Brain Truths

Three books seek to improve our outlook on life

Feeling overly worked up over the slow traffic light or the car honking as you cross the intersection? In Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You: Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear, Make Better Decisions, and Thrive in the 21st Century (Hudson Street Press, 2013), psychologist Marc Schoen explains why. He reveals that our brain's limbic system, which processes emotions, has become overly sensitive to potential threats. It no longer reacts only to immediate dangers, which gave our ancestors a keen survival instinct. Now simple annoyances can rev it up. Our brain's tendency to be in overdrive explains why we might feel anxious or short-tempered over the little things. Schoen recommends several tactics to help calm our nerves, including hypnosis and healthier eating habits.

Pressure to marry, raise children and earn a fat paycheck may lead many to feel unsatisfied if they have not achieved these goals by a certain age. In The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn't, What Shouldn't Make You Happy, but Does (Penguin Press, 2013), psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky argues that we have it all wrong. Happiness does not depend on attaining these markers of “success.” Rather this narrow view of success often leads to disappointment. She points to studies that show our mind-set, not our situation, dictates our happiness and says staying open-minded will help us make better choices and craft a more fulfilling life.

Wonder why that girl in your econ class gets under your skin or why you don't trust politicians? Your unconscious might be talking. In Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (paperbound, Vintage, 2013), physicist Leonard Mlodinow explores how our unconscious mind dictates much about how we perceive and experience the world, influencing our relationships, our opinions and even our memories. By understanding the driving force that is our unconscious, we can become more aware of our underlying biases and misperceptions and work to rectify them.