Eva Woods On How To Be Happy

Irish author and creative writing teacher EVA WOODS describes how she turned some VERY BAD YEARS into a LIFE-AFFIRMING NEW BOOK

When you’re not feeling happy, there’s nothing more annoying than being told to think positively. To cheer up, to count your blessings, keep a gratitude diary. Think of those who are worse off. If things are bad, this kind of happiness-peddling will only make you feel a hundred times worse. I know this because in 2013 I had the worst year of my life; I got divorced, I moved house three times, I was fired, I had my identity stolen by fraudsters, and to top it all off got hit by a car. During this terrible time, I became interested in the happiness industry. I read countless self-books, went on courses, made vision boards, and discovered the 100 Happy Days challenge. I even tried the gratitude diary. Eventually, I decided to write a novel, How To Be Happy, which asks whether any of this can help if genuinely awful things happen to you.

Getting hit by the car was a wake-up call for me. I wasn’t badly hurt, luckily, but it made me realise I wasn’t doing well. Since my marriage ended, I’d been burning the candle not just at both ends but in the middle as well. I didn’t know how to live by myself, and I felt terrified to be alone, so I went out most nights, rarely cooked or ate properly, and of course drank too much. But it wasn’t just my physical health at stake. I was dating all the wrong men, those who weren’t nice to me or remotely interested in something serious. Worried about money after my divorce, I’d also pushed myself into working in a part-time job I was over-qualified for where I felt I had zero respect. I was constantly getting ill – at one point I had five different illnesses going on. Even my writing was suffering, as I had so little time and energy, and couldn’t seem to find any confidence or creativity in myself. Something really had to change.

I remembered an earlier time in my life when things had hit rock-bottom. In 2006, when I was 24, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and underwent major surgery. I spent a whole summer on my parents’ sofa watching Survivor: Battle of the Islands, barely able to walk, and I also split up with my boyfriend at the time. As soon as my wounds healed and it was clear I’d be fine, I experienced a sort of post-traumatic depression, and found myself struggling in every aspect of my life. However, I’d come back from that period stronger than before, finding a new and much better job, moving cities, and not long after, getting married. Now that part of my life was over as well, and I had to move forward.

I made a list of the strategies that had helped me through that previous dark time. Firstly, I’d spoken to a counsellor a few times, and that made a huge difference, setting me back on the right path. I’d also made a big effort to look after myself physically. That meant joining a gym, but also doing yoga, walking, and dancing. As I work from home on my own most of the time, it’s really crucial to get some fresh air and talk to people, even if it’s raining and I’d rather stay in. I also tried to eat better and make sure I always had something in the fridge. Going hungry or not eating properly will destroy your mental wellbeing faster than anything.

I’ve had insomnia for most of my life, so I tried to get this under control, using various sleep-training strategies and also cutting out caffeine, making my room as dark and cool as possible, and trying to get up earlier. I’d been taking some over-the-counter sleeping tablets, but I realised these were doing more harm than good as they left me groggy, so I gave them up altogether.

I also realised that my emotional wellbeing had taken a hammering, not just with the divorce and being fired, but also from dating so many awful guys, so I tried to look after myself in that area as well. I also stopped pushing myself so hard to do lots of different activities and take on extra work. I even made sure to go for medical check-ups, as that’s something which can slide in moments of crisis. I went to the dentist, the optician, the doctor, and even saw a chiropractor for my bad back (an occupational hazard of writing). All of this was a signal to myself that I mattered, that I deserved to be looked after and taken care of.

I’m pleased to say that all these little actions really added up, and these days I’m much happier and healthier, though I could still do with cutting down on sugar and spending less time in front of a screen. I try to notice when I’m getting stressed or down and take evasive action so I don’t go into a slump, or figure out what’s causing it and avoid that thing (or person!). How To Be Happy looks at how small acts of self-kindness can end up radically changing your life and outlook. I think nowadays we are better at recognising mental health problems, but not always so good at identifying temporary sadness, or knowing how to deal with difficult moments in our lives. For me, it’s all about looking after and accepting myself, as much as I can.

How To Be Happy, Little Brown, will be published in March 2018.

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