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

Summer usually means a bit more free time, which can be used towards much-needed vacations and other relaxing, rejuvenating activities. We’re all stressed out, and that means it’s easy to fall into the habit of using every spare moment to unplug and turn off your brain.

Nothing wrong with that, but that can lead to missed opportunities—opportunities to improve yourself. Sitting on a beach, on a plane—anywhere you have the time to read for a while this summer is a chance to apply a patch to your personal operating system and do an upgrade—to make yourself better, smarter, and happier. Mix in 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
Sometimes the challenge with books that purport to make you better is simply choosing one—after all, you probably have a limited window in which to read and try some new tricks. Rubin’s book is an ideal starting place because it’s not a specific set of instructions or fad—it’s her story of trying all the instructions and fads. Rubin applies the advice from 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 the 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 backwards, the deck stacked against them. 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 co-workers, relatives, and neighbors with their troubling opinions and confrontational attitudes. These days everyone thinks they have to argue endlessly—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 other ‛lose,’ perpetuating a cycle of misery, we should seek to control our emotions and try to attain a level of conflict resolution that doesn’t involve turning your life into an endless argument—and coincidentally seeking to punish those who disagree with us. The result might just be a calmer and more effective person.

Be Smarter

The Knowledge, by Lewis Dartnell
This might seem like a strange choice for vacay reading, but this guide to everything you just might need to know if the world ends 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 smart about how the world actually works.

Prisoners of Geography, by Tim Marshall
Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why there is so much suffering in one area of the world and so much prosperity—and vacationing—in others. It’s easy to assume some not particularly enlightened things about groups of people, but this book lays out how the terrain, climate, and natural borders of a country dictates 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 a lot of different aspects of modern life, especially the crises that never seem to get solved and the political decisions that seem nonsensical at first glance. 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 20 hours of focused effort—not 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 beginning phase of learning a new skill gives you the foundation to keep going—or to move on to the next thing that you just want a functional knowledge of. As you sit on the beach sipping your drink, ask yourself what you might like to learn if you knew how to get the basics in under a day.

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 towards 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 that you’re special and have the special je ne sais quoi 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 assuming that 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 and suddenly they lose interest. Don’t be that person. Marklund draws on his years of experience along with scientific data to present ten pretty simple, reasonable suggestions, from getting more sleep to getting more exercise, all based on the Swedish lifestyle. This may sound overly simplistic, but the fact is most of us get caught up in remarkably complex exercise and diet regimens rather than simply doing the basics in just the right amount. Read this book while you nap in the sun and return to your life determined to get those extra ten years.

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, constantly and exhaustingly driving hard every moment. Marchand, who suffered a bit of a breakdown after years of sustained stress in a high-powered job, argues that everything in your life would be improved by learning how to take a step back at crucial moments when our guts are screaming to move and instead pause and think. A thoughtful moment not only calms nerves and lowers stress, it allows us to choose our moves carefully instead of constantly reacting in a jittery dance of anxiety and sleep-deprivation. This is an ideally thoughtful book to read while you’re (hopefully) far away from your Slack and Facebook feeds (you didn’t pack your work phone…right?).

What books have helped you become better and smarter?

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