizes stress is what I select.
  4. “I have three criteria to apply to any item trying to make its way onto my to-do list: Is the activity fun, meaningful, or absolutely necessary?” – Amy Tiemann: When I read this in Amy Tiemann’s Mojo Mom, several years ago, I was struck by its wisdom. There are so many obligations and options competing for our time; it made sense to have some criteria with which to choose those most worthy of my precious minutes. I try to ask myself these questions before accepting a responsibility, taking on a task or attending a function. Of course, these are subjective criteria, but they promote awareness and conscious decision making. They minimize the risk that I will agree to do something solely out of guilt, thus lessening the chance of resentment.
  5. Year-round cycling: Cycling is such an important part of my life. Its value cannot be overstated. I am unquestionably a nicer, healthier, higher-functioning person because I have cycling in my life. I am a proponent of exercise, in general, and I look for ways to add movement to my day. But, cycling is special. I cherish the time I am on my bike, even on rides like yesterday morning’s, when I was battered by a raw north wind for most of my 50 miles. I have typically declared the end of daylight savings time in November until it begins again in March to be my off-season. This year, acknowledging how hard fall and winter are for me, I have decided that I will maintain some level of cycling throughout the year. I will still have an off-season, in that my rides will be relegated mostly to short (15-20 miles) weekend rides. I will need to invest in more cold-weather cycling gear, but I think it will make the winter months easier to bear and will allow me small doses of the mood boost I get from cycling throughout the year.
  6. Reading: Like cycling, reading is invaluable to me. I am always reading a book (99.9% nonfiction), and I always have books waiting for me on my Kindle and in a stack. Having a book with me wherever I go serves as a security blanket. I grow so much through reading and through processing many of the ideas I encounter in books while I am on the bike. I have been focusing heavily on positive psychology and happiness literature recently (currently reading Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home), but I read many other types of books, too. I read whenever and wherever I can. While an undergraduate, working full time during the day and going to school at night, I got into the habit of reading while brushing my teeth, getting dressed, folding laundry, etc. I still do that. I can read while washing dishes by using my elbow to change the pages of my Kindle. I love to learn, and reading is one way I can take control of my lifelong education and personal development. As I drive home from work, a joy often pops into my mind: “I will have opportunities to read!”
  7. Quotes: Beyond personalizing quotes into mantras, I refer to my five volumes of collected quotes multiple times throughout the day while at home, randomly selecting words of wisdom through a ritual I have used for years. One change in recent months is that I give myself permission to select another random quote if the first (or subsequent) one doesn’t speak to me in the moment. I then ponder these quotes, especially in situations where I won’t have the opportunity to read or will have the opportunity to think (before turning off my book light to go to sleep, before leaving in the car, before getting on my bike, before getting into the shower, etc.). This practice calms me or sometimes excites and inspires me. Even quotes I recorded years ago suddenly may be particularly resonant.
  8. Blog: This blog arose out of my personal quest for happiness. Writing is one of the ways I center and process, plus, I have found myself with an urge to share the lessons I learn through cycling and reflection. I have a loose vision for the future of this blog, but, for now, it is a creative outlet that I hope others find helpful. However, its value to me is not dependent on whether or not it benefits others. Writing it is an end in itself. Taking the time to do so feels like a luxury. It would be easy to say that I can’t afford the time, but I think the truth is that I can’t afford not to take it.
  9. #100HAPPYDAYS: When I saw a post about this project on Facebook, I knew that I was ripe to participate. Having recently learned the cause of my neurological symptoms and being struck by the reality that stress, anxiety and depression contributed to them, I was committed to enhancing my own happiness. #100HAPPYDAYS extends beyond “three things that went well today” because it forces a more active pursuit of happy moments. Since I have to take a photo to post some symbol of happiness that occurred during the day, it is not enough to retrospectively reflect and choose good things; I have to look for them actively and capture them with my camera. This turns my focus more often to the positive.
  10. Push myself: For me, this mostly involves cycling. I find that I am more energized if I ride on the other side of comfortable several times a week. I feel good about my gains, and my body benefits from the endorphins released by the vigorous exercise.
  11. Vocation: I owe my renewed appreciation for the word and the concept of vocation to Elizabeth Gilbert. In Big Magic, her discussion of vocation helped me to recognize an often-missed coherence to my daily life and to my lifelong personal and professional journey. At this point in my life, “vocation” is a more useful construct than “mission” or “purpose.” My vocation encompasses both the way I live my life and the work I do. I see the value that each leg of my journey has brought to the whole of my vocation. I find peace and comfort in this view. My blog, my paid work, my veganism, my cycling—all are components of my vocation.
