Monthly Archives: July 2014

Why anger is not always a bad thing

When you struggle to be justifiably angry, write a letter – and don’t send it.

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As I sat in my therapist’s front room a couple of years ago, and a month or so after I’d begun working with her, I distinctly recall my complicated reaction when she asked what made me angry.

“Nothing really,” I replied. “I don’t think I ever get angry.”

For a moment or two, I felt proud. Proud that I obviously had my emotions so buttoned down that they never boiled over. Proud that I’d got everything under control.

Except of course that I hadn’t.

The raised eyebrows of my therapist said it all really.

“Really? You honestly never get angry?”

And of course in that split second I realised that of course there had been plenty of times in my life when I’d had every right to be angry, but that more often than not I’d suppressed the emotion. Not allowed it out. Pretended it didn’t exist. And although this wasn’t something I should have beaten myself up about, neither was it a reason to be proud.

Over the years I’ve had to falteringly find ways to express anger when it’s appropriate. I’m still not terribly good at doing so with others, but I can at least summon up a modest amount of wrath when conducting an internal conversation.

I’ve found one really useful way of unleashing inner anger about someone is to write them a letter telling them exactly how I feel.

Then not sending it.

I hope you have no problems expressing difficult emotions but if you do, why not give the letter-writing approach a try? It’s worked for me, and others. Maybe it will for you too.

Mindful eating for a better mood

Lift your mood by paying attention to what you eat today.

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If I were to ask you to estimate what percentage of the population are vegetarians, I wonder what your answer might be?

In fact, although it varies from country to country, a recent study by the US-based Vegetarian Times indicates that around 3.2% of Americans eat a completely meat-free diet. And a figure of 3% is reasonably typical for other countries too.

Italy is a notable exception, though. While I think I’d have said that Italy is a country in which it wouldn’t be easy to be a vegetarian, the truth is that a whopping 10% of Italians eat no meat. Sorprendente!

Now I must confess that although I do like the idea of vegetarianism, I’m a bit too fond of meat to go across to the other side completely. One principle of vegetarianism that I find fascinating, though, is that I’m pretty sure it would lead you to being much more mindful about what you eat.

As an omnivore, I tend to reach for whatever food is closest when I’m hungry – whether or not it’s healthy. In fact one definition of an omnivore is “an opportunistic eater”, which reminds me – amusingly – of Homer Simpson, and – embarrassedly – of myself, at times.

It’s easy to forget how much our bodies are affected by what we feed them. Of course it’s not surprising that your physical wellbeing is closely linked to the food you eat.

A healthy diet is a healthy body.

But maybe now and then we all need a reminder that emotional wellbeing is also influenced by your food and drink intake.

A healthy diet is a healthy mind.

What can you do about this today? If you’re not already paying closer attention to what you eat because you’re a vegetarian, or have some other dietary focus, I’d simply suggest asking one simple question before you consume anything today:

Is this going to be good for me?

Even if the answer is No and you still go ahead and munch, at least you’ll be encouraging yourself to become more aware of what you eat.

Taking care of yourself means taking (more) care about your diet.

Homer Simpson, are you listening?

Why it’s great to get lost in your work

Getting lost in activities you love is a great happiness strategy

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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the world’s leading positive psychologists. His theory of “flow” is an incredibly important one. Csikszentmihalyi talked to painters, who became completely lost in their work. So focused on their art were they that they forgot all about anything else. As he said in his book The Evolving Self: “They forgot hunger, social obligations, time, and fatigue so that they could keep moving it along.”

Csikszentmihalyi went on to see that the mental state of flow was achieved by others, and maybe you’ve been fortunate enough to experience it yourself?

Two key factors define flow: the activity you’re undertaking needs to involve a high level of skill, and it also has to present you with significant challenges.

This makes it rather different from hyperfocus – the state often demonstrated by kids playing the type of videogame which doesn’t really require much skill or present many challenges. Note: this doesn’t mean videogames are a bad thing at all. Playing something undemanding can be a great way to relax, particularly if it’s for a reasonably defined time. And of course many games really do present challenges and demand high levels of skill.

Being in a state of flow can play a big part in building your emotional wellbeing, so there’s good value in identifying the activities which enable you to achieve it.

Three of mine are: (1) Computer programming. I don’t do a lot but generally get completely lost in the work when I do. (2) Graphic design. Generally I only stop because I have some kind of deadline to stick to. (3) Making stuff with paper and glue. This is probably why making the WellBee cards is so much fun.

