Would we really make better choices if we could step back in time? Matt Haig’s thought-provoking, uplifting new book, The Midnight Library discusses just that, exploring our relationship with regret and what really makes a perfect life. Here, the award-winning author shares his insights on why we need to stop striving to find constant happiness, and how to ensure we’re living a fulfilled existence.
My depression used to be characterised by what ifs. In the early days of my writing career, when my work hadn’t taken off and no one had heard of me, I used to continually regret the path I’d chosen. I used to regret that I’d given up piano at a young age because I didn’t think it was the sort of thing that teenage boys do. I used to regret going to Ibiza and living an unhealthy life, I regretted taking drugs, I regretted drinking too much, I regretted not getting enough sleep. I used to regret all kinds of things. It’s the nature and tone of the time and this hyper consumerist world we live in which we’re constantly told to be better, look better and to self-improve. The end result of that is that you always yearn for a better version of you, which leads to regret.
Obviously, none of that helps you recover – it doesn’t even help you change your behaviour. If you look at an addict, for example an alcoholic, they’re not an alcoholic because they don’t regret being an alcoholic, they’re an alcoholic because they can’t help it. Often, they very much hate themselves and that self-hatred fuels the addiction rather than helping them recover from it. When you only swim in regret, it becomes poisonous. We don’t have a magical time machine and regret takes us out of the present and into the past. Of course, there are benefits to admitting mistakes and knowing that you did wrong, especially if those things harmed other people; we should be open to criticism and self-criticism. The problem comes when we wallow in regret, when we’re not changing anything, and it becomes a secret unconscious decision to be unhappy; when we use regret as hooks to hang our unhappiness on.
Each existence available to us is a smorgasbord of trials and tribulations. What can look like the shiniest, happiest package from the outside, once unwrapped can look very different. I don’t know how many celebrity suicides we have to live through or how many sad celebrity confessions or behaviours we have to see to understand that the rich, famous and glamorous certainly don’t have the answer to the human process of being. We must resist the what ifs because they’re not helpful. The only one we need is the what if in front of us because that’s the one we can change; we can enter any other new universe at any time.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write about parallel lives. I liked books and films about parallel lives, but I could find no hook for it – nothing that wasn’t in the mould of It’s A Wonderful Life and Sliding Doors. Then I came up with this idea of The Midnight Library. Libraries and bookshops are our portal in other worlds and lives, so it seemed like a perfect metaphor, to have this place between life and death that was infinite, shelves that went on forever, and books that each told a different life to your root life.
We all have access to other lives and universes within our own life – we can alter it. We just need a shift in perspective to change our situation, not just in terms of the physicality of it in jobs or relationships – some of those things are beyond our control – but in terms of mindset. With depression or anxiety, there is no point where the switch just goes off and you’re suddenly better. The roads to recovery from those sorts of mental illnesses involve going through a long patch of perspective shifting where you reach a point of accepting the situation you’re in and accepting the good within it, even if that situation feels horrendous. There becomes a point where you have to somehow find the grain of hope or a glimmer of light that you can hold onto that becomes magnified and expands over time that makes you believe in your future. The message of the book is about trying to see those hidden things within our lives which are reasons to be grateful and to empower ourselves to become the centre of our story. Life isn’t something that just happens to us. In The Midnight Library, lead character Nora feels like life is happening to her but becomes someone who takes agency over her own life.
It isn’t always to easy see the beauty or worth of life. Everyone’s experience of mental health is different, but for me, my breakdown became an intrinsic part of appreciating the good in my life. Before I had a breakdown, I was very ungrateful, and I saw everything as half empty. It was going through the hell of suicidal depression and my recovery from it that I found things to be grateful for because I was confronted on a daily basis by the idea of how to stay alive.
I’m a great believer in the idea of things not being separate. Joy and despair are essentially the same side of the coin. The very worst times of my life also have led to some of the very best times of my life and the very best times of my life wouldn’t have been possible without the worst. That’s not to say I want to relive the worst times of my life, but it’s just to say that life is complicated and inter-tangled. No one is here to have a life that is free from suffering, unhappiness and loneliness and misery. Part of being a human is all of those things.
We can convince ourselves that, because people on Instagram curate their lives to such a degree, some people do lead lives that are free of pain, suffering and stress when actually no one does. We’re not programmed to be eternally happy. It would be a one-note life if that were the case. When you’re going through a bad time, it’s horrible, but now it gives me comfort to know that there will be a point after that when this is a memory that improves the future. One thing that is difficult when people first become depressed or hit a breakdown early in life is finding that perspective. One of the key things about depression is that it takes away all perspective, you’re suddenly in the present but it’s a horrendous one, and you think that this will be your life forevermore. You don’t see it changing or fluctuating, and that’s systematic of the condition. It takes holding on for those things to change and to grasp at those moments of hope – those perfect night skies or whatever it is where you think there is something beautiful about life that you might not be experiencing right now, but there will become a point where you will want to be here.
I don’t know if we can make ourselves happy by trying to be happy. Happiness is great, but gratitude and calmness are easier targets. Happiness happens as a by-product of those things. We would be the most annoying person on the planet if we were in a constant state of euphoria. Once you reach a state of acceptance, you accept everything as an experience. You realise that there’s you, and then there’s the experience. If you say, ‘I feel depressed’, it’s interesting to analyse the ‘I’ in that sentence. If you’re someone who is feeling depressed, you are slightly separate to the depression because depression is the thing you’re feeling. It isn’t you. I have previously described myself as a depressive, but I would never use that term now because that’s saying you are the thing you’re experiencing. That’s not what life is like, you experience various emotions all the time. It’s about remembering that you are the ‘I; you are not the depression, you are not the happiness. There’s an analogy I like – you are the sky, not the clouds. The clouds pass through, the sunshine and sky are always behind the clouds. Don’t try to disappear into one emotion forevermore; accept the transient nature of life.
A happy ending looks like a beginning. A happy ending isn’t just getting that job or finding the right person, it’s not about tying up loose ends and closing the book. Happy endings aren’t neatly wrapped up like that. With my books, I used to spend ages thinking about neat endings for each character, but that isn’t what life is. Happy endings are about possibility.
As told to Ella Alexander
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