This year, our collective mental health has taken an unprecedented battering. How do we start to recover from this onslaught of uncertainty, struggle, loneliness, and conflict? That's obviously a huge question to answer, but a good place to start with this problem, as with most others, is with a little reading

If you're searching for reasons to be hopeful about our collective future, as well as practical ideas on how to personally bounce back next year, UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center has some book recommendations for you. 

The research institute focused on positive psychology is out with its annual list of feel-good titles to improve not just your individual life but to help us all start thinking through how we can heal our society, too. I've sifted out those intended for specific groups like the elderly or activists, and dug up short descriptions of the intriguing general-interest titles that remain. Happy reading for a happier 2021. 

1. Friendship by Lydia Denworth 

This year, it's been my friends who have kept me sane. Apparently, I'm not a weirdo. According to this new book by Denworth, a journalist, a boatload of science shows friendship offers a host of surprising mental and physical benefits. "The science of friendship gives you permission to hang out with your friends and call it healthy," Denworth says. "You're not being indulgent."

2. Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

To get a taste of what you'll find in this book by Bregman, a historian, check out this heartwarming article he wrote entitled "The Real Lord of the Flies." I challenge you not to feel a little more hopeful afterward. Now imagine what a whole book on the science of the positive side of human nature could do for you? 

3. Perception by Dennis Proffitt and Drake Baer

According to a branch of psychology called "embodied cognition," we don't just think with our brains; we think with our bodies, too. Our physical shape, capabilities, and current state of being profoundly shape how we perceive the world. This new book explains the science. "If we are going to have a better understanding of ourselves and our fellow human beings, we need to appreciate the startling individuality of everyone's experience," write the authors. 

4. The Kindness of Strangers by Michael McCullough

How did kindness and morality in humans evolve out of self-interested apes who just wanted to eat and reproduce? That's the topic of this psychologist's fascinating and uplifting book, which traces the development of human altruism. 

5 The Upswing by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett

The subtitle of this one -- "How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again" -- makes me want to run out to the bookstore (or OK, Amazon) and buy it right now. The book by a political scientist and an entrepreneur draws a parallel between the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and our own troubled times, using the comparison to draw hopeful conclusions about how we might pull ourselves out of our current mess. 

6. Time Smart by Ashley Whillans

Forget what your granddad told you. Time is, in fact, not money, according to Whillans, a researcher. "By explaining the research on money, time, and well-being, she makes a strong case that we'd be happier, more socially connected, and more satisfied with our work if we valued our time more, valued wealth less, and kept our need for free time in mind when making everyday decisions about our lives," Greater Good says of this book

7. Together by Vivek Murthy

This book from the former (and possibly also future) surgeon general argues that even before the pandemic America was in the midst of a loneliness epidemic, and offers advice on how we can overcome this surprisingly destructive scourge to our mental and physical health. 

8. Transcend by Scott Barry Kaufman

If you've ever seen Maslow's famous "hierarchy of needs," you will have noticed "self-actualization" sitting atop it. This book by Kaufman, a psychologist, digs into recent research on the concept, bringing the idea of self-actualization up to date and explaining what we need to do to actually experience it. "There is an art of being. But now there is also a science of being," according to Kaufman.