Letters to the Editor

Esther J. Cepeda: A trio of new self-help books that actually do help

Esther Cepeda
Esther Cepeda Washington Post

I’m a sucker for self-help books. It’s a leap of faith not only to purchase them but also then to actually read them with the faint hope of making a tiny difference in a lifetime of rigid, often bad, habits.

Here are three newish titles I’ve lived with for most of a year and are memorable enough to recommend. They have in common two key ingredients: They are fun and eye-opening to read, and their authors never once say the journey you must undertake to self-mastery will be easy.

First up is “The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life,” by Janice Kaplan.

The practice of gratitude is, by now, cliché. Oprah was extolling the value of noting the joy of life’s simple moments before I was even out of college. But Kaplan brings new energy to the challenge of looking on the bright side by admitting to readers how terribly hard it is to become a “glass-half-full” person – even when you’re a well-heeled journalist/writer who gets to interview stars like Matt Damon, Daniel Craig and Clint Eastwood.

Still, Kaplan’s worries about being thin enough, sufficiently happy in marriage or inviting bad karma by being the ungrateful clod who can only complain about the inconveniences of demanding work and family life are pretty universal. As is the immense effort it takes to understand that life doesn’t have to be “perfect” to be enjoyed.

“Even after this year, I would never sign on to the idea that everything happens for the best,” Kaplan writes. “The tragic, sad, unexpected and irritating do take place, and our lives are not necessarily better for them. But our only choice is how to respond. Instead of being masterful at misery, we can become experts at gratitude.”

“10 Percent Happier” by ABC News correspondent Dan Harris, will make grateful anyone who has found the simple task of clearing your mind and meditating a nearly impossible torment.

Far from achieving a full-on “awakening,” Harris succeeds only in mostly quieting the running commentary of the naysaying jerk in his head – itself a major achievement.

If you haven’t had the experience of having a negative Nellie in your mind constantly telling you to worry about this, that and the other – or telling you at every turn that you’re not good enough – you won’t understand how difficult it can be to silence that critical voice for even a few minutes. Harris definitely gets it.

“The voice in my head can be a total pill. … Most of us are so entranced by the nonstop conversation we’re having with ourselves that we aren’t even aware we have a voice in our head. … It’s a fever swamp of urges, desires, and judgments. It’s fixated on the past and the future, to the detriment of the here and now.”

A funny book by someone unashamed to be an overachiever, “10 Percent Happier” will be helpful to people who want to learn how to “quiet the mind” and still keep their sense of humor.

Good humor is a prerequisite for diving into “100 Deadly Skills: The SEAL Operative’s Guide to Eluding Pursuers, Evading Capture, and Surviving Any Dangerous Situation,” by Clint Emerson. It’s the kind of book likely to be picked up by those with zero fear of ever truly having to survive mortal danger – and the self-confidence to believe that if they ever did find themselves in one, they’d victoriously tap into their inner Bruce Willis.

Relatively straightforward chapters like “Blend into Any Environment,” “Send Anonymous Emails” and “Escape from an Automobile Trunk” precede seemingly fanciful others such as “Cross Enemy Borders by Air,” “Create an Improvised Gas Mask” and “Wage Psychological Warfare.”

Don’t even get me started on the chapters regarding how to “Conceal Escape Tools” (get the anatomy textbook out for that one) or the laugh-out-loud details found in the simple instructions for getting past a guard dog (you’ll need canine distraction tools that are “challenging to come by in any scenario”).

The book is, Emerson says, designed to “entertain while simultaneously imparting a body of knowledge that may come in handy in the absolute direst of emergencies.”

And isn’t that, in a nutshell, the purpose of all self-help books?

Esther J. Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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