On Self-help

Tips from grannies, other great thinkers

By Caroline Leavitt
December 27, 2009

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Self-help always becomes even more fascinating when it’s backed by a little scholarship. In “How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most,’’ Marietta McCarty, assistant professor of philosophy at Piedmont Virginia Community College and best-selling author of “Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy With Kids,’’ reveals how studying the greatest thinkers of our time can change your life for the better.

McCarty divides her book into 10 chapters, each dealing with one of the big ideas she feels are necessary for a good life: simplicity, communication, perspective, flexibility, empathy, individuality, belonging, serenity, possibility, and joy. Full of personal anecdotes, each chapter explores the topic at hand with the help of two or more philosophers.

For instance, when it comes to perspective, you can broaden yours by taking a tip from Mary Wollstonecraft, who saw past the mores of her society and refused to limit herself to conventional women’s roles. Instead of being wary of change, you can learn to be flexible, embracing the new and living in the now as Alan Watts advised.

McCarty is spirited and funny, and she gives you help in implementing all you’re learning by providing thoughtful discussion questions, and even a little homework under amusing topic headlines like Listen and Hum, Recite and Write, Read and Talk, Watch and Reflect, and Get Up and Do. Want to find serenity in your life? Get out and garden. Need a new appreciation of joy? Go to a place “that makes your heart sing’’ or listen to Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons’’ to reflect on how each season is musically exhilarating.

McCarty’s devotion to philosophy is obvious, and her tone is so conversational that it’s nearly impossible not to get enthusiastic too. “Entertaining new ideas can transform lifestyles,’’ she says, and this book - push-ups for your mind - most definitely makes you see and understand your world and yourself differently.

While philosophy really has no rules, humans often impose their own structures, particularly when it comes to health. “Live A Little!: Breaking the Rules Won’t Break Your Health’’ by surgeon Susan M. Love and psychologist Alice D. Domar aims to “take the hell out of being healthy’’ by examining the scientific evidence and loosening up some of the rules and restrictions. Part of the BeWell organization, a community of medical experts dedicated to improving women’s health, the authors insist that perfect health is a myth and being pretty healthy is good enough.

The writing is warm and helpful, and the book is full of quizzes, sidebars, and study results about sleep, stress, health screenings, exercise, and personal relationships. Worried about exercising? Studies show that while it does help stress, it works the other way if you feel forced or unhappy about doing it, and it can actually make you hungrier, which means you need to reinforce your self-control. A good alternative, say the authors, is exercising at high intensity for short periods of time. Another fascinating study shows that denial can sometimes be good for you. Cancer patients who used it as a coping device were found to be less anxious than those who did not.

Still, some of the suggestions are somewhat controversial, particularly in regard to health screenings. The authors suggest forgoing yearly mammogram tests until age 50, when breast tissue is less dense, the risks from radiation are lessened, and there is less chance of a false positive that can lead to unnecessary biopsies.

And what is more personal than advice from grandma? “How to Sew a Button and Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew’’ by senior Self staff writer Erin Bried is the perfect book for these hard economic times when money is tight, but ingenuity is plentiful - and often necessary. A collection of wise practicalities from 10 amazing grannies from all over the country (along with some modern experts), the book is packed with more than 100 step-by-step instructions for cooking, cleaning, gardening, and entertaining.

As comforting as a hand-sewn quilt, and filled with beguilingly retro illustrations, the tips are a snap (stand up straight and you’ll feel more beautiful), empowering (clean your home with baking soda and vinegar and say sayonara to toxic chemicals), and fun (learn to waltz in perfect three-part harmony). Who knew you could get rid of mice with a little peppermint oil or “find a slice of heaven’’ with fool-proof instructions for making the perfect pie? Bried also includes quotes from the sage seniors at the beginning of every chapter, which open a window on a simpler past, as the women reminisce about a time when fruit and veggies were sold from carts; soap, water and vinegar were all the cleaning products any household ever needed; and the way to welcome new neighbors was to go to their door with a fresh pot of coffee and some homemade cake.

Bolstered with nostalgic charm, every page is filled with age-old wisdom for brand new do-it-yourself empowerment, proving that sometimes the best advice can come from the heart as well as from the science lab or philosophy office.

Caroline Leavitt’s ninth novel will be published by Algonquin books next year. She can be reached at

HOW PHILOSOPHY CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE: 10 Ideas That Matter Most By Marietta McCarty
Tarcher, 352 pp., $14.95

Breaking the Rules Won’t Break Your Health
By Susan M. Love and Alice. D. Domar
Crown, 256 pp., $25

And Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew

By Erin Bried
Ballantine, 304 pp., $15

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