‘Ordinary is a bit of a dirty word in our society. Average is boring’

Derry-born author Catherine Gray is back with a book about celebrating the average

Shades of Gray. ‘I’m happy where I am now.’ she says. ‘It’s a lovely shift. The things I want to achieve are within my reach.’

Shades of Gray. ‘I’m happy where I am now.’ she says. ‘It’s a lovely shift. The things I want to achieve are within my reach.’

 

At this time of year, you could almost set your watch to the frenzy of self-actualisation that follows a week of binge eating, binge drinking, binge watching and general binge loafing. Amid the glut of new self-help titles to the market, the message is invariably the same: “You need to be improved on.”

January is Health Month in The Irish Times. Throughout the month, in print and online, we will be offering encouragement and inspiration to help us all improve our physical and mental health in 2020. See irishtimes.com/health
January is Health Month in The Irish Times. Throughout the month, in print and online, we will be offering encouragement and inspiration to help us all improve our physical and mental health in 2020. See irishtimes.com/health

Catherine Gray has already amassed a following with her two bestsellers, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober and The Unexpected Joy of Being Single. Both are plain-speaking books that mix the highly personal and the scientific. In the former, the Derry-born, Carrickfergus-raised writer recalls how her drinking had become problematic. Only later did she admit that she had researched suicide methods before she finally quit drinking.

On giving it up, she was astonished to note a complete turnabout in her personal, physical and psychological fortunes. Gray then parlayed the experience into one of 2017’s sleeper bestsellers.

Her second book, published last year, hit a nerve with readers too: at 27, and despite being single up to that point for no more than a few weeks at a time, Gray had started to panic that she hadn’t found a lasting significant other. By 31, full-blown terror had set in. She even signed up to a €40 online course called Become Marriage Material.

For her third book, the central conceit runs counter to everything we thought we knew about self-help books. The Unexpected Joy of the Ordinary is a celebration of the average. New year, same you. It’s a simple but striking idea amid a culture that all but fetishises self-improvement. Instead of hoping for more money, a better house, a promotion and a relationship that fulfils our every human need, Gray encourages her reader to “re-enchant the everyday”. An ordinary life might be the most satisfying one of all.

Our brains are evolutionarily hardwired to be negatively biased, and to pinpoint what’s wrong with our current living situations, rather than what’s right with them. When satisfaction becomes an ever-moving target that we just cannot reach, we instantly set ourselves up for disappointment.

“I think comparison is definitely something women tend to do more than men, but everyone does it,” she says. “My granny and granddad in Cushendall would have done it, say, with Hughie up the road; but now, we’re doing it on social media and comparing ourselves to thousands of people, or looking at Kanye West’s house. We’re on a completely different playing field, where we are in this dystopian megagym, comparing ourselves against mega athletes.”

Are women more prone to this sort of comparison? “I think we are very interested in other people lives, and that’s not a bad thing,” she says. “I have one friend and all she wants to talk about is who had a baby, who got a house. Female conversations circulate around what other people are doing and what achievements they’ve made. It’s a natural anthropological curiosity that ultimately manifests on us being hard on ourselves.

This idea of re-enchanting the ordinary came about because when I quit drinking, I was still pretty bloody miserable

“Instead, I’m learning to compare myself to myself. This [book] is about how to be happier with what you already have and where you already live.”

Gray is the first to admit that when it comes to the “woo-woo” stuff, she’s a dyed-in-the-wool cynic.

“I’m definitely not any kind of role model and not on any higher plane,” she says. “This idea of re-enchanting the ordinary came about because when I quit drinking, I was still pretty bloody miserable. I felt like I was the walking personification of ‘failure to launch’, and that life had done me a disservice. I needed to find a way out of that [or] I would have found myself with a drink back in my hand.”

At an AA meeting, Gray came across a well-worn saying: “Expectation is resentment in construction.”

“For the first time in my life, I’d connected my expectations and my disappointment. If I lowered my expectations and upped my gratitude I would be a lot happier.”

“Gratitude” is the key to Grey’s thesis, though she baulks at the mention of the word. “Oh, it’s so American, so Oprah… so Polyanna,” she laughs. “I’m a wry pessimist at heart – it’s part of Irish and British culture to recoil from that sort of stuff.

“I found it really difficult at first to pinpoint things I was grateful for – now I can easily rattle some off. I wrote 10 things yesterday, and it wasn’t a very good day.” Our interview had to be postponed because Gray ended up in A&E after accidentally spilling boiling water on herself.

“I’ve now trained my brain to look for the positive things,” she says. It’s a lesson that has stood her in good stead through a particularly dark period after becoming sober.

“My dad died, my boyfriend cheated on me and I lost a job all within six months. I’ve had hard knocks, but now I have the tools now to deal with it. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have negative emotions – you just figure out how to deal with them and lift yourself up from them.”

Liking yourself just as you are sounds like a nice enough concept, but Gray backs it all up with some intriguing research. A Harvard University study found that extraordinarily positive experiences in life are followed by a comedown, meaning that more ordinary experiences are better for us in the long run. She cites a study that found “peak happiness” is associated with earnings between £41,000-£62,000; beyond that, no inflation of wellbeing is found.

“Those findings staggered me,” Gray says. “Research shows not just that there’s no rise in wellbeing if your earnings are above £60,000, but bad things happen – there’s a spike in stress and divorce rates.

“It’s fascinating – we think CEOs are happier than their PAs, but the opposite may be true. The corner office with the great view comes with bad things – VAT returns and breakfast meetings and people trying to ask them for money. We often think of middle management as a bad place to be, but the research shows this is where people are happiest. It just reframes what I want in my own life, really. I don’t want to earn any more than that now.”

Elsewhere in the book, Gray references an American study that found expensive weddings and engagement rings may predict a higher chance of divorce.

Ultimately, Gray offers her readers the possibility to be imperfect, just as she did with her two previous bestsellers.

“I’m writing about my failings and my imperfections in a very personal way, and I think it makes people feel a little less mad,” she smiles. “I articulate the fears and thoughts most of us have, that we don’t tell other people. ‘I’m going to die alone. If I’m not married, I’ve failed. I’m drinking too much and I don’t want to stop.’

“Ordinary is a bit of a dirty word in our society. Average is boring,” she adds. “We’re constantly told you need to constantly up a level and put your pedal to the metal more. But I’m happy where I am now. It’s a lovely shift. The things I want to achieve are within my reach now – one rung as opposed to four rungs up the ladder. It’s just so much nicer not to care about earning six figures.”

The Unexpected Joy of the Ordinary is published by Octopus Books

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