Monthly Archives: May 2014

The joy of being part of something bigger

That sinking feeling of being alone in a crowded room isn’t a great one, is it? Although I hope it’s not something you experience too often, it really isn’t unusual to feel this way, especially if your mood has taken a nose-dive.

For me it’s something I particularly encounter if I’m going through an occasional rough patch and am in the company of others, especially at some kind of social gathering involving friends or family.

You’re with people you love, supposedly on an occasion when everyone’s in high spirits and having fun, yet you feel completely detached from your surroundings, watching the proceedings as though through the kind of thick bullet-proof glass you’d expect a bank teller to sit behind.

I’ve been there. Perhaps you have too?

The paradox is that psychologists remind us that one great way out of depression (and a shield against it in the first place) is trying to feel part of something bigger than ourselves.

By this they’re generally saying that those who feel they live a life of meaning tend to enjoy better emotional health than those who don’t. I think they’d say such meaning might come through a religious belief, say, or being a parent, or doing a job which feels purposeful and meaningful.

But I’m pretty sure they’d also agree that it’s possible to feel part of something bigger when you’re around others – but only, of course, if you feel connected when you do so.

Every year in the San Francisco Bay Area, there’s an event called Maker Faire which was started by a magazine I’ve always loved: ‘Make’. The magazine is about building cool stuff like robots, machines and – for example – marshmallow cannons, and Maker Faire is a giant show celebrating arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself mindset.

Having always wanted to attend, it wasn’t exactly hard to persuade myself to visit the other Sunday and to say I wasn’t disappointed would be the understatement of all time.

Among a bewildering assortment of mind candy I adored the duelling remote controlled drones. I loved watching kids sitting cross-legged on the floor as they were helped to take apart technology, breaking open old digital cameras – prising the guts out of redundant computer hard drives to see what was hidden inside. I marvelled at a steam-driven printing press from the early 19th century, actually working. I lapped up a whole area given over to high school kids building robots that were battling rivals.

I felt energised by people’s unabashed enthusiasm and enterprise. I felt recharged and – yes – although I was there alone, I felt part of something bigger.

Heading off to some kind of big event like this when your spirits are low can be a calculated risk of course, but there’s no denying that it can sometimes make a big difference. Perhaps the trick is to ensure that if possible its theme is something you’ll find inspiring so you’ll be surrounded by like-minded others, even if you don’t necessarily connect to them.

So where might you go, then? And when?

Being comfortable with yourself

There’s a bit of a green thing going on as I write this. Today, as is fairly normal for me, I’m working in the Green Library at Stanford University, named not because it’s painted green but after Cecil Green, a wealthy British-born geophysicist and philanthropist who was one of the founders of Texas Instruments.

As is my normal routine now, I got an early train from Redwood City to Palo Alto, then hopped on the free shuttle which delivers people all over the vast Stanford campus, and it was on the bus that I witnessed the second of today’s green phenomena.

Seated just across from me was a youngish man, fairly conservatively but fashionably dressed, and with a face you’d probably describe as friendly-looking, on his lap a book about children’s education.

And here’s the thing. All ten of his fingers sported bright green nail polish.

Now this sight triggered two related but quite different reactions in me.

The first was a ‘wow, that’s unusual – an otherwise fairly conventional-looking guy, but with green nails’ kind of thing, which probably says just as much about my own (perhaps a bit boringly conservative) mindset as it does about his decision to sport decorated digits.

But my second thought was maybe more interesting, more along the lines of noticing how very unbothered he seemed about being on the bus with (unusually for a man) brightly painted fingernails.

In short, he seemed utterly comfortable and at home with who he was, and that to me felt like a big lesson.

Let’s imagine, for instance, that you happen to be going through a patch of low mood or depression – just as I do from time to time. It’s easy to see why you might dislike yourself for being like this, and you could easily believe that others are also taking a dim view of it. And of course it’s bad enough feeling grim, without also having to go through the whole self-loathing thing.

The thing is of course, although you and I may not care to admit it our depression is simply part of who we are. So isn’t there sense in finding a way to be comfortable with this? Or if not completely comfortable, at least a little less uncomfortable than we currently are?

I’m not talking about the type of comfort which mindlessly accepts that things are awful and will never change. I just mean we could perhaps both be a little kinder to, and more accepting of, ourselves than we currently are.

Perhaps being comfortable about letting our low mood show in public isn’t really that different from being okay about sitting on the bus with green-painted nails?

A particularly fetching shade they were, too.

Lift your mood by seeking the positive in people

It’s pretty easy to hate people, especially those you don’t know.

The man who cuts you up in traffic. Hate him.

