Book: “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin

happiness
“The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin (2011, Harper)

“The Happiness Project” is Gretchen Rubin’s report of her year-long exercise to increase her happiness through self-discovery and trying various activities.

Rubin describes how she started with small “happiness resolutions”, with different (and more difficult) ones each month.  For December, she decided to try to keep to all her resolutions from the whole year.

Rubin challenged herself to find out what her ‘rules’ were and how following them (or not) changed her happiness.

A part that stuck out to me was “you can’t choose what you like to do, you can only choose what you do“.  What Rubin means is that forcing ourselves to do things we strongly dislike because we think we ‘should’ doesn’t increase happiness.  For example, Rubin wants to be the kind of person who listens to cool jazz music rather than pop, perhaps because she feels that as an adult and professional that she ‘should’.  But she doesn’t.  So why did she force herself to listen to music she dislikes rather than accepting she likes what she does?  Discovering this and accepting it provided a great example of how she could take control of her happiness.

Of course, some tasks are unavoidable.  Rubin tries to reframe them and view them in ways that don’t drag down her mood.  She finds ways to see pleasure in even mundane things, until the habit becomes second nature.

Rubin is flexible with her time and wealthy in a city with lots of opportunities, so her experience may seem unachievable.  This book is less a “how to” guide than a “this is what I did” description.  However, it might give some ideas of how to carry out your own “Happiness Project”, in ways that suit your lifestyle.

What rules do you live by?  What do you do because you think you ‘should’ rather than because they make you happy?  Are these things you can stop, or reframe?  What made you happy to do as a child (acting, painting, singing?), and what caused you to stop?  Could you start again?

You can read a sample chapter of The Happiness Project here.

You can read Gretchen Rubin’s blog here.

Book: “Reasons To Stay Alive” by Matt Haig

Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig, depression“Reasons To Stay Alive” by Matt Haig (2015, Canongate) is a non-fiction book about Haig’s development of, and recovery from, depression.

I found it to be quite different from other books of this type.  The writing is punchy, broken up into little chunks, and the whole thing is very easy to read.

Haig chose not to have counselling or medication for his depression.  He instead relied on his relationships with his family and girlfriend.  Some people choose medication, some therapy, some both, some neither – there is no right or wrong answer.  Not everyone has all options open to them, or wants to try everything at once.  Haig went with what was right to him personally, but doesn’t criticise anyone who chooses differently.

Haig describes his feelings so well, so vividly, I felt like I was right there alongside him.  His descriptions of small moments of joy – and his realisation that he was experiencing those moments more often – were detailed and touching.  It felt very real, very honest, and full of very gentle hope.  I particularly liked the little “scripts” between himself in the present talking to himself back then, if he could time travel.  If you are suffering depression, it can seem like things will never get better – but Haig wanted to reassure himself (and the reader) ‘back then’ that they could and would.  What do you think might your ‘future self’ say to you?  What do you hope they might say?

The section on “advice” was excellent – simple, clear ideas to try without pressure.  It was particularly strong on self-care, which is something I have written about several times before.  The suggestion of a breathing exercise, and the reasons for it, have inspired me to write about this for my next blog post.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has depression or is trying to help a loved one through it.

Book: “The Idiot Brain” by Dean Burnett

The Idiot BrainI’ve enjoyed Dean Burnett’s Guardian column for a while, so I looked forward to reading his first book, The Idiot Brain.

Overall, I enjoyed the book very much.  It is laid out in sections corresponding to different aspects of how the brain works, but clearly shows by careful linking of material that the brain isn’t that straightforward – the interactions between the various parts and processes can have some fascinating (and sometimes rather amusing) results.

Dean Burnett writes as though he is talking to you, which makes the text clear and straightforward.  There are sections which describe the specific structures in the brain and neurological interactions which might be a little difficult to get to grips with, but not knowing what some of these things are will in no way stop a reader from understanding the concepts Burnett is explaining.  Links to ordinary experiences we have all had helps this book be very relevant to what actually happens in everyday life, and could be an excellent springboard if you would like to study further (the reference list is excellent).