  12. Devaluing “busyness”: I recognize that, for several years, busyness has been my signature state. When people asked how I was, I often responded, “Busy.” I equated commitment to busyness, excellence to busyness and responsibility to busyness. Now, I can see where that got me, and I want to put busyness in its appropriate place. Yes, my calendar is still full—very often fuller than I would like or fuller than my introversion would choose—but I have pushed busyness off its pedestal and recognize that whatever benefits wearing that label may have given me, the costs were greater. I have changed my language so that I try to refer to my schedule as “full,” rather than busy. The difference may be semantic, but “full” connotes abundance to me, while “busy” connotes stress.
  13. Redefining success: As someone who has always pursued straight A’s and high academic achievement, I have too often felt shame at my nonlinear career and income trajectories. It is easy to say to myself that someone with two master’s degrees should be making more money than I do. But, have I ever really chosen my work for the salary? That has always been a secondary or even tertiary or lower criterion, probably to my fiscal detriment, but integrity and, yes, vocation, have always been more important. I can acknowledge that the financial return on my academic investment is probably lower than I would have hoped or than most people would expect, but I do feel like the work I have chosen to do throughout my career has generally made positive differences in people’s lives and to the world, albeit in incremental ways. A quote I found in UU World magazine several years ago (I believe this is a paraphrase of a quote by Mother Teresa.) said, “Every action makes a ripple. The ripples change the world.” I hope that I will make enough positive ripples that there will be more compassion and less suffering, more excellence and less complacency, more integrity and less insincerity and more fitness and less squandering of potential in the world. If I accomplish those things, then I will have been successful.
  14. Limiting exposure: Sometimes the world can feel so heavy. As an ethical vegan, the suffering experienced by nonhumans and humans alike can be seriously depressing. I have found that I simply must limit my exposure to the sad stuff. Compassion fatigue is real, and I have a strong tendency toward it. I am aware that there is a line between burying my head in the sand and overdosing on vicarious suffering, sadness and bad news, and I try to stay reasonably balanced between the two. My veganism provides an example. I have been vegetarian for over 33 years and became vegan over seven years ago. For the intervening 26 years, I wanted to believe that being vegetarian was enough. Finally, I knew that, in order to live my values with integrity, I needed to educate myself more thoroughly about the suffering of animals in the dairy or egg industries. As soon as I allowed myself to learn the truth, I became vegan. I continued to learn more, but reached a saturation point, especially after the heartbreaking loss of my special dog Andy in 2011. I realize that, in so many ways, Andy’s death was a crucial turning point in my life, representing far more than the pain of that loss. I am a committed vegan. There is no turning back for me, so there is no point in continuing to torture myself by reading or watching animal suffering. It is more productive to focus on what I can do to contribute positively to the world, rather than to become unbearably weighted down with the sadness of the world.
  15. Adjusting my expectations: This is related to the first mantra I discussed in this post. Living this mantra means that I have to adjust my expectations, but I am careful to distinguish between that and lowering my standards. Instead of demanding that I address every email before I leave work, I use my “more peace or more stress?” strategy to determine my highest priorities for the following day, and I move on “in a reasonable time frame.” It makes a difference. Another area where I have adjusted my expectations is this blog. Initially, I committed to posting at least once a week. I have found that life doesn’t always allow that without undue stress. Since Just Wind is one of my happiness strategies, pushing myself to produce substandard work, just for the sake of staying on an arbitrary and unrealistic schedule, makes no sense. I will emphasize quality over frequency.
  16. Strengths: Related to being fulfilled by what I do and finding meaning in my daily life, I focus on identifying the ways that I am using my strengths—those character traits and talents that most empower me to make a difference—to contribute to the greater good in the world. I know that life feels more rewarding when I am putting my strengths to good use.
  17. Adding movement: A practice I started several years ago (and resurrected after a brief hiatus when I changed jobs) is to add a little movement to my work day by taking the long way to or from the restroom every time I get up for a bathroom break. This takes only a minute or so, but it helps me to get a tiny burst of physical activity and clears my head for a moment.

While I hope this (admittedly long) post will add value for my readers, my primary objective is to create a collection of my most useful happiness strategies, as a reference for myself.

Please share your happiness strategies in the “Comments” section. (If you tried to comment on previous posts and couldn’t, I think I have fixed the problem.) I would love to learn from fresh perspectives. We can all contribute to the happiness in the world by pooling our accumulating and evolving wisdom. It is one of the ways we make ripples.