Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

I’ve been watching this book doing the rounds on Twitter and reading comments about what a wonderful guide it is to assist you with living in the modern world. Do I need a guide to tell me how to live in the modern world? I already know the world has gone to the dogs, and as a cat person that makes me unhappy. This book is not going to change that for me though, nor tell me anything I don’t already know…is it?

If I pop into Tesco, I invariably end up going to the book bit first! I saw a book that had received rave reviews (and a friend had said it was good) that I wanted to buy. I noted it was part of a “buy two for a fiver” offer and obviously that’s a bargain not to be missed, so I decided to add Notes on a Nervous Planet to my basket as well so I could see what all the media fuss was about.

I had no intention of doing a book “review”, but things have been a bit crappy at home recently (family issue, starting a new job and having to make the awful decision to put Gerrard my beloved cat to sleep.) My way of dealing with things is to face reality and then go and bury my head in a book to stop me overthinking. (I can overthink things a lot if I’m not careful…why didn’t I say this…why didn’t I do that?!) As I read, I found that “Notes on a Nervous Planet” actually resonated with me, so I thought I’d stop moping around and share some thoughts with you all. This isn’t a book review as such…more about the things that sprung to mind whilst reading it! (And I started writing this before I went to see The Souvenir…but never finished writing it. I have now!)

We all look at how we can make our physical state better. We are told to go for a walk or to the gym, or if you are of a certain vintage you might remember the kids TV show where you were told to “switch off the TV and go and do something less boring instead!” We need to stop eating so much junk food, get more vegetables into the diet and eat less meat. Stop drinking as much alcohol, stop smoking, don’t self-medicate, all good advice; but how much of that advice contributes to our mental welfare?

How do we live in a mad world without ourselves going mad?

Well that’s easy…stop using social media and I don’t need a book to tell me that! I have only used social media for about 5 years, and during that time I have found that it has gone from being an environment of fun chats with people, to it being a means of outdoing one another. I get fed up of getting bogged down trawling through either negative or inane comments. (I follow lots of save wildlife and the planet sites and some of the comments posted on them…OMG they fill you with you with dread and despair for our planets future.)

An Ode to Social Media
When anger trawls the internet,
Looking for a hook;
It’s time to disconnect,
       And go and read a book. (Matt Haig)

So, should I stop using social media? Would it make my life better? I use social media to advertise my artwork that I have for sale, to share pictures of interesting places and events I have been to that I think others might enjoy. I even “advertise” when I have a new post on my blog as people tell me they enjoy reading it and like to know when a new post is available!

I’ve met some wonderful people via social media and I feel guilty that I don’t engage with them as much as I did in the past; so there are benefits to its usage, but what I’m most surprised about is how addictive
social media can become, especially if you are of a curious disposition like me! I know that I don’t find my timelines as interesting or interactive as before, but sometimes I find a thought-provoking post or article, or a video of animals doing funny things that lifts my mood! I still pop on Twitter or Facebook during the day in the vain hope that I’ve timed it right to join in a conversation with the folk that I don’t normally engage with via text. So, I know that social media is not that easy to give up, but I could, and have, become less reliant on it. An interesting thought, but whilst continuing to read this book, I soon recognised why social media is not the only contributor to why there is so much mental anguish in this fast-paced crazy world.

My brain is going into overload mode…

As I read through the introduction of the book, I found myself nodding my head in agreement to each statement. “I sometimes feel like my head is a computer with too many windows open.” Oh yes, that resonates. The number of things I’m supposed to remember daily is ridiculous, and I chastise myself for forgetting stuff…or worse, I start worrying that I may have the onset of early dementia. Then I think NO! I’m just expected to remember more than I used to. I’m even EXPECTED to remember things for my other half!

