5 Books That Changed My Life In 2020

Megan Holstein


In 2020, I set a goal to read 75 books. But in March, thinking the shutdown would give me so much more time to read, I raised my goal to 80 books. Perhaps I should have left it at 75 because, in 2020, I read 72 books

Last year, I read 80 books. When I wrote about which 5 changed my life the most that year, the world wasn’t being crushed by a global pandemic, a Mr. Potato Head President, and what may become the next great depression.

But despite all that, what I wanted to read about didn’t change much. It was influenced much less by global disasters and more by basic human experiences: how to love, how to be loved, how to live well, and why we are here at all.

So, what follows is not a list of the world’s best books or the books with the most woke knowledge, but the 5 books that changed my life the most in 2020. Books not on what separates us, but on what brings us together.

Happier Now: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Embrace Everyday Moments by Nataly Kogan

“Having a sense of the greater purpose of our efforts, what I call the bigger why, sustains and inspires us when things are good and can be a powerful source of motivation to keep going, even if we encounter obstacles.”
— Nataly Kogan, Happier Now: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Embrace Everyday Moments

I read some books that I don’t think much of when I read them, but I find myself thinking of them again and again over the next few weeks, months, or years. Happier Now: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Embrace Everyday Moments⁰ by Nataly Kogan is one of these books.

On its face, Happier Now is a trendy book about positive psychology and making the most of your life. Kogan organized the chapters into neat sections, each discussing a different aspect of happiness, rounding out her work with stories from clients and sections where the reader can explore happiness questions independently. After reading it, I thought it was a worthwhile read. But I hardly thought it would make this year’s list.

But then I decided to start a gratitude and happiness journal. And after a few days of unstructured journaling, I thought, “You know what? I could do those exercises from Happier Now.” I used Kogan’s suggestions for the reader to create a template for my gratitude journal, and within a few days, I felt my mood steadily being lifted.

“That was cool,” I thought to myself. “I wonder what these other exercises are about.” I made journal templates from all the sections of her book, using Kogan’s prose and her guidance for readers as my inspiration.

These journals have become my go-to anytime I feel a sour, unproductive thought process taking root in my mind. They have been one of the sole sources of my mental health through this terrible pandemic. And they came directly from Happier Now.

That’s not all. After reading Happier Now, I found the research within was useful for all kinds of articles. Studies Kogan cites in the book have become the basis of more than a few of my articles, some of which have really resonated with readers.

Even in my personal life, when I’m talking about happiness with others, I find lessons from Happier Now rising to the top of my mind. Lessons from Happier Now continue to instruct me, even though I read Happier Now in the middle of the shutdown eight months ago. I expect it will continue to instruct me for years to come.

Books don’t have to blow you away the second you read them. Sometimes the lessons bury themselves in your head like seeds. They take root, unseen until the blossoms burst forth. Happier Now is definitely one of those books.

If you’re someone who struggles with a perpetual negative disposition, if you’ve always felt like you’ve been depressed compared to “normal people,” or even if you want to know how to live the happiest life you can, Happier Now is worth the read.

Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb

“Next time you’re about to rule out some guy because he’s not your ideal, try to focus on the good things about him, because some guy is going to have to focus on the good things about you, even though he may have wanted someone more easygoing or taller. Every time you start to dissect some guy, note that he’s willfully ignoring all of this in order to go out with you.”
― Lori Gottlieb, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough

This year, by complete accident, I happened to meet a man I found I loved enough to move in with. Our budding relationship made me remember I’m “of marrying age,” and in my subsequent anxiety attack, I picked up and read every book about dating and marriage I could find. And of all of them, this was the best.

Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough⁰ came out over ten years ago, but the lessons Gottlieb has are still as relevant as ever. Marry Him is aimed at heterosexual women, but the lessons she teaches are equally applicable no matter your sexuality or gender identity.

The theme of Marry Him is this: As much as we’d like to believe in the fairytale that our soulmate will find us, the reality is that lots of people end up alone when they didn’t want to. The reason they ended up alone is that they prioritized the wrong things while dating.

Gottlieb furnishes the reader with examples of woman after woman who spent her twenties and thirties choosing partners based on their appearance, sense of fashion, and income level, only to find themselves alone at 45 without any prospects for a husband in sight. That’s because they spent their dating years prioritizing characteristics that don’t lead to long term happiness (appearance, income level) over those that do (emotional maturity, personal responsibility).

That’s not to say we can’t want a partner who turns us on. Sexual chemistry is an important part of a relationship. But sexual chemistry is not the same thing as thinking someone looks like a hottie across the room. Sexual chemistry often grows in the most unexpected places, and sometimes, the hottie across the room is a total loser in bed. Gottlieb teaches the reader to give people who “aren’t their type” a chance, as those who do so often find the other person is their type after all.