The woman who allows the door to slam, regardless of the fact that you’re following along right behind her. Hate her.

The ‘we’re in our own little world’ couple who suddenly stop on a busy sidewalk so you almost bump into them. Hate them.

Hate is a very strong word of course, one which shouldn’t be used lightly or trivially. And the truth is, we probably don’t actually hate the perpetrators of these social misdemeanours – we’re just cross with them. The trouble is, if you’re not careful negative observations like these have a tendency to spill out into the rest of your daily life, putting you in a bad mood, spoiling what might otherwise have been a better day.

What if we could learn from experiences like these, however? Perhaps they can be a reminder of how easy it is to slip into looking for the bad in people (and situations) meaning we have a tendency to take a negative approach instead of a positive one.

Tending to see things from a more positive perspective is actually little more than a habitual behaviour, and like most habits it can be learnt.

How? Simply by finding ways to behave differently and in the way you choose, over a long enough period. The jury’s out on exactly how long it takes to acquire a new habit. Some say 28 days, others suggest it’s a moveable feast. Most agree, though, that new habits can indeed be picked up.

So how about adopting the following small exercise designed to encourage a positive approach? Over the next few days – weeks even – rather than focusing on their faults and weaknesses, aim to look for the good in everyone you come across. This works best on the kind of occasions when you’d be forgiven for thinking the worst of them, like the guy who cuts you up in traffic.

Maybe you could find a way to admire his determination, even if only begrudgingly. You could perhaps sympathise with him in the belief that it might be having a hard time that’s causing him to behave like this. Heck, if his car’s clean you could even give him points for looking after it.

There’s usually a way to see the positive, even if it’s a bit of a struggle at times.

Why not try to see positive thinking as a kind of muscle? Perhaps the more you use it, the stronger it (and you) will get? And the tougher the exercise, the more you’ll build that muscle.

See setbacks as temporary

It would be easy to view Henry Ford as one of life’s bigger successes. Although he didn’t actually invent either the automobile or the assembly line, he certainly popularised them both in starting the hugely important Ford Motor Company.

What many forget, however, is that Mr Ford started a string of other businesses before launching the eponymous motor company.

They all failed. Each and every one. In fact Henry Ford was completely broke five times during the years before he started making and selling motor cars.

It’s too late to ask him of course, but I’m pretty sure one of the keys to his eventual success was that he viewed his setbacks as only temporary rather than permanent.

And I think that’s such an important lesson for both you and I when it comes to bouncing back if things go wrong. I say ‘if’, of course, but the simple truth is that it’s ‘when’ not ‘if’. There will always be setbacks. Life’s path is rarely straightforward and we’ll invariably have to deal with obstacles and problems – and almost certainly failure at times.

If you fail an examination, or get fired from your job, or find your relationship has fallen apart, it’s easy to see the situation as permanent and somehow terminal.

Look back at your past life, however, and you’ll almost certainly recall times when you overcame other challenges which at the time seemed crashingly life-changing.

What happened was that, even though you may not have foreseen it, you moved on. You recovered.

Surely what has happened once can happen again? And if you’ve somehow dealt with, and moved on from, more than one big setback in the past – then surely that’s even better evidence of your recovery experience?

Maybe when something goes wrong the trick is to accept that it’s not good, but to then remind yourself that ‘this too shall pass’.

Even the scariest setback can be a lot less troubling when you see it as something to get over, rather than something to permanently halt you in your tracks.

Let the music move you

Do you have a favorite lullaby? One that you heard as a kid or sing with your children? Every night I snuggle up with my two daughters before they go off to sleep and we sing.

It’s a dance, it’s a dance, it’s a dancing day
Follow your dreams and find your own way
It’s a dance, it’s a dance, it’s a dancing day

We each improvise other verses to this, and it’s a way to both connect and reflect on what kind of day it was. It comforts all of us.

There is great emotional power in music, to uplift or calm or energize. Often you can find me with my headphones on, swaying side to side as I write at a coffee shop, jumping around gleefully as I put away laundry, or putting a bounce in my step as I go for a walk. Sometimes I even dance to just the music of my breath and my heartbeat.

Moving is good for the body, mind, and spirit alike. And it can break up the day with a bit of fun!

If music moves you, why not find three minutes today to put on an upbeat or downtempo song that you really love? Of course, you might be worried about other people watching you, so you could find somewhere with a closed door. I’ve even danced in the bathroom in a pinch! But I’m just as likely to swirl around in a park or at the beach, since I like to give people an example of freely moving without any thought of others staring in judgment.

