If you're feeling inadequate scrolling through Instagram or need a reminder that it’s alright to be sad or mad sometimes, you’ll nod along to Heather Havrilesky’s new book.

By Maya K. Francis
Updated November 14, 2018
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Courtesy of Penguin Random House

The technology that keeps us all incredibly accessible and connected at all times can feel incredibly isolating. The doomsday sentiment that undergirds the news cycle shows no signs of relenting. Instagram is its own kind of interactive Hall of Mirrors, begging the kind of comparisons that can steal your joy. Sound familiar?

Said simply, life can be hard. On everyone.

In her new essay collection, What If This Were Enough? ($17, amazon.com), author Heather Havrilesky takes on the cultural mores and institutions that bury us, offering a reassuring antidote to our society’s push for more. If you've ever felt inadequate or overwhelmed, Havrilesky—no stranger to helping people get out from under, as New York magazine's "Ask Polly" advice columnist—will remind you that you’re doing just fine.

From the very beginning, Havrilesky takes sharp and incisive stand against the never-ending quest for more and for better that inevitably leads many of us to feel restless angst. What if you have everything you need to be happy already? And what if happiness doesn’t require perfection?

“Even after we mature into adults, even after we experience heartbreak and nagging doubts and disappointments untold, life is still supposed to be dominated by sunshine and big hugs and warm smiles, lathered up into a bubble storm of upbeat nothingness,” Havrilesky writes in her relatable opening essay, reflecting on American pop culture and social media. “Everything must be improving. If things are bad, they are always about to get better. Reluctance to see it that way will be encountered as willful misery. You must be living life to its fullest, always. Even when you are suffering, you are learning important lessons. You are making memories. You are doing this for the experience, which is irreplaceable. Every day is a gift. You are not permitted to sigh deeply, or roll your eyes, or linger skeptically on the sidelines. You are not allowed a little space to be lukewarm, or resigned, or judgemental, or exhausted. Sadness is weak. If you’re feeling bad, you must be making bad choices. It’s time to make better ones.”

In a world where people are brands and weddings are hashtags, where it is not enough to simply enjoy food but to self-identify as a “foodie” and “self-care” and “self-improvement” have become lucrative marketing strategies, Havrilesky offers a biting yet empathetic respite from the noise.

Among my favorite chapters, “Adults Only” challenges the ridiculousness of growing older (and the stiff maneuvers that indicate we’re properly adulting), as seen through the scape of a dinner party. She writes: “The quiet restraint, the lack of discernible needs or desires, the undifferentiated sea of dry-cleaned nothingness, the small sips, the half smiles, the polite pauses, the autopilot nodding. It feels like we’re all voluntarily erasing ourselves, as if that’s the only appropriate thing to do.”

Reading this, I sighed, grateful that someone else wanted to cut the charade, too.

In another deftly written essay, “The Happiest Place on Earth,” Havrilesky asks readers to rethink Disney’s brand of magic. “This town square was not a village green, I saw now, but a stage set—a gorgeously designed sea of hot cement graced by a smattering of small trees,” she writes “A few feet away, a man in a blue Disney shirt was scanning the crowd and mumbling into his walkie-talkie. This spontaneous community celebration was a carefully choreographed, rigidly scripted corporate spectacle. My family and I were manipulated into thinking we were part of something incredible. We thought we were special, but we were not.”

“Ask Polly” readers will be familiar Havrilesky’s wit and thorough research of the zeitgeist, which serves as a quiet reminder throughout the book of how very connected we all are after all. Blending equal parts cultural critique and personal anecdote (the passages about her late father are especially touching), What Is This Were Enough? guides readers to their own feelings, opinions, and aspirations, which make for great company.