Review | Dear Stranger: Letters on the Subject of Happiness


In my previous post, I promised to post the review of Dear Stranger: Letters on the Subject of Happiness. I initially planned to write the review only, but at the last minute I decided to share my experience instead, and write the review in another post.

Dear Stranger is a collection of letters from 50 people, writing about happiness and what it means for them. It covers a lot of things about mental health, with many authors draw from their personal experiences: their struggles, how they coped, and how they tried to find happiness. I also learned from this book that happiness is fleeting. It doesn’t come in such big, grandeur moments, but happiness comes in little things. Like seeing your dog wag her tail when she’s welcoming you home, or seeing someone smile. It could be as simple as a slow morning or a walk in the park. Happiness can be found everywhere, if we try hard enough to look for it.

What I liked

I felt that after reading this book, I understand a lot more about mental health, and the effects on people. There are explanations about what depression really is, things that could cause people to fall into depression, things they avoided when they were feeling low, things that helped them get out of it, and a lot more. My favorite analogy about depression is written by Eoin Colfer, ‘Depression is like a dark cloud that can settle on any hilltop. No, wait, I’ve got a better simile: depression is like a Brighton seagull. It doesn’t care who it poops on.’ 

There are lots of things that are thought-provoking, and stories that I could relate too. I read this book with a highlighter in my hand, and I used it a lot.


What I found interesting

The geek in me enjoyed this part where Daniel J. Levitin — a cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, author, and musician — explains how music and crying can help making us feel better from psychological and biochemical angles.

Prolactin, a tranquilising and soothing hormone, is one of the neurochemical responses to sadness. A chemical analysis of tears reveals that prolactin is not always present in tears — it is not released in tears that lubricate the eye, or when the eye is irritated, or in tears of joy; it is only released in tears of sorrow. Sad music allows us to ‘trick’ our brain into releasing prolactin in response to the safe or imaginary sorrow induced by the music, then turns around our mood. — Daniel J. Levitin

Francesca Martinez and Claire Greaves also write their opinions about how society can add to the growing unhappiness of a person.

So much suffering comes from living in a culture that makes people feel not beautiful enough, not rich enough, not successful enough. But beauty, wealth, and success are just social constructs designed to disempower people. — Francesca Martinez

The society we live in sends out incorrect messages about happiness. Adverts convince us that we will be happy if we have the most fashionable clothes, the biggest TV and the body of a supermodel. We are constantly bombarded with images of smiling faces owning materialistic items but materialism isn’t happinness. — Claire Greaves

I can really resonate with this, as living in the digital era means I can see people and their (seemingly) perfect lives. While I’m stuck in what feels like a dark hole, I watch them live their glossy, instagrammable lives, and I subconsciously compare myself to them. Subsequently, this makes me feel inadequate for not having that kind of beauty, wealth, or success. This piece has opened my eyes, and now I try hard not to compare and focus on my life.

Naomi Alderman also says, ‘...the pressure to exhibit happiness is ironically making us more miserable.‘ We all know too well that social media has encouraged us to show what we’ve got, but I think somehow we focus too hard on showing the image of a happy life, and less on making the happy life itself.


My favorite story

Surprisingly, my favorite story is this short children’s story by Jez Alborough, about Nat the Cat and Hugo the Hare. In very a simple story, Jez successfully explains that low feeling that’s familiar for people with mental health, and the right way for friends/family to deal with that. She writes the story in a way that children would understand, and even better, it rhymes!


My favorite quotes

There are A LOT of quotes that I loved. Some of them:

We all put our brave face on in public. What’s going on behind the smiley face is often a different story. — Eoin Colfer

Every day, when you wake up, try to remember what it took you to be here. The chances of us bursting into life are practically zero. The cold, dark expanse of space could have been lifeless and the dust of distant stars could have formed something else. Yet, here you are. — Francesca Martinez

Dare to follow your heart, because it usually doesn’t lie even if your voice hasn’t the courage to speak on its behalf. — Tim Smit

The good news is that even in the blackest night there are blessings to be counted, if only you can find them, if only you can have the courage to see that — no matter how hard life is, no matter how alone you feel — there are still these brief moments of happiness. They can be found anywhere — in the smell of a dog, the curve of a child’s face, the shifting clouds, a piece of music that was created by someone who has been dead for fifty years. — Tony Parsons

So much human misery is caused by people trying to fit into holes they don’t belong. — Sathnam Sanghera

…and many, many more.

This post is on the verge of turning into a lengthy essay, so I’ll just stop here. All in all, I’d recommend this book, especially if you’re struggling with mental health, or if you want to understand more about it. There are parts where it’s a bit meh, and reading that many letters about one subject can feel a bit repetitive, but it’s still worth to read. Even better, the profit for the sale of each book is donated to Mind, a registered charity in the UK who works to help people with poor mental health.

Related post: A Little Bit about Depression, from My Personal Experience

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  • Reply Nerissa Rahadian

    For the last 3 years I’ve been learning medicine, Mental health is actually the topic I’m interested in the most, and at the same time it’s the most forgotten by most of people. Because I think it’s usual for doctors to heal the wounds that can be seen with the eyes, but another capability is needed to heal the wounds from the inside. I always think that it takes a person with a very brave and kind heart to be able to talk with the people with mental health.
    Now reading your review here makes me want to have my own copy! Thank you for this review Kak Dixie

    October 23, 2016 at 10:25 pm
    • Reply Dixiezetha

      I agree with you Nerissa, I think most people tend to turn their focus on things that visible to the eyes first, and that’s why mental health doesn’t get enough attention it deserves, which leads to the lack of understanding. Mental health is as important as physical health, but sadly many people haven’t realized that yet. That’s why I think it’s important to raise the awareness.

      I definitely recommend this book, and I’m glad if this review could help 🙂

      October 25, 2016 at 11:39 am

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