Book review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson

A book review and recommendation, by Thom Cuffin-Munday

Mark Manson’s ‘counterintuitive approach to living a good life’ can be found in this book, and to say that it changed my life is not even an overstatement. This book starts off with using some of Manson’s experiences and other peoples’ he knew to describe how one might live their life. Through witty and profane prose, Manson then breaks down the issues that these people may have with fulfilment in their lives, which mostly boils down to a misalignment of values. 

For example, the author describes how some people might value making money, but that ultimately this will result in exploitation and a lack of fulfilment because there is an end goal, and then what you’d spent most of your life working towards seems meaningless now that you have that thing you were wanting – cue mid-life crisis.

The idea behind the title is that instead of ‘not giving a f*ck’ about anything (which in itself is giving a f*ck about never giving a f*ck), you can actually give a f*ck about things that you value, and forget about stuff that really doesn’t matter. A good value that Manson gives is honesty, and if you were to truly value honesty you wouldn’t, for example, tell white lies to bolster someone’s ego (like saying they look good in outfit when they don’t), and although this might result in an initial spark of anger, in the long run they will value you as being totally honest. That doesn’t give you carte blanche to be an arsehole, just someone who remains honest(!). Other examples of good values to live by, according to Manson, include vulnerability, standing up for yourself, standing up for others, self-respect, humility and creativity. The author writes that by pursuing these sorts of values and making them goals that you can constantly improve upon is the key to living a better life. 

Some bad examples include pleasure, material success, always being right and, somewhat controversially given the mentality towards the global pandemic, staying positive. The last value in that list really spoke to me, as ‘staying positive’ is something that society would have you believe is important for tackling adversity. In my experience, this is true when dealing with mental health, with counsellors, GPs and medicine all being pointed toward keeping you ‘positive’, and negativity seen as a defect, or a regression in your mental health. In fact, using Manson’s philosophy, this is the opposite. Avoiding feeling negative and trying to always see the positive side of things can make you delusional. I think it is better to see a situation, understand and accept that it is not ideal, and then deal with it. Rather than saying ‘this pandemic is ideal as I can do all the things I haven’t had time to do’, accept the reality that lockdown is not the best situation, that nobody wants to be stuck indoors all day, pretending otherwise is delusional. And then, moving on from the fact that it’s not ideal, take the time to build on yourself and use the time to do something enjoyable, even if that is just taking a rest and watching Netflix. Who cares if you haven’t made banana bread or taken up running again? We are in times of adversity, give yourself a break, don’t be too hard, stop constantly trying to get better, do better, be better – just be, take things slowly, and you’ll be a truer version of yourself. Do what you like and judge yourself not by other peoples’ standards but to the standards that you want to measure yourself by. 

Another key point the author makes is the difference between responsibility and fault. Using the pandemic is a good example again, because although it is not individually our fault that we are plagued with coronavirus, it is our responsibility in how we react to it. This can also be used for mental health problems, which was my key take-away, that although my issues may not be my fault, it is my responsibility how I deal with them, how I portray myself, and how I seek out help. Understanding this distinction has really helped in my recovery process, and taking responsibility for every aspect of my life, not subcontracting any part of it to anything or anyone else, has been one of the first steps I have taken in clawing back control and striving towards fulfilment.

Manson impresses his idea that everyone gives a f*ck about something, and that realising the values that you used to keep are the reason for your unhappiness now is a painful but necessary process to realign yourself with your true self and achieve real happiness. This process is described as going through a ‘self-awareness onion’, with each layer going deeper into your psyche. I would recommend you read the book to understand the concept fully, but I’ll give a brief overview. The first layer is recognising the emotions you are feeling, the next layer is questioning why you feel those emotions and the core is questioning why you consider that reason for your emotions to be a success or failure. This crux is the values that you hold yourself to. An example of this could be feeling sad -> because you misunderstood an essay question -> because you value always being right. Breaking this cycle means reassessing the value that is making you feel sad, and in doing this, by questioning yourself, you can hold yourself to better values and therefore your emotions will reflect how you live, and hence happiness can be better achieved because it’s based on values that are important to you. Manson calls it an ‘onion’ because it will trigger tears and emotions as you come to realise what it is that has been holding you back – so be prepared!

I hope that this book review has imparted some help to you, and I highly recommend you read the book as it will explain the philosophy better than I can! I hope that the concepts discussed can help you in your journey as much as it has helped me with mine.