Using this same argumentation, Gottlieb takes the reader through the psychological impact of income level, profession, hobbies, and every other superficial metric. Using reputable studies, she demonstrates for the reader how these characteristics are not predictive of relationship happiness.

What does she recommend her reader do? Learn how to select for what does matter. When you are on a dating app, don’t swipe right for the hottie; swipe right for the person who seems to have intellectual depth. When you’re on a date, don’t look for signs of a high income; look for signs they’re able to handle conflict. And when you do find someone who meshes with you in these ways, you’ll find their muffin top or odd collection of matchbox cars easy to overlook.

If you’re unmarried or chronically unhappy in your relationships and would like to find love that lasts (or even love that is somewhat stable and healthy), give Marry Him a read.

The Emotionally Abusive Relationship: How to Stop Being Abused and How to Stop Abusing by Beverly Engel

“Begin to nurture yourself…Some grew up expecting their romantic partners to give them the nurturing they hungered for, only to be disappointed. But our partners are not our parents, no matter how much we try to make them into parents. No one can make up for the deprivation you experienced, and no one should be expected to.”
― Beverly Engel, The Emotionally Abusive Relationship: How to Stop Being Abused and How to Stop Abusing

As difficult as it is to find someone to date, it’s even more difficult to keep a healthy and functional relationship. If we consider that half of all US citizens get divorced², that means that half of US marriages are so dysfunctional they must end. Combine that with a trend of falling happiness levels in marriage, and our chances for a happy long-term marriage start to sink.

And that’s for healthy, wealthy people. People with PTSD face a divorce rate of 70%. Disabled people are more likely to suffer divorce. Poor people are less likely to get married but have been divorced more often. For minorities and disadvantaged people, things look bleak.

I have always wanted to have a happy and long marriage. It’s one of the first things I can ever remember wanting. So a big theme of my 2020 reading list was reading about how to have a healthy relationship. There are a lot of good books in this category, like The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work⁰ and Marriage Rules⁰, but The Emotionally Abusive Relationship⁰ was easily my favorite.

What makes The Emotionally Abusive Relationship different is two powerful things:

  1. It teaches us how to identify emotional and verbal abuse from our partners and ourselves.
  2. It teaches us how to repair our relationships, whether we’re the abuser or the abused.

So many books about marriage health assume both partners are essentially lovely healthy people who have a few kinks. I’ve found that by the time people pick up a relationship book, they’re already off the deep end, so much of that advice is too meek. But when they do pick these books up, they’re often written only for victims of pretty serious abuse, and they all say the same thing: “Leave your abuser, or you will suffer.”

My big problem with that second kind of book is there’s never any middle ground. It’s just “Break up. Move on.” But you know what? Many people have been emotionally abusive to a partner at one point or another in their life. Hell, most teenage girls are emotionally abusive to their high school boyfriends. (“You didn’t text me back for an hour, and that means you don’t love me!”) Obviously, physical abuse or blatant disregard for your humanity should be a sign to leave. Still, there are many steps between healthy communication and communication so toxic the only thing to do is leave.

The Emotionally Abusive Relationship acknowledges this reality. Engel explains the dynamics of emotionally abusive communication and helps the reader determine whether a relationship is salvageable with a pretty basic set of principles. She also describes the path relationships take on the road to recovery from emotional toxicity, letting the reader know what they’re in for.

Engel also gets into two areas of territory most relationship writers dare not go:

  1. Exploring with the victimized partner how their own attitudes contributed to this pattern.
  2. Teaching the perpetrator how to stop.

Most relationship writers dare not venture into this territory for what I imagine to be image issues. The optics of telling a victim their own behavior contributed to a relationship dynamic are terrible. But terrible optics or not, the reality is that many toxic relationships thrive not only because one partner is caustic but also because the other partner tolerates it. If a victim does not acknowledge their own behavior in the cycle, they will end up with one emotional abuser after another.

Another thing with terrible optics is trying to teach abusers how to stop. No one wants to be caught helping an abuser. But for every toxic person out there who is unconcerned and unrepentant, there is one out there who really would like to be better but who can’t get access to the psychological care that would allow them to untangle whatever’s tangled up in their mind. Engel finally writes for the people in this position, giving them a guide to recovering from toxic behavior and what to expect from their partner while they sort out their own issues.

All of these things taken together produce a book that is unlike any other I’ve read about toxic or abusive relationships. If you know your relationship is a mess and can’t figure out why, if you’re single and your last relationship was a hot mess, or if you want to know more about why people get stuck in destructive patterns, The Emotionally Abusive Relationship by Beverly Engel is the book for you.

Buddha by Karen Armstrong

“Some people simply bury their heads in the sand and refuse to think about the sorrow of the world, but this is an unwise course, because, if we are entirely unprepared, the tragedy of life can be devastating.”
― Karen Armstrong, Buddha

I’m not much of a history buff, so I’m astonished a history book made it onto my top 5 list for two years in a row, but Buddha by Karen Armstrong⁰ is worth the entry.

