Monthly Archives: June 2014

Invest in your relationships

One of the more foolhardy things I’ve done in life was riding my bicycle down a treacherous slope straight into a canal. Fortunately I got out of the water, as did the bike, but it was a hairy moment.

This was in my twenties, which must be the time for unwise actions, as it was in the same decade that I stuck every penny of the hard-saved deposit for my first house in a risky short-term investment. Fortunately the gods were smiling on me once again as I got back substantially more than I’d put in, right when I needed it. But unless you have a cast-iron constitution and nerves of steel, I wouldn’t recommend this as a wise financial strategy, to be honest.

In the years which followed, I certainly can’t claim to have been much of an investor, preferring to spend my time creating (or at least trying to create) value rather than tending and growing it. But I do at least know enough about investment to understand that those who make the best fist of it are those who devote proper time and focus.

It’s not all about money though. Investments can be made in other aspects of our lives, and here I’m thinking specifically about the time, effort and energy we may or may not choose to put into nurturing our key relationships.

Relationships are oh-so important, but without proper care and attention they can veer off-course, a little or a lot.

Good relationships enable people to thrive and grow, which is something we surely all want. They can also keep us afloat when we’re sailing through choppy seas.

Just as love generally flows back to those who love, support often comes most dependably from those we ourselves support.

So who are the most important people in your life? Is one more significant than the others?

How are you supporting these crucial individuals? How are you helping them?

What single big-hearted, generous and selfless action could you take today in order to bring you closer to them?

And what’s stopping you?

Find new ways to have fun

Imagine if you will your all-time favourite meal, perfectly-prepared, impeccably-served, and mouth-wateringly consumed in your idea of heavenly company.

Perhaps you’re thinking about a particular meal you enjoyed in the past, or you could be imagining a dish you have every now and then.

The point is, many of us have favourite foods, often with some nostalgic connection: it could be that they remind us of happy, secure, or inspirational times in our past, for example.

If you give yourself the time and space to create a picture – and even the aroma and taste – of this meal in your mind, it’s possible that this idea alone will be sufficient to set your tummy rumbling and your mouth watering.

But now let me suggest a second part to our little thought experiment. Once again imagine this very same meal, but this time you’ll never be allowed to eat anything else. Your “favourite” meal will be served up to you for breakfast, lunch and dinner from now until the end of time.

Suddenly it doesn’t sound so yummy, does it? The pleasure would soon wear off. I suspect you’d become bored. Maybe you’d even lose your appetite.

Now if this might be the case for your idea of the perfect meal, I wonder if the same could hold true for your “happiness strategies”?

Bet you didn’t know you had these, but I think you probably do. I’m fairly sure there are activities you undertake, places you go, and people you see that/who tend to lift your spirits.

However, effective though these may be, I wonder if it would be nearly as much fun were you never to engage in any other activities, nor go anywhere or see anyone else? Just as too much of a good thing food-wise isn’t a great idea, neither is sticking to one tried-and-tested way of boosting your mood, to the point that it becomes repetitive and ineffective.

So here’s a suggestion. On the basis that it may indeed be good for you to broaden your menu of happiness-inducing activities/places/people, how about creating some new ideas by connecting two or more existing ones?

I like walking, for example, and I also enjoy one-on-one conversations. Combining these two together, to whom might I suggest a walk and talk? Another thought? I enjoy sharing food with others, and I like helping people. So who might benefit from some advice from me over a sandwich one lunchtime?

Why not keep a look out for new ways to boost your mood? A varied diet is a healthy diet.

Plan for happiness

On a good day I make plans. I dream of what could be, and make lists of what needs to be done to make this so.

On a good day I relish plans. I love their promise, my pulse quickens with the excitement of setting and meeting goals.

On a good day I plan effortlessly. Just as I’m able to see the big picture, I can also clearly identify the small steps needed to shape dreams into reality.

But on a bad day?

Oh dear. On a bad day, I don’t plan. Perhaps neither do you?

Or do we? You know, perhaps we do. To some extent we have to.

On a bad day, we may at least plan to eat and drink – even if it’s no more than a half-hearted picking at whatever happens to be in the fridge.

On a bad day, we probably plan to go to bed at its end – perhaps even slightly looking forward to it, as a matter of fact?

And on the basis that even on the shabbiest of days we might have at least a modicum of planning ability, I wonder what we plan for our mood?

Unfortunately, if anything (and probably without really meaning to), I fear I plan to stay low. Ouch.

You see, while there may even be a degree or two of sense in this – so I don’t over-commit to others or unreasonably push myself – I fear that what we plan is what actually comes to be.