So, seriously, what are yours? And even more seriously, what could you do to increase the number of times you’re able to lose yourself in them in the next week?

But do please promise me that you won’t get so carried away that you forget to eat, drink or go to bed.

Develop a happiness routine

If you want to be happy, build happy things into your life

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Just like Moodnudges, Google started life in a California garage. Theirs was in Menlo Park – just down the road from Stanford University where I’m writing this post – while ours is in Redwood City, about five miles from here.

However, while we still have just the two desks in our space (please give us a break though, we’ve only been up and running for a couple of months after all) Google no longer fits in a garage.

In fact since its birth in 1996 it now employs around 50,000 people worldwide; that’s a whole lot of Googlers.

When an organisation is this large, how does it make sure that its culture – the shared values, attitudes, standards, and beliefs that define its nature – is lived and breathed by its people? One very good way of doing so is to provide staff members with a simple set of principles. In Google’s case, they can be found in the form of “Ten things we know to be true”.

Writing a philosophy for an enormous organisation feels as if it would be a tough task. Shouldn’t it be a whole lot easier to develop something which would apply to an individual person?

I wonder, therefore, if you know what your own guiding principles are? I also wonder if you have a policy of living your life in a way which ought to make you happier?

It seems an obvious thing to do, doesn’t it? Almost certainly you want to be happy (or happier). Are you therefore “living this goal” every day? Or are you at least now and then setting yourself up to fail? I think I’ve been guilty of this in the past. When I’ve felt low at the end of a day, I’ve looked back over what I’ve thought, said and done – and in retrospect, I was doing myself no favours.

Rather than doing things that might have helped me feel better, I slipped into a pattern of feelbad activities: shutting myself away, getting no exercise, doing none of the activities I know I enjoy, feeling sorry for myself. If I was Google I’d have gone out of business.

I wonder if you might have time today (or soon) to put a little thought into developing some simple happiness routines, and a way of reminding yourself to follow them.

What things could you, and should you, build into your everyday routines in order to become a happier camper?

What if a better mood for you involved nothing more elaborate than the development of some happy habits?

My greatest life lesson

Everything changes, so keep your mind and heart always open.

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I had no idea at the time, but one of the best things that ever happened to me was when on a school field trip to Quebec when I was 14 years old.

I was just learning downhill skiing, and near the end of the day I decided to attempt a more challenging run. I ended up crashing into a snowbank, not able to move or get myself out, and calling out in French for help for about an hour before someone found me and took me to the hospital.

Both of my knees were badly injured, which meant I couldn’t ride a bike, go up and down stairs very well, or play sports. So I turned to Tai Chi, which seemed like the only thing I could manage. Little did I know how important this would be to my life!

Over the course of the next two decades, I learned a tremendous amount from Tai Chi and other mindful movement practices, often dedicating 10 hours a week to these studies.

Here’s some of what I learned that I’d love to share with you:

1. Beginner’s mind. If you practice keeping your mind open and fresh, as though you are learning something for the first time, you will see new possibilities and wonder and opportunities everywhere.

2. Equal and opposite. Everything in life is constantly shifting. Good or bad, up or down, feelings and circumstances tend to balance each other out. If you push someone, expect that they will push you back with equal and opposite force. If you’re stressed out, give yourself a treat of relaxation equal to the amount of stress.

3. To teach is to learn twice. In teaching someone something, you must first understand it well enough to be able to explain it. So teaching is actually an act of learning. Guiding my daughters through their life has actually ended up helping me figure out how to live my own life.

4. Partners matter. Sometimes it’s useful to learn and practice on your own, and sometimes working with a partner can really deepen and enrich your understanding. As in Tai Chi, so in life.

These are some of the biggest lessons that guide my life, and I’m curious to hear…

What are your greatest life lessons?

And we close with one of my favorite quotes:

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki

5 ways to prepare for low mood

When your mood dips, it can help to have a plan you’ve already prepared.

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What are we going to do if the worst happens?

Unfortunately, every successful organisation or business has to face the fact that something’s probably going to go seriously wrong at some stage. Fire, floods, theft, intentional – or unintentional – damage are just a few of the catastrophes that could crop up exactly when you don’t want them.

Contingency planning, disaster recovery – when you run an organisation they’re an important part of what you must do.

Even if you’ve never been involved in the planning side itself, I’m sure you’ve suffered through fire drills either at school or in a workplace. Unless your idea of joy is standing outside a building in the cold, they’re generally considered important but dull. A bit like spinach or paying the electricity bill.

