Monthly Archives: July 2014

A simple way to banish bad thoughts

You can only think one thought at a time, so simply displace negative thoughts with positive ones.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

So begins George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, an opening which regularly graces lists of books’ best first lines (along with other beauties such as “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”).

Written in 1949, Orwell’s story tells of a disturbing future where the Thought Police uncover and punish those guilty of committing “thoughtcrime” – the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts about the ruling party.

Thankfully there’s still no proper way to read minds, beyond really quite basic work done using MRI scans, so you and I are free to think as we choose.

Or at least, should be. On a great day it probably feels as though your thoughts are entirely voluntary and self-driven, whereas on a shabby one it might seem as if some external malign entity is forcing you to occupy your mind with negativity.

The truth, though? You really do have much more control over your own thoughts than you may believe. And it’s worth remembering that despite some people apparently being able to juggle multiple thought-streams at the same time, it is only possible to think one thing at a time.

It’s almost impossible to stop yourself thinking about something. For instance, when I tell you not to think of a pink elephant, I can virtually guarantee that there will immediately be an image of just this in your mind, and pink pachyderms will keep returning to your consciousness for quite some time.

How to defeat this? One good way is to displace the unwanted thought with one which is more welcome. So instead of not thinking about pink elephants, you might choose to think of white bears, for instance.

Next time you find yourself drowning in negativity, therefore, why not try to train yourself to at least start thinking more positively?

Positive thinking is like a muscle, so building it up takes regular exercise and determination, but it’s surely a strength worth cultivating.

You can do it.

Finally – and I’m sure you already knew them – “It is a truth universally acknowledged” is from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, while “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is the opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Not a pink elephant in sight in either of those.

How to plan for bad times

Even on better days, take care of yourself to prevent mood problems further down the line.

* * * * * * *

If you were in charge of the upkeep of a large building of some kind, you’d probably be familiar with the difference between preventive and corrective maintenance.

In the case of the latter, for example, you replace light bulbs after they fail – which I’m guessing is what most of us actually do in practice at home.

On the other hand, preventive maintenance is when the light bulb manufacturer says their products should last 24 months on average, so once every two years you go round replacing bulbs which are still working with new ones.

Both strategies have their advantages and disadvantages, but they seem to boil down to either fixing things when they’re still working, or fixing them when they’re not.

I wonder if there’s something in this which could also relate to mood and happiness?

I suspect that many people take a corrective approach to tackling mood problems, only being prompted to take action when things go wrong. But when you stop to think about this it’s really tricky, isn’t it?

I know that when my mood is low, my levels of motivation, discipline and focus also all go to the wall. It’s almost as if I’m asking a broken light bulb to fix itself. Not possible.

It makes far more sense of course to follow a preventive approach to emotional wellbeing, developing contingency plans for bad times before they actually occur but – be honest – sensible though this sounds, how likely, say, is it that you or I are really going to start seeing a therapist when we feel great?

However, maybe the idea of preventive mood maintenance isn’t actually quite as daft as it may sound.

Take my own case for example. When I work, I tend to suffer from tunnel vision. I focus relentlessly on the task in hand, or at least do my level best to. While this gets things done, it can also divert me from other enjoyable activities which I know will do me good and help me feel alive. Such as? Well, I thrive on time spent in the company of good friends, but often fail to make proper plans to make this come about, particularly when I’m having a hard time emotionally.

So what’s worked for me in this respect is to create a simple rule of thumb whose fairly modest objective is that I should see at least one friend for at least an hour once a week.

With Alex’s help, I set this goal on what was for me a better day, but I’m determined to stick to it even when the going gets tough.

I wonder if something similar might work for you? Establishing one, two or three relatively easy goals like this could be your equivalent of preventive maintenance.

But don’t wait until your personal lightbulb has fizzled out. Set them on a day when everything’s still looking bright.

Reliving happy times

Reliving happy days can help on bad ones. The secret? Recalling events in rich detail.