Why should I be remembering stuff for him? He’s an adult…there’s a calendar in the kitchen…write on that. If that’s too 1980’s for you, set an alarm on your ‘phone or techy device. I did that so I didn’t forget to give my cat his daily medication when he was alive. I even set my phone to go off 2 hours before my dental appointment the other day so that I would have enough time to shower and leave the house beforehand. This isn’t me going mad…this is me taking back control of this “Brave New World”, realising I must do something to stop me worrying about MAYBE forgetting something because I have so much on my mind. (To me it’s a good way of organising myself and using my memory for more interesting data!)

I suspect if the world slowed down for a bit, then our brains would catch up and life would be less fraught. In the book, Matt Haig lists a number of things that are faster than they used to be. As I read through the list, I started to have mixed emotions about the things I enjoy and that I believe have changed seemingly for the better. As I thought on, I actually started to miss the old ways of doing things, not because I viewed things through rose tinted lenses, but because I think that whilst the modern way is easier, it is also more stressful.

Mail: I can send an email and I know the recipient has got it…it's not lost in the postal system (just possibly a spam folder.) But just to be sure I can text to say, “check your email…did you get it?” This is good, we can relay important information quickly and efficiently; however, we’ve stopped working out what is important and what isn’t. In the past we wrote letters. If it was really urgent a telegram would be sent. Now everything comes under the banner of urgent. Social media doesn’t help. Someone sends a DM and you’re expected to answer straight away…and if you fire off a reply and then the other person doesn’t answer straight away you automatically think “well maybe they didn’t like my comment.” “Maybe they’re not talking to me now.” “Maybe, maybe, maybe…” It’s nonsense of course, but that doesn’t stop the chemical overreaction in the brain, and this is when anxiety starts to creep in if you’re not careful.

I used to enjoy writing letters. I still write the odd one when I get the chance, however I realise I’m now so used to a keyboard that my handwriting has deteriorated to the extent I need calligraphy lessons. It’s not too bad if I get the ink pens out, but anything scribbled in biro and you have no chance of deciphering it. I remember visiting Venice and being so excited by the stationery shops. I bought sealing wax in a myriad of colours and a beautiful swirly “S” stamp to make my mark in the wax. Well it’s more fun than licking envelopes shut! I also remembered the joy in receiving letters…I still have a few that I received whilst at university from my best friend at the time. She died a few years ago, so it’s nice occasionally digging them out and remembering the escapades we used to get up to. For some reason, just seeing the handwriting brings it all back…you don’t get that from an email.  I know that you can still get an excited lurch in your tummy when you get an unexpected email out of the blue from someone…but there is something special in someone taking the time to write a letter and making the effort to post it. Something that I suppose I used to take for granted in the days before email!

Photographs: I remember as a child I had a 110 camera. It was a cartridge-based camera, you literally pushed the cartridge in, closed the back of the camera and took point and click photos. When the cartridge reached the end (typically 24 shots) you popped it in an envelope, sent it off to be processed and a week or so later, a set of glossy paper photographs arrived showing that you’d chopped the heads off everyone, or your hands had wobbled when taking “that” shot! I remember the excitement one Christmas when my Uncle Alan bought me a Polaroid camera. You pressed the button and the picture came out of the bottom. It was like magic as you waved the paper in the air and watched it develop in front of your eyes. The film however was very expensive, so once I’d used it all up, I went back to my 110!

In the latter years of high school, part of our studies included photography. In art we would take photos and in Chemistry we would develop them in dark room conditions. I moved onto a 35mm film camera. It was interesting taking a piece of film and watching it transfer to paper and develop slowly in front of your eyes. Then you would peg the picture up to dry. It was a long, slow process, but interesting. There was something so exciting, anticipating how the picture would turn out, and then seeing it slowly develop before your eyes.

Years later I treated myself to a digital SLR camera…I’ve been through a fair few upgrades over the last 15 years…and I can’t say I really got to grips with any of them…most were left in “auto” mode. But I finally took the plunge and took an online photography course to try to understand the various modes on the “clever” cameras. I would have a shot visualised in my head, but I could never get the camera to replicate what I wanted. I would take a picture, check the back of my camera, and get increasingly frustrated. This was a problem I never encountered all those years ago back at school! I can see my results instantly now…both my bitter disappointments and my unexpected wonderful shots. There they are on the back of my camera. I can take hundreds of shots tweaking the settings time after time until I’m happy…and if I’m not, I can go home and tweak them with software on the computer. But that’s exasperating and tricky too…I’m currently learning the stressful art of Photoshop, and that’s the point…photography has become stressful! Photography is supposed to be a joy, a relaxing past-time, yet now that everything is instantaneous, I want perfect results NOW!

About twenty years ago, I visited the Irish Stud. It was a grey day and I took 36 photo’s on my film SLR camera of the race horses. When I eventually got the photo’s developed, I liked about 5 shots. I was disappointed and wished I could go straight back and try again…but at least I had 5 good shots. These days I can easily take 300 or more shots in a day. It takes me a week to go through them all…and because they are not physical pieces of paper taking up space, I am often disinclined to “bin” any of them. WHY? Why do I clutter my computer up with images I don’t need? But then I realise, this is the normal state of affairs…we don’t need to throw anything virtual away. My laptop is full of clutter…no wonder my head is too!

News: Well we are all aware how news has changed, and it’s not for the better. Consumer rights shows had a touch of fun mixed in with the hard-hitting stories; features of talking dogs and dodgy looking vegetables. When did everything get so serious? Gone are the days of the morning paper and scheduled TV and radio bulletins…we have news 24/7, whether we like it or not. I can’t escape it. I don’t read newspapers anymore, I avoid the news channel, if I can I avoid the TV news, but it’s still there, on my radio and on my Twitter feed. The minute I open my phone Google will tell me what’s going on in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, news is important; let’s not forget I trained to be a journalist because I thought that. I don’t want to be ignorant of what is happening in the world, but news reporting has changed…it’s not news anymore, it’s sensationalistic reporting. No-one seems to care about information or facts anymore, what better way to control a population but to keep bombarding them with one catastrophe after another? The populous becomes scared and is herded like sheep where governments want them to go without question. We become anaesthetised by bad news…so much so, we don’t know when something truly awful has happened. We’re manipulated by the media. On a Monday a news story can break which is globally important and we look on in horror. The next day the headlines will be about what the Royal Family is wearing, and that takes precedent for the next few days until we have forgotten the horrors at what we saw on the Monday. The media wants you to forget the story…but by the same token they can never be accused of not making us aware of it in the first place. They have done their job. That is why when I do watch or read the news, I tend to look at what these global powerhouses are NOT saying, rather than what they are! What is it they are keeping from us and why?

News has become an advertising excuse for political parties and global empires and we the public roll along with it, clinging onto every word that’s said because it is in those news companies interests that we do. We’ve become immune to thinking for ourselves. The Daily Mail will scare us into thinking something is intrinsically bad for us one week, and by the end of the week they have done a U-turn on it. It’s not the only media source guilty of that charge…but it is one of the best known in the UK for doing that…hence it’s nickname of the Daily Fail! We’re guilted into buying products we don’t need because advertisers and “news agencies” tell us we need to. Fearmongering is installed in our heads from the earliest opportunities….and we lap it up. No wonder we’re all full of anxiety. We need to buy kitchen sprays that kill 99.9% of bugs dead or your children won’t grow up! Well I’m still here and I used to eat biscuits with grubby muddy hands as a child and I still don’t bleach clean everything in sight around me.

I’m the advertisers anti-christ!

You have to use this face-cream or you’ll look a 100 years old. Well I might not be an oil painting, a bit of soap and water (or sometimes if I remember a nice face wash and moisturiser that doesn’t contain parabens or petrochemicals) and I think I’m doing ok…by that I think I look my age – which is ok isn’t it?! Even if I don’t…realistically there’s not a fat lot I can do about it. I am what I am as the song goes. I don’t need all the consumer crap out there, and Chapter 3 – A Feeling Is Not Your Face discusses this. I’ve been of the opinion for years that beauty magazines etc are only there to profit from our insecurities…insecurities that didn’t exist 50 years ago. Or did they? Throughout history fashion has dictated how we look…we even used to paint our faces with lead base products to beautify ourselves. (That went well didn’t it?)  I don’t need to be told to wear a specific label to feel good about myself, I’m happiest donning my wellie boots and going for a walk and enjoying the moment. I’ve always got time for a ring of black eyeliner and sometimes I can be bothered with a bit of lipstick…but most times I’d prefer 10 more minutes in bed, so it’s a rare thing to see me wearing a full mask of make-up. You must take me as you find me. I make no apology for that and I think the world would be a better place if we were content just being ourselves, rather than becoming what huge corporations want to make us.

GOALPOSTS!!!!! (page 49)…You will be happy when you go to university. You will be happy when you get a job. You will be happy when you get a pay rise. You will be happy when you get a promotion. You will be happy when you buy a house. You will be happy when you pay off the mortgage. You will be happy when you have a bigger garden. You will be happy when people like you. You will be happy when more people like you. You will be happy when everyone likes you…

There’s a song by The Cure in which the lyrics state, “whatever I do it’s never enough” and that’s true. People set themselves a goalpost, but as soon as it’s reached it’s not good enough, there’s this desire to have to strive for better. Why? If you’ve reached a point where you are happy in your home, and there’s food in your belly, and you enjoy your job, and you have good friends…why do you need to work harder to get the bigger house? Why do you want to stop having the time to do the things you enjoy, to work all the hours god sends, so you don’t have the time or energy to see your friends and they start to drift away? Is it because you really want these things, is it because society has told you that you should have a big house and a fancy car and designer gear…or is it more deep-rooted than that? Are you so unhappy with yourself that you believe status symbols will make you more popular and therefore happier?

There needs to be an element of give and take when it comes to goalposts. I think it’s good to want to better yourself, to learn new things or to strive for things which you need or will make you happy. I have worked with people from different social standings over the years, and the Earls or the famous folks off the TV with money are no better than me. I don’t aspire to move in their circles. I’m happy with my own anonymity, doing things which are good for my soul. I’ve always worked just enough to pay the mortgage, to have enough to save for a rainy day, and to spend the rest on things that make me happy…and that, thankfully, gives me time to actually go out and enjoy life without worrying about whether people like me or not!

Is social media good or bad for your mental wellbeing?

To see what people on social media, think of social media, was a particularly interesting read; mainly because I currently have a HUGE problem with social media! I think my problem was justified with the answers to the question “Is social media good or bad for your mental wellbeing?”
Once you have formed an answer to that question, ask yourself the same question about your other hobbies or interests. I have!

Is reading good or bad for your mental wellbeing? I’d say good. I learn things when I read, I’m transported to different places and different periods of time. I “meet” new people, I get to feel things they might be going through, thus learning empathy. It’s a cathartic experience and I don’t have someone hitting a reply button telling me I’m wrong about my thoughts. I can sit in peace with a cup of tea, read and rejuvenate.

Is walking good or bad for your mental wellbeing? I love going for a walk to clear my head. To take in the sights and sounds around me. I can take my camera and enjoy my passion for photography, and then I can get home and be creative with those photographs or I can just enjoy reliving some of the sights I’ve experienced. It doesn’t have to be in the countryside either. City breaks have me exploring, looking up at the beautiful architecture of buildings…finding out about the history of the place, and apart from horse-riding, walking is probably the only form of exercise I enjoy.

Now back to the original question…

Is social media good or bad for your mental wellbeing? I just don’t know. I’m compelled to go on social media. It’s the worst thing about owning a mobile phone. I rarely use my computer for social media, it’s all on my phone and it’s so hard to not bother checking it to see what’s going on in my social circle…but it doesn’t give me a rush of endorphins…it doesn’t often take me to a happy place.

Now many of you know that I’m a fan of the actor Tom Burke (and if you don’t, then read the blog header!) I know I’m about to cause offence, and I’m sorry, but I don’t get a #BurkeBoost from seeing the hundreds of pics each day on my timelines that I’ve seen time and time before. Instead I feel a bit jaded, yes I know I’m a miserable old curmudgeon, but it’s like groundhog day for me. I know that I will see the same old pictures and the same variants of 😍 😍 😍 in response. For me, there’s not much engagement to be had with a pic and a phwoar response! I know it brightens up so many people’s days, and I would hate for people to stop doing what makes them happy, I just don’t feel connected to it all. I feel that it’s been a waste of my time, so I just sweep past the posts, liking the odd one when the mood takes me.

I love it when new photos are unearthed, or there are posts about a new project Tom is involved in; but because I find my timelines rather boring, it’s now usually a close friend that points me in the right direction rather than me looking at Twitter, Facebook etc. I’m going to be really hypocritical now! Every now and again I do like seeing some old photo’s…the odd bit of reminiscing over past projects is nice, but that’s what a lot of the pictures are, they are the past and I want to live in the present. So even a subject that I get great enjoyment from can become disheartening when social media starts to take its toll. That is why I can’t give a positive or negative answer to the question about social media. There are days when it is good...and days when it is absolutely dreadful.

Isn’t it a bit creepy being followed when you think about it?

Whilst I’m having a good old moan about my love/hate relationship with social media, I’m not sure how I feel about being “followed.” In my mind, whilst I know it is not synonymatic with the term “stalker” I can’t help but feel that is what social media is. People can ghost in and out of your conversations to see what you are up to; they don’t even have to follow you on Twitter to read what you say…they can just Google you. And that’s a bit weird really. What else is weird is that you don’t have to be yourself…you can give your account a strange name and replace your face with that of your favourite star so that people wouldn’t know you if they fell over you. You may ask what’s wrong with that…well that anonymity allows keyboard warriors to say what they want to who they want behind the safety of closed doors; things that they would never dare say to someone’s face. That is definitely not a positive feature of social media.

And what about when you block someone who has caused you pain and anguish? You block them, they block you…but then you realise that they probably have another anonymous account set up where they can still watch over your every move like a hawk. It’s little wonder why so many people feel trapped in social media hell and can’t easily answer such a simple question! 

Miss R!@Fabteachertips
I find when I’m feeling at my lowest, I can easily lose hours to scrolling through my social media feeds in bed alone. I really don’t know why I do it, there are so many more productive things I could be doing. It doesn’t make me feel better that’s for sure!

Work is toxic

It is! I’ve experienced it first-hand. Years ago, I worked for a large company. Things had been going well until I was asked to swap with a colleague of the same grade to another section in the firm. The job was the same but with a different team leader. Things went well, however, this person was often off sick…so I’d cover for this person doing their daily work and my own, which was fine. Then another member of the team went off on long term sick. And then the person who was my equal on the team got stressed at being given extra work to do and so would go off sick and instead of saying no, I cannot do the work of 4 people, I carried on. As time moved on, I started to voice concerns. It was ok to cover for colleagues for a week or two, but it couldn’t go on indefinitely. I ended up feeling numb but also having pins and needles all down my left-hand side. After a week or so I finally went to the Dr and said I didn’t feel too good. She asked what was wrong and I said I didn’t know and promptly burst into uncontrollable tears. I told her how work was and that I was going on holiday in a few days and I was worried that I wasn’t ok. She immediately told me my body had finally given up hinting that I wasn’t ok and I was going into full on shutdown…physically and mentally. She signed me off work for the rest of the week, told me to relax on my break, and go back to work and if things hadn’t changed to go straight back to her and she’d sign me off longer-term.

