10 The Best Books to Read This Summer to Become a Better, Smarter, Happier Person

Whether your summer means more free time or—shout out to parents whose kids are on summer break—much less, you can use it to power up your reading, with books that will help you make a personal upgrade. In the interest of becoming a better, smarter, happier person, add just a few of these ten books to your summer reading list and make that time off count.

Be Better

The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin
Rubin’s book is an ideal starting place for self-improvement because it’s not a specific set of instructions or a fad—it’s her story of trying all the instructions and fads. She applies the advice of a variety of self-help books, ranging from the ancient to the modern, and reports on her results. Along the way you’ll get plenty of simple, practical advice—but it’s also a great way to pre-test a few things by sharing in Rubin’s experience. Kick off your Summer of Self-Improvement with an overview of available approaches.

Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich
Being a better person begins with empathy, something that often seems to be in short supply. Ehrenreich’s experiment, in which she took on the sorts of low-wage, long-hour jobs that far too often fail to support even modest lifestyles, remains an eye-opening read. We all work hard for what we have, but sometimes the rules aren’t fair—and Ehrenreich plumbs the depths of economic desperation, where no matter how hard someone works they keep sliding backward, the deck stacked against them. If you are one of the lucky ones, take a moment this summer and contemplate how different your own life could be if you lacked even a few of the advantages you have.

Quiet the Rage, by R.W. Burke
We live in contentious times, and half the reason you plan a trip is to get away from your coworkers, relatives, and neighbors, with their troubling opinions and confrontational attitudes. These days everyone thinks they have to argue endlessly in order to be heard, but there’s a different approach worth trying. Instead of reacting emotionally to provocations and different opinions—instead of seeking to “win” and thus make others “lose,” perpetuating a cycle of misery, we should seek to control our emotions and attain a level of conflict resolution that doesn’t involve turning life into an endless argument—and coincidentally seeking to punish those who disagree. The result might just be a calmer and more effective life.

Be Smarter

The Knowledge, by Lewis Dartnell
This might seem like a strange choice for vacation reading, but this guide to everything you might need to know if the world ended is more practical than it seems. On the one hand, if the apocalypse is coming it’s not going to care about your vacation schedule. On the other, this book explains not just the systems that support our civilization—technologies we often blindly rely upon—it also explains the fundamentals under those technologies and systems. Reading this book might make you a little better prepared for the end of the world, and in the meantime, it will make you a lot smarter about how the world actually works.

Prisoners of Geography, by Tim Marshall
Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why there’s so much suffering in some parts of the world and so much prosperity in others. It’s easy to assume some unenlightened things based on wealth distribution, but this book lays out how the terrain, climate, and natural borders of a country dictate to a great extent the lives of its people and the fate of its society. This sort of visual thinking might just change your perspective on many different aspects of modern life, especially the crises that never seem to get solved and the political decisions you don’t understand. Using updated maps, Marshall lays it all out for you—making you smarter in the process.

The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast!, by Josh Kaufman
Getting smarter isn’t just the accumulation of facts or even the widening of perspective—it’s also the acquisition of skills. Kaufman presents a system by which you can learn the fundamentals of just about anything with just twenty hours of focused effort—a far cry the 10,000 hours that are often thrown about. While he doesn’t claim this will make you an expert, he does argue that the beginning of learning anything new is always the hardest phase, and the easiest to give up on. Getting though the arduous early stages of learning a new skill gives you the foundation to keep going—or to move on to the next thing.

You Are Not So Smart, by David McRaney
McRaney’s collection of genius blog posts makes one dismaying argument: you’re not as smart, special, or independent as you think you are—and he has receipts. His analysis of psychological experiments explode the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves, and reading this book can be a painfully eye-opening experience as he correctly guesses what you think about yourself and then grimly lays out the probable truth. Knowing your own limitations and seeing how you’ve been bamboozled in the past is a first step toward a smarter, more aware life, and this summer is your chance to take that step.

Be Happier

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, by Mark Manson
Let’s start here: most self-help books stroke your ego more than they actually improve things. By telling you you’re special and have that je ne sais quoi needed to change your life and be amazing, they’re just flattering you. Manson argues—forcibly and with a lot of sharp wit—that it’s better to be plainly honest about your own limitations and seek to adjust how you approach life instead of deciding life should be adjusted to suit your needs. Bracing and sometimes alarming, this book is a dash of cold water to the face that so, so many of us need—and you will be happier for having read it, because the best way to start changing your life for the better is to start seeing it with clear eyes.

The Nordic Guide to Living 10 Years Longer, by Bertil Marklund
Marklund, a doctor and professor in Sweden, offers up a refreshingly simple guide to living longer. It’s funny, but if you offered people a pill that would give them an extra decade of life they’d take it…but offer some simple suggestions that will do the same, and suddenly they lose interest. Don’t be that person. Marklund draws on his years of experience along with scientific data to present ten simple, reasonable suggestions, from getting more sleep to getting more exercise, all based on the Swedish lifestyle.

Pause, by Danielle Marchant
You’re on vacation and yet you’ve prepared a reading list and consulted this post to fine-tune it. You may not be doing vacations correctly, and Marchant wants you to pause and think about that. Americans work too hard and take too little vacation, and many of us are at risk of burning out without realizing it, constantly and exhaustingly driving hard every moment. Marchand suffered a bit of a breakdown after years of sustained stress in a high-powered job, and now she argues that everything in your life would be improved by learning how to take a step back at crucial moments. A thoughtful moment not only calms nerves and lowers stress, it also allows us to choose our moves carefully instead of constantly reacting in a jittery dance of anxiety and sleep-deprivation. This is a thoughtful book to read while you’re (hopefully) far away from your Slack and Facebook feeds.

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