Feel Good Books: The World Needs More of Them
Feel good books: Better than therapy.
My passion for writing fiction and my day job as a Love and Purpose Coach may appear disconnected, but they’re not. My main intention as an author is to uplift spirits and leave the reader with an aftertaste of joy and hope. Therefore, I’ve often called my novels feel-good books. But are they?
What exactly is a feel-good book? The phrase “feel good books” elicits images as diverse as Hallmark Movie Romances, pep-talk self-help and unicorns and rainbows. Most online dictionaries define “feel-good” as something that evokes a feeling of well-being or satisfaction, but in a superficial and specious way.
Well, in this post I propose that they’re more than that. That “make-believe stories” can truly alter our brain, or day-to-day decisions—and therefore our destiny.
How I started writing feel-good books: A little history.
About twelve years ago, I went through a difficult time of my life. Coinciding with the end of a painful marriage, I dealt with financial uncertainty and scary health issues in my baby daughter that frequently sent her to the hospital.
Determined to use the experience for my growth, I was doing intense inner work and attending therapy, but it was difficult not to despair. It would have been the perfect storm to push me into using drugs or drinking. Instead, I was lucky to re-discover an old hobby that didn’t require too much energy: reading romance novels.
Romance stories made me company in gray, cold hospital rooms, while my daughter slept, or at my lunch break after challenging mornings seeing cancer patients. Escaping my reality for a short while rebooted my mood and cleared my head to function better.
Furthermore, the borrowed sense of wellbeing and optimism those stories generated, sustained me through dismal days. It felt as if the positive emotions evoked by those stories (even if fictional) were neutralizing the brain chemicals of angst.
Tnen, one afternoon, while shopping for clothes in a store, two vivid characters jumped into my brain out of the blue. She was a widow doctor and he, an FBI agent. When it became clear they refused to leave me alone, I had to start writing their story— the entire plot of a murder mystery and romance poured in within weeks. That is how Dr. Joy Clayton and Special Agent Richard Fields were born; and that is how I transitioned from a reader to a writer.
If reading had been soothing, writing became transformational—and addictive. It helped more than any therapy I ever had and made me feel better than any self-help book I’d ever read.
And one hour at a time, one tiny decision after another, I found myself on the other side of my dark moment. My divorce became final, and my daughter’s health improved (perhaps reflecting also my newly found peace). And soon after I met the love of my life.
Feel good books are a powerful medicine: use cautiously.
This story illustrates two critical points I often tell my clients:
Point #1: Your mind doesn’t discriminate between imaginary scenarios and real ones.
Everything you allow into your mind will have an effect on your brain chemistry. Subsequently, it will create a chain reaction of feelings, synapsis (brain connections) and neuroendocrine responses (the way the brain affects the hormones in our bloodstream, influencing the entire body).
Do you understand the significance of this? The thoughts, images and ideas you choose to dwell on, can influence the state of your mood and your health just as much as the real ones. It calls for us being extremely careful of what we give our attention to. I vote for much less time spent watching gruesome news, and more time reading feel good books.
Point #2: Your brain is very powerful if you use it right.
Like I mention in my bestseller non-fiction book Bouncing Back: A How-to Manual for Joy, we can operate from different areas of the brain at any given time. When we face stressful “fight or flight” situations, we’ll make knee-jerk decisions from our survival brain—the oldest, less sophisticated planner we have. When we’re relaxed, joyful and centered, we’ll engage the prefrontal cortex and can handle complex decisions much better. And it’s one decision at a time that we carry ourselves from our dark moments to the light.
When we face challenging situations, anything we can do to uplift ourselves makes a difference. And yes, like any mood-enhancer, feel good books carry a potential for addiction. An innocent nightly glass of wine can turn into a heavy drinking habit if abused—or can numb us just enough to prevent us from taking action to change our situation. Even prescribed medications can be harmful in excess.
What I propose is using feel-good activities (books included) as part of our daily routine, like a garnish in a dish rather than the meal itself. They’re not intended to replace action, but to help maximize it by putting us in the right mindset.
My definition of feel good books.
Every person may have a different concept of what feel-good books are. To illustrate mine, allow me to share a little more about the beginnings of my journey as an author:
I envisioned my first novel, which years later became Beyond Physical, as a romantic version of the Celestine Prophecy. It tried to pack quite a bit inside. A medical crime story interweaved with metaphysical concepts for a splash of the paranormal. True medical facts. A slow boiling romance… Yet, by the end of the experience I’d learned something about myself: What really lit me up was writing about the emotions of the characters—and especially, that subtle journey from attraction to love.
Love is the ultimate anti-depressant. If I had to name a mandatory rule for feel good books it would be this: Feel-good books must include a Love story. More often than not, this will be a romantic love story.
