Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin Random House UK, Ebury Publishing for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I voluntarily chose to read and review.
I don’t read many inspirational books so I cannot share a deep analysis of how original the book might be or where it sits in regards to the topic. The book covers a variety of subjects, and it is classed under psychology and health, philosophy and self-help, and I agree it does touch on all those.
I’m a psychiatrist and I must admit I have never studied Positive Psychology as part of my degree but this book doesn’t require an in-depth knowledge of any of the disciplines to benefit from it.
The author opens the book by introducing herself, her background, and questioning the current focus on happiness. Is happiness sufficient to lead a satisfying life? She goes on to discuss many of the studies that show that having a sense of meaning can make a big difference to the outcomes of people at a time of crisis, be it a life-threatening illness or students going through exams, and grounds the readers in the subject. She uses one of the pillars she identifies as important to creating meaning, story-telling, to hook the readers into the topic of the book. If somebody came to you and asked you to give him (her) a reason not to kill him/herself, what would you say? That’s what happened to Will Durant and what set him off asking his colleagues and trying to understand what brings meaning to people’s lives. From there, and using positive psychology, Emily Esfahani Smith, defines the four pillars that bring meaning to people’s lives: belonging, purpose, story-telling and transcendence. The author illustrates each one of these topics with individual stories that help make the points more accessible. We have a young man who was only interested in money, became a drug dealer, and when he went to prison discovered his lifestyle was literally killing him. There he changed his habits and ended up not only becoming fit but also helping others to become healthier. We have a woman who loves animals and finds her purpose in looking after the animals in the zoo, ensuring their lives can be interesting there too. I learned about dream directors who help young people find purpose and meaning; I read about projects that help people in the final stages of life to find a purpose, other projects that help individuals tell their stories and record their experiences, groups that bring people who’ve lost somebody together… The author achieves this and more, all the while providing sources for her findings and reminders of how the issues discussed relate to philosophers and historical figures past and current. We might discover belonging by joining a society that enacts battles or find transcendence walking in nature or attending a special service at church. Ultimately, this is not a prescriptive book, and the process of discovery of meaning is an individual one.
I loved the stories, which go from individual experiences to projects that have grown and become important to many people, and the theoretical reflections that underpin the concepts, which are clearly explained and will also encourage readers new to the topic to explore further. The author succeeds in preserving the unique voices of the people whose experiences she shares and her own writing is seamlessly and beautifully achieved. The book made me think and rethink life and its priorities and I suspect it will have a similar effect on many people.
A book on an important topic, written in an easily-accessible manner, illuminating and inspiring. Although I read it quickly for the review, this is a book that can be savoured and returned to as needed, and it will provide new discoveries and insights with every new reading.
A final note: Although the book appears quite long, the notes at the end occupy a 33% of the e-book (although they are easily accessible) and it does not feel like a long read.