How do we cope when the whole world conspires to drive us to the brink of worry and sadness? Answers to these questions became vital to author Matt Haig and what he found provoked a sense of calm and purpose in me.
The societies we live in are increasingly making our minds ill, making it feel as though the way we live is engineered to make us unhappy. When Matt Haig developed panic disorder, anxiety, and depression as an adult, it took him a long time to work out the ways the external world could impact his mental health in both positive and negative ways. Notes on a Nervous Planet collects his observations, taking a look at how the various social, commercial and technological “advancements” that have created the world we now live in can actually hinder our happiness. Haig examines everything from broader phenomena like inequality, social media, and the news; to things closer to our daily lives, like how we sleep, how we exercise, and even the distinction we draw between our minds and our bodies. from Goodreads.
I read this book in tandem with one of the author’s fictional works, The Humans, and it was a unique experience. In The Humans, an alien is placed among us and forced to see the beauty in humanity’s fragility. In Notes on a Nervous Planet, Matt Haig tries to validate how to be human, and survive intact, while living on a planet designed to drive us to the brink of mental and physical disaster. Together, I was delighted to see the motivation, research, and thought process behind the story. Separately, both books are a celebration of humanity and a call for measured consumption of what drives us.
This book made me feel better about my mental health in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. No small feat! I made every mistake a human makes when cornered by fear and dread – I turned to my cell phone and computer for news, entertainment, socialization, and shopping. As my worries and fears compounded I doubled the time I spent on electronics. I was getting worse and worse without any idea why.
And I wasn’t alone. Feeling anxious, stressed, and depressed are all on the rise. Our world is driven to go faster all the time and consume more all while encouraging us to stay plugged in and connected in every way possible. If you don’t have something to worry about you can just pop on the news, bring up any social media account and you’ll be encouraged to change your life, argue with someone, or be introduced to a new horrible thing to worry about (hello murder hornets).
This book was a new beginning for me to understand how my impulse to connect to the world was only making me feel more alone. It was also deeply thought provoking on the ways I actually connect to people and prioritize my life. I appreciated that the author offered reflection on consumption as a guide instead of hard and fast rules that worked for him. For example, Haig may have an unhealthy relationship with his cell phone but he sees value in the internet. Similarly, Twitter may bring him to the brink of mental distress but other people he spoke with said it gave them a unique community to rely upon.
Just as when I read Factfulness, I felt a sense of purpose and calm when reminded that the news and social media were providing me a distorted reality. Notes on a Nervous Planet encouraged me to look at the way I let the internet-driven version of the world into my mind in negative ways. Similarly, the book caused me to reevaluated what was truly important to me and focus my energies and time on those endeavors.
Since reading this book I have stopped keeping my cell phone on hand at all times. I started ordering the local newspaper and reading the news only in the morning. I also try to avoid the news app on my phone that only upsets me while still making me feel I know everything (how do they do that?). I started limiting my social media time to fifteen minutes in the morning and fifteen minutes after lunch. And I watch as my anger, resentment, worry, and stress levels rise dramatically when I break those limits. Meanwhile, I have embraced that I have so much time and how I choose to spend it reflects my personal values. I stopped rushing and nothing bad happened. I breathed.
I listened to Notes on a Nervous Planet as an audiobook and Matt Haig’s beautiful voice brought all of his thoughts and theories to life. Still, I knew that I would want to revisit them again and again and I so I purchased a physical copy for myself. Whenever I feel that I am alone in this struggle against the onslaught of the World’s energy, I pick it up and read a few notes. Stephen Fry review is perfectly accurate, “Take Notes on a Nervous Planet twice daily, without or without food. Crammed with wisdom, insight, love and wit.”
Tell me, please!
Do you have a book that is a cornerstone of your modern mental health?
Thanks for the thoughtful review–this book, and his other, sound really worthwhile. People need all the help they can get these days.
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Thank you for your comment! I couldn’t agree more, help (especially mental help) seems to be in short supply lately.
I read this as well, and it was really helpful for me too! I haven’t read The Humans yet, but it sounds interesting the way you were able to take quite a bit from both reading them simultaneously. I’ll have to read The Humans as well!
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I hope you get a chance to read it! His book, How to Stop Time was also good but The Humans and Notes on a Nervous Planet just felt so connected.
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Wonderful review! I listened/read this one last year and also found it so helpful! I loved it so much that I ended up buying myself the hardback for my Christmas present as I know I’ll refer back to it in the future.
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Great minds think alike! Even just re-reading the review I wrote for this book has brought me back to the book and back to the calm. I need to remember to pull it off the shelf more frequently.
I love this book. I make sure to re-read/re-listed to this or Reasons to Stay Alive whenever I can start the feel the world getting on top of me – the first time I read it, it even persuaded me to take a day off social media.
Also really enjoy his fiction writing and can’t wait for Midnight Library
I find myself fairly obsessed with his work as well whether it is fiction or nonfiction. I cannot wait for Midnight Library either!