Monthly Archives: August 2014

3 resolutions for a healthier, happier tomorrow

It’s easier to be happier when you’re healthy. Eat good food, get proper exercise, and take steps to sleep better tonight.

California’s ancient redwood trees are monumental, majestic and magnificent, and a while ago Alex and I were fortunate enough to spend two nights among them at a fantastic campground called Little Basin.

We slept in a tent, cooked over an open fire, hiked for a whole day, and generally unwound in the calm and beautiful natural environment, marvelling at moments such as the family of four deer who tramped calmly by us at dusk as they presumably headed for their own beds.

We ate delicious, healthy food, took much more exercise than I, at least, would normally get, and both slept amazingly well. The combined effect of this beauty and calmness? Not surprisingly it put us both in a really positive state of mind.

Of course, other commitments (“life”) make it just about impossible to live like this all the time, but our brief experience was a timely demonstration of the important role that good physical health plays in overall well-being.

It’s not easy to keep your spirits up when you’re feeling sick or unhealthy. But while some health matters are likely to be beyond your control, you and I almost certainly have a considerable say in whether or not we lead a healthy life.

Unfortunately I’m not camping today, and perhaps neither are you. But here are three simple suggestions to help keep us both on track:

1. Let’s agree to eat well and healthily. I’ll resist the temptation to snack on the wrong kinds of food, and will relish a tasty, nutritious meal instead. How about you?

2. How about getting a little more exercise than normal? Walk, do some gardening, take the stairs rather than the elevator.

3. Maybe we can both give proper focus to getting a better sleep tonight, perhaps making bedtime a little earlier than usual and starting to wind down an hour before that?

It’s sometimes hard to believe we have much control over our mood. But we can nearly always make active choices about our health, and as the latter has a big impact on the former, let’s be healthy.

And happier.

Why it’s crucial to nurture relationships

If there’s an important relationship you’ve been neglecting, it will always pay to invest time and energy in it.

When a gardener sows seeds she has no way of knowing which will thrive and which won’t. Instead, a little while after they’ve germinated she’ll thin out her seedlings in a process sometimes called “pricking out”.

Those which are weaker will be removed in order that the stronger ones have more space in which to grow, and she’ll also be able to focus her attention on the plants with the best prospects.

I’m certain there are other instances in life in which it pays to concentrate our energies in a few well-defined areas rather than spreading ourselves too thinly elsewhere. A notable example? Our relationships with others.

Of course it makes great sense to cultivate friendships with a number of people at the same time, and as we and others are learning from our experiences with our WellBee cards, it’s clear that the closeness (and to some extent quantity) of our connections can have a pretty profound affect on levels of overall wellbeing.

In talking about thinning out seedlings, I don’t mean to imply doing anything like this with your friendships. But I do think it makes sense from time to time to ask yourself if there’s perhaps one particular relationship that you’ve been neglecting?

Is there someone important who’d benefit from more of your focus? Would it make sense to invest energy in patching things up if that’s necessary? Could it be a good idea to spend time in this person’s company, or in an exchange of messages or a phone conversation if they’re physically remote?

Relationships are there to be enjoyed. How about doing just that today?

3 ways you can become more loved

Know your own needs, then allow yourself to be loved and you probably will be – particularly if you start by giving love to others.

How loved are you feeling right now? It’s an important question whose answer is sure to have a substantial impact on your overall state of wellbeing.

Actually, asking yourself how loved you feel is one of the twelve measures used by our WellBee cards to calculate your daily wellbeing score. (We’re being kept really busy hand-making sets of these cards in our California garage and shipping them off to people all over the world.)

Starting today with Loved, I’ll be writing occasional posts based on each of WellBee’s twelve cards. In fact, when Alex does a final check of each hexagonal WellBee tin before it goes in the mail she likes to make sure the Loved card is on the top of the pack: that’s how important we think it is.

