Updated: Dec 17, 2020
My partner and I wrote this with the intention of helping out friends and family during the first national lockdown, especially those who may not have come across the ideas before. We're passionate about what it means to live a life well and we hope there's something useful in here for you.
Life in Lockdown
In Spring 2020, we witnessed the world's first pandemic in living memory. It feels like it's hit everyone's life in large and unprecedented ways.
We were living in Liverpool, in the north of England, and watched our Prime Minister on TV tell us to stay at home. The streets and skies became unusually quiet. All we could hear was birdsong and sirens. The weather was beautiful. It felt like the start of a surreal summer vacation. It only took a few months for the unprecedented events to become normalised. Jargon that was once novelty soon became depressingly familiar: social distancing, R rate, viral load. Covering our face became the norm. Staying at home became the norm.
For both of us, those first few months were wrought with ups and downs. Some days we woke up feeling energized, radical, and ready to change the world for the better. Other days were filled with a kind of tense apathy where we'd go from one job to another without getting anything done. Family became important. Mental health became important. Sanitation took on new meaning, first physically, then mentally: we soon found that the pandemic was brutally efficient at showing us what did and didn't matter.
This book started life when our mothers got in touch asking us for tips to improve wellbeing during the first days of lockdown. Knowing that we cared about this stuff – Charley's a yoga teacher and Ben's written about nutrition and wellbeing – they came to us as “the experts”.
We've both been interested in self-improvement for a few years. To us, that means trying to live the most meaningful life we can long-term. It takes time and is hard work, but there are a lot of good ideas out there, which we've been reading about and practicing over the past few years. When Coronavirus forced us into our own houses, this learning came into its own.
We've tried to turn our ideas into actionable patterns and routines. We use the word practice for many of the ideas, instead of activities or rules because these are all things that need to be worked at. Think of yourself as a student, bringing yourself to the task of learning a new skill: you start out shit, and then get better the more creatively, critically, and diligently you practice.
What do we mean by improving your life? There are lots of ways to define this, so it’s best to keep it simple. In Buddhism, one of the Four Noble Truths is suffering: life is bound to involve pain, sickness, and other kinds of unpleasantness. So the question becomes, what can we do to alleviate some of the unnecessary suffering in ourselves and other people?
Or, to quote psychotherapist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl,
‘the world is in a bad state, but everything will still become worse unless each of us does his [or her] best.’ (Frankl, Viktor E., Man’s Search for Meaning, 2004)
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, these aren't our original ideas. We didn't come up with the idea behind any of these practices. We, like you, were introduced to them, and we strive to make them our own by integrating them with the specifics of our lives.
One good thing
We'll start nice and simple: practice gratitude. Gratitude doesn’t need to be expressed only in meditative states or Thanksgiving cards; being grateful for our lives is one of the most practical and immediate things we can do for ourselves. But is it always possible to feel gratitude? Yes. Like so many of the activities we speak about in this book, gratitude is best approached as a practice.
In theory, we all know it would be good to feel more grateful for things. But a theory easily turns into the tyranny of guilt – ‘I should’ – unless we find ways of routinely applying it to our lives. We’ll start by telling you the simplest activity we found for bringing gratitude into our every day.
Each evening when we sit down to eat, we start by telling each other one good thing that happened that day. We do this every day without exception. When we're not together we pick up the phone and call or text our ‘one good thing’ to each other.
For us, the wording is important: it’s ‘Something good that happened to me today was…’, rather than ‘I’m grateful / thankful for.’ Why? Because the ‘one good thing’ frame is very manageable and forces you to be specific.
When we say, ‘I’m grateful for my life’, we have to assume a general attitude of thankfulness, which may not be our reality. Recounting a single good thing that happened that day doesn’t require us to feel grateful for the whole day, which might have sucked.
Sharing our one good thing often requires a story. 'I'm grateful for my friends' turns into 'Something good that happened to me today is I spent an hour on the phone reconnecting with Sophie. It was so good – I forgot how perceptive and funny she is – it reminded me of how I want her to still be in my life when I'm 80.'
