In the mid-1700s, Benjamin Franklin developed a strange habit: Almost every morning before he began to work, he’d stand at his window, nude, taking an “air bath.” Franklin was no exhibitionist: He was a Revolutionary Era life hacker determined to optimize his happiness and output through ritualized, self-administered experiments on brain and body. As human impulses go, the drive to self-improve is just as fundamental as the need for sex or food; these days, the internet can help you find your air bath and improve upon multitudes of problems—and even introduce you to some you never knew you had.
Few understand this better than Ayelet Waldman, a 52-year-old novelist, essayist, and former federal public defender who’s turned mining her own well-being and psychological landscape into a part-time job. A Really Good Day ($25.95, Knopf) is the document of her boldest effort to fix herself: taking “microdoses” of LSD, a practice she discovered in a 2011 book by psychedelic researcher James Fadiman. According to his guidelines, microdosers should take 10 micrograms of LSD every three days, a quantity well under the threshold at which a user experiences hallucinations. If they do this, microdosing proponents claim, they’ll be rewarded with an improved mood, deeper insights, and unprecedented focus and creativity.
Waldman’s problems, including mood swings and anxiety, were relatively ordinary. But she worried that, as she headed into menopause, the hairline cracks in her emotional health threatened to disrupt her marriage and livelihood. She acquired a dropper bottle of liquid LSD from a professor friend-of-a-friend and began a 30-day microdosing regimen, which she chronicles in daily journal entries.
While the drug’s effects were “sub-perceptual”—they didn’t interrupt her everyday experiences—Waldman reports feeling “activated” on the days she dosed. She suffered from occasional LSD-induced insomnia and stomachaches, but her chronic shoulder pain dissipated. She fought less with her husband and reveled in the joy her children provided. She wasn’t as irritable and, perhaps most crucially, vastly more efficient: Even on days she felt cranky, she was “weirdly productive,” she jots down in her log. Most of her time was spent on this book. “Found myself so effortlessly in the flow that I didn’t even notice time passing,” she writes. “I see why people microdose as an alternative to Adderall.”
There’s no hard data on the prevalence of microdosing nor any clinical studies of its effects, but growing participation in Reddit threads suggests the practice is expanding rapidly among the achievement-addicted. Despite the therapeutic benefits, Waldman resists the impulse to write a cheerleading tale of self-discovery; instead, she becomes an historian of drug use and policy.
Drawing on her experience as a public defender, she weaves together memoir and advocacy, jumping rapidly between starry-eyed passages about romantic love and dense, journalistic writing. It’s part Eat Pray Love, part The New Jim Crow, the latter of which Waldman references explicitly when discussing America’s history of racially discriminatory drug policies. At times, her leaps are too ambitious, and she struggles to make smooth transitions between emotional self-interrogation and grander political ideas. (It’s a rare thing to wish a first-person book were more navel gazing.) But mostly it’s a relief to read a drug book that’s edifying and not merely a collection of someone’s wacky capers while under the influence.
Waldman insists her experiment was never about connecting to a higher power or undergoing a spiritual awakening. But she certainly has motivations beyond self-tinkering: She uses her experience as a neurotic, middle-aged mother of four to normalize drug use that would otherwise be stigmatized and to argue that substances such as LSD should be decriminalized and reframed in our culture. The delight of this book is good proof that she’s right.