You Are What You Read: On Choosing Literature to Lift You Up, Not Bring You Down

I have recently begun binging on motivational literature, including online articles and other blogs. While I was once shy about this practice, only downloading “self-help” books (an inaccurate way to categorize them as so many speak of to turning to God and developing relationships with others, but these are thoughts for a later post) so no one could see what I was reading. Instead, I focused the majority of my mental energy on canonized (read: respected) literature. Recently I have begun to generate a more 50/50 split. In fact, I have one self-help book and literary text going at all times so that I can boost my spirit and enhance my professional career.

The result? All facets of my life have improved.

A potential explanation: In his best-seller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell discusses “priming.” By being exposed to a particular set of words, we can actually modify out outlook and actions. Gladwell uses the example of an activity in which you are exposed to a list of word sets. Your task is to generate sentences out of the word sets, which include “‘worried,’ ‘Florida,’ ‘old,’ ‘lonely,’ ‘gray,’ ‘bingo,’ and ‘wrinkle.'” When you are done with this “language test,” you act “old” and “walk slowly.” What you thought was a simple language test in fact wired your “adaptive unconscious” to think about being old.

By reading books about “happiness,” “health,” “energy,” “love,” “friendship,” “meaning,” so forth, I retrain my adaptive unconscious to look for and focus on these aspects of life. Certainly I am learning better habits, such as waking up early and exercising regularly, but my mood and outlook seems to have gone through such a major shift that it has to be attributable to something greater going on in the mind–a way of seeing the world differently. And the more I see the world differently and develop my faith in God and relationships, the better my life becomes. And the better my life becomes, the better able I am to analyze and teach canonized literature.

If we are what we read, what books have you found that make you feel better? What literature encourages you or makes you feel happier? In contrast, what books can you remember that made you feel sad, lonely, or hopeless? Would you read those books again or steer clear of them? Did those depressing books have any knowledge that offset their use of dominantly dark images and words?

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