Sometimes, our stories are much more detailed, as whoever’s speaking relives the good thing and we’re suddenly ten minutes into a fascinating conversation about street art and our food’s gone cold. But we’re laughing and smiling, so it doesn’t matter.
We've been doing it for a while now, and we often find ourselves looking for the good things throughout our day. This doesn't mean that everything becomes good, but that there is heightened sensitivity to the bright moments in the day.
On the bad days – when recounting what feels like a wall-to-wall disaster is the last thing we want to do – we still hold each other to it, though kindly. With enough time and a little patience something always turns up: the taste of coffee that morning; the excited puppy we saw running after a ball; how good it felt to sit down when we got home that evening.
A surprising thing can happen on the bad days. Sometimes, you’ll realise that you want the negative things that happened that day to become the good thing. One real example from our experience is 'My parents really annoyed me today and I lost my cool and snapped at them, and now I have to deal with feeling guilty about it. I think it’s a good thing, because I saw the things they can trigger in me, and how I need to be kinder to myself about it.’
There are, of course, other ways of doing your One Good Thing. If you don't live with anyone, you can do it solo, by writing it down – at the end of a month you’ve got thirty good things to look back on. You could Whatsapp or email a close friend who’ll do it with you. You could tell it to a pet or a plant or just think it to yourself. However you do it, you'll quickly see that every day has at last one good thing.
Connect With people
During the lockdown, there was a great sense of being part of a community and, counter-intuitively, feeling more connected to people and society in general. Communities all over the world started celebrating local and national heroes, as well as weekly clapping sessions for key workers. Suddenly there was a sense of being part of some common purpose; we were thrown out of the bubbles of our individual lives, and into a strange shared arena where everyone was talking about one thing and one thing only.
The virus forced us to recognise what we all share: our humanity. Is there anything clearer than a shared sense of threat, vulnerability, and mortality? It felt more important than ever to share our daily struggle of living, the highs and lows, and to tune-in and listen to others.
In our apartment in Liverpool, we became aware of how incredibly anonymous we felt in relation to the people around us. Living in a block of flats in a city, it's easy to not know your neighbours; you can come and go without ever meeting them. This is particularly true of the Millennial phenomenon of the itinerant professional class: young people constantly moving between jobs, office blocks, and apartment buildings every couple years.
Then all of a sudden, we were all at home, all day every day, and it was hard to ignore these people living beside us. For the first time, we started passing them in the halls, seeing them on the steps – we said hello, we learned their names, and we offered assistance, and we walked away smiling, a new seed of belonging having been planted.
One conscious habit we formed as a result of the outbreak was to call our mothers every day or two. They weren't always long conversations, or particularly interesting ones, but it was more to do with the routine and regularity of contact; we noticed immediately how much they, and we, appreciated it.
Few of us now live down the street from our parents and extended family but technology means we can pop by for a couple minutes every day. The same is true of friends, spread across the globe. All through lockdown there was talk about people reaching out to friends more than normal, or friends they haven't spoken to for a long time. Having more time on our hands than ever before helped underline the reasons why we have friendships in the first place.
We found ourselves overthinking and complicating ideas or feelings when left with our own thoughts – and then during a long conversation on the phone or Zoom, we’d find ourselves being brought back out into the clear light of day by a friend who knows us. In more ordinary times, it was easy to take the power of a familiar voice and face for granted.
Here are some practices we've tried to adopt to help improve our relationships:
Try to go into every interaction with the intention of making it a good experience. Whether it’s talking to the cashier while packing your groceries, or calling your phone company, take a moment to think how you can make the experience the best it can be, for you and the other human being you’re with.
If your work requires a lot of email, the same principle applies. Words carry a lot of power, whether spoken or typed – so feel into the way you’re shaping your requests, instructions and questions with colleagues. How do you think they’ll feel when they read this sentence? Am I taking up too much time by writing seven sentences where one would do?
Smile at strangers in the street and say ‘Good morning/afternoon.’ It’s remarkable the change that can come over a person when they’re greeted by a stranger – and the change you feel yourself, too.
With so much communication happening via websites and social media, it’s important to remember it’s a person, not a profile you're talking to. Bear this in mind, and hold it in your body, as you’re framing whatever thought or opinion you want to give voice to.
