After Matt Haig’s last non‑fiction book, Reasons to Stay Alive, was published in 2015, he became an unwitting, and perhaps sometimes unwilling, expert on what it means to have anxiety and depression. While book festival audiences for his successful children’s books and adult fiction used to ask questions about where he got his ideas from, his new readers brought him desperate stories of their own struggles with their mental health. It was an unasked-for responsibility, but instead of crippling its author with renewed anxiety it has led to this new book, which delves further into the problem and explores practical ways out.
Notes on a Nervous Planet is not so much a “reasons to” as a “how to” guide, for all those readers who responded so powerfully to the last book. (There were many: it became a No 1 bestseller, was called “life-saving”, and began a long overdue publishing trend of books by men who have emotions and are not afraid to write about them.)
This book follows a similar format: short chapters, concisely written, with lots of numbered lists – just right for an audience whose attention, Haig argues, is being stretched painfully thin by 24-hour rolling news, smartphones, work and social media. Its tone manages to be both urgent and reassuring. “The aim of this book isn’t to say that everything is a disaster and we’re all screwed, because we already have Twitter for that,” he jokes; but nonetheless he is convinced that modern life, combined with the increasing pace of change, is doing unprecedented damage to our mental health. And “the disorder isn’t individual”, he argues. “It is social. It is global.”
The book jumps from subject to subject, setting out problems, offering advice and sometimes just presenting lists of small good things to remember. “I am trying to write about the messiness of the world and the messiness of minds by writing a deliberately messy book,” he writes, and indeed it does sometimes read like the product of an overactive mind. Some of the facts it presents will not come as news (“Never in human history have so many products and services been available to make ourselves achieve the goal of looking young and attractive”). But seeing them all compiled together in this way makes for sobering and enlightening reading. It helps that Haig is not a perfect role model, and sometimes can’t follow his own advice. This is not a smug self-help book, but an honest guide to feeling a bit better. Because “feeling bad sucks”.
Haig is not claiming that life is measurably harder than ever for middle-class people in developed countries today – though occasionally he appears to come close to it. “Employment is becoming a dehumanising process, as if humans existed to serve work, rather than work to serve humans,” he writes. “More dehumanising than going down the pit?” the reader might be tempted to respond. But what he does convincingly argue is that new technology has effects with which our animal brains cannot cope. He cites a former Google employee who is fearful of the tech giant’s effects on society; historical examples of mass hysteria; a marketing book that describes how to use “fear, uncertainty and doubt” to sell products; the Netflix boss who admits that the company’s main rival for its customers’ time is sleep. It begins to sound incredible that not everybody suffers from clinical anxiety. But by understanding these influences, Haig believes, we can begin to resist them. “It helps to know I am just a caveman in a world that has arrived faster than our minds and bodies expected.”
There are other books that examine, from a more scientific perspective, how the human brain responds to our environment. (Dean Burnett’s recent The Happy Brain is one of them.) And they come up with a lot of similar advice: spend real, physical time with people you like; don’t work in a job that makes you miserable if you can help it; take the time to look at green trees and blue sky. Haig also seems to favour techniques similar to those offered in cognitive behavioural therapy, as in a thought-provoking chapter that simply sets out why your insecurities about your looks are not about your looks, but about your insecurities. There is even a well-aimed swipe at a society that claims to be defeating “mental health stigma” while still judging people with unfashionable conditions such as alcoholism, psychosis or borderline personality disorder.
Some people will be baffled by this book – and I suspect a few will be troubled by a love-hate relationship with Twitter quite as passionate as Haig’s. “Don’t hate-follow people,” he advises. “Do not seek out stuff that makes you unhappy.” Yet much of his advice about “How to exist in the 21st century and not have a panic attack” applies to all of us modern cavepeople. Notes on a Nervous Planet is generous, sensible and timely. Reading it will probably be good for your mental health. Especially if you leave your smartphone in another room.
• Notes on a Nervous Planet is published by Canongate. To order a copy for £8.99 (RRP £12.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian