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.
Very casual writing style, like a collection of blog posts (even listicles 😂). I don’t have as much trouble as he does with phone use, but can relate to the overall overwhelming information intake of the internet and the constant marketing pressures. Enjoyed reading through this slowly. Complementary to Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks.
Quotes and Notes
How the world shapes our mental health
>> This is the main thesis of the book: the modern world affects our mental state and pushes us to want more and “to feel like we always lack something.”
“I need to know why I have a fear of slowing down, like I am the bus in Speed that would explode if it dropped below 50 miles per hour… [T]he speed of me relates to the speed of the world.”
“I want to know if one of the reasons sometimes feel like I am on the brink of a breakdown is partly because the world sometimes seems on the brink of a breakdown.”
One frustration with anxiety is that it is often hard to find a reason behind it. There may be no visible threat and yet you can feel utterly terrified. It’s all intense suspense, no action.
“I am a catastrophizer. I don’t simply worry. No. My worry has real ambition. My worry is limitless… In fact, now that I think about it, that is the chief characteristic of anxiety for me. The continual imagining of how things could get so much worse.”
“The problem is not that the world is a mess, but that we expect it to be otherwise. We are given the idea that we have control.”
Context matters for mental health
“Illness, like injury, often has context.”
“When I do too much, think too much, absorb too much, eat too badly, sleep too little, work too hard, get too frazzled by life, there it is. A repetitive strain injury of the mind.”
Mental health is physical health
>> Our society thinks of our bodies and mind as separate, disconnected entities, which has repercussions for health and work
“Mental health is intricately related to the whole body. And the whole body is intricately related to mental health. You can’t draw a line between a body and a mind any more than you can draw a line between oceans.”
“We do not have bodies. We are bodies.”
— Guy Claxton, Intelligence in the Flesh
“We separate the world of work into mind jobs and body jobs. “Skilled” jobs, which need what we generally see as intelligence and a “good education,” and lower-valued “unskilled” jobs… And we divide culture into high and low. Books that make us laugh or give us heart palpitations are seen as less worthy than books that make you “think.””
“Too often, we view mental illness as a product of the person in a way we don’t with other illnesses. Because mental illness is seen as intrinsically different, we talk of it in different, more scandalized terms. The echoes of historical shame are everywhere in our words.” e.g. ‘battling your demons’ is pretty medieval
“[Y]ou shouldn’t need to confess to having, say, anxiety. You should just be able to tell people… [T]he bravery is in living with it, it shouldn’t be in talking about it.”
“What happens when whole societies—or a whole human population—undergo a period of profound change?”
It helps to know I am just a caveman in a world that has arrived faster than our minds and bodies expected.
“[T]echnology doesn’t simply progress—its progress speeds up. Progress breeds progress.”
“When progress happens fast it can make the present feel like a continual future.”
We are not encouraged to live in the present. We are trained to live somewhere else: the future.
Living in natural time
“We are too aware of numerical time and not aware enough of natural time.” –> see also: Mechanical Time vs Body Time
The future isn’t real. The future is abstract. The now is all we know. One now after another now.
We live in 24-hour societies but not 24-hour bodies.
sleep = “enemy of consumerism” and “something to be suspicious of because it is a time when we are not plugged in, consuming, paying. And this is also our attitude to time: something that mustn’t be wasted simply by resting, being, sleeping.”
We are all overloaded
[W]hat happens when overload becomes a central characteristic of modern life? Consumer overload. Work overload. Environmental overload. News overload. Information overload…
The trouble is our lives are also cluttered. The challenge is to find who we are amid the crowd of ourselves.
“The trouble is that if we are plugged in to a vast nervous system, our happiness—and misery—is more collective than ever. The group’s emotions become our own.” –> See also: Stress response
–> infected by others’ emotions, even if we disagree on their opinion
emotional immunity — “a way to stop other people’s view of me becoming my view of me”
Internet (cyberspace) is a “consensual hallucination” per William Gibson in Burning Chrome
Rules for internet use
- “Resist whatever unhealthy excesses you feel drawn toward.
- Do not seek out stuff that makes you unhappy.
- Never delay a meal, or sleep, for the sake of the internet.
- Resist the algorithms. Don’t be steered towards being a caricature of yourself.
- Be a mystery, not a demographic. Be someone a computer could never quite know.”
Shock as control tactic
“[I]t can be hard to tell these days where your anxiety disorder ends and where actual news begins.”
shock doctrine = “the cynical tactic of systematically using “the public’s disorientation following a collective shock” for corporate or political gain” per Naomi Klein
“We don’t go into a state of shock when something big and bad happens. It has to be something big and bad that we do not yet understand.”
— Naomi Klein
“Shock may be an unpleasant thing for an individual or a society to experience, but it can be a useful political tool.” “If you are shocked you are confused. You aren’t thinking straight. You become passive. You go where the people tell you to go.”
“The medium isn’t just the message, it’s the emotional intensity of that message.”
Marketing invades our mental space and sells unhappiness
“Objects in a supermarket aren’t normal objects either. They are branded objects. While products live in a world of physical space, brands seek out mental space.”
“We are being sold unhappiness, because unhappiness is where the money is.” “[T]o make people want to transcend themselves you first have to make them unhappy with themselves.”
It is all right to want something—fame, the semblance of youth, 10,000 likes, hard abs, doughnuts—but wanting is also lacking.