Start paying attention to how you feel about your interactions after they happen. What words were used that felt good/bad? Did I tell the truth, or did I sacrifice what I really think in order to avoid conflict or make myself appear a particular way? Do I dwell on a conversation after it’s happened – or do I tell the truth and forget about it?
The lockdown forced us to re-evaluate how we interact with people on a fundamental level. Seeing everyone as a threat, particularly strangers, and covering our faces is going to have profound effects on the way we communicate, as is our transition to an increasingly virtual world. The more we remember each other's humanity, the better. After you read this, go call someone you love!
Connect with nature
In a park in south Liverpool, there's an oak tree that's over a thousand years old. It's broken almost completely in two, its deep and blackened centre visible from one side like the entrance to a cave. Held up by metal poles and protected by railings, the tree now bears the attitude of a stately but weary elder. Every spring it bursts into colour with hundreds of bright green leaves and, by late Summer, luminous acorns.
Legend has it that the Allerton Oak was once a meeting place for the medieval court of the local area. Through the centuries, people have gathered under its shady branches to discuss matters at hand. It's fun and poignant to imagine the different congregations and conversations this tree has borne witness to over the years.
Sometimes, people grow up surrounded by breath-taking natural beauty. For them, identifying with nature as a source of play and energy might be there from the beginning. For others, a relationship with nature comes later in life. Charley grew up in suburban England, where a hike was a tedious family affair, insisted upon by adults whose sole purpose was to 'find a view’ – something which didn't hold much interest for an eight-year-old girl. Instead, she was coaxed down country lanes and up mountains with jelly sweets left on rocks and tree stumps like a trail of breadcrumbs.
While there was fun to be found running around the garden and making mud pies, a personal relationship with nature came much later and through literature. It was reading the novels of Thomas Hardy and poetry of William Wordsworth that made the natural world seem worth re-investigating.
Words can alter the way we see and treat our planet. At the dawn of the coronavirus outbreak, we suddenly started hearing and using strange words to talk about nature; terms like antibodies, viral spread and open spaces made the air outside our window seem eerily charged, filled with threatening floating particles.At the same time, as external distractions and the ability to travel became diminished, we started to notice the calming force of the natural world much more clearly. People in their thousands commented on the revelation of hearing birdsong clearly now that traffic noise was gone. On our one permitted outing, from early March through to May, we saw Spring advance and pass into Summer - up close and in detail.
Just as words have power when we use them towards and about the people in our lives, the natural world becomes different to us when we start paying attention to it. Try learning the names of some of the trees close to your home. What difference does it make when that tree at the end of the road becomes a “silver birch” or “trembling aspen?”
One way to bring nature closer to you, especially if you live in a downtown apartment, is to fill rooms with houseplants. Taking care of a houseplant means learning what it needs in order to survive and flourish. It was interesting to see that one of the responses to the pandemic, especially among Millennials without gardens, was a sudden interest in planting seeds.
Nature connotes health. Apart from washing our hands, sewing seeds seemed like a practical antidote to fears of death and infection – and can be a natural salve to our pain at all times.
The simplest thing to say about routine is: get one.
Routines help keep the chaos of life at bay and give the things you do a bit more meaning. Life without routine can quickly spiral into depression. You don’t need to have a five year plan, or even a plan for the whole day, but having some basic principles to give shape to your days – and therefore, your life – will help you gain greater clarity, control, and enthusiasm.
We've spent time building our own personal routines which work for us individually, as well as serving our relationship. For example, when we first got together, Ben would regularly work late in the evenings, writing through into the night. It didn’t take long to realise that this meant a valuable shared experience, getting ready for and going to bed, was being missed.
It’s good that everyone’s routines differ, as they need to accommodate particular life circumstances and inclinations of character. It isn’t good for everyone, for example, to wake up at 5am. But there does seem to be a growing consensus over the basic building blocks that contribute to a healthy routine for a majority of people:
Wake up and go to bed at roughly the same time each day. Get an alarm clock to help with this.
Eat breakfast. Think of it as giving your body fuel for the rest of the day.
Take care of personal hygiene. Have a shower. Try turning it on cold at the end (have a look into the ‘Ice Man’, Wim Hof, for more on this.)
