Monthly Archives: May 2014

Use your talents, help others, feel better

In late 12th century England, a ‘talent’ was a unit of weight and also of currency. Historians tell us that when used to measure weight it was rather loosely defined: probably somewhere between 55 and 130 pounds. When used as a unit of currency, one talent represented a ‘talent-weight’ of gold, silver or brass.

Taking the mid-point of the weight range (around 90 pounds) at today’s prices a talent-weight of brass would be worth around $150. A talent-weight of silver would come in at around $28,000.

As for a talent-weight of gold, well with the price as it stands today, you’d be looking at around $1.87 million.

That’s inflation for you.

Just as a matter of interest, ninety pounds is only just a little more than weight of three standard-sized gold bars, or ingots. That’s almost a small enough size to have fallen down the back of your sofa. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Something else to ponder is that although you may not have a spare 1.87 million dollars hanging around – or even a spare million – I bet you do have a talent. I bet there’s at least one skill you’re pretty proud of possessing. I bet there’s something you can do better than the average person.

So what is it, and when did you last put it to good use? And perhaps even more importantly, when did you last employ it in order to help someone else?

Knowing that you’re good at something can be a good feeling, but an even better feeling can result from using that talent to help others. Specifically, you’re likely to get a sense of euphoria caused by a rush of endorphins immediately after helping someone, then you’ll experience a longer-lasting period of calm. Your stress levels will probably fall, and your overall wellbeing should pick up. Wow, it almost sounds like the results of some kind of highly effective medication, doesn’t it?

What’s particularly attractive about this variety of ‘medicine’ however is that it comes with no harmful side-effects and doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription. Even better, it also benefits the person you help.

So by all means seek out opportunities to apply your unique skills and talents in the service of others today, in the happy knowledge that doing so will help both you and those you assist. But please also remember that it can be good to share small talents as well as large.

Maybe you’re good at making others smile? Do your stuff today, then.

Perhaps you have a knack for being polite and considerate? Hold that door open and let the other person through first.

Or it could be that you think of yourself as a particularly good listener. Encourage someone to talk their problem through with you.

Why not do something for someone else today, therefore, safe in the knowledge that it’ll also be doing something for you?

Remembering to be happy

Annoying, isn’t it? Once in a while I’ll slide contentedly into bed at the end of a long day, and only then remember that I didn’t check that all the doors downstairs were securely locked. Generally it’s the last thing I do before bedtime – a quick circumnavigation of the house to ensure everything is bolted – but as I say, occasionally I forget. But fortunately I’m prompted to take action as my head hits the pillow.

I’m sure you too have regular daily routines, about which you’re reminded by triggers. For example, it’s notable that many people’s morning bathroom habits are carried out in the same order each day. For me, shaving reminds me to floss (always next), then flossing leads to brushing my teeth, then that’s the trigger for me to step into the shower.

There are of course benefits from occasionally breaking over-familiar routines, but that’s another nudge for another day. For now let’s focus on the things you do that get triggered by something else. It’s how we remember to do all that needs to be done.

Let me ask you a question, though. I’m guessing that you’re not averse to the idea of being happy? Or happier? Or even, let’s face it, just a little less blue?

So how do you remember to be happy?

Left to its own devices, the unhappy mind has no trouble whatsoever remembering that it’s miserable. Low moods seem pretty low maintenance. Do nothing and neither will they. So sometimes it pays to take a more active approach, actually deciding that you’re going to take steps to boost your wellbeing. And this is not impossible, for there are relatively proven steps you can take which are likely to leave you feeling better. Things like moderate exercise, recalling the stuff you have to be grateful for, connecting with others: all or any of these can play a part in lifting your mood a little.

But like anything you do, it can help to have a way of remembering to do something about your low mood, and one way of doing so is to keep some sort of reminder where you’re likely to see it. Perhaps it will be a particular greetings card that you pin to the wall, or a picture you keep in your wallet. The point is to find yourself some way of jogging your memory.

Even looking at it and smiling is a start. Why not try to remember to be happy today? Life’s better when you do.

Reward yourself

You’re not a pigeon, right? I’m delighted that Moodnudges is read by a rich variety of individuals, but at the same time I’m pretty certain we’re all members of the human species.

Acknowledging, therefore, that you’re not now – nor never have been – the owner of a pair of wings, bear with me for a moment when I suggest that you and I might actually learn something from the behaviour of our fine-feathered friends.

In the 1960s, the Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner invented a device popularly known as the ‘Skinner box’, more formally an ‘operant conditioning chamber’, in which he placed a succession of pigeons (and rats).

In the case of the pigeons, they were able to learn that pecking a plastic disc opened a drawer full of yummy grains. Snack time.

Skinner’s pigeon experiments resulted in him developing the theory of reinforcement, and the idea that behaviours which are rewarded are more likely to be repeated.