* * * * * * *

Just like you, I suspect, I can recall with great clarity where I was on September 11th, 2001. I also remember who I was with, what we’d been doing, how we got news about the attacks, and what we did immediately afterwards.

Of course it’s not unusual to have vivid recall of such a momentous event, and it’s what psychologists in the 1970s termed “flashbulb memory”. Often such memories are of shockingly bad news (the assassination of John F Kennedy or the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, for example) but they may also relate to intensely personal happy memories: the day you got married or the birth of a child, say.

Of course, for each of these highly memorable days, we live through thousands of others, some happy, some not so, but most fade into the dusty background of our mind, never again to see the light of day.

But it doesn’t have to be like this, because with the right encouragement, the right prompting, our power of recall can surprise us.

Like re-watching a favourite movie, it’s quite possible to relive happy days with a remarkable degree of detail. If you choose to do so, I’m sure it’s equally possible to rerun bad memories. But let’s simply focus on the undeniable joy of having a second bite of the cherry when it comes to your more delightful days.

Does this involve some complicated trick of the mind? Hardly. It simply means finding some way to retell the story of a joyous day, either to someone else or yourself. And how do you do this? By quite simply sharing it – perhaps face to face or in writing if it’s to be with a third party. Or by thinking it through or writing about it if you wish to play the movie in your own head.

Either way it seems to be important to pay close attention to small details, and to also try and relive the exact emotions you experienced at the time.

When you recall a day in this way, one memory will easily trigger another, and another, and another, enabling you to bask in a torrent of feelgood thoughts.

Are you ready to think about the happiest day of your life? What are you waiting for?

Learning from feedback, a new Moodnudges schedule

Today’s post is a combination of a mood nudge and an important (hopefully welcome) announcement about our publication schedule.

First, the nudge. As a creature of habit, I often find myself following fixed routines. In many ways I find them comforting. Maybe you too view them as a way of getting through all the stuff you have to do every day?

The trouble is, routines can become so comforting that you forget to check in with yourself from time to time. Are they still helping you, or is it perhaps time to make a course correction? There’s a helpful quotation along these lines, sometimes misattributed to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

In a way, the originator of this (and it was actually probably Narcotics Anonymous) is less important than its overall flavour. Rather than ploughing the same furrow, sometimes it makes sense to make changes, especially if others help you see the need for this.

And that brings us neatly to our publication announcement. When Alex and I started Moodnudges in May, we decided to publish posts seven days a week, partly as that was how I’d worked when I started Moodscope. However we’ve learned pretty quickly that for many readers this has felt like an overwhelming deluge of reading matter.

Since our posts are meant to lift spirits, not dismay you with their sheer volume, from today we’ll be appearing in your Inbox – and on the blog – four times a week rather than every day.

So from now on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays are Moodnudges days.

Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays? They’re your days off.

A good night’s sleep

“Last night I slept like a baby. I woke up three times, wet myself twice and cried myself back to sleep each time.”

Love it. After remembering the late and great British comedian Tommy Cooper yesterday, I was inspired to spend a happy ten minutes just now chuckling over some of his greatest one-liners, one of which is the above.

Getting a great night’s sleep is, well, great. But what about the opposite? Sleeping badly, groaning when it’s time to get up after tossing and turning all night is grim. Even more so when your mood is low.

An old rule of thumb for insomnia (now somewhat discredited but with more than a whiff of common sense about it) was that when sleeplessness comes at the beginning of the night, it may be down to reactive low mood: you’re worried or angry about some or other life event.

If on the other hand you’re waking too early, it may be a sign of endogenous low mood. Endogenous means “having an internal cause or origin” – one of those horrid low moods which doesn’t really seem to have any external cause.

Of course, just as a lower mood leads to poor sleep, poor sleep can lead to a lower mood, so it makes so much sense to do all you can to ensure a better night whenever possible.

Although I’m sure you’re already aware of much of the advice relating to sleep hygiene, the American National Sleep Foundation offers a helpful and timely reminder of the need to wind down before bedtime.

