That’s what the cadaverous food critic orders in Ratatouille and what strikes me now, at this odd moment after breakfast in my neighbourhood kopitiam (coffee shop) while reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.
When self-help books first flooded bookstores, I hated them with a passion. I hated the way they promised miraculous results; the cheesy titles; the overly optimistic people featured on the covers; the ‘fail-proof’ formulas they advocated.
Pathetic. That’s most often the word that came to mind.
Recently, I’ve come to realise that there’s more to my dislike than just some vague prejudice. I just don’t like following instructions. I can’t even cook using a recipe; my mind freezes up like a computer hanging. If I have a dish in mind, I look up several recipes and generally mash them up together. Sometimes it comes out alright, other times not; either way, I can’t produce the same dish again.
I don’t like being told what to do. I’ve experienced many occasions where I strongly disagreed with the opinion of an expert, and nothing gets my hackles raised more than some know-it-all getting in my face about what I should be doing and how I should do it their way.
Sometimes, I wonder if this is some residual resistance from my childhood and teenage years – I’ve always walked a fine line between wanting to be accepted (walking the ‘conventional’ road) and the perceived coolness of being just outside the norm. Looking at myself now, I think I still do even though my teen years are far behind me. If anyone were to imagine a typical working-mom-of-two, I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t picture me. And that makes me glad – I hate the idea of being a typical anything.
However, I suppose I’ve reached a phase of my life where I’m seeking some sort of inner enlightenment and yearning for something more than my regular life. Suddenly I started looking at self-help books in a new, less-disdainful light. Had the books changed somehow, evolved into self-realisation books instead of self-help?
From that point of view, I could just about stomach the thought of reading one, even though my first few attempts made me cringe – for months, I was the person standing in the general vicinity of the ‘self-development’ section, trying to pretend that I wasn’t looking at the titles. Actually getting close enough to pick one up was a major milestone for me, and I couldn’t bring myself to read one in public for fear of judgement. After all, wasn’t I the one sneering at them just a few years ago?
That brings me to the book I’m reading now. The Happiness Project is not a new book, it was published in 2010. I first came across the author in Real Simple magazine and liked her approach. Now that I’m finally reading her book, I’m experiencing numerous flashes of recognition and appreciation – moments of ‘that’s what I do, too’, ‘oh wow, I thought I was the only one who felt that way’ and ‘I’ve never thought of it that way before’.
Her quest for ‘happiness’ echoes my own – I’m not looking for perpetual sunshine and rainbows, but I want to feel less overwhelmed, more in tune with who I am, less hampered by pointless guilt, less resentful, more at peace with myself and the people around me.
I’m not looking for advice either (maybe that’s why self-help books irk me – my pride tells me I don’t want to be helped). I’ve heard the same kind of advice over and over again, but my behaviour and emotional patterns persist, probably because a lifetime of habits, conditioning and personality traits are hard to shake off no matter how good the advice.
But what I can appreciate is the shared experiences, the sensation that other people are struggling with the same stuff I am, and that it doesn’t need to be a big deal. Her examples based on her own, day-to-day experiences and her thoughts on making a positive change make a great deal of sense to me because I believe that everything involves a decision – to snap back or hold my tongue, to get the task done now or later, to sulk or to let it go.
Again, this seems obvious (like most kinds of advice I’ve heard) but for me, they are reminders of being human, of daily life, that some small things can seem like really big things, and really big things are often overlooked and taken for granted.
So while I’ll never be the poster girl for self-help books, I’m glad for gems like these that give me perspective and the hope that I can do better, be better, be happier.