I expect you can see the sense in an organisation preparing itself for unwanted problems, but I wonder if you’ve ever thought of doing something similar for yourself in the event of you being beset by a bout of the blues?

Just as a business would be foolish to forget making contingency plans for a fire until the flames were actually burning, you and I are almost certainly in the wrong mindset to tackle a low mood when we’re already in it.

Here’s a suggestion, then. When you have a moment, preferably fairly soon, why not jot down some simple plans for yourself? A kind of mood recovery plan. I’m sure you’ll have good ideas about what your own personal version of this should include, but there are five ideas to start you off:

1. Don’t suffer in silence. Your plan could include two or three specified people you’ll commit to letting know you’re not doing so well.

2. Be kind to you. You might want to remind your unhappier self to ease up and expect less of yourself.

3. It’s fine to say no. It could help to include the idea in your plan that you’ll probably need to take on fewer tasks and responsibilities. And this is OK.

4. Remember to keep active. When your mood is low, you’ll almost certainly find yourself reluctant to get exercise. So have a think about what might be good for you (it’ll be different for everyone) and include that in the plan. Swimming? Walking? Dancing? Gardening? Whatever it is, get it in the plan.

5. Eat healthily. When I’m down, I often reach for the wrong foods, so a good plan should include a reminder of what you should be eating (and will enjoy) rather than what you may automatically reach for.

When you’ve made the list, keep it somewhere safe. You might even accompany it with one or two ’emotional first aid’ items, building yourself a little kit: things like a CD of music that makes you feel good; a DVD of a movie you love; a printed out message from someone who makes you laugh; a bottle of essential oil.

Successful organisation always plan for the worst, even if it never happens. Shouldn’t you?

Time for fun

Having fun makes us feel good, so shouldn’t we actively plan to have more of it?

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When Alex went food shopping the other morning, she came back to tell me that our local supermarket was placing temptation in the way of customers by giving away small, tasty donut samples.

Delightfully, she’d watched as an elderly lady – perhaps in her eighties – made her way gingerly from the sampling table with a slice of donut in her hand and a twinkle in her eye. She was clearly delighted, chuckling to Alex: “And I haven’t even had my breakfast yet!”

Donuts before breakfast. Outrageous.

And why ever not?

Despite this lady’s advanced years (or maybe even because of them) she was obviously approaching her day in a playful manner, determined to squeeze every ounce of fun she could out of it, and I wonder if this might be a small lesson for you and me? Because I wonder if at times, and without really meaning to, we slip into taking life too seriously? It’s easy to do. After all, there’s always so much to cope with. Life can throw unexpected challenges and problems our way. Our own mindset might be somber and serious. So, too, could be the mindsets of others who share our life.

But how about the lady in her eighties? Could we accuse her of taking life too seriously? I think not. She’d gone out to tackle a chore – food shopping – most of use might regard as a dreary old drudge, but had ended up finding a way to have fun along the way.

Eighty-year-olds can do it, and so of course can eight-year-olds. Their entire lives are about having fun, generally effortlessly. In fact, when we set up our garage office a few months ago, Alex’s younger daughter Megan (8) subjected me to a mock ‘job interview’. After I successfully got the position (phew) she wrote me a brief employment contract which is mow pinned to the door. Among its stipulations? I must Have Fun.

Thanks Megan, I’ll do my best.

So how will you approach today? Will you take everything incredibly seriously? Or maybe you might just stumble on a way to do the equivalent of having a donut before breakfast?

Tell someone your favourite joke. Kick a kid’s ball back to them. Pet a dog. Listen to some music and dance as if no-one’s watching. Don’t worry if they are. Get your hands dirty. Pretend you can fly. Make a paper aeroplane and fly it.

Is today going to be a fun day? Well it could be. What do you think?

Being kind is good for you

Showing kindness to others not only gives them a lift but can also boost your own mood.

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It makes me sound ancient, but a lot of my early entertainment as a toddler came via the radio, particularly from a programme called Listen With Mother which went out every day just after lunch, always starting with these words spoken by one of the imperious female presenters, who all sounded a bit like the Queen:

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.”

Ahhh. Even today, these seven words make me want to curl up and listen calmly as someone tells me a story – which was basically what Listen With Mother was all about.

One I remember well was Aesop’s fable The Lion and the Mouse.

Do you remember it? Maybe not. Here’s my quick retelling then. So if you’re sitting comfortably…

One day a huge lion lay down to rest in the jungle. While he snoozed, a tiny mouse went about its business, scampering here and there in the undergrowth.

