At the beginning of the month, after responding favorably to an email asking whether I’d like an advanced copy of Colin Beavan’s new book, I received a paperback of How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness That Helps the World. Prior to receiving the aforementioned email, I had never heard of Beavan or his No Impact Man project. No Impact Man describes a year in which Beavan attempted to live in New York City without making any net impact on the environment. He has a book and documentary about the experience, as well as an ongoing lecture series. Having read How to Be Alive, I intend to read No Impact Man if for no other reason than context.
I have to be really honest: near the beginning of How to Be Alive, Beavan talks about being a vegetarian and eating eggs during his “no impact” year. As someone who learned the significant atrocities of the dairy and egg industries and went vegan not long after, this particular statement made it difficult for me to trust anything that Beavan had to say. The more I attempt to live and promote a sustainable lifestyle, the more frustrating it is to read the words and hear the thoughts of people who consume or use animal products. However, I kept reading, and ended up skipping only one portion of the book (the part about parenting, for reasons I won’t go into here).
I rated How to Be Alive 3.5 out of 5 stars on GoodReads because I liked the book. It read well, spanned across many different topics, and focused on the concept of pursuing the True Self, a philosophical idea that I discussed constantly in my philosophy courses in college. The concept of the True Self is mostly academic, in my opinion, and How to Be Alive is in many ways an academic read. That being said, it attempts to take this academic concept and put it into a practical sense, which is very interesting. The book focuses mostly on lifestyle changes, recounting stories of people who’ve thrived by going “off the beaten path”. It also makes suggestions for how to do the same in the reader’s own life.
How to Be Alive argues that a person is happiest and healthiest when they are living not just for themselves and not just for others, but for both. Beavan states multiple times that How to Be Alive is not a self-help book, although I must admit that it’s hard not to be in the “self-help” mindset when reading it. Beavan talks about changing behaviors in all aspects of your life in order to live more fulfilled. What was strange about reading this book, for me, was that I read it several months after making several major life changes all at once. I’ve been reflecting on those changes a lot as the year comes to a close and making goals for the future, most of which are centered around continuing to pursue activities that make me happy and getting more involved in my community. My partner and I have discussed doing a bi-weekly brunch event with our friends (and their friends) and we’ve already made plans to go on several adventures in the new year, to try new things and go outside and give back as much as we can.
Reading How to Be Alive felt simultaneously like my choices were being affirmed by an outside party that I don’t know personally and like I was being encouraged to make even more changes, to be more consistent in my pursuit of a good life. It was, overall, kind of a weird reading experience. That’s largely why I didn’t rate the book higher. I, personally, had to keep putting the book down and going back to it once I’d cleared my head a bit because it made me think so critically and intensely about everything I’ve accomplished this year.
One of the things Beavan discusses at several points is how money and promoting the market economy cannot be the driving force for why a person chooses a particular career path or a place to live or a set of friends. Ultimately, that just makes you unhappy. It puts you in debt, makes you feel tied down and tired, and limits your dedication to the things that make you truly happy. Beavan also acknowledges that it’s not exactly possible to live entirely without money, but that finding alternative routes to the “standard life approach” often lead to healthier, more productive, and freer lives for people who pursue them. He encourages readers not to take out lines of credit or shop out of boredom. He recalls stories of people he’s met who’ve realized their unhappiness often stems from how much stuff they own and have to upkeep. Beavan suggests that, rather than orienting ourselves into miserable lives and careers that allow us to buy and buy and buy, we should instead figure out what makes us truly happy, then orient ourselves into lives and careers that give us enough money to live those lives.
I had a similar realization this past spring when I quit my job, sold my car, moved into the city and got on a bike. I realized that in order to have the time and energy I needed to tackle my debt (something that needed/needs to happen so that I can live free of the impending fear of legal difficulty and later struggles), I needed to make some major changes. I currently work 60 hours a week, but I deeply love my full-time job and have a great time when I go to work each day. I love my part-time job less, but I also acknowledge that it’s a means to an end and that I’m still able to have good experiences there as long as I put as much positive energy into it as I can. Even though I work so much, having a job I love and biking rather than driving makes me happier and gives me more time to do things I care about in the precious personal time that’s available to me. I’m able to read, write, spend time with my partner and cats, go on adventures and spend lots of time in the kitchen cooking, which is a passion of mine that I am cultivating and hope to pursue more as time goes on.
I think, to some extent, that what Beavan talks about in How to Be Alive is a series of conclusions that many people (most especially millennials) have either come to already or will come to eventually. I’ve realized, since selling my car and pursuing a career that feels fulfilling rather than one that just fills my bank account, that there are so many people doing the exact same thing. Finding support in my new lifestyle wasn’t difficult; my partner has been there every step of the way and it’s almost as if by making these changes, I just opened myself up to a community that was already there for me, rather than having to find a new one.
Overall, How to Be Alive definitely presents a convincing case for why it’s important to pursue your True Self in order to not only make yourself happier, but to be a more productive person in the world as a whole. Contributing to the betterment of the planet is hard when you’re not contributing to the betterment of yourself. For people looking for a place to get started in making life choices to feel more fulfilled, I think Beavan’s book presents a lot of great activities and anecdotes and tips to help. For people who are already on a life path that’s not “the standard life approach”, I think his book will reaffirm those decisions and also suggest other changes that can be made, as well as effective means for continuing to pursue a good life.
To grab a copy of How to Be Alive, click here.
Overall rating: ★★★⋆☆
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to lead a more fulfilling life/is looking to make positive lifestyle changes