The moment we want is the moment we are dissatisfied. The more we want, the more we will drip ourselves away.
[T]he pattern of addiction—dissatisfaction to temporary solution to increased dissatisfaction—is the model for most of consumer culture.
Fear, uncertainty & doubt = marketing manipulations
Resist the fear and uncertainty
“And the great thing about this—the liberating thing—is that if our anxiety is in part a product of culture, it can also be something we can change by changing our reaction to that culture.”
“Accept uncertainty. The temptation to check your phone is down to uncertainty.”
“We need to build a kind of immune system of the mind, where we can absorb but not get infected by the world around us.”
Never let a stranger’s negative opinion of you become your own negative opinion of you.
Modern society wants conformity
If the whole planet is having a kind of collective breakdown, then unhealthy behavior fits right in. When normality becomes madness, the only way to find sanity is by daring to be different.
“There’s a paradox about modern hi-tech consumer societies. They seem to encourage individualism while not encouraging us—actually forbidding us—to think as individuals.”
“We are encouraged to stay in our zone and play it safe, because the internet companies know that on average most people generally like to listen and read and watch and eat and wear the kind of stuff they have already listened to and read and watched and eaten and worn.”
“How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.”
—Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011)
Work culture is toxic
“I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”
—Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness (1932)
“We have become detached from the historic way of working. We, as individuals, rarely consume what we make.”
“We are encouraged to believe that success is the result of hard work, that it is down to the individual. So, it is no surprise that when we feel as if we are failing—which is almost continually in an aspirational culture that thrives on raising the bar of our happiness—we take it personally.”
- “Aim not to get more stuff done. Aim to have less stuff to do. Be a work minimalist.
- Don’t think your work matters more than it does.
- Don’t do the work people expect you to do. Do the work you want to do.”
Choosing our society’s future
“After reading [Yuval] Harari’s work I wondered why humans are so willfully ushering in a future that will slowly make themselves redundant.” –> see AI and art
“Being kind to ourselves and being kind to the planet is, ultimately, the same thing.”
Change doesn’t just happen by focusing on the place you want to escape. It happens by focusing on where you want to reach.
Find and preserve free spaces
>> to shape our own future, we need spaces we can be free to be ourselves, not consumers or workers
“Increasingly, our towns and cities are places which want us there primarily as consumers, rather than people.”
“Some online companies increasingly want to infringe on our selfhood, seeing us as less of a human being and more as an organism full of data to be mined, or sold on.”
>> also calls out “digital spaces” “spaces in the day and week” and “spaces of the mind” as being under threat
“The space to think freely, or at least calmly, seems to be harder to find.”
People are craving not just physical space but the space to be mentally free. A space from unwanted distracted thoughts that clutter our heads like pop-up advertising of the mind in an already frantic world.
“Do something somewhere in the day that isn’t work or duty or the internet.”
We need to carve out a place in time for ourselves, whether it is via books or meditation or appreciating the view out of a window. A place where we are not craving, or yearning, or working, or worrying, or overthinking. A place where we might not even be hoping. A place where we are set to neutral.
>> fiction gives us mental space
“Reading isn’t important because it helps to get you a job. It’s important because it gives you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given.”
More, more, more
>> we’re pushed towards extreme / exciting experiences, but happiness comes in the moment, not only what we do
The more stimulation we have, the easier it is to feel bored.
“You have to just be it as well as just do it.”
“We crowd our lives with activity because in the West we often feel happiness and satisfaction are achieved by acquisition, by “seizing” the day, or by going out and “grabbing” life by the horns.”
“The world affects us, but it isn’t quite us. There is a space inside us that is independent to what we see and where we are. This means we can feel pain amid external beauty and peace. But the flipside is that we can feel calm in a world of fear.”
To enjoy life, we might have to stop thinking about what we will never be able to read and watch and say and do, and start to think of how to enjoy the world within our boundaries. To live on a human scale. To focus on the few things we can do, rather than the millions of things we can’t.
Reminders for self
>> his main points to take away
- Don’t worry about other people understanding you. Aim to understand yourself.
- Don’t try to pin yourself down. Don’t try to understand, once and for all, who you are.
- Be more than data to be harvested.
- The things that make you unique are flaws. Imperfections. Embrace them. Don’t seek to filter out your human nature.
- Allow yourself to fail. Allow yourself to doubt. Allow yourself to feel vulnerable… Allow yourself to be imperfect.
- There will be times in your life when you’ll feel lost and confused. The way back to yourself is through reading.
- There is no future. Planning for the future is just planning for another present in which you will be planning for the future.
- Don’t feel guilty. It is almost impossible, unless you are a sociopath, not to feel some guilt these days… It’s useless, this guilt. It doesn’t help anyone. Try to do good right now, without drowning in whatever bad you might once have done.
- Resist the guilt of nondoing. Find the uncommodified space inside us.
- Try to want less. A want is a hole. A want is a lack.
You are enough
>> reject the failings and lacks that society and marketing tells you you should feel, change your attitude about “what you need to do and be to be valued”
Everything you need is here. A human being is complete just being human. We are our own destination.
>> you only have limited time, so ask yourself:
- “How much extra happiness am I acquiring?
- Why am I wanting so much more than I need?
- Wouldn’t I be happier learning to appreciate what I already have?”
There is no finishing line. It’s not about being perfect…. Everything we need is right here. Everything we are is enough.