But rather than planning to feel low, wouldn’t it make more sense to plan to be happier? Or at least less unhappy?

Is it possible to actually plan for happiness? I’m not sure. But we can at least set ourselves the goal of behaving in ways which are conducive to feeling better: We can aim to spend time in the company of those with whom we’ve experienced happiness in the past, for instance. We can exercise, even if it’s only taking a brisk walk. We can reflect on all we have to be grateful for.

More often than not, we do accomplish what we set out to achieve, so is today one on which you’ll plan for happiness or sadness?

I rather hope it can be the former.

How to defeat over-thinking

The American writer Jonathan Safran Foer is best known for his novels Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), neither of which I can claim to have read. But I do love this take of his on thinking:

‘I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.’

Of course so long as they’re the right kinds of thoughts, thinking isn’t necessarily bad for you. But do too much of it, so much that you tip into over-thinking, and you’re at danger of entering a downward spiral.

Research at the University of Michigan in 2003 showed that over-thinking can lead to depression, an inability to move forward and damaged emotional health. Although it can affect anyone, the university’s psychology professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema suggested that women are significantly more likely than men to fall into over-thinking and to be immobilised by it. Her findings showed that 57 per cent of women and 43 per cent of men are over-thinkers.

So how do you define over-thinking? Well it generally takes the form of endless torrents of negative thoughts and emotions often triggered by something as fleeting as a sarcastic remark from a friend, relative or co-worker. It’s that feeling you get when you have thoughts which keep going round and round in your head, getting you nowhere and becoming worse with every circuit.

It’s a habit that’s a really challenging one to break, but among several ways of tackling over-thinking, I’m a fan of setting yourself a time limit. Instead of trying to stop, do the very opposite. Give yourself, say, fifteen minutes – and set a timer if it helps (there may be one on your phone) – during which you make yourself over-think even harder.

This time, though, take a piece of paper and write down every possible aspect of whatever it is you’re thinking about. Don’t stop to correct anything, simply get as many thoughts as you can down on paper.

Then, when the timer sounds, stop.

Finally take the piece of paper, which by now should be completely covered in writing, screw it up into a tight ball and throw it in the trash. Or if you prefer, burn it (safely).

I think you might be surprised by the amount of negative over-thinking you can get through in fifteen minutes, then you should be pleasantly relieved by the simple act of being able to throw it all away.

Which is really all it’s good for.

Cultivate a more optimistic outlook

A father had twin sons who, in spite of identical appearance, were actually total opposites. The first, for instance, was a gloomy pessimist who spent his days moaning and groaning. But the second was an eternal optimist, ever-confident that everything would work out well in the end.

Now, when it came to their birthday, their Dad was curious to see what would happen if he bought them gifts matching their temperaments, so the pessimist received a giant stack of every imaginable video game, while the son who was the optimist had his bedroom filled with manure.

Later that morning he found his pessimist son in his room sobbing his heart out.

‘What on earth’s the matter?’ he asked.

‘Oh, everything,’ said the boy, ‘My friends will all be jealous now, I’m not going to have time to play all these games, they’ll soon be outdated anyway, and half of them are certain to be boring.’

Shrugging, the father next called on his other son’s room, where he found the boy shrieking with delight as he leaped up and down in waist-deep manure.

‘Wow. Why are you so happy?’ he enquired.

‘Well,’ explained son number two, ‘With this much manure, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere.’

The world is full of some who see their glass as half-full and others who see it as half-empty, but there’s no denying that those of us who experience gloomy spells have a tendency to become more pessimistic during such low times.

Are pessimistic people more likely to suffer from depression? Maybe. Does depression increase levels of pessimism? Very probably.

What’s important to recognise, however, is that in some ways optimism can be regarded as a skill, and like all skills you really can get better at it. If you practice being optimistic there’s every possibility that your mood will get lifted as a result.

One great exercise for building your optimism muscle is to imagine a perfect day somewhere in your future (ten years is good), then to write a detailed description of where you are, who you’re with, what you’re doing etc. Having done this myself I can vouch for it being a fun activity – whether or not it ever comes true, but that isn’t what’s important.

It’s simply really refreshing to spend time with optimistic, positive thoughts every once in a while.

Then maybe you’ll come to see that whatever kind of bad day you’re having, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere.

Free the people around you

The greatest gift I have ever been given is the freedom to be myself. Fully accepted, without any attempt to control or fix me. Jon, my parents, and my closest friends give me this gift, and it’s humblingly beautiful.