Karen Armstrong is a historian known for her books on comparative religion, and Buddha is about Buddha’s story, both its mystical components and historical origin.

While the history of Siddhartha Gautama is certainly fascinating, what makes this book so valuable is everything that comes with it. Armstrong does an excellent job setting the stage for Gautama’s life, describing for the reader the kind of yogic beliefs and practices common for people at the time. So not only does the reader learn about the central figure of Buddhism, but the reader also learns about the religious history of both Hinduism and Buddhism.

This history is no mere trivia. With mindfulness practices becoming increasingly common with western medical practitioners, having a foundational knowledge of how meditation came to be and what it was originally used for is immensely helpful in understanding how meditation can be beneficial for people today. It has helped me make informed decisions about which meditative practices to adopt and how to do so and has made me far more culturally sensitive to actual eastern religious groups than your average white girl wearing mala beads.³

If you’re hearing a lot about that Buddhism and mindfulness stuff these days and want to know what the three-thousand-year-history behind the hype, Buddha is the perfect book for you.

Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing by Jed McKenna

“Listen! Here’s all you need to know to become enlightened: Sit down, shut up, and ask yourself what’s true until you know. That’s it. That’s the whole deal; a complete teaching of enlightenment, a complete practice. If you ever have any questions or problems — no matter what the question or problem is — the answer is always exactly the same: Sit down, shut up, and ask yourself what’s true until you know. In other words, go jump off a cliff. Don’t go near the cliff and contemplate jumping off. Don’t read a book about jumping off. Don’t study the art and science of jumping off. Don’t join a support group for jumping off. Don’t write poems about jumping off. Don’t kiss the ass of someone else who jumped off. Just jump.”
― Jed McKenna, Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing

I have no doubt this will be the most controversial entry on the list. It’s also my favorite.

Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damndest Thing⁰ is a weird self-published Kindle book with a bad cover written by a man who clearly has no love lost for marketing. If I recall correctly, the only reason I downloaded a sample was that Amazon’s algorithm kept suggesting it to me, and it was heavily discounted. But it is hands down, the best book on enlightenment I’ve ever read.

“Enlightenment” has a reputation for being something akin to “religious ecstasy” or “constant bliss,” a state in which all suffering is eradicated, and the enlightened one experiences nothing but eternal joy, bliss, and contentment. Enlightened people are said to have such hobbies as “sitting on the porch meditating all day,” “staring blissfully into middle distance,” and “speaking only in riddles.”

Jed McKenna, a man who claims to be enlightened, lays waste to all these assumptions.

I don’t know if he actually is enlightened. I’m not even sure “enlightenment” truly exists. But McKenna sure does do a hell of a lot of clarifying on the subject.

McKenna breaks down the origins of what it actually means to be enlightened: possessing the simple abiding awareness that there is no such thing as a soul and that there really is no spiritual difference between “yourself” and “everything else.” All things are spiritually one thing, that which is. People who are fundamentally aware of that on a basic level as they are aware of other realities, like gravity and death, are enlightened.

And as McKenna points out, there is no reason that awareness would cause someone to suddenly wear robes all the time or occupy themselves by staring into middle distance. He himself is aware of this, yet he has normal hobbies like “playing video games” and “reading books” and “cooking and eating delicious food.” For an enlightened man, McKenna does not spend a lot of time engaged in religious discussion. He’s actually just a pretty normal dude.

In fact, McKenna suspects that people who claim to be enlightened who are engaged in such religious performances are actually not nearly as enlightened as they think they are. After all, one only feels a furious drive to seek spiritual truth when one does not have it.

This book was an excellent read for me because it really clarified what it theologically means to be “enlightened.” What was once a murky and confusing religious claim by eastern religions is now a clearly defined truth claim. Now that I understand the truth claim “enlightenment” is theologically making, I can get down to the business of deciding whether I think that claim coheres with reality or not.

For the five books that made it onto this list, there were probably another five or ten that barely made it on the list but didn’t quite make it. The fact of the matter is, there are so many excellent books to read out there that it’s hard to pick a mere five. But these five are the ones that changed my life most in 2020.

Are these books going to change your life the way they changed mine? I don’t think so. Books have to not only be excellent books, they have to be the right books at the right time for the right people. But maybe, this year, they’re the right books for you.


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1: This number will likely change both because 2020 is not over and because while doing filing in January, I often find books I completed in the previous year and forgot to record.

2: This is a shaky statistic for several reasons, but it’s the best statistic we have.

3: That’s not to say I don’t wear mala beads. Of course I do.

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Self-help writer with 3M+ views on Medium and Quora. Covering personal growth, relationship skills, and career growth.

Columbus, OH

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