Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center

(Left: Original Cover, Right: New Cover – releasing in Sept 2020)

Wow.  What a beautiful story.

I loved it so much that it got one of my elusive 5-star ratings on Goodreads.  

Side note: I should probably, at some point, explain my Goodreads rating system, but suffice it to say that in order to receive a 5-star rating from me, a book has to move me so much that my life feels altered after reading it (or I cannot stop thinking about it for days/weeks after finishing it).  

This book has stuck with me for at least a week now – and I’ve reread it at least four times now, and there seems to be no end in sight.  

One of the things that is essential to fully appreciate this book is an understanding or empathy with grief and loss.    

Plot description: Helen Carpenter, a year out from her divorce from her alcoholic husband and her devastating miscarriage, decides that she needs to shake up her life and signs up to take a three-week long survivalist course in the mountains of Wyoming.  Does she take a run-of-the-mill course? Of course not! She takes the way-out-there course! The one where people have died. She needs to prove to herself that she can surpass her expectations of herself and push her limitations farther than she ever thought.  She wants to do this alone but, Jake Archer – her goofy little brother’s best friend, is going on the same course. Helen eventually comes to befriend everyone in the group and learns many lessons from them that allow her to finally come to terms with her family’s past, make decisions about her future, come to terms with who she is, and find true love along the way.

Yes.  It is a love story.  But, it’s more than that.

Having dealt with my own major losses in the last few years, I could easily identify with Helen.  The idea of shaking things up? I’ve been there. To be honest, I think I’m still there. There is something to a tragic loss that makes you feel like doing things you never thought you would.  For me, never the outdoorsy-type (not surprising to anyone reading this that I’d rather be inside curled up with a good book), I went on several hiking trips in the year after my loss, and because of this book, I am seriously considering doing a camping/backpacking trip in the near future.  There is something to being in nature that helps with the healing process. 

The other reason I have connected with this book in such a powerful way, is the ideas of gratitude and happiness. This is shown through the character, Windy. Windy, the eternal optimist, seems to have her life figured out and teaches Helen about the idea of positive psychology. The idea that happy people tend to focus on the joy in small everyday moments and to appreciate what they have. This truly resonated with me but to fully understand why, I have to tell you a little about my amazing sister.

We could not be more different in personality and interests.  For example, I cannot stop reading, but she is not a reader and every year she sets a goal to read, even though she doesn’t like it.  And she does it. And it is truly inspirational.

While I have always been more of a realist (except if I’m being honest, closer to pessimist), my sister has such a sunny disposition, such an optimistic take on life.  She truly believes that everything happens for a reason at the exact moment that it’s meant to. Through some of our recent shared tragedies, she has become my teacher. She inspires me everyday to make the choice to be a happier, calmer, and more present person.  She has taught me so much in the last few years about being appreciative of the things we have and focusing on the good parts of life, instead of the negative. My sister IS my Windy.

This book seemed to me to be art imitating life.  At the beginning, Helen cannot help but focus on all the ways life has let her down.  But through her transitive experience surviving in the wilderness and the new friends that help her along the way, she is able to change the way she sees the world.

Gratitude.  Love. Being at peace with oneself.

In these difficult times, it is easy to slip back into old patterns. To see all the bad things that are happening.  I think I read this book at the right time. It reminds me that it would be really easy to take a stroll down negative lane. But instead, I’ve started a gratitude journal.  I am trying to seek out the things around me that make me smile. To remember that there are still many, many things to be thankful for in this world.

Helen learns to find three good things.  I’ve accepted the challenge. Will you try with me?  Just three good things a day.  

Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center, published 2015

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