Incorporate at least some exercise into every day.
Don't eat right before going to bed.
Avoid screens for the half hour or so before bed and first thing when you wake up (hence the alarm clock, not a phone).
Building and sticking to a routine is a form of discipline. It might not be easy to begin with. All of us respond differently to discipline, and if you find yourself rebelling or wanting to break it three days in, try to just notice that reaction and be kind to it – while you go ahead and do the routine anyway. Once you’ve got into the groove of a routine, and you find it comes more naturally than the inclination to skive, then try breaking it for a day or two. Some Sundays, or whatever day works for you, don't set an alarm. Intentionally don't make plans. Play around with the structure of the day and remember what it’s like to have no rules or expectations.
Sometimes, the right thing to do is different from what it was the day before; but it's gratifying, and less confusing, when you have a solid framework from which to deviate. It’s more fun breaking the rules when you know what the rules are.
It’s also true that routines stagnate. After three months with one particular routine, you might find something doesn’t flow any more. You don't need to hit on a routine now that's going to carry you for the rest of your life: routines can and must evolve as the conditions of your life change.
So find something that works for the moment, but allow yourself to scrap it when it starts slowing you down and you begin resenting it. This allowance comes with an important disclaimer: make sure you scrap it for something new and improved.
Remember life without screens
Throughout both our lives, we’ve gone through various iterations of being removed from a world filled with screens. Whether it was living on an isolated farm for months in between jobs; travelling in countries where internet and devices were hard to come by; willingly sacrificing a smartphone before going on a silent retreat; or, more recently, trying ‘screen-free Sundays’ during lockdown, experiencing time away from our screens has been a revealing and refreshing experience.
Now that so much of our daily routine and tasks can be done via screens – exercise, work, shopping, socialising – it's not self-evident that the technologies themselves are negative or damaging. Even the intentions and aims we have while using them can be laudable: we can meditate using apps; we can listen to enlightening podcasts and lectures; we can channel our creativity and highest ideas by producing content. Smartphones, laptops and tablets have become much more important in our lives, and it would be stupid to suggest that we can or should do away with them. However, there's also no doubt that overusing our devices can, at best, lead to disconnection with the world around us and at worst seriously impact our mental health.
Those of us who aren’t on the front-line of AI development are facing a simple ultimatum with our technology: we can fill every minute of the day, every area of our life and every turn of our attention with a screen, all the while excusing it as being productive or necessary.
The decision of whether this is a good or bad thing is left, literally, in our own hands.
Humans have lived so much longer without modern technology, let alone screens, than we have with it. It's a valuable practice to remember that we don't need them all the time to live our lives fruitfully.
Because the internet is still so recent, no one knows exactly what the best practice is to maximise benefit while minimizing damage. The idea that helped us most in our relationship with the internet is focusing on our intention when we use it. We make efforts to ensure we are using it, rather than being used by it.
Here’s some guidance to what this looks like in practice:
If you pick up your phone because you want to check your bank balance, for example, do that – but only that.
If you want to check Instagram, do it, but set yourself some parameters: this might be the time you’re going to spend on it or the number of posts you’re going to look at or comment on.
Try to be clear with yourself and recognise when you’ve been distracted from your original purpose. This distraction usually looks like flicking back and forth between apps, getting sucked into the pre-designed rabbit holes of technology – looking at the next suggested thing and the next, and the next.
Developing boundaries with your devices will massively improve your productivity and appreciation when using them, and make you feel more in control of time spent away from them. Pick up your phone as and when you need to, but start noticing when you pick up your phone without knowing what you're going to do. Use your own awareness, rather than a screen-time app to help you counter this.
Don't beat yourself up when you realise you’re down a rabbit hole, just put the phone down and walk away. Our devices aren't bad, but wasting time staring at a screen is.
Neither of us are nutritionists, but we do eat food. In the last couple of years we've made a concerted effort to improve our diets: we've watched videos, spoken with experts, read books, and tried to understand the science behind food. More importantly, we've taken time to notice what things work for us and make us feel good. There's no one miracle diet out there that's going to work for everyone. Our metabolisms and immune systems are different enough to make one set of food habits suitable for one person and not for someone else.