The standard feel-good book: Happily Ever After Romance
After my life turned around, I put aside writing for years. When I retook it again in the face of career dilemmas, I soon confirmed my commitment to writing love stories. As much as I admired James Patterson (or James Redfield) I wanted less gut-wrenching action and more heart-softening emotion—I faced enough adrenaline and fear in my day job as a doctor.
I craved a story with a happy ending that included love. A story designed to make the reader feel good. In the publishing word, that was called Romance.
That led me to experiment with a lighter novel with a little more spice and humor: the second book I wrote, and the first one I self-published, Hope for Harmony.
I intended Hope for Harmony as a romantic comedy, yet, interestingly enough, my readers seemed to disagree. The book received more praise for its poignant scenes and tear-jerking moments than for its jokes. Also, it touched a couple of nerves for addressing the eternal debate “Do child-free people have an easier life than people with children?”
But by the end of it, I already had three other imaginary couples lined up in my mind, begging me to write their love stories. Those couples also dealt with challenges that, at first sight, didn’t promise to fit in feel good books: Children with special needs (Faith is Fearless), childhood wounds (Grasping for Grace) and surviving cancer (Longing for Love).
Uh…Should I be worried that my inspiration seems to come from the gloomiest places?
Can a feel-good book make you cry sometimes?
One time, a fellow author who wrote Clean and Sweet Romance (the quintessential feel-good genre) explained something to me. He said that sweet Romances were, by definition, “uncomplicated romances.” (Is that an oxymoron?)
“Sweet Romance has to tay away from anything ugly,” he commented in a post. “No tragedy, no nasty fights or harsh disagreements. And clearly, no ugly topics of real life, such as violence or cancer.”
Okay, I admit it: My background in oncology left me with a weakness for portraying cancer survivors and their loved ones in my novels. But trust me, that’s a good thing. They’re among the strongest, coolest people you’ll ever meet.
But my novels are much more than sad characters’ wounds and background stories. They’re about the bittersweet process of acceptance, forgiveness and trust that leads to healing. And even more, they’re about the renewed strength and the rebirth that comes after that.
And that’s a good thing!
I dare propose that maybe we want that. Books that move you to the point of bittersweet tears become cathartic. They allow you to process feelings, and reset the hard drive. Then, after having lowered us gently, they hoist us up, and make us experience joy with a new intensity.
And that leads me to the next conclusion: Feel good books should make you laugh out loud at times—yet also jolt you with tear-jerker moments.
That is my intention in every book I write. The stories feel good, not because everything ever goes well, but because it doesn’t. They remind you not to give up and cement the idea that, even when everything seems lost, there is hope. In the end all the feelings— laughter, tears, anger, longing—come together like a symphony of harmonic notes you can’t explain, but just experience.
Are Feel Good Books about preaching moral concepts?
Another category of books that often overlaps with feel good books is Inspirational romance, which is closely connected to Christian romance. Unfortunately, the association of “Inspirational” with religion turns off many readers who need inspiration the most.
But is it possible to inspire and motivate without preaching? Of course it is. That’s what literature has been doing for centuries, by allowing us to ride the main characters’ inner arcs.
My real passion is writing about the character’s transformation. I love writing slow boiling romance where two very different people (often symbolizing human archetypes or different facets of myself) gravitate to each other against their will. Like in real life, their interactions will bring to the surface past wounds that need to be healed. As the characters fight against obstacles and themselves, they emerge on the other side ready to surrender to love, but also transformed into better people in the process.
And that leads me to another conclusion : A feel-good book brings the reader joy by reminding us that change and transformation are possible.
In Conclusion: Feel Good Books are more than just Escapism.
Well-written fiction is more than just escapism: it’s catharsis (it helps us process our own feelings). It’s antidepressant therapy and a tune-up for the brain that helps us think more clearly. And also, by allowing us to borrow the identity of the main characters, fiction provides us with new experiences, and a break from our own ego and circumstances.
God knows the world needs more joy! And how wonderful that we have access to feel good books: mood-enhancers that are much less likely to harm our health or give us a hangover!
Now it’s your turn. Let’s celebrate feel good books. Let’s celebrate romance.
In subsequent posts, I intend to honor other fiction authors who write truly uplifting, feel-good books. Do you have an author that fits these criteria? Someone whose novels make you cry one moment and laugh the next, and leave you feeling uplifted and optimistic by the last page? Nominate him or her! Even more, share a story of a moment when reading uplifted you and changed your outlook.
In the next post I’ll tackle a dilemma that has haunted me for years: Can too much sex spoil the feel good effect of a book? Or does it enhance it?