Naturally I was most interested in the chapter on mental illness, which Burnett covers not just in terms of the scientific/medical model, but also in a very human way.  Burnett’s compassion for people who have mental health problems including (but not limited to) depression, anxiety and schizophrenia really shines though the text.  Understanding what is going on in the brain, and how it may have arisen, could be very helpful for someone who is struggling with their own metal illness or that of a loved-one.

Some of the psychological experiments described were ones I was already familiar with, and some I was not – so this book could also be a good introduction the history of psychological study.  The section on personality testing was eye-opening, although I would have liked the text to expand a bit more on the Dean’s thoughts on the usefulness (or otherwise) of the widespread use of Myers-Briggs personality testing in the corporate world – especially as this was an area I specifically looked at during part of my training.

I do recommend this book, and if you enjoyed it you might also like these:

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (which I have previously reviewed)

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks

The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment by Babette Rothschild

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman

Book: “I Had A Black Dog” by Matthew Johnstone

“I Had A Black Dog” is written by a man with depression, and is presented as an illustrated work with not much text.

 

It’s Johnstone’s way of visually expressing what depression felt like for him, and I think it gets this across very well.  It covers thoughts, feelings and behaviours in a sensitive and clear way – and there is even some humour.

 

The “black dog” of the title comes from the way that Winston Churchill described the depressive phases of his bipolar disorder.  The image of a large, uncontrollable, dark animal that slobbers over everything and destroys peace through size, ineptness and stubbornness is a useful image to many people.  This dog isn’t deliberately vicious, or evil… just there.  More Clifford The Big Red Dog than Cujo.

 

Like Clifford the Big Red Dog, the black dog can be lived with and managed – this book ends on a note of hope for the future while not glossing over the reality.

 

I highly recommend both this book, and the follow-up (“Living With A Black Dog” by Matthew and Ainsley Johnstone), to anyone who has depression or is trying to help someone who has it.

The author’s website is here.

Book: “3,096 Days” by Natascha Kampusch

This is another book I borrowed from the library.  It made inspiring but frightening reading.

I am glad that Natascha Kampusch felt able to tell her story, and I hope she found the process helpful.  I learned a lot from this book about her own experience not only of being abducted and held, but also her thought processes and behaviours which enabled her to survive her ordeal.  That is the message in the book that seemed most important to me – that Ms Kampusch has the best insight into how she survived and what the effects have been, and how she feels that other people diagnosing her with “Stockholm Syndrome” are viewing her experiences from their point of view rather than hers.

I think this is really important – the autonomy she feels is being denied her when people describe her response to abnormal and traumatic events by giving her a diagnosis which she believes is not correct, and their dismissal of and refusal to listen to her when she says so.

This is an excellent interview in which she explains her view.

I do recommend this book, although I would warn that the descriptions of the violence and abuse she experienced can be harrowing.

Book: “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell

"Blink" by Malcolm GladwellI borrowed “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell from the library after seeing it reviewed elsewhere.

Overall, I found it very readable and interesting.  There is a lot of information about various psychological research studies and the academics who worked on them, as well as examples from various places of how experts in particular area (eg art) can make immediate judgements unconciously (what I might think of as “gut instinct”).

One section I found fascinating was the part about “unconcious bias”.  This is the snap judgements we make about people based on first impressions, often boosted by the attitudes of people and media around us.  The Harvard “Implicit Associations Test” is available online and measures how far you are biased towards or against certain stereotypes of groups of people.  It is well worth taking and considering the results – you might well be very surprised!  I was fascinated to find out that unconcious biases are very difficult to combat on a concious level, but there are good results from attacking it on an unconcious level – that is, by observing people who break stereotypes and taking in that experience, rather than just telling ourselves or others about such people.

The book makes the case that trusting those gut instincts can be very useful – and indeed, who doesn’t do this from time to time?  Noticing that a car is moving slightly oddly so avoiding it and avoiding an accident, for example?  However, the book also points out that the unconcious bias shows us that snap judgements and gut feelings can be mistaken due to upbringing or cultural beliefs.

I think the message to take from this is that gut feelings are useful, but should be filtered and checked carefully before acting upon them.  I believe that the unconcious has a lot of interesting and useful things to tell us, but we must be careful not to get carried away.