It’s great to feel loved, but of course the reverse is also true. Feeling unloved can be a distressing state of mind, one often associated with periods of low mood. Believing you’re unloved is likely to lead to feeling alone, uncared-for and generally pretty miserable.

But what can you possibly do to get more love into your life? Since love comes from others, surely there’s not a lot you can do to jump-start the process? Surely you have to wait for others to love you?

Well, no. I’m fairly sure you and I have more power than we believe in this regard, and I’d like to suggest three effective starters:

1. Allow yourself to be loved. I know all too well that when my mood is low enough to cause me to shrink into my shell, I shut out others. But to be loved is to allow people to get close to you. You need to be present. You need to be open to receiving affection. So keep the lines of communication between you and others open. Show your pleasure when someone shows you affection, just as a cat purrs contentedly to let you know she enjoys being stroked.

2. Know your own needs. To some extent, feeling loved means you believe your needs are being met, so if you’ve not thought through what these are, others must simply guess. Is it important to you to be respected? Is it important to feel affection through the physical touch of others? Is it important to have your efforts recognised and your challenges commiserated with? If you think of someone you may know who seems easy to love, it’s likely you’ll have a good idea of their needs. Why not identify your own then?

3. Give love to receive love. In my view the American writer Elbert Hubbard hit the nail on its head when he said: “The love we give away is the only love we keep”. You’re far more likely to feel loved yourself when it’s you who went first, by feeling love for somebody else. Not only feeling it, of course, but demonstrating it. Why not tell someone you love them? And really mean it.

If you’d like your own set of WellBee cards they’re available here, and we’ll be delighted to send you some. In fact we’d love to.

How to feel connected in the next 5 minutes

Connect with others right now by posting a comment on the Moodnudges blog.
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For good reason you’ll notice I often remind us both of the benefits of connecting with other people (it makes us feel good) and the disadvantages of not doing so (it can feel isolating and will often lead to a general lowering of mood).

But today for once, let’s actually do something very practical right here. Let’s make some connection happen.

This Moodnudge goes out in two forms – as an email, and also as a post on our blog. At the foot of the blog you’ll find a Comments section, and I’d like to ask you to go there now and take two actions please:

1. Add a comment yourself, even (especially?) if you’ve never contributed to a blog before. Specifically, I’d like you to introduce yourself to other readers by briefly (one sentence will do nicely) telling us one little tip of your own for lifting your mood. What’s worked for you in the past, that’s just about guaranteed to raise your spirits?

2. Then pick one comment that someone else has made already, and add a further thought of your own to it – even if it’s as succinct as a “what a splendid idea”.

Although our Moodnudges community is growing nicely, I think it’s still cosy enough to enable us to get some inspiring conversations going.

Let’s see how many comments we can trigger today.

Let’s connect, and feel the warmth.

Become a one-person service organisation

Find ways to help others today, and you should experience a mood lift tomorrow.
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The very first time I visited California I was 22, and it was around this time of year that I landed at San Francisco airport after my first-ever flight – on a Pan-Am 747 – to be met by Harold Knopp, a member of Oakland Rotary Club who’d agreed to act as my “guardian” during the year in which I studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts.

Rotary International had generously awarded me a scholarship for a full year of graphic design study, which I’d otherwise have never been able to afford. I competed for this award against plenty of other well-qualified applicants, then was fortunate enough to be selected after a final nerve-wracking interview.

Rotary’s money paid for everything from my return flight to my day-to-day living expenses and tuition fees. I couldn’t have asked for more.

The same must be said for Harold and his wife Ruth who helped me settle in, find a place to live after I’d stayed with them for my first couple of weeks, and then opened their arms to me on family days such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.

One way and another I had a fair amount to do with Rotary during my scholarship year, as the one real expectation of me was that I’d speak at a few of the Bay Area clubs’ lunch meetings, which I enjoyed and learned from. Among other things they taught me to eat a meal at the speed of light. You don’t want your tummy to be rumbling when you step up to the microphone, right?