Suddenly, without realising it, the careless mouse found itself right in front of the lion’s face, and in its fright and haste to get away it ran right over the lion’s nose.

Not surprisingly this woke up the lion, who was not amused. It raised its giant paw to crush the little mouse.

Seconds before it came crashing down, the mouse cried: “Stop! Please don’t hurt me. Let me go and I promise I’ll return the favour by helping you one day.”

Now, fortunately for the mouse, this greatly amused the lion.

“How could a creature so insignificant ever help someone as magnificent and formidable as me? But you’ve made me laugh, so just this once I’ll spare you.”

The lucky mouse breathed a huge sigh of relief (well, huge for a mouse anyway) and ran home as fast as its legs would carry it.

A couple of weeks later, the lion was unfortunate enough to become trapped in the nets of a hunter, and unable to free itself it let out an almighty roar which echoed from one end of the jungle to the other. Every creature heard this, including the mouse who, recognising the voice, scampered to find the trapped lion, and gnawed through the trap’s ropes to release the giant golden-maned beast.

The moral of the story? No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.

While I first heard this all those years ago, it’s incredibly wise advice that’s helped so much, especially during those times when I’ve struggled with a low mood, for the simple act of showing kindness to others can be an incredibly powerful way of making you feel better yourself.

So as today unfolds, why not look for opportunities to be kind to others? Big acts are great of course, but tiny acts can be just as powerful, taking up perhaps mere moments of your time.

I don’t think it matters whether you’re a mouse or a lion, just try to be kind.

Surrender to what is

What you resist, persists.

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I didn’t write a post last week because I had a bit of a mood wobble. I was fighting with the parts of myself that I thought other people didn’t like, and also fighting with the injustice of things happening that were outside of my control.

But then I saw these words in a magazine: What you resist, persists.

A light went on. I realized that I am me, whether or not people like all parts of me. I am enough, acceptable and lovable just as I am.

And there will always be some folks out there who decide to take their bad mood out on me, so if I just accept that and move on with my life as best I can, then their actions don’t affect me quite as much.

I can still see the sun shining with my own eyes, even when people try to tell me there’s a cloud. And if there is indeed a cloud, it will soon pass, whether or not I fight it.

My mood is much higher now, and surrendering has perhaps paradoxically made me feel stronger than ever, so I wanted to share this insight with you in case it’s helpful to your day today.

As further inspiration, here is a quote from author Marianne Williamson:

Something amazing happens when we surrender and just love.
We melt into another world, a realm of power already within us.
The world changes when we change.
The world softens when we soften.
The world loves us when we choose to love the world.

How to build emotional strength

Dwelling on weaknesses may result in low mood, while identifying strengths can be the path to happiness.

I wonder if you can work out who said this:

“I wasn’t very good in school at all. I was kind of useless. I found the work really, really difficult.”

A clue? He’s a famous actor, currently 24, who starred in his first massive blockbuster at the age of 11.

Got it? Yes, it was Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe who admitted being a bit of a disaster at school. But has this hurt him? Probably not. After eight Harry Potter movies, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he’s one of the richest young people in the UK.

His strength? Acting, particularly playing the part of a bespectacled young wizard.

His weakness (or at least one of them)? Failing to excel in an educational setting.

So now let’s imagine being young Daniel Radcliffe’s teacher. Would you honestly have advised him to ditch the acting thing in order to work on his greatest weakness – scholastic achievement? Or would you, perhaps, have argued instead that he should be encouraged to build on his strengths?

Actually perhaps that’s an unrealistic question, as while it’s very clear in retrospect that acting was the right thing for him, I suspect some in his school may have seen things differently. All too often, I fear, the education system prefers students to conform rather than plough their own furrow of individuality.

Mild gripes about education aside, though, my overall suggestion is that there seems great value in building up your strengths rather than trying to remedy your weaknesses, and perhaps there’s food for thought here when it comes to your own emotional health?

One of my emotional weaknesses, for example, is that I tend to become super-pessimistic when I’m down. One of my strengths on the other hand is that I’m generally able to stay productive even when my mood has taken a hit.

Would it be helpful to work on becoming less pessimistic? Well, yes, although I think it’s hard to tackle deeply-established behaviour patterns such as this.

Might it be easier, and more helpful, to simply ensure I’m productive (which generally makes me feel better? Almost certainly.

My really quite simple point is that there may indeed be value in identifying your personal emotional strengths, then seeing if you can find a way to maximise their use.

Don’t simply focus on your weaknesses.