Even the toughest knocks can ultimately lead us to greater happiness—so writes Amy Spencer, author of “Bright Side Up.” Bookish asked her to spell out the sunshine in seven books that offer unexpectedly life-affirming lessons.
I’m a professional optimist. Which means I seek out the positive in human experience and help others do the same—because, as I write about in my newest book, “Bright Side Up: 100 Ways to be Happier Right Now,” if you can learn to view some of your negative experiences from a more positive perspective, you’ll feel happier today and more hopeful about tomorrow.
That’s what optimism is, after all: a belief that your life is going to work out for the best. However sad or challenging an experience might feel in the moment, there is a benefit to be gained. Centuries of literature have taught us this lesson over and over. I’ve even come across this brand of optimism in books that may not seem so positive on the surface—everything from Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction to young adult novels to straight-talking dating books. Here are seven of the most positive life messages I’ve found in some pretty surprising books.
Visualize your dreams and you’ll get there.
“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” by J.K. Rowling
With this book, Rowling steps into The Wire territory, fearlessly killing off some favorite characters—including (spoiler alert!) beloved Dumbledore, the closest person Harry has to a parent. But the sixth book in the series also introduces the magic of “apparating.” As Professor Twycross explains it, “Focus your determination to occupy the visualized space!” Do it right and—poof!—you’re in Diagon Alley. Apparation is really a form of visualization, the powerful tool of positive thinking that Michael Jordan credits with his mastery of basketball after learning about it from his Zen coach Phil Jackson. “When I go into situations that people don’t know the outcome,” Jordan said, “I’ve already experienced them in my mind.” It’s powerfully positive stuff that worked for Harry, too. See it, believe it, and it can be yours.
We human beings are resilient; we will get through.
“Half a Life” by Darin Strauss
“Half my life ago, I killed a girl,” writes Chang & Eng author Darin Strauss in his memoir about accidentally killing a girl from his high school when her bike swerved into the path of his car. He’s now spent half his life carrying this tragedy on his shoulders. Tissues, please! I mean, where’s the optimism in that, right? Well, at its core, Strauss’s story shows we can lighten the weight of the pain we carry by accepting it as an integral part of us. “We’re all pretty much able to deal with the worst that life can fire at us, if we simply admit that it is very difficult.” he writes. “I think that is the whole of the answer. We make our way….” Yes, life can be painfully cruel, but human beings are strong and resilient. And as trying as life can get, the path still only goes one way—forward. So instead of letting pain beat us, we must let it join us so we can head into the future even stronger, wiser and more empathetic than we were before.
We all have the potential for greatness.
“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell
So let’s get this straight, Gladwell. If we’re not born in the right place at the right time with the right parents in the right economy, good freaking luck? On the surface, Gladwell’s thesis doesn’t offer much hope—and hopelessness is the root of pessimism. Yet the optimism of Outliers is that it sweeps away the magic fairy dust that separates the greats from the laymen by pointing out how many practical factors go into success. The best example is the research by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to develop an aptitude for success like that of Bill Gates or The Beatles. As Gladwell writes of professional musicians in the study, quite simply, “The thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it.” In other words, success is possible and within our reach. It’s not hopeless after all. If you work at your dream—really work—you can achieve yours, too.
Laughing with your problems can carry you through them.
“Heartburn” by Nora Ephron
Oh, the shock, the heartbreak, the betrayal! It doesn’t feel all that funny when you frame the plot of Ephron’s autobiographical novel about finding out—halfway into her pregnancy—that her husband has been cheating on her. Yet there’s optimism in how her character handles her pain with humor—even if it took a while to find it: “The first day I did not think it was funny,” Ephron writes. “I didn’t think it was funny the third day either, but I managed to make a little joke about it.” We should, of course, face hard times head on. But charging into that battle wearing the armor of humor can give us power in the ring! So when it’s bad, perhaps we can find the good; when it’s awful, perhaps we can find the funny. Seeing the humor of a negative situation can positively get us through.
Every day is a new day with a new chance at happiness.
“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway
This struggle between man and nature doesn’t end well. After 84 days without a single catch, Santiago finally hooks a prize marlin; but after three days of hauling it in, sharks devour the carcass, leaving him with nothing by the time he reaches home. How depressing. Yet Santiago is a man who persists on hope and perseverance. “I have no luck any more,” he says as he takes his boat out that first day. “But who knows? Maybe today. Every day is a new day.” Which is why the next day, Santiago will wake, go to his boat, and start all over again—just like we all do, every single day. Life gives us a fresh slate every morning, and if we believe in ourselves and persist in what we want, we can make some of those days lucky ones.
If you think you deserve the best, you can have the best.
“He’s Just Not That Into You” by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo
Rather than handing out life-affirming fortune-cookie news about your love life, this book offers what seems like a much more depressing message: “Sorry, babe,” it essentially says over and over (and over and over), “but he’s just not that into you.” It almost makes you want to toss your cute dating shoes into the toilet. But I see something far more positive here. This book is actually a vehicle that frees you up from the schlumps who are holding you back so you can head into the future to find someone better! That guy (or woman) who isn’t treating you the way you’d like is just a roadblock in your path to a real connection. So hop over it and head off on the clear, open road to meet someone who’s so into you, they’d never dream of letting you go.
Every relationship gives you something special that becomes a part of you.
“The Tender Bar” by J.R. Moehringer
Before penning Andre Agassi’s bestselling autobiography, Open, Moehringer told the story of his own life, growing up broke with a single mom and being raised in part by his kooky Uncle Charlie and some barfly friends at the local pub. A kid raised in a bar? Kind of a downer. But instead of focusing on the lack in his life, Moehringer focuses on the riches. “They fostered in me the habit of turning each person who crossed my path into a mentor or a character,” he writes, “and I credit the bar, or blame it, for becoming a reflection or a refraction, of them all.” The Tender Bar is a positive reminder to us all: Every relationship becomes a part of who we are. We are a quilt of everyone we’ve met and loved and learned from, and we grow better through it all.