They point out that your body needs time to shift into sleep mode, so recommend spending the last hour before bed doing a calming activity like reading.

The Foundation says that for some people, using an electronic device such as a laptop can make it hard to fall asleep, because the particular type of light coming from the screens of these devices is activating to the brain. Their suggestion? If you have trouble sleeping, avoid electronics before bed or in the middle of the night.

This seems sensible to me, so if you’re a user of electronic devices, why not steer clear of them in the hour or so before bedtime tonight?

You’re not reading this at bedtime, I hope.

Do what makes you happy

The famous American vaudeville comedy act Smith & Dale performed together for the first seventy years of the 20th century, until Dale’s death in 1971.

I love that they weren’t actually born Smith & Dale. They were originally Joseph Sultzer and Charles Marks, but assumed their new identity after a printer offered them business cards at a knockdown price, having printed them for another Smith & Dale who’d then changed their minds about wanting them.

In the 1920s their signature sketch was “Dr Kronkheit and His Only Living Patient” which featured one of my favourite jokes (I used to think it was attributable to British comedian Tommy Cooper but it turns out I was wrong):

Patient: Doctor, Doctor, it hurts when I do this.
Doctor: Well don’t do it then.

The thing is, although it sounds extremely simplistic, most of the time our behaviour has consequences. Do X and we feel Y, for instance.

And this suggests a bold idea: do things that make you happy.

Now I agree, this isn’t exactly rocket science, but I’m equally sure it’s a strategy you sometimes forget. If you’re anything like me, you do, anyway.

Of course, doing things which give you pleasure means knowing what those things are in the first place. I’m pretty certain you already know what some are, but perhaps they’re not front of mind? Maybe you’re so busy doing (and thinking about) other stuff that you lose sight of what it is that brings a smile to your face?

Here’s a thought for today then. When you can, snatch a few moments to jot down a few activities which you know make you happy. Between three and five ideas is a great start. Then (and this is the important bit) make plans to do them as soon as possible, and keep doing them.

It’s likely that some of your greatest pleasures are also the simplest, giving you no excuse to schedule them for the very near future.

Please don’t forget the simple principle that behaviour has consequences:

You: I’m happy when I do this.
Me: Well do it then.

Accept what you can’t control

It’s nearly always helpful to feel you have an element of control over life, even in relatively trivial ways such as being a pedestrian in a city centre.

You’re marching down the street and come to a traffic intersection. Thoughtfully, someone has placed a button there for you to press, so you do. Then you wait for the lights to change – happy in the knowledge that now “they” know you’re there, they’ll do so more quickly.

But will they?

Not always. In Central London, for instance, a large number of pedestrian crossing signs at traffic lights have no effect whatsoever during normal office hours. Whether or not you push the button, the lights change when their computerised operating system tells them, not you.

The same is true in New York City, where thousands of pedestrian crossings have been left with their old mechanical push buttons even though the lights are now computerised. The buttons may be there but they’re disconnected.

Why? City planners know that even when people actually have no control, they’re likely to be more patient if they believe they do. In fact in New York these non-controlling controls are even sometimes referred to as “placebo buttons”.

The highly-regarded psychologist Julian Rotter developed the personality concept of “locus of control” in the 1950s.

Someone with an external locus (locus is Latin for place) believes they have little or no control over their own life, such that both bad and good days come about entirely because of external factors.

A poor test score, for example, is because the examiner was unfairly harsh. A good score was the result of the questions being easy. In neither case would someone with an external locus of control believe they had any influence.

A poor score wouldn’t be because they’d insufficiently prepared for the test, and a good one wouldn’t be the result of them swotting diligently. These alternative explanations would be how someone with an internal locus of control might view things.

It’s likely that as your mood ebbs and flows, so too does your locus of control: on a good day you may feel more in control of things than you do on a bad one.

But of course even on a day when your inner sun shines, the truth is that there will always be some things that you can control and others that you can’t. How to handle this? I think by practicing acceptance.

