If you are mulling over possible New Year’s resolutions, you may be fortified by these words of encouragement from 19th-century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”

Further inspiration for bold experiments in living can be found in Roman Krznaric’s new book The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live. In it, he considers what we can learn from history about love, work, creativity, death, and other big questions and tells the stories of many determinedly non-conformist individuals, including Emerson, Goethe, Tolstoy, and Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as ordinary people living in societies very different from our own.

‘Wonderbox’ is a modern synonym for ‘cabinet of curiosities’ and refers to the eclectic collections of precious things from the past that formed the basis of many modern museums, including Oxford’s Ashmolean, which was set up to house the Tradescant Collection. Roman says that stories from history can also be considered objects of wonder.

He says most personal development and self-help books are based on ideas from philosophy, psychology or religion, while none drew on the lessons of history — “how people have actually lived, rather than utopian dreamings of what might be possible”.

Although he has a degree in politics, philosophy and economics, Roman describes himself as “a real empiricist” who is drawn far more to history and biography than to philosophy, at least in its more abstract forms.

His practical outlook and openness to new experiences is reflected in his own life, which has included nomadic wanderings on several continents before he made his home in Oxford. He has been a university lecturer, gardener, and human rights monitor. His writing has ranged from a doctorate on the relationship between rich and poor people in Guatemala to The First Beautiful Game: Stories of Obsession in Real Tennis, based on his passionate enthusiasm for the sport, which he plays at the court in Merton Street.

For some years he was project director of The Oxford Muse, an organisation founded “to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life”. Its activities include bringing together strangers from different backgrounds for ‘conversation meals’ where a menu of suggested topics for discussion encourages the open exchange of ideas beyond mere small talk.

In 2008 he helped writer and broadcaster Alain de Botton to found The School of Life in Bloomsbury and he remains a faculty member. The school offers courses, secular sermons, ‘bibliotherapy’ — therapy through reading fiction — and themed conversation meals such as ‘Curry with Gandhi’. In January, Roman will launch The Wonderbox with a series of talks at the school, the first entitled The Six Varieties of Love.

He considers empathy — the ability to truly put oneself in the shoes of another — to be a vital but neglected human capacity. “I absolutely believe that empathy can be taught,” he says, citing the success of a programme for Canadian schoolchildren called ‘Roots of Empathy’. He would like to see something similar in British schools. He writes a blog about empathy called ‘Outrospection' and plans a book on the subject, and even a museum.

Another book, How to Find Fulfilling Work, will be published in May as part of a new series of self-help books. In it he develops ideas from The Wonderbox, including whether we should aspire to be wide achievers rather than high achievers.

Three years ago he became the father of twins, an experience that has had a profound effect on him: “It is as if my emotional range has increased from a meagre octave to a full keyboard of human feelings.” Working partly from home, and taking a greater part in childcare than many fathers, inspired him to investigate the forgotten history of the househusband, concluding that before the Industrial Revolution most fathers were far more involved in bringing up children than they are today.

In this way, as in many others, he believes, history has much to teach us about how to live full and satisfying lives. “Today there’s a hunger for ideas about living. Let’s steal the great ideas of the past and run with them.”

* The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live is published by Profile Books at £14.99. Roman Krznaric will be at the Woodstock Bookshop on January 23.