Like most things though, there seem to be some pretty unbreakable truths to help us all set a solid foundation when trying to improve our diets. Firstly, we all need to drink a good amount of water. Carrying around a water bottle, drinking from it regularly and refilling it during the day helps increase your intake.
The clearest lesson we've learned around food is the benefit of using fresh and simple ingredients, i.e. wholefoods. Instead of buying a tin of ready-made Bolognese sauce, get the ingredients and make it yourself. Instead of snacking on a pre-packaged granola bar, buy bulk bags of nuts and raisins. With a wholefood diet you'll have to get comfortable with preparing and cooking ingredients, but a couple of websites and videos make it easy. It might also take time for your taste buds to adjust if you've been used to eating heavily sugared or salted foods. But they do adjust, and real food tastes better.
It seems evident we all need protein. However, the question about the best source of protein is still raging, and debates around this are more volatile than ever. It's probably unnecessary for us all to become vegans, but we do need to understand how to achieve a better balance with our meat and plant-based proteins. Beans, chickpeas, lentils and grains like quinoa and flax are great vegetarian options. We make bean chillis and burritos, and black bean burgers. Smoothies with chia seeds and peanut or almond butter are good ways to boost your protein intake at breakfast or lunch.
The simpler the ingredients, from beans to beef, the better. When buying meat, we go for quality rather than quantity: a small amount of high-quality lean beef or a whole organic chicken, for example. A cow that’s eaten grass in a field is a simpler thing than a cow penned up in a cattle stall being fed supplements – even if the price difference doesn’t seem to suggest so. It’s a sad fact of our food industry that in many cases that the simpler the product, the more we pay for it. In most cases, eating high-quality food costs more. We don’t all have the luxury to make sure our food is responsibly-sourced or organic. But for the future health of our planet and our bodies, it’s important we all start finding the small ways in which we can improve the quality of our food.
It inevitably takes longer to prepare and cook wholefoods than it does to eat ready meals or pre-prepared sauces and vegetables. Don’t be afraid or discouraged by this – instead, turn the creation of a meal into an event, an experience.
Start cooking with someone else; sharing out the tasks, talking and commenting on the food as you go. Or put on your favourite music or podcast and watch how the repetitive action of chopping and peeling can actually improve your concentration and appreciation of what you’re hearing.
In these small ways, the time you spend preparing meals can become an opportunity to connect with the food you’re putting into your body, the people you’re sharing it with, and the planet you live on. On a personal level, the biggest change we’ve made to our diets in the last couple of years has been the total exclusion of dairy. While this might not be right for everyone, we recommend you try it for a few weeks and see how you feel.
Ben's allergies and asthma symptoms pretty much cleared up after excluding dairy, and we've both noticed increased energy, brighter-looking skin, and fewer colds. There are plenty of dairy substitutes out there, and they're getting better all the time.
Another huge change has been incorporating CBD into our routine. We take a few drops under the tongue every morning. After doing it for over a year, the benefits range from improved skin and nails to better sleep and less anxiety. There’s still a lot of research being done into the many dramatic claims being made about CBD’s potential health benefits. Wherever the jury stands though, our anecdotal evidence is undeniable.
Move your body
Ideas, creativity, motivation, and clarity all come more easily when your body feels energized, flexible, and cared for. We try to see our physical movement holistically, rather than as exercise to be done. It's an integral part of the whole endeavour to become more creative, focused, and inspired. A common modern professional lifestyle consists of sitting in front of a screen for most of the day, then going to a gym and smashing it for an hour. There's nothing wrong with this, but try asking yourself the question: What attitude am I bringing to my body when I'm doing physical exercise or movement? Just like the brain, your body responds to intention. If your intention is to punish your body for being sedentary all day, this will play out in your attitude towards yourself and the rest of the world.
We don’t want to suggest shying away from vigorous physical activity or cardio-based exercise. If aggression is what you need, go with that; if it’s fun and dynamism you’re craving, be spontaneous and playful; if you’re tired and strained and your body is asking for softness, listen to it and go slow.