By all means control what you can. But at the same time, simply accept what you can’t. Anything else would be like impatiently and repeatedly pushing the ‘Cross’ button. And who’d do that?

Yep, me too.

Broaden your social circle

According to a relatively recent report by the Pew Research Center, half of all Facebook users have more than 200 friends on the site (the other half have less than 200). Probably unsurprisingly, the younger you are the more Facebook friends you’ll tend to have. For example the median (midpoint) number for 18-29 year-olds is 300, while for 50-64 year-olds it’s 75.

Rather unfairly it is of course fashionable to suggest that Facebook friends aren’t always friends in the true sense of the word, but since friendship is a such a broad church I have no trouble whatsoever with the label.

Why not? Well, would I regard the hundreds of people in the address pages of my time planner as friends? Most of them, certainly. Do I see them frequently? Many of them, no, sadly. But they’re in my address book and in my thoughts.

I think that if you ask people whether Quantity or Quality is most important in friendships, most would tend to say it doesn’t matter how many friends you have, but it does matter – and matter a lot – how close your relationships are.

I don’t think I’d argue with this, and in fact I regularly remind us both via these Moodnudges of the value of investing in our relationships with those to whom we’re closest.

But let’s wonder just for one moment whether or not there could also be merit in focusing on quantity as well as quality?

Here are four reasons why I think it can be really good to broaden your circle of friends a little:

1. Since everyone has their own unique take on life, having a somewhat wider range of friends enables you to see things from a range of different perspectives.

2. With only a limited number of people on whom you can call, what happens when you need them but they’re all busy? Developing a wider support network makes it more likely that people will be available when required.

3. Somewhat inevitably you’re certain to have friendships that wax and wane, so starting new relationships makes great sense: rather like sowing more seeds in your garden than you may eventually need.

4. Making a new friend can do wonders for your self-confidence. Whatever “it” is, you’ve still got it.

So please by all means continue to value, cherish and nurture your most important relationships, but don’t lose sight of the value of forging new friendships, as well as getting to know existing but less-close friends better.

Why to focus on this moment

The popular myth that goldfish have no more than three-second memories is just that, a myth. The truth? They’re actually rather good at remembering stuff way beyond this, almost certainly for three months or longer.

And in some ways this is unfortunate, because the idea of being unable to remember the past should in theory be an excellent way of reminding yourself to live in the present.

In fact, though, the present moment is the only moment over which you and I have complete control.

Can we change what happened ten days, or even ten minutes ago? No. What’s passed is in the past.

Can we truly predict what’s going to take place in ten days, or ten minutes? Again, no. In many ways the future lies beyond our control.

It’s in this current, present moment that we’re most able to choose what we do, and more importantly how we feel.

For instance, if you simply make yourself smile right now (and why not go ahead?) there’s pretty good evidence that you’ll trigger some of the same feel-good neurological responses that your brain experiences when you’re in a longer-term better mood.

Imagine. The only moment over which you have control is the present one, and you’re completely at liberty to decide whether it will be miserable or happy.

I think I know what I’d prefer, particularly when we also recognise that the longer-term future can simply be seen as a succession of present moments. It seems you and I have a lot more control than we might think.

And a lot more freedom than the average goldfish.

What makes you shine?

I love this question. Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan is asking her sold-out audiences this as she tours around North America this summer.

She speaks of the importance of shining on through adversity, even appreciating the hard times that life brings us because they can transform us into the strong, beautiful beings we were meant to be. Her songs are filled with inspiration to appreciate life’s struggles, then learn from them and let them go. And always keep on shining.

When I ask myself what makes me shine, what makes my heart sing, I get words coming up like:

– dancing
– helping people thrive
– snuggling with my daughters
– making a really delicious meal to share with someone special
– writing
– building communities

I’d love to hear about what makes you shine, what makes your heart sing?

As inspiration to share and shine unabashedly, one of my favorite quotes ever is by author Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’
Actually, who are you not to be?
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine, as children do.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

So why not go out there and be amazing today, in whatever way you like? And please do let us know…

What makes you shine?