In my book, if you really love someone, let them be truly themselves. Trust each other, want one another to be happy, and be happy when your loved ones find happiness. Let go of clinging so tightly that you lose your individual selves.

This is easier said than done sometimes – it can be hard to give someone else freedom when you are feeling trapped, for example.

But maybe freeing people around you to be themselves will also free you a little bit to be more yourself, your real self, even the parts that you don’t think other people will like. You might be surprised to find that those very parts that you hide are what they love most about you.

Here is one of my favorite poems, by the great poet Khalil Gibran, to inspire freedom in your relationships today:

Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.

And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

How making makes you feel good

Over the past couple of weeks, Alex and I have busily and happily worked on a project that’s really brought home the mood-nudging effects of throwing yourself into a ‘making’ project, even more so when you’re working with someone else.

In our case we were hand-crafting the first batch of our new WellBee cards (see below), but I wonder what it is that you do which brings you similar pleasure? Perhaps it’s some kind of craft, baking, woodworking, or home-decorating?

wellbee-tins_wellbeeWellBees, tinned and ready to fly

It’s invaluable to identify some kind of productive activity that you love doing, and even better to find some reason for scheduling it soon, even if that reason is simply the knowledge that you’ll enjoy it.

Making the WellBee cards, which are going in the mail today to the first wave of new ‘keepers’, was incredibly enjoyable. Every single step of their fairly complex production was carried out by our own fair hands (rather glue-encrusted in my case) with fantastic help from our two girls, Samantha and Megan.

sam-and-meg_wellbeeSamantha and Megan packing WellBees

WellBee enables you to measure your level of well-being, and then track it over time. As you’ll read on the page below, it does this by asking you to rate yourself every day in twelve different dimensions – such as Loved, Cheerful and Tired – which define your overall level of well-being. Each of these dimensions is represented by a hexagonal playing card, and the cards – along with a 48-inch-long graph enabling you to track yourself for 365 days – are housed in a snazzy steel tin (hexagonal again).

alex_wellbeeAlex hand-folding the four-foot graphs

Learn more about WellBee

We’ve worked in our garage in Redwood City, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Each set of WellBee cards has involved around 100 individual hand-made cuts with, I’m pleased to say, no fingers lost. Gluing with spraymount was best carried out in the backyard, using an old ironing board as a stand-up desk. And we spent a full day at our local print shop, ensuring that all the component parts were impeccably reproduced.

jon-outside_wellbeeJon at the old ironing board

Perhaps best of all, using our own prototype WellBee cards every morning allowed us to see the beneficial well-being effects of working together on this manufacturing project – but it has also enabled us to identify small ‘hiccups’ which we’ve been able to address. When it showed that one or other of us was tired, we took a break. When my level of anxiety rose a bit, Alex suggested that I took half an hour to make a list of everything we needed to do, which was calming and settling.

Setting up the WellBee home-manufacturing process means we’re now able to offer  more hand-made sets for sale. Those who’ve already seen them have loved them, so if you’d like your own set, we’ll be only too happy (as evidenced by our graphs) to get back to our cutting and gluing. Here’s how to order one now:

How to get your WellBee cards

Finally, please do put some thought into the activities that bring you pleasure, then get out that calendar.

Being grateful for what’s already in your life

The late Nelson Mandela spent more than a quarter of his life in prison, so perhaps it was unsurprising that he gathered a remarkably large amount of personal property while he was incarcerated.

In fact, according to a hand-written inventory made when he was finally released in February 1990, 22 boxes went out with him, plus an exercise bike, a surfboard and a white cardboard hat.

Now I expect like you, I can bring a lot of visual images of Nelson Mandela to mind, but I have to confess that him on a surfboard isn’t really one of them.

I’ve always been interested in lists of possessions. As a bit of a hoarder (sorry Alex) I’m in awe of those who manage to trim their belongings down to the bone. In fact there’s a whole movement of minimalist people online who’ve reduced the number of items they own to 100 or even less.

Actually I’m pretty sure I’ve got more than that on my desk at the moment.

Perhaps it would take you a long time to list everything you own. I know it would me. But my point right now is that if you did so, surely the emphasis would be on what you do own, rather than what you don’t. I hope the latter list would be longer than the former, although I’d hate to see your credit card statement if it wasn’t.

But I wonder if we sometimes take exactly the opposite approach when it comes to evaluating our emotional life? I know that when I’ve suffered from my own low periods I’ve been more inclined to think about what was missing from my life rather than what was already present.

