A Year of Living Happily: Week-by-Week Activities to Unlock the Secrets of a Happier Way of Being, by Lois Blyth, illustrated by Amy Louise Evans
CICO Books, 9781782494775, 192 pp., 2017
A Year of Living Happily: Week-by-Week Activities to Unlock the Secrets of a Happier Way of Being by Lois Blyth is a collection of prompts and activities designed to help you “take stock of the good things in life — and take positive steps to reclaim a happy future.”1 The book is based on the idea that by making a conscious effort to recognize and appreciate the good things in our lives and think in a more positive way, we can gradually retrain our brains away from melancholy and discontent.
It’s a pretty book, big and blue and full of charming watercolour illustrations by Amy Louise Evans. There is an exercise for each week of the year, plus blank pages for you to record your notes and progress. Each chapter covers a different aspect of happiness. Titles include “Let Go of Fear,” “Think Like a Lottery Winner,” “Hug More,” and “Practice Self-Compassion.” Sometimes the suggestions are for practical activities, like clearing out your wardrobe, and sometimes they are subjects for contemplation, such as “consider the non-material things in life you are grateful for.”2
While the book is presented as week-by-week exercises, there’s nothing to stop you dipping in and out at your leisure, and choosing the activities that most interest you. As Blyth states in the introduction, “This is not a program — it is a creative place to explore your ideas and feelings.”3 There is no pressure to commitment, as each activity is only for a week, but many of the suggestions could be adopted into your day-to-day life, if they successfully ring your cherries.
Blyth has compiled a reasonably comprehensive collection of self help and self-care techniques, including a bit of stoicism and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). Unfortunately, there is very little in this book that I haven’t come across before in cursory readings of the many self-care articles on the Internet: get more exercise, get better sleep, be mindful, be grateful, help others, declutter, meditate, try yoga, get some fresh air, learn something new, put your phone down, connect with friends, cuddle a cat. All great suggestions, but nothing original. In fact, the only idea that was completely new to me was the concept of creating a “happiness resume,” but when I googled those words I discovered a blog post on the subject that goes into a lot more detail than found in this book, though the blog post was published later. ((Nicola Hasted, “How to Feel Happy Part 1: Write a Happiness Resume,” The Dancer in Mind, 31 January 2018.))
While I believe you could find every exercise and suggestion in this book online, not everyone wants to spend hours trawling through Pinterest with a notebook and a pen. Indeed, not everyone has access to the Internet or is comfortable online, and for them this book would be ideal. It would also be very useful to look back over your notes for the year and see your development, although I am not sure the space given for writing would be enough to contain a week’s musings. If you were to be particularly inspired by an exercise, you would definitely need to use extra paper, or a separate journal.
There is some repetition in here. For example, in week 34, we are encouraged to consider “sense happiness,” including the use of colour and music to boost our mood. Colour and music then receive their own separate chapters shortly afterwards. Then, week 51 is all about being your authentic self. You are supposed to “be honest with yourself about areas of your life that are not fitting your needs,” and the exercises include questions like “Do you attend social events you don’t really enjoy?,” “Are you making compromises in a relationship?,” and “Which of your life goals is the most important to you right now? Knowing this, what will you choose to do next?”4 If you are working your way through this book a week at a time you’d have thought about this already. And you would expect to have been guided through it well before week 51.
Occasionally, the book slides into the murky territory of shopping for happiness. We are encouraged to buy soft furnishings, new dresses, snugly socks, and luxury chocolates. While I appreciate that it’s nice to treat yourself now and again, it can be disappointing when books that are clearly marketed towards women suggest we can solve our problems with a bath bomb and a scented candle, as though the entire self care juggernaut was a scam perpetrated by Lush to sell more £5 balls of baking soda.
Now, as I was writing this review, I found myself brought down by a very bad bout of depression. Of course, when depression is really bad, all the self-care tips in the world won’t really help, but on the days when I could move I thought I might as well try out a few of the ideas suggested here.
I already go for a walk every day, and I can attest to the soothing properties of a woodland wander — most days. Some days, inevitably, you just end up crying in the forest. So, in order to surround myself with green things, I made up a little temporary altar space with as many green objects as I could find –- a pile of sea glass, an apple, a knock-off My Little Pony I found in a charity shop, a copy of The Owl Service by Alan Garner, a pair of Christmas tree socks. I set it up on a small table in my bedroom so I would see it first thing every morning, and very pleasing it was too.
I also tried keeping a happiness journal as suggested, but I found this very hard to do from the doldrums. Yet, I think actually worked in some ways. Even on the very bad days, I found myself looking around for good things to write down, even if it was only the word “biscuits” triple-underlined. So, the techniques do have their merits, although I still think that they lack originality.
However, A Year of Living Happily is still a good-looking and comprehensive guide to thinking about your personal happiness and changing your mindset, and it would make a lovely gift for someone trying to take better care of themselves.