How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy

At the beginning of this year, I picked up a book called Notes on How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy. I can easily say this single volume changed the direction and will I had for life. It is an older book, from the ’70s, that I found languishing in a used bookstore. When I saw it, I grabbed it with disbelief. Someone else had experienced this dilemma — and would admit it!

At the time, I was in architecture classes and doing very well, and working in an architecture firm with great people. It was an opportunity to start a new career: I was lucky. I was doing what I thought to be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream: I so was lucky. Architecture holds a certain mystique in people’s minds. The moment you mention it, you are held in higher esteem — even if you’re in your first year! But for some reason, the whole, neat package was so unsatisfying. I bantied it around for a while… was I sabotaging myself? The truth is, it just wasn’t me. It was part of me, sure. I will probably always have immense appreciation for architecture and all aspects of design. And maybe nothing needs to ask for ALL of you (especially a job). But it wasn’t asking for the best part of me, somehow. The part I liked spending the most time with. Like all truths, it was just that simple.

Over the course of last year and some of this year, I developed an absolutely crushing anxiety that interfered with most aspects of my life (to the point that the idea of a “life” was greatly diminished…)… and it was in this state that I gravitated to this book. When I say this book changed my life, of course that needs to be qualified: it did not do it alone, but started me on a path in a new direction. Through Notes on How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy, I began to learn about different ways of looking at things than relying on habits and instincts. The author, Hugh Prather, employs a proven method called cognitive behavioural psychology (CBT). But since that time, I’ve read voraciously on the subject of psychology, from many different approaches. I haven’t stopped!

One of my favourite insights from the book, and it’s so simple, is to make a habit of checking in with your thoughts. Everyone has a script, on loop, that we’re aware of to varying degrees. Hugh Prather says to set an alarm, and forget it. When it goes off, check in with yourself: what were you just thinking? How were you just feeling? In all honesty, I did not take this up! But I remembered it. When I moved onto a street where the buses passed at 15 minute intervals, every time I heard them, I’d find myself checking in. Oh, some things I was saying! Things I was feeling! Of course, the two are interrelated, and there’s all kinds of proof that by counteracting negative thoughts with realistic thoughts (not false positive thoughts), we can change our mood and disposition. It’s absolutely not a situation of “fake it til you make it” — which I deplore — it’s more an issue of holding an idea in suspension, to be decided on at a later time, when there’s better evidence or perhaps more distance.

Speaking of distance… On Thursday, my poetry class — which is taught by Ken Babstock — was facilitated by poet Jeramy Dodds, who is fantastic (of course, they both are). It was a strange experience for a personal reason: in my mid-twenties, I owned an independent bookstore in Peterborough and Jeramy and a few of his friends, who all lived there, were poets. They produced high-quality chapbooks of their work, and I carried them in the store. Since that time, Jeramy has been nominated for the Griffin Prize, the largest prize in the poetry world, and has won numerous other honours (as has Ken!). The store has been closed since 2007, and so much has happened since then… and with how peripheral our association had been, of course Jeramy Dodds did not remember me! Maybe he would have, faintly, if I had mentioned it, but I didn’t. I just focused on listening to what he shared with us, and found the experience amazing on its own. But, in the same way that Prather describes setting the timer, Jeramy Dodd’s presence was a berometer for how far along life has moved since those times. I’m along way from winning any awards soon (ever?), but in the days when I had the store, I was too shy and too harried to every tell anyone I wrote poetry or share it with them. On the flipside, I’ve spent most of 2010 workshopping and sharing and developing my work, meeting people who share my passions, actively seeking strong mentorship, and sending stuff out to publications. Being accepted by two publications only months after sending my work out for the first time is really the culmination of overcoming years of inhibition and skirting around my true passions and abilities (as in having a bookstore — which of course means you are far too busy to read, much less write!)

This week is my last week at the architecture firm, as well. Since they are completely fulfilled by the work they do, they understand the value of seeking that, and can see why I need to move on. But it’s hard. On Friday, we had an open house of an amazing property they designed. I was alone there for over an hour, prepping food silently in the out-of-a-dream kitchen. It was a surreal and bittersweet moment. I appreciated the work they had done so strongly. I was proud of them. I was in the most high-tech, high-end kitchen I’ll probably ever be in, and of course it was novel and amazing. But, thinking of my longing for a little Toronto Island cottage, this home definitely wasn’t me! I’m leaving to work in communications for a food issues related non-profit, and that excites me on numerous levels. As you can see from the name of this blog — Only Connect! — I have a passion for communicating. And I have a passion for food, and I have a passion for bettering lives and being of use.

It’s been a weird week! A lot of looking back for sure, but with an improved ability to be of more than one mind about it… to me that is the greatest “luck” I’ve had all year: to have stumbled upon teachings that explain how no get unstuck from unhelpful ways of thinking. It would be dishonest to say that everything that happens is always great (the false positivism again!), but experience can either be learned from, or unlearned. It’s hard work, but to me, this is one of life’s most worthy endeavors.

I am reminded of a favourite quote from my wonderful teacher, Ken Babstock, in his brilliant book, Mean:

Don’t always look back
but look back


ps. Inserting links into this post after having written it, I was sorry to discover the author of Notes on How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy, Hugh Prather, died earlier this month, on November 15th, at the age of 72. There’s a well-written article about his life and work in The New York Times: I learned even more than I had ever known about his background: he was a once aspiring poet! And his influence extends as far and wide as Saturday Night Live and the excellent, life-changing The Moosewood Restaurant (original home of the vegetarian cookbook series). His work changed my life, and effected countless others. My heart goes out to his wife and long-time collaborator, Gayle.

3 thoughts on “How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy

  1. Wow! Great post. It seems like a lot of people are really suffering from anxiety and could use cognitive therapy these days.

    In the Artists Way Julia Cameron talks about people who will often do something related to their passion, but not the passion itself like owning a bookstore but not sharing your writing. Have you ever read that book and done the work? It’s like cognitive therapy specifically for your creative self.

    Your post really made an impression on me! I have so much I want to share with you…and connect!

  2. I am very excited for you Stevie. Checking in with our selves is so important and when you are moving it is scary and exciting and sad all mixed up. I feel like I know you a little better now. Thanks for sharing! Love (because thats where I am coming from) Navit

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