And this chimes rather nicely with the idea that being grateful for what you’ve got can make a significant impact on your level of happiness: the time-worn principle of counting your blessings.

Here are three ways you can put this to work:

1. Think of three things you’re grateful for every night before you go to sleep.

2. Keep a gratitude journal, making an entry in it each time you’re thankful for something.

3. Practice the act of saying ‘thank you’ more often, especially when you’re specific about what you’re grateful for.

It’s all too easy to spend your days being disappointed about what your life is missing.

But isn’t there so much more value to be had from being thankful for what’s already there?

Make happiness a priority

You might agree that Richard Branson has made a pretty fair job of being successful. He’s led a remarkably full life. Having long been a fan, I guess like many I’ve always been fascinated to learn more about what makes him tick, including how he operates from day to day.

He blogs pretty regularly on his company’s website – at Virgin.com – and although it could be that he gets a little support from others to write his posts, I’m sure that what gets published are authentically his own thoughts.

I know Richard Branson is an inveterate list-maker, so one of his posts on this subject made interesting reading recently. The first of his top ten tips? ‘Write down every single idea you have, no matter how big or small.’

It’s great advice. Which I must confess I don’t adhere to nearly enough.

What’s more, though, I’m sure the same principle – of writing down everything – can apply to assembling a To-Do list. It’s tempting to rush through this act, listing only those items which are top of mind, then diving in headlong to get started, way before some tasks even make it onto paper.

Getting going quickly has its advantages of course, but what happens to the stuff you neglected to itemise? Yep, it gets forgotten.

And this makes it all the more important to prioritise – to know what’s important to you, to know what you really want, as you set out to plan another day’s activities.

So what is important to you? What do you really want? Maybe there’s an item you’d love to check off every day, but perhaps rarely do, largely because you didn’t even put it on your list.

That item? Happiness.

Maybe, like me, you’re not always the happiest of bunnies? Perhaps you struggle through patches of low mood from time to time? I’m sure you’d love this not to be so. I’m sure you’d love to be happier.

Frankly, though, I wonder if by failing to actually make happiness a priority, we create a situation in which it’s unlikely to be achieved?

It may seem strange to you to put ‘being happy’ on today’s To-Do list. It may seem self-indulgent. But I beg to differ.

For we often only achieve what we set out to do, and without being happy ourselves how can we spread the good feeling to others?

So what will you place at the very top of your list next time you make one? You know, I honestly think it should be Happiness.

You deserve it.

Getting happier needn’t always be fun

Although I don’t know for certain, at least once in your life I’m pretty sure you’ve been asked ‘What do you do for fun?’. It’s a question I hate, as it tends to mean that the other person wants to know what you do outside your working and/or domestic life. But what if, as it does for Alex and me, a big part of your fun actually comes from the work you do?

It’s as if the questioner expects to have some very specific hobby or pastime.

Pigeon-fancying, embroidery anyone?

When someone’s mood has dropped, it’s not unusual for well-meaning others to suggest they ‘do something fun’. I say ‘well-meaning’ because I’m sure they are, but the simple truth is that if I’m feeling low, the chances of me ‘doing something fun’ are about as low as, oh I don’t know, setting off on a cycle crossing of the Pyrenees.

I mean, I don’t even own a bike.

Jocularity aside, I’d suggest there’s generally zero likelihood of low mood sufferers having even the vaguest shred of motivation for doing something fun, even though they know it might do them good.

So if it’s you who’s suffering, what can you do about this? How can you realistically schedule activities that might help you through your darker days, while at the same time recognising that you’ll probably run a mile to avoid anything with the word ‘fun’ attached to it?

Quite simply I think it helps to remember that satisfaction can play just as big a part in overall happiness as do pleasure and enjoyment. Almost certainly you can bring to mind tasks you do that aren’t necessarily much fun, but from whose completion you derive satisfaction. For example, I quite like loading and emptying the dishwasher. I can get a buzz out of mowing a lawn. I don’t mind making beds.

Now none of these activities are likely to impress the person who asks you what you do for fun. ‘Oh wow, yes, when I leave the office I just can’t wait to get home to unload the dishwasher.’ Doesn’t quite work, does it?

The point is though, if you’re feeling low you’re far more likely to manage modest tasks like the ones I describe than you are to plan an outing to a theme park.

So why not be realistic? Set yourself simple goals – taking on one or two small jobs whose completion will give you a sense of quiet satisfaction can be a really good way of lifting your mood and of course if they’re domestic chores you’ll have the benefit of a tidier and cleaner house or garden as a nifty side-effect.