The idea of listening to your body is linked to the term ‘interoception,’ which describes the ability to sense and interpret what you’re feeling within your body (rather than ‘proprioception,’ which describes the sense of where our bodies are spatially). If this sounds like a foreign or difficult idea, then somatic practices, which are covered in this section, and meditation, which is covered in the next, are both great ways of fine-tuning your sensitivity to your body and its impulses.
Somatic practices are becoming more and more popular. Yoga has always been the most talked about and widely practiced form, but now other schools of movement like Feldenkrais, Body-Mind Centering and 5Rhythms dance are quickly gaining more practitioners.
The benefit of somatic forms of movement and understanding interoception is that you begin to tune in to the body’s natural intelligence, which in turn helps you move with greater awareness, integration and agility in all areas of life.
If you’re just starting out, there’s a multitude of directions you can go. Try to stay open and curious in the first few weeks, and try not to get impatient when it inevitably proves hard, discomforting, and time-consuming. When Ben started to consciously improve his fitness, the swimming pool was a great place to begin building up muscles and lung capacity, before moving onto more physically demanding practices like running and jiu-jitsu. He’s also found yoga invaluable in balancing the punishment and aggressiveness of a combat sport.
Charley, on the other hand, started with a yoga-at-home DVD in her teens. This developed into a lifelong yoga practice, punctuated by periods of intense gym workouts, hot yoga studios, and punishing diets in a bid to lose calories and stay slim. Today, the workouts, hot studios, and punishments are gone but the yoga remains, supported by cycling and swimming to get the heart rate up.
We both love hiking, which is a great form of exercise, as it also brings you into the way of nature and beauty. Ultimately, you have to do something that makes your body feel good and that you enjoy. If you try running and into your third week you’re bored and feel angry every time you tie your laces, try skipping, dancing, boxing, QiGong, community football – the list is endless. The initial foray into bodywork can be intimidating. You have to remember that it's where everybody starts and that everyone there is happy to see a newcomer.
One of the coolest things about starting to get fit is that you're investing in the long game, i.e., your own longevity. The creative life of burning the candle at both ends can seem attractive, especially in our youth, but if you want to keep creating the best work you can for the longest possible time, you've got to get moving.
Meditation should be approached like physical exercise: in small and realistic increments.
Charley learned this the hard way. When she first wanted to get into meditation, she signed herself up to a ten-day silent retreat which involved 4am wake up calls; three-hour long stints of sitting cross-legged on the floor; regularly meditating for eight hours a day; all the while sharing a small bedroom with a complete stranger without looking at or speaking to them.
After the ten days were up, there’s no denying that she felt some huge benefits, but it's still one of the most emotionally and physically challenging things she’s ever done. Two months after the retreat, Charley's mediation practice had disappeared completely.
A retreat like this could be a great thing to aim for. Just beware of the enthusiasm that comes with learning a new thing: diving in at the deep end could work, but for a lot of people it’s a good way to put themselves off forever. In the modern world of phone timers and meditation apps, you can easily dip your toe into the world of mindfulness and meditation, and begin to build a practice that's both challenging and sustainable.
Make no mistake, meditating is hard. Regardless of the way you start, there’s going to be a lot of initial resistance and struggle. But this is what makes it such a great arena in which to learn routine, discipline, and the crazy workings of your own brain. After just a few short practices, you’ll gain huge insight into the many wonderful ways you can distract yourself from a single given purpose.
Charley now uses the Insight Timer app and has found a couple of teachers through it that she likes. For her, meditating is a hybrid of guided and self-led practices. Guided meditations are great to get started if you don't know any techniques. If you want to go solo, one of the simplest ways to do it is to set your phone timer or alarm clock for 5 minutes (or however long you want) and try to focus on your breath. Just follow the pattern of your inhales and exhales in a specific place in your body – nostrils, abdomen, and chest are good places to start. Increase your time incrementally, either every few weeks or just add a couple of seconds every day.
While learning about meditation, understanding the science behind it, as well as different forms of practice, really helped us to commit. Russell Brand speaks eloquently on the topic – go to his YouTube account for short videos to watch; Joe Rogan's podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, is a great source of information; Michael Singer, Deepak Chopra, and Ekhart Tolle are some of the most popular writers on meditation today. Maybe you’ll need the science and reasons first, or maybe you’ll need the experience itself – whatever comes first, look for some guidance and support, and then get going.