I was so grateful to her for putting things into perspective and for telling me that things weren’t acceptable at work. She said I should never have been put in that position. I spent a week at a friend’s house in the middle of no-where. We’d feed the animals and go for country walks…each day looking at the shape of trees of all things! Honestly, it’s a real head clearer. If you’re walking and looking intently at a tree, as though you were trying to paint it, nothing else goes on in your head. Worries slip away. Calmness and tranquillity are the only things to invade your head. Whilst I was away, I read something which said; “when you die your inbox will still be full.” I still remember that advice when people start to expect too much of me. I’m not a slacker, I work hard, but I work efficiently, and I won’t be taken advantage of. If you want me to do eight hours work, fine, but you pay me for eight hours work…not the seven you employed me for. I’ve sat and watched so many people around me burning themselves out, and for what? They were all made redundant at the same time as me. So, if you find yourself stressed at work, read Matt’s “Ten Ways to Work Without Breaking Down” get some perspective and look after yourself. Bosses can always find a replacement worker…you can never find a replacement you.

I’m sitting in the garden, feet up, glass of chilled wine beside me.

So, having looked at Matt’s view on news, social media, addictions etc, I realised that we were pretty much on the save wavelength. I might not have been learning anything new by reading the book, but it is a comfort to read something and know you’re not the only one who feels a certain way. If the book hadn’t been part of a deal in the shop, I wouldn’t have bought it, but I’m glad I did. It is a book that is witty and insightful, and it’s full of wisdom…wisdom that perhaps has been forgotten in this world where we’re engineered to think in a different way to our forefathers. 

Terrible pic of hedgehog on my phone!
As I write this, I’m sitting in the garden, feet up, glass of chilled wine beside me, and I’m stopping to take in the various scents wafting around me. The honeysuckle climbing up a fir tree a lady from work gave me as a sapling nearly 20 years ago. The blackcurrant sage, roses and lavender wafting gently on the slight breeze as the bees buzz amongst them. All is peaceful (the baby starlings have gone to bed thank goodness…they are very noisy and boisterous, although I do enjoy watching their antics) shortly there will be the sound of rustling under the bushy plants and hedgehog will start snuffling around. It might seem so boring to so many people, but I’m happy and content. I’m living in the moment. I’m not worried about what has happened in the past, I can’t change that. I’m not worried about what tomorrow will bring, it will bring whatever it wants, and I’ll deal with it then.

I’m very good at giving people advice, I once said to someone, “why are you worried about what people think of you? There are plenty of people out there who I don’t like for one reason or another, so it stands to reason that there are plenty of people out there who don’t like me. Why should they matter to me? So long as I like myself, and I have some friends who like me and can be trusted and we can have some fun together…why care about what anyone else thinks?” I still stick by that advice, and I also tell people that doing what they want to do isn’t being selfish, it’s self-preservation. I never asked to be born, yet here I am; so I might as well do things that make me happy whilst I’m on this planet, without it having a negative impact on others. Only when your actions impact negatively on the planet, or on the enjoyment of others, do those actions become entirely selfish.

I think that is why I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s a book I know I will dip in and out of every now and again…just for that reminder, that shot of encouragement that it’s alright to be a bit different to everyone else. The book gave me time to think, and it gave me the type of advice that I give others. It is, overall, a reminder for us to be kinder to ourselves, to not be too greedy, and within that course of action, we will be kinder and more thoughtful towards others. The trolls and the naysayers out there are genuinely unhappy with themselves, but they don’t have the strength to admit it, or desire to change it. Their only agenda is to try to halt the equilibrium of those who try to make their lives a little more content, and the world a better, kinder place.

Note to self

Keep calm. Keep going. Keep human. Keep pushing. Keep yearning. Keep perfecting. Keep looking out the window. Keep focus. Keep free. Keep ignoring the trolls. Keep ignoring pop-up ads and pop-up thoughts. Keep risking ridicule. Keep curious. Keep hold of the truth. Keep loving. Keep allowing yourself the human privilege of mistakes. Keep a space that is you and put a fence around it. Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep your phone at arm’s length. Keep your head when all about you are losing theirs. Keep breathing. Keep inhaling life itself. Keep remembering where stress can lead.       
                                     Matt Haig -Notes on a Nervous Planet.