I like to think of it as a movement meditation. Actually, you could do it even without really seeming to move, if you’re not able to get up and dance. Even if you tap a finger, let your eyelids blink a dance, or close your eyes entirely and imagine yourself boogie-ing like there’s no tomorrow, the music will be moving you. It might bring a smile to your lips or a tear to your eye. That’s wonderful! You will be feeling whatever you need to feel. And maybe healing too.

I’m going to let the music move me today, and I hope you’ll join me. It’s a dancing day!

Having goals to look forward to

‘What are you looking forward to?’ For me this is a great litmus test for my mood. When I feel good I’ll be able to give you plenty of answers, but on a shabby day I’ll struggle to name just one.

Having keen anticipation for anything can be a marvellous feeling, but the opposite is also true. Any reminder that you see nothing positive on the horizon can knock a severe dent in your wellbeing.

Low mood nibbles away at your enthusiasm and energy. It leaves you feeling negative rather than positive, pessimistic rather than optimistic, and rear-looking rather than forward-gazing.

And with such a glass-half-full disposition it would indeed be surprising if you suddenly started setting yourself significant goals. However, when you’re sailing through troubled waters mood-wise it’s worth remembering that even small goals are better than nothing, especially when they’re achievements to which you could look forward.

There’s a handy little acronym which can help if you’re thinking about giving yourself a modest goal or two.

They should be S.M.A.R.T.: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.

Let’s look at this model in terms of getting you out to meet a friend (making social connections are a great way of giving your mood a nudge).

1. Specific – Rather than saying ‘I want to meet friends’ let’s be specific. Who do you want to meet, and where, and when? ‘I want to meet Jules for a coffee’ is the kind of thing you should be aiming for.

2. Measurable – how will you know you’ve done it? Well, meeting Jules for a coffee is pretty measurable, isn’t it? You’ll know you’ve met up.

3. Achievable – is the goal realistic and attainable? As long as you’re not feeling too awful, it might indeed be realistic to get yourself out of the house to meet Jules.

4. Relevant – it’s important to choose goals that matter. If you like Jules, meeting her for coffee probably is a good idea, whereas painting the living room ceiling when you’re feeling low very likely isn’t.

5. Time-bound – quite simply a good goal needs a timeframe. You might say ‘By this time next week I’m going to have met Jules for coffee.’ Don’t leave it open ended. It’ll probably never happen if you do.

I think this system is helpful when setting bigger goals, but it can be just as handy when it comes to giving yourself some kind of more modest objective on a down day.

Please don’t only leave goal-setting to your better times.

The unfettered joy of learning

I wonder if you can remember that moment when you learnt to ride a bike? I can. I’m pretty sure I progressed straight from a tricycle to a two-wheeler, without the benefit of training wheels, but with the presence of super-patient parents who took it in turns to run along beside me holding the back of the saddle.

Their cunning strategy was to employ a lighter and lighter touch, eventually running beside me but not actually touching the saddle, and of course by that stage, even though I didn’t realise it, I was peddling along under my own steam.

Then before I knew it I gasped in astonishment as I saw them across the garden instead of being where they should have been alongside me.

‘If they’re not here, then, what the – WAHEY! – I’m riding my bike!’

I’m sure the next moment saw a shock-induced wobble, but the good work had been done. I’d seen I could ride a bike. On my own.

Let’s think about the four feelings which probably resulted from picking up this new skill:

1. The process of learning itself kept me curious and engaged: would I really be able to ride a bike? Just think… Where would I be able to go once I’d learned? It was fun. It was a mission.

2. Once I’d seen I could ride the bike I had an enormous sense of accomplishment. I did it. I did it!

3. Of course this boosted my self confidence. Surely anything would be possible now I’d pulled off the task of learning to ride a bike.

4. My resilience received a boost too. No matter how many times I might have fallen off, I’d overcome the obstacles and ended up a bike rider.

Overall, I know it felt great. I’m sure my mood was on top form that day.

I’m pretty sure you and I can replay some, if not all, of these emotional responses by ensuring that we’re always learning new things. So what will you learn today?

You can do it. You can.

Noticing all that surrounds you

Keeping a prisoner in solitary confinement is a particularly unpleasant form of incarceration. With the odd exception where an inmate is placed alone in a cell either for their own safety or that of others, it’s a practice that can swiftly lead to prisoners developing severe mental disorders.

In fact the damaging psychological consequences of locking someone up on their own have been reasonably common knowledge since the 1860s, yet even today thousands of prisoners are held in solitary confinement all over the world.

It doesn’t take a particularly vivid imagination to see that being denied any connections with others while also being confined in a small space with little or no visual stimulus could quickly turn toxic.

Here’s the thing though. Isn’t this almost the kind of position in which you and I place ourselves (yes, ourselves) when our mood takes a tumble?