Look for beauty
Why does everybody love Bob Ross? Even if you've never heard of him, even if you have no
interest in painting, you'll love him within five seconds. This is because the man knew how to see beauty. He was able to change his own life and the lives of thousands, if not millions of others, all through depicting and expressing the beauty of the natural world.
Seeing beauty is a practice like anything else. A mountain top is beautiful, a duckling on a pond is beautiful, a piece of graffiti, a line of poetry, a mathematical formula, a line of code – all these can be described as beautiful. Some beauty you'll find and feel instinctively. But sometimes it can help to know what other people have found beautiful in the past and imitate their ideas. The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes, and Ways of Seeing by John Berger, are great books to start learning about art and the perception of beauty. Surprisingly, war photography is a great place to learn to see beauty in the most unexpected, desecrated places. This is useful for when life gets tough and ugly.
A good poetry collection will be an invaluable resource of beauty and inspiration through different stages of life – we can recommend the Staying Alive anthologies (see the book list). Putting something beautiful on your wall is an easy way to see beauty every day. The purposelessness of art means it gets directly to your unconscious, and the picture on your wall becomes a portal into bigger thinking and feeling, even if you don't look at it directly every day.
The word ‘beauty’ may sound vague and pretentious but, like gratitude, it can become a
practical attitude towards the world. The applauded American poet Mary Oliver has often been quoted stating that her life was literally saved by seeing the beauty of the world.
Deciding to see the beauty in the world means that you take an active and positive stance towards it. The more beauty you’re able to see, the more intimate you’ll become with life, and the more open you’ll become towards those around you.
Read good books
If you only do one of these things, do this one. We've saved it to last for a reason.
It's our belief that reading – widely and deeply – is the most important thing we can do to become better people.
Books aren't just a fun way of escaping reality, they're tools which give us insight into our own time and lives. They're food with which we grow our minds and souls. What do we mean by good books? We mean something that tells you about what really matters. Good doesn't necessarily mean the canon of English literature, churned out in high schools around the world. Nor does it have to mean the New York Times’ top ten or this year’s Booker or Costa prize. It's not necessarily fiction or non-fiction or poetry or blogs. Most importantly, a good book is one that speaks directly and helpfully to you – its reader.
It’s very hard, therefore, to prescribe the right books to read – for the same reason it’s hard to prescribe a diet that’s right for everyone. There are some books that have stood the test of time, and seem to do good things for a large number of people. At the end of this section we lay out a blueprint of sorts, with landmarks from our own reading journeys, if you want some pointers. Beyond that, you’re on your own – which is the most exciting place to be when it comes to reading. It seems that there’s a book out there for everybody – one that brings you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed into the weird and wonderful world of words.
If opening a book and reading for an hour is your idea of torture, get on Audible or another audiobook platform, put on your headphones and listen while you clean or walk or stare out the window.
Once you're hooked you'll find that the books you love lead you to other books. Your reading journey starts to have momentum and a life of its own. It's crazy how often a book seems to find you at exactly the right moment in time. It's one of the best feelings in the world.
Stories are fundamental tools for understanding the world that we live in, the people we meet, and the paths of our lives. Not only do stories describe the world in which we live, but also how we should live in it.
Books can provide us with maps of moral action even in unprecedented times and grow our imaginations, so we can be more compassionate towards others.
Here are some books to get you started:
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R Tolkien
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Silas Marner by George Eliot
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Home by Marilynne Robinson
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Batman Noir by Frank Miller
Neuromancer by William Gibson
The Twits by Roald Dahl
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
The Narrative of an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Dispatches by Michael Herr
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
If This Is a Man by Primo Levi
12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindberg
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
Staying Alive, Being Alive and Being Human anthologies, edited by Neil Astley
The Selected Works of William Wordsworth
Do what you want
We'll keep this short. After taking up so much of your time, we want to say thanks. Hopefully, some, all, or at least one of the practices we've talked about will be helpful. Like we said earlier, if you try something and it doesn't work, ditch it for something better.
Most of all, be kind to yourself. After all, we're all only human.