Finding happiness in 52 weeks

From Summer Times 2021/2022, 10:05 am on 5 January 2021

The story of Lauren Keenan's life wasn't going according to script in the winter of 2017.  

The Wellington writer's marriage had broken down, loneliness soared while her confidence plummeted.

She took the advice of Dr Seuss, who said "'You'll never be bored when you try something new. There's really no limit to what you can do.”

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Photo: Supplied

With those words in her ears, she tried something new every week, from eating a vodka-infused doughnut to ziplining. 

Lauren became the hero of her own story. 

The tale is told in her new book, The 52 Week Project: How I fixed my life by trying a new thing every week for a year. 

Lauren tells Jesse Mulligan she had a dual problem of feeling bad and at the same time feeling bad about feeling bad.

“I describe it in my book as the 'downward spiral of suck'. It’s my way of describing that feeling. You feel really bad, so you eat all the pies and watch all the Netflix and you don’t do any exercise – you basically exist like an amoeba who has no ability to see a way out – you just feel even worse about yourself.”

Lauren says her marriage fell apart partly because she and husband didn’t do enough to cultivate it. Her advice for married couples is to spend money on a babysitter so you can do nice things together.

After the split, Lauren found herself suddenly having time of her own while the kids were at their father’s. She recalls one wintery night in Wellington she decided she wanted to do something but was turned down by 27 of her friends.

“I invited pretty much everybody I knew to hang out with me, every single one of them said no… it felt pretty doomful.”

In the beginning, she had her friends take her on journeys to do new things – most of which were their hobbies – but she soon learned she had to do things on her own.

“If you really want to do something, it’s great to just do it by yourself… on the 27 Rejections of Doom night, I realised I just needed to do something new – I needed to be in control of my own destiny a little bit more.”

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Photo: Lauren Keenan

Many of the things Lauren tried meant making herself vulnerable. One of the hardest for her was getting a makeover.

“When I was 15, I was voted the third ugliest girl at school, which is one of those things that kids do, but it had kind of set on me for a long time in my adult life. I’d managed to convince myself that I wasn’t the kind of person that would do that sort of thing.

“The whole time I just felt like an absolute imposter. I felt like she was laughing at me… there was no worthwhile reason for me to do this. There’s a lot of bright lights and a lot of mirrors and, for someone who’s insecure about how they look, it’s absolutely terrifying.”

Not everything Lauren did brought her excitement or a revelation. She recalls being excited about a helicopter ride but finding it anti-climactic.

On the flip side, some things she thought would be relatively boring, such as learning cross-stitch and doing proper push-ups have turned out to be a big part of her life.

Lauren has slowed down with the new experiences, taking it down to one per month, and she says we should all give it a go.

“I think we can’t underestimate how much we exist in survival mode a lot of the time, especially in the last couple of years. Just because we might have been in a lockdown and have all this free time doesn’t mean we have the emotional capacity to write a great novel or do all these things.

“But I also think it’s very hard to be honest with yourself and we have this uncomfortable relationship with our hopes and dreams because there’s this fear that you think you’re going to be good at something if you try it, but then you find that when you do it you’re mediocre – I do think that holds us back.”