Review — A Life Less Punishing, by Matt Heath

Reviewed by Sarah Ell

‘There was a period of time, not that long ago, when no one in their right mind would take advice from DJ and TV personality Matt Heath…’

There was a period of time, not that long ago, when no one in their right mind would take advice from DJ and TV personality Matt Heath. In the early 2000s his stock-in-trade, on shows like Back of the Y and with his band Deja Voodoo, was doing dumb stuff: adolescent stunts like dressing in a gorilla suit and being set on fire.

However, we all have to grow up sometimes, and it turns out that under that class clown exterior lurks a deeper thinker than you might expect. Heath actually has a degree in philosophy, and is the first person to admit that this might be at odds with his previous public persona. However, it’s time for him to take a step into the grown-up world.

Heath’s first book, A Life Less Punishing, looks at how we can reframe the things that ail us. It’s not about the really serious issues, like depression and anxiety, addiction or existential despair, but what it talks about is still troubling stuff for many of us: the twenty-first century, first-world malaises that take the gloss of what should be comfortable and fulfilling lives. Being offended by slights, unintended or otherwise. Feeling lonely despite being surrounded by people. A sense of dissatisfaction with what you’ve got. Getting annoyed by little things. Worrying about the state of the world and everything in it. Or just plain being bored.

As Radiohead would say, ‘You do it to yourself . . . and that’s what really hurts’. But the good news is, Heath points out, with a greater awareness of what’s going on in your head, and a little advice from the great philosophers throughout the ages, you can stop doing it to yourself and, hopefully, become much happier.

Heath has suffered from all these modern-day ailments, and the examples he gives from his own life are both insightful and, as you might expect, frequently amusing. He’s not some self-help guru living a perfect life, offering advice from up on a pedestal; this book reads more like a conversation you might have with a mate. That accessible style will appeal to men in particular, fans of his show on Radio Hauraki, and those who might not usually pick up a book to find ways to improve their mental health and make their lives a little more pleasant.

Heath draws on the work of some of the great philosophers — the classical Stoics, Nietzsche, Buddhist teachers — as well as talking to contemporary experts in psychology, neuroscience and mental health, to share practical ideas about how to address each of thirteen modern-day complaints. A lot of it boils down to getting out of your own way and learning to live in the moment, being thankful for what you’ve got, rather than using the massive brain power we’ve been given to make things unpleasant and uncomfortable. As Heath writes, ‘There are too many real obstacles to deal with to waste our limited time and energy on constructing our own.’ (p268)

The bright orange cover makes it hard to miss. I think I’ll leave it lying around the house in the hope it might catch the eye of my teenage son — there’s wisdom in there which could save him hours of angst as he learns to negotiate the slings and arrows of the adult world. This book has a lot to offer, no matter where you are on the sometimes-punishing journey of life; you’ll probably find yourself wishing you’d read it sooner.

Reviewed by Sarah Ell.

Sarah Ell is an author and editor of fiction and non fiction titles for children and adults, primarily on NZ history and natural history, and is based in Auckland. She has a Masters of Creative Writing (First Class Honours) from the University of Auckland.