As I said, neither of us are pigeons, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t benefit from experiments like Skinner’s. Over the years, we humans have learnt a ton of stuff from psychologists’ observations of animals.

The simple truth is that many creatures are inclined to modify their behaviour when they’re rewarded – whether it’s a biscuit when a dog sits before crossing the road with his owner, or a kid who does her homework on time to ‘win’ a star on a chart stuck to the refrigerator door.

And I believe we can both benefit from this notion, particularly during our rougher spells. Perhaps you have them now and then? I know I do. The occasional reward can be a wonderful thing, even when it’s self-administered.

Here’s how it can work. When things are less sunny for me, even the simplest of everyday tasks can feel like monumental endeavours. Doing the dishes, making the bed, preparing food: they’re the chores that underpin daily life, yet they’re also no small challenge on a blue day.

One answer? Promise yourself a reward when you’ve completed a chore. Perhaps it’ll be a chapter of a good book, fifteen minutes of a computer game, or a square of chocolate. Choose whatever means something to you and gift yourself for ticking off one item from your day’s to-do list.

It might seem simplistic, but we both know that occasionally we need all the help we can get, and if it’s good enough for a pigeon, it’s good enough for us.

Take proper rests

OK, quick pop quiz time. If you don’t get enough of this particular thing, a lack of what can negatively impact your mood, immune system, memory, and stress level?

A clue. If you’ve been racing around too much in the last 24 hours, you might not be able to answer.

The activity I’m speaking of (or lack of activity, in actual fact) is rest, something that it’s very easy to forget, especially when you’re leading a busy life.

In the same way that if you leave it until you feel thirsty before you drink you’re almost certainly not drinking enough, if you only rest when you’re exhausted you’re probably failing to get sufficient down-time.

When coaches prepare schedules for top athletes, they’re sure to factor in time to rest and recover, especially before a big event, and I think you tend to take for granted the idea that rest is essential when you’ve done some strenuous physical activity. What you might perhaps forget, however, is that it’s every bit as important to take time out when you’ve been exercising your mind – either through ‘positive’ activities such as working or learning, or more negative ones like worrying or feeling low. These, too, can be debilitating.

Proper rest is great of course, but small chunks can be better than nothing.

Make a point of stopping what you’re doing every hour or so, and try to completely relax even if you’ve only got five minutes.

Every so often, aim to clear your mind of all thoughts. By all means meditate – if it’s your thing – but even if it isn’t, you have a lot to gain by taking a mental break.

If necessary, remind others around you that you need a break every now and then. Sometimes you need the co-operation of others to make a brief time out a possibility. You could always let them know that after a rest, you’re very likely to be nicer to be around, so they’ll benefit too.

Among other things, without proper rest your mood may wobble. Your immune system could weaken. Your memory might deteriorate. And you’re likely to feel stressed.

It’s amazing how much a simple sit-down can help.

Remember people you’re grateful for

Gosh, I really don’t know how to tell you this. You’d better brace yourself for bad news. It’s all about Academy Awards, you see. That’s right, the Oscars.

The thing is, and I’m deeply sorry to be the bearer of sad tidings, the chances of you (yes, you) winning an Oscar are cigarette-paperly slim. Ignoring the rather obvious fact that you’d first need to be an actor or movie production person of considerable renown (and, well, maybe you’re not), the population of the world divided by the number of awards given in an average lifetime suggests that the odds of you getting your moment at the podium are around one in seven million. That’s around the same odds of a couple having naturally conceived quadruplets.

Not too likely, I’d wager, and very unfair, but then life is all too often like this.

However, just because you probably won’t find yourself on a stage in Hollywood, shouldn’t stop you wondering about what you might say in your acceptance speech. Some stars have gone for the unconventional approach, such as Marlon Brando choosing to send a Native American woman in his place, but most take the time-honoured ‘I’d like to thank…’ approach, running through a list of people who helped make that particular person a success.

Here’s the thing, though. My guess is that we all have people for whom we can be grateful. We all have people we’re lucky to have in our lives. I know I do, and I’m sure you do too.

And since it’s always easier to fret about people who’ve treated you badly than it is to recognise those who’ve supported, boosted or encouraged you, there’s a lot to be said for running an imaginary video of your Oscar thank-you speech in your mind; especially just as you’re dropping off to sleep for the night.

But don’t just stop at the person’s name. In addition, why not try to come up with a few specific reasons for your gratitude? You’re grateful for them, but how and why?

When you go to bed thinking positive thoughts such as these, you’re not only likely to wake up in a better frame of mind, but it’s also often the case that you’ll to get a better night’s sleep.

Possibly even a few dreams of winning best supporting actor.

