Unhappiness, engineered

Kirsten Levermore discovers a tonic for the 21st century

“It helps to know I am just a caveman in a world that has arrived faster than our minds and bodies expected,” writes British journalist and author, Matt Haig. The rain hammers the thin shell of the early morning train, swaying with the weight of commuters. Looking around myself, I see discomfort. Weariness. Loneliness. Grit.

What are we all doing here?

When Haig released Sunday Times bestseller, Reasons to Stay Alive, in 2015, the tone of public discussion around mental fitness gained an informed, conversational and relatively destigmatized flavour – rare, to say the least. It was a deeply intimate and highly illustrative exploration of the author’s ongoing struggles with anxiety and suicide. Now, in his second outing into the mental fitness genre, Haig takes on a question: how do we stay sane in a world gone mad?

Presented as a compendium of, well, notes, Notes is an accessible hodgepodge of punchy quotes, errant poems, thought-provoking philosophies, imagined dialogues, lengthy lists, film references, fictional supermarket visits, clever witticisms, old memories and the like.

Perfect for the easily distracted, tired or emotional mind, insights are loosely gathered into sections ranging from internet-fuelled anxiety to the news, sleep, work and the future – but the disjointed nature of the pages themselves (some of which can be swallowed whole in under four seconds) makes Notes a ouija board for those looking for meaning in our madness.

Somewhere between Paolo Coelho’s Warrior of the Light and a full Twitter feed of #mentalhealth, Notes is a Chicken Soup for the 21st-century-weary soul. The chart-topping author of numerous adult and children’s books, Haig’s style is forever kind, warm and uplifting. Sceptics will be pleased to know, too, that the gentle words do not exposit the mindfulness movement, meditation or even digital detoxes. Rather, Notes is simply a collection of Haig’s own personal grievances, with a surety and commonality that makes it a comforting and enjoyable – if not entirely profound – read for all.

Masters of our own misery

Perhaps the most impactful insight is this: we are miserable because we have designed the planet to make us miserable. Recalling an anxiety attack in a grocery store, Haig questions panic-inducing marketing strategies; considering social media and the ‘selfie’, he addresses the pressure felt by both men and women to appear a certain way; defying the click-counters, the author forcibly rejects hype and encourages readers to pursue measured and well-researched news stories.

“There is no shame,” urges Notes, time and again. No shame in struggling in a wild world of noise, technology, rude people, social climbers, task-masters, pencil-pushers and idiots. Because, as the book reminds you with each page, there are people out there who feel just like you. And perhaps, together, Haig poses, we can start a revolution.

For a gentle hug, read this book. Keep it on your desk. Keep it in your travel bag. Devour it on a plane. Consult it for daily affirmation, or even just a laugh.

And spring for the hardback: sheathed in a light-absorbing dark, matte black jacket, it is entirely unassuming and very respectable. But remove the jacket and reveal the bright rainbow of colour, bursting from within.