If I’ve hit a low spot I’m all too aware that I can be inclined to isolate myself, and it’s bad enough that I shun all but unavoidable contact with others, but I’m also pretty sure I do that thing where my eyes appear to see nothing of my surroundings. They move slowly with no particular focus.

When I stop to think about it, it can feel as if I’m locked in a prison cell with its key thrown away, yet ironically this prison is one of my own making.

And of course this low-mood/prison cell idea soon becomes self-perpetuating. The less I notice of my surroundings, the worse I end up feeling. I’ve retreated into my own little world: a world which isn’t particularly appealing.

So stop. Break out of that prison. Scale its walls and set yourself free.

How? A good start is to shift your gaze so you focus properly on all that’s around you. See small details that were invisible to you, even though they were right before your eyes. Notice shapes, colours and textures. Explore the spaces between shapes.

This may seem a modest action, but it can play a powerful part in lifting you out of that hole in which you’d rather not be lurking.

The right time to begin your prison break-out? How about right now?

Treat yourself and develop better habits

Now you probably don’t really want to know this, but thanks to a new purchase I made last week I’m expecting to need to excuse myself at least once during the hour it’ll probably take to write this post.

The thing is, I don’t know about you but I just about always struggle to drink enough water (and, yes, I do realise what an over-privileged dilemma that is, given that according to the United Nations more than 750 million of the world’s people have no access to clean water). Guilty feelings aside though, I’m sure you and I both know that keeping properly hydrated is good for mind and body.

Having a refillable water bottle beside me on the desk is a good start, but even with the H2O staring me in the eye, I don’t knock back nearly enough of the wet stuff.

That’s changed though, at least temporarily, by treating myself to a snazzy new narrow-necked water container, nicely-designed and a good deal more ergonomic than the old one (hopefully also bidding farewell to the soggy shirt fronts that resulted from struggling to drink from a wide-mouthed container while driving).

The new bottle is much nicer to use and easy on the eye too. What’s more, its newness means I’m considerably more conscious of it than I was of its predecessor.

So what can we learn from this, other than that I’ve suddenly become a more frequent flusher? Well I think it’s simply, but powerfully, that when you want to encourage a healthy habit, it can help a lot if you introduce some freshness and a heightened feel-good factor into your world by making a few changes, especially when it feels as if you’re treating yourself to something nice.

Want to keep a journal? Find yourself a gorgeous notebook. Like to eat more healthily? Don’t just go back to the same old shelves in the same old supermarket – look for new, tastier ingredients some place you haven’t ventured before.

And, of course, think about getting yourself a new water bottle if you’d like to up your hydration levels.

It seems to me that making yourself feel good about making changes means you’re halfway there.

Now, if you’ll just excuse me.

Cultivate your connections

Your computer is connected to a lot of people, you know. (As well as a lot of people you know, minus the comma.)

In terms of the former, you could for instance reach out to President Barack Obama. His email address is president@whitehouse.gov

Alternatively British Prime Minister David Cameron is just a few clicks away at https://email.number10.gov.uk/

Then again one of the world’s richest men, Bill Gates, can reportedly be reached at billg@microsoft.com

Now I’m quite sure there’s only the flimsiest of chances that a message to any one of these three will get you a personal reply from the addressee themselves, but the point I’m making is that through the internet you’re theoretically connected to nearly three billion people – all the way from the President of the United States of America to the driver of the last bus you took.

You’re (again, theoretically) more connected to more people than anyone else at any other time in history.

However whilst this might be of passing interest to you on a good day – one on which you’re feeling relatively at one with the world – it’s likely to be at best pretty meaningless on a blue day and at worst a trigger to even further despair.

Three billion connections? Then why do I feel so abjectly miserable? Why do I feel so lonely?

The thing is, you’ll know as well as I do that when your mood is low, you tend to minimise contact with others. Whether physically or metaphorically, you pull the curtains and retreat into your shell. When you feel rough, it can take superhuman efforts to force yourself to interact.

But however difficult it may be, it’s unquestionably an effort worth making. Feeling connected to others is a sure-fire way of lifting your sense of wellbeing.

It’s definitely worth remembering though that, as Benjamin Franklin observed, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, for not only can connections lift your mood if it’s crashed, they can also help prevent it bottoming out in the first place.

Connections come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from a simple ‘good morning’ to someone you pass in the street, all the way up to a warm conversation with an old friend. Usefully though, I’m pretty sure that if you experience enough of them, even small interactions build up like raindrops filling a barrel, leaving you feeling lifted and – yes – loved.

So look for little and large opportunities to connect with other people in all sorts of ways, and you’ll be helping to beat the blahs.