Matt Heath: learning to love your own life

From Saturday Morning, 10:05 am on 1 June 2024
Matt Heath

Matt Heath Photo: Michael Craig

A "miserable" moment on the banks of Lake Wakatipu was the initial inspiration for Matt Heath's new book A Life Less Punishing: 13 Ways To Love the Life You've Got.

"I was looking through my life and going, 'My kids are healthy, I'm employed, I've got food, I'm on holiday with my friends' … If I'm not happy now, then when will I be happy? And if I'm not happy now, how can people with real problems in their life be happy?

"It just got me thinking, 'How do you get out of the state? People must have thought about this..." the radio host and writer tells Susie Ferguson.

Heath's mother - who was a fan of Stoic philosophy - had died shortly before this pivotal day. 

He began his research into happiness by reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and The Complete History of Philosophy.

The Stoics' "simple analysis" of life emphasises how much choice we have when it comes to perception, Heath says.

"You can be offended or you can choose to think of the person that's offended you and ... have empathy and ask questions like, for example, have you ever behaved like they have before? Is what they say true? Should I take it on board or is it not true therefore it's ridiculous?

"Rather than letting our emotions just go wild, we can ask a few questions of ourselves and change the perspective and then not just spin our wheels and waste energy and focus on things that may just be in our head and could be coloured a different way."

A "classic example" of this from Heath's own life is the reframe he did on a fellow parent he sees regularly at his kid's football games.

"There's another dad that's always showing off how wealthy he is and he's questioning everything, even to the point where he offers to buy me a coffee and then questions my coffee choice and talks about Italian coffee and his last trip and how amazing his son is and all this…

"I turned to another mother and she said, 'You're actually the annoying person because every week you're complaining about this other guy. What does it matter? Can't you just watch the football?'

"My partner, she said the same thing to me. 'If it makes him feel better that he's impressing you with how much money he makes, then that's good for him. It doesn't have to affect you and it doesn't have to affect your enjoyment of the football game.'

"It was just a matter of why am I taking this personally? Why can I just listen to him … and try and get inside his head enough to understand why he might be saying that to me, rather than just making up nicknames and punishing everyone else on the sideline with my annoyance at him."

Heath says that for a long time, he thought an emotion like anger just had to burn itself out. He now knows - as Seneca said - that the best cure for anger is delay.

"My mum used to grab my hands, and go, 'Okay, Matthew, you're angry, just take a breath. Okay, just count to 10.' And then I forgot entirely what I was angry about.

"It just seems funny that I forgot that in my life. And it seems such a simple solution but it speaks to that idea that the emotions that you're feeling now, if they're not constructive then you can choose, at any point, a path that's more productive for you, your family, the people around you - everything."

When Heath's mother died, his initial response was to hide from reality.

"My experience was to drink a whole lot of whiskey and push some chairs over in my house … I deleted her number from my phone, hid all the pictures. If anyone tried to bring it up, I'd leave the room. And as a result, every night I'd dream about her and I'd wake up in the morning and think she was still alive for a second and go through it all again."

Later conversations with his father - who had tried to revive his mother after her sudden death - showed him the better way to face loss and move forward was acceptance.

"My mum died and I didn't really discuss it with my father at all because I didn't want to face it. [I found] there was just this real meaning in discussing [the loss] directly with the person that was most affected by it. And I think that's true of everything."

A Life Less Punishing cover

Photo: Supplied by Allen & Unwin NZ

Although he once chose "staring into a phone" or isolating himself when things got hard, Heath often seeks out connection now.

"How much more meaningful it is to organise a dinner and have friends and family around and cook for them and sit down and chat than it is to sit at home in front of Netflix and order Uber Eats? There's a stark difference between how you feel when you go to bed after one of those things and when you go to bed after the other."

Rather than trying to become a "perfect, completely realised individual", Heath says his message is more about acting on some of the thousand little opportunities in life we get to become a slightly better person.

Really listening to other people when they're speaking is a good start, he says.

"If you're sitting down with a friend or a family member, actually just listen to what they're saying rather than waiting for them to finish talking so you can start talking."

Dropping unrealistic expectations for a partner who is "everything" at once is a helpful move, Heath says.

"People want a partner that is both very stable and very exciting. They want someone to be their lover and their best friend and it's like your best friend can be your best friend. Your partner, your partner.

"People spend years and years looking for this imaginary perfect person, this rom-com person that's going to solve all their problems in their life, when really, I just think you need to find someone that you like, and that you love, and go forward with that and spend some time.

"We're not here long enough to really be nitpicking people too much, you know what I mean? And the more time you spend with someone, the more that love grows and the meaning comes from that."

Finally, although it's a "cliche", trying to live more like a dog could be worth your time, he says.

His own dog Colin never knows where the party is but is always ready and willing.

"You go, 'Colin, let's go'. And he's like 'Amen. Let's go, whatever it is. I'm 100 percent into this. I love you more than anything. You're cool to me'.

"If there's no one else in the world and you've reached out, you can also get a dog. A dog goes a long way to helping with loneliness."