Keep a record of positive stuff

I’d have thought it would have been a higher figure actually, but surveys suggest that around two-thirds of Americans believe the media focuses too heavily on bad news rather than good.

The trouble is, and it’s confirmed by journalist friends, bad news sells. Whether it’s on TV, in a newspaper, or online, the sad fact is that nearly all of us expect news coverage to be of negative, worrying and troubling events.

Not really the kind of stuff designed to lift your mood is it?

And speaking of moods, when you or I are in a low one, it’s as if there’s a shouty newspaper editor inside our head yelling at us to PRINT MORE BAD STORIES. When you’re feeling a bit fragile you may tend to see the world through a blue filter, meaning that you focus on what’s gone wrong and what’s not fair rather than celebrating what’s gone right and counting your blessings, even if they’re just modest ones.

Of course, this relentless churning of negative thoughts simply makes things worse, or at least makes them no better.

So how do we escape from this cesspit? Is escape even possible?

You know, I think it is, although like all these things it’s going to take a bit of effort.

You see, even the shabbiest of days generally aren’t rotten to the core. Think back through them and you’ll almost certainly be able to identify one or perhaps two better bits, even if they’re something as low-key as your bus having arrived on time, or that you found a seat when you boarded it.

Recalling positive events is a good start, and there’s certainly sense in doing so every night before you go to sleep: if you can, try and recall three things to be grateful for. There’s even more value, though, in committing them to paper, and keeping a positive events diary can make a big difference to low mood. There’s no need to write lots, just a brief note of anything good that’s happened can work wonders.

This can be especially encouraging when you’ve done it for a while and can look back to see that – well – the past wasn’t actually completely gloomy.

Why not acquire a good news habit? It’s no bad thing.

Focus on the here and now

The Ridgeway is Britain’s oldest road. In use for around 5,000 years, you’d probably best describe it as a trackway but having walked every inch of its 87 miles, I can certainly attest to its continuity and charm.

Now, unless you’re completely mad, you don’t walk 87 miles in one go. So since I’m only half-crazy, I spent an agreeable week back in 1989 taking it one chunk at a time, overnighting in B&Bs, pubs and hostels.

While I say it was agreeable, I shouldn’t forget that I acquired some pretty impressive blisters along the way and also had to contend with my boots literally falling apart after the first forty miles or so. I made it though the latter half with the soles literally tied on with string.

However these small hardships really do seem as nothing when compared to the amazing sense of achievement after the expedition was over, and some terrific experiences as the week went by.

Like most long(ish)-distance walkers, I adopted a simple philosophy. Don’t dwell on what’s already happened, like blisters and flappy soles. Don’t get anxious about what lies ahead (Would there be room at the inn when I got there, for example? And there wasn’t, always). Do, on the other hand, focus on the here and now; on the next few paces, the next few yards. That’s all. A walk of almost ninety miles is little more than a succession of paces and yards.

And when you think about it, for I’d like you to, this is not a bad metaphor for progressing through life itself, particularly when it has happened to deal you a rotten hand, hopefully temporarily.

As you have no way whatsoever to rewrite the past, is there really any sense in ruminating about it? What’s more, you almost certainly have less influence than you imagine over the long-term future.

So where does this leave us? Well, here. And now.

While it’s commendable to make plans for the future, it’s over the next hour or so that you really have the most control. No sense in obsessing about what’s been and gone, nor in troubling yourself about what is or isn’t still to come (you’re not a fortune teller). Just stay relentlessly focused on the next 60 minutes. When you’ve got through them successfully, there’ll be another batch right along behind them.

One. Step. At. A. Time.

Show kindness to yourself

As I expect you know, a cobbler is a tradesman or woman who mends shoes, and there’s an old English saying which suggests that it’s the cobbler’s children who go the worst-shod.

In other words, the cobbler attends to his customers’ shoes but ignores those of his family, a way of explaining that professionals sometimes fail to apply the skills, for which they get paid, in their own lives.

The thing is it’s not only professionals who behave in this manner. At times I think we all do. Me included.

For instance I quietly pride myself on being able to see when people around me are going through a difficult patch, such that it would pay them to be kind to themselves. But am I much good at doing this for myself? Am I heck.

In fact I think I sometimes do just the opposite. Instead of being gentle with myself when the chips are down, if I’m not careful I turn into a hard taskmaster, behaving cruelly rather than kindly.

So how about you? Are you perhaps kinder to your best friend than you are to yourself? Do you beat yourself up in ways you’d never dream of treating someone you care about?

You won’t be the first person to have done so, nor will you be the last, but if you can’t show yourself a bit of kindness and compassion, why should you expect others to do so?

Of course, sometimes it can feel selfish or self-indulgent to look after yourself, particularly if you’ve been brought up to place the needs of others before your own.

