Forget self-development, fiction will make you happier … and nicer

Forget self-help, fiction can make you happier

Australian bookselling figures can provide an illuminating insight into the preoccupations of our time. And, apparently, ‘personal development’ and food and drink are what we’re all thinking about.

While our obsession with eating and drinking might speak for itself, the big surprise in this year’s Neilson BookScan Australia figures was that sales of ‘personal development’ titles had increased by 50 per cent on the previous year.

With The Barefoot Investor and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck at or near the top of the bestseller charts for much of the year, perhaps the boom in this type of book stands to reason.

But I wonder when we are going to reach peak personal development, and take a less internal, insular view of what we might be lacking?

As politics seems to get meaner and meaner, and the general population rails against cruelties of indefinite detention and family separation, both on our own shores and further afield, books might more usefully be aimed at making a difference outside the individual.

The absence of this kind of product hit home when I was searching for a gift for my niece for her First Communion. After a Christening and Confirmation, I figured she had enough Bibles, crucifixes and rosary beads to last her a lifetime. So, instead, I decided to visit the non-fiction section to buy her a book about kindness – something that I consider to be aligned with the best of religion.

However, visiting a few different bookshops, I waded through titles like A Loving Guide to Your Soul’s Evolution, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Ask and It Is Given – Learning to Manifest Your Desires, and struggled to locate anything that overtly taught kindness to others.

But, was I looking in the wrong place for a book to encourage kindness and compassionate? Perhaps I would have been better off consulting the fiction section of the bookshops I visited.

Fiction can help people empathise with those whose lifestyles and circumstances are different to their own, and help them understand different perspectives or consider moral questions, in a way that is not necessarily overt.

And importantly, this more externally-facing approach is one that might even be of greater value to the individual, young or old. Studies have revealed that carrying out acts of kindness can make an individual happier, with a University of Oxford study finding that being kind to others caused a small but significant improvement in subjective well-being. Similarly, Canadian research revealed that doing good deeds helped socially anxious people feel calmer.

While there is great value in learning to manage our finances, be more mindful, or to give less of a f*ck, ultimately, we would all benefit if we focussed a little less on personal development and more encouraging kindness and compassion, for the benefit of both individuals and the societies in which they live.

Books for older children that encourage kindness and compassion:

Gillian Mears’ The Cat with the Coloured Tail follows Mr Hooper, who runs an ice cream van, and his cat, which has a tail that changes colour in sympathy with the moods of people he meets and in response to the state of the world. A black tail is not a good sign. This book, while sad and dark at times, is a reminder of the value of kindness and hope.

Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is a wordless graphic novel that explores a family’s immigration to a new country. Given the debates about immigration that rages around the world, this book provides young people with an understanding of those who it effects the most.

The Harry Potter series – A 2014 study by researchers in Italy revealed that reading Harry Potter books helped improve attitudes towards stigmatised groups. JK Rowling’s books achieve this through Harry’s contact and friendship with different groups such as the ‘mudbloods’, a persecuted group of half-wizards and half-muggles.

David Walliams’ Mr Stink – At the centre of the story of Mr Stink is a young girl that rejects the snobbery and cold ambition of her mother to invite a homeless man into her life and home. Ultimately, the family comes to see the value of Mr Stink, beyond his unkempt appearance, with goodness winning out.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda – Amid neglectful parents and a malevolent headmistress at school, the bookish Matilda maintains a clear-eyed sense of right and wrong. She and Miss Honeyball rise above the cruelty of these other characters to create a hopeful future for themselves.

R.J. Palacio’s Wonder – This book is the heartwarming story of 10-year-old Auggie, who is starting Grade 5 at a neighbourhood school after being home schooled for his whole life. He hopes other students will see through his facial disfigurement. The story reveals how everyone feels different in some way, and how kindness can change lives.

Or, if you want to do good while cultivating a better you at the same time, try Small Ways to Shape Our World, a little gift book that not only offers both older and younger readers wisdom on a less self-centred way of living, but supports the charity, Igniting Change, which aims to create positive change in the community, supporting those suffering from injustice or inequality.

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