The Manual: How to read yourself happier

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This week in the manual, resident bibliotherapist at The School of Life Robert Rowland Smith reveals the best books to read to make life that little bit better.

How to realise your ambitions
We tend to think of ambition as being about setting a goal and then driving relentlessly and ruthlessly towards it. But if you're someone who likes to be liked, it will get in the way of your ambitions. At least, this is what Machiavelli argues in his famous handbook for the powerful, called The Prince. "It's better to be feared than to be loved", says Machiavelli, reasoning that fear is more likely to shore up your position. Or if you really want to go for it and become a modern day superman, try reading the ultimate text on the subject - Nietzsche's The Will to Power.

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How to be healthy
If you think real men don't do yoga, think again. Look at the amazing pictures of B K S Iyengar in his classic work, Light on Yoga, and you'll see a man whose body, well into middle age and beyond, easily outdoes those of any of his younger, Western rivals. The book shows you how to do the poses, so there's no need to go to a class, and the benefits are huge - better sleep, better sex, better flexibility and a general sense of wellbeing. For a surreal alternative, try Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, where the hero's body changes overnight into that of a huge beetle.

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How to be a better lover
Ours is a culture obsessed with love. But usually the love is less about loving than being loved. That puts us in a passive state where we have to wait for the perfect person to come along and idolise us. But Erich Fromm, the mid-twentieth century philosopher, turns that assumption upside down. For him, we can make loving active, hence the title of his seminal work, The Art of Loving. Also have a look at Bert Hellinger's Love's Hidden Symmetry, full of wisdom about how to make the love flow.

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How to get more out of work
All too often, we moan about work, but for Hannah Arendt, philosopher of the mid twentieth century, it's work that makes us human. She distinguishes work from labour - labour being the basic activity of keeping yourself alive, like an animal does by foraging or hunting for food. Work allows us to connect with higher things - making a difference in the world, connecting to a higher purpose. It's all set out in Arendt's classic, The Human Condition. You can also check out John Lanchester's novel, Mr. Philips, about an accountant who uses his redundancy package to re-evaluate the meaning of life and work.

By Robert Rowland Smith, resident bibliotherapist at The School of Life in Bloomsbury, London

Illustration by James Graham