But if the cobbler doesn’t repair his own shoes, how’s he going to walk to work when they fall apart? Why should customers have any confidence in his work if his footwear is flaky?

And if he doesn’t attend to the needs of his family, who’s going to run the business if he’s sick, or becomes too old to work?

Maybe you’re pretty good at supporting others when they’re feeling low, but perhaps less willing to look after yourself?

Please don’t be. When you’re kind to you, not only do you benefit, so do those around you. Just ask the cobbler’s kids.

Experience flow

Time may well fly when you’re having fun but boy does it move at a snail’s pace when you’re not. You know, I think we first discover this as kids, when the most enjoyable days probably came and went in the blink of an eye. But on rainy days when there was nothing to do and nobody to do it with, the hands of the clock often seemed glued in place.

Cruel, wasn’t it? Good days felt annoyingly short, while the bad ones seemed to go on forever.

Perhaps like me you’ve experienced a similar kind of feeling, when your disposition is anything but sunny? All too vividly I’m afraid I recall days, weeks even, when my mood was low and time dragged its heels like a stubborn donkey. Thankfully though, I’ve had periods which felt completely the opposite. I hope you have, too.

When things go well, when the blue bird of happiness perches contentedly on your shoulder, time marches on at an altogether brisker pace.

Albert Einstein, who knew a fair bit about time and – it seems – attractive women said: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

Fair enough. But best of all is that dreamy feeling you get when you’re doing something you love, and time seems to cease having any meaning at all. It might occur when you’re making something – baking a cake, painting a picture or planing a piece of wood. It could be when you’re ‘lost’ in beautiful music or a great book. Or perhaps you’ll experience it when you’re deep in happy conversation with an old friend.

It’s a phenomenon psychologists refer to as ‘flow’, which put simply means being completely absorbed in what you’re doing. Almost always it’s a good feeling to have. Importantly, though, the emphasis is on ‘doing’. The truth is, you’re unlikely to experience a state of flow when you’re slumped on the sofa.

So can you use this to your advantage the next time you’re going through a rough patch? You know, I think you can, although it may take a few minutes to work out exactly how.

Here’s what I think you can do. Try and think back to the last few occasions on which you entered this magical state of flow. What were you doing? Where were you? Were you with someone else, or alone?

Then when your mood is low, quite simply aim to engage in a similar activity, in a similar way.

Getting started may not be easy, as your fed-up head will likely try to trick you into believing you’re too tired, too depressed, or too demotivated to bake, paint or plane – or whatever it is that’s your particular thing – but once you’ve got over the initial hurdles, you’re really quite likely to become engaged. You might even enjoy it. It could even help elevate your mood.

Why not give it a try? And if it’s baking that’s your flow-bringer, and it’s alright with you, I’ll pop round for a slice of cake at three o’clock.

Acknowledge your strengths

With a few minutes to spare in the local library the other day, I absent-mindedly flicked through the books designed to help readers land a job. There were plenty. How to write the perfect resume. How to sail through interviews. How to write a killer cover letter. You know the kind of thing.

Amusingly there were even a few that promised to help you ‘succeed’ in psychometric tests, which when you stop to think about it seems almost as daft as offering to help you pass a blood test.

Of course, most books that aim to boost your interview chances are almost certain to propose model answers to tricky questions, including that old chestnut: ‘You’ve given us a great idea of your strengths – but what weaknesses do you have?’

Now, ‘Getting sleepy and being pretty unproductive after lunch’ is probably not a great answer. Nor is ‘I try make a point of taking home a pack of pens from the stationery room once a week’.

Instead, following the advice of books like these is generally about creating a kind of fake weakness out of something that most would regard as a strength: ‘I think at times I may take too much care to avoid making mistakes’ or ‘Some might consider that I worry over-much about getting to work on time in the mornings’.

They’re not really weaknesses, are they? Most employers would probably view them as strengths actually. Strengths, thinly disguised as weaknesses.

The thing is, if you’re applying for a job or trying to woo the man/woman of your dreams, surely it makes sense to place your strengths to the fore? Telling them what you’re good at, rather than dwelling on your shortcomings, seems a better strategy for success.

You probably take this principle for granted, but I wonder if you always show as much sense when it comes to talking to someone else? You. Especially you on a less-bright day.

If you’re anything like me, when you’re struggling through a rough patch you’ll be more inclined to focus on your weaknesses, and this really isn’t helpful.

You have your own unique strengths and talents, and a low mood day is in fact the perfect opportunity to remind yourself of them. Perhaps people view you as thoughtful and considerate? Maybe you’re decisive in a crisis? Or it could be that you have the uncanny knack of being able to soldier on regardless, even when the chips are down.

The next time things seem gloomy, it might help to imagine selling yourself to yourself, reminding yourself in the process that you’re far from worthless.

Very far.