Rotary started life in Chicago in 1905, and currently has over a million members worldwide. Although it was originally designed as a business networking club, it soon re-defined itself as a service organisation. In fact Rotary’s motto is “Service above self”.

And that’s a pretty enriching philosophy when you think about it, isn’t it? Not just for an organisation, but for the likes of you and me too, maybe.

For there’s no doubt that doing things for others is a wonderful win-win approach to life. Not only will others generally appreciate your assistance, but helping people is also inclined to fire up your brain’s reward circuits. Humans are hard-wired to get a kick out of altruistic behaviour.

I think life can be altogether more meaningful when you take a little time to do your bit to help.

So why not be lavishly generous with your offers of help today? Don’t wait to be asked. Seek out opportunities to support and assist whoever you can, in any way possible. Your reward? Almost certainly a mood-boost.

Perhaps you’ll be your own one-person service organisation today, and of course if we all do so – well, what a better world we’ll be living in.

Service above self?

3 ways to give your life meaning and purpose

Remind yourself of the meaning and purpose of your life by focusing on the past, present and future.
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It’s hardly very scientific, but I have a sense that over time my differing answers to the question “What’s the point of life?” would in themselves form a pretty good indicator of my mood.

When things are better, I can feel there’s everything to live for. But in the past when they’ve not been so great, I’m disappointed to admit that everything has felt rather pointless.

Perhaps, like me, you do better when you feel you have a role in life, a part to play? Maybe you’d agree that everything is easier to deal with when you believe you’re living a life with meaning and purpose?

Unfortunately low mood can gnaw away at such sentiments, leaving you feeling isolated and unneeded, and it’s at times like this that I think it can help to actively focus on “meaning and purpose” in three ways – past, present and future:

1. Past. Think back to times in your life during which you felt like you were part of something bigger than you may do right now. Perhaps this was when you were at school? Maybe there was a period when you were particularly close to your family? Or was there someone who really depended on you? Remind yourself how this felt, trying to create as detailed a picture as possible of it in your mind. A vivid memory such as this may help you see that things have not always been as they are right now, and they’ll almost certainly get better.

2. Present. The dark lens of sadness can twist your thinking, leaving you feeling that nothing matters, especially yourself. It can create a false world in which you believe you matter to no-one. But I bet that’s not true. I bet there are at least a few of people whose lives are enriched by having you in them. Chances are you’re forgetting them, so why not work on bringing them to the front of your mind? Remind yourself of the difference you’re already making.

3. Future. Would you like to be part of something bigger in the future? Today’s a great time to start making that happen. I was pleased to come across a long list of volunteer opportunities in my local area when I searched on Google the other day, and things could be similar where you are. Maybe you could offer to mentor someone? Or you could help out at your local library. Some or other group could probably use your help, whether it’s making coffee or sticking up posters. The thing is, you absolutely do have it in your power to build more meaning into your life.

On a bad day you’ll probably feel there’s a vast distance between where you are now and having a life with meaning, but you know what they say about a journey of a thousand miles, don’t you?

It begins with a single step.

Why it’s best to accept yourself as you are

Don’t blame yourself when things aren’t good, simply accept and love yourself for who you are.
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This time last year I hadn’t yet moved to California, so was still living in the UK and frequenting the local Caffe Nero for my morning coffee.

Over a couple of years I’d got to know the manager. Chris and I would always pass the time of day, and every so often have a longer chat – sometimes in the coffee shop’s back room, which was a kind of storage space and office. Talk about shabby, though.

Naturally enough, the shop itself was pretty well fitted-out. Nice furniture, decently decorated, clean and tidy, that sort of thing. But this back room was something else. Now don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t dirty or anything like that, it was just that it had clearly escaped the eye of the painters and decorators when they’d fitted out the shop.

And actually there’s nothing too surprising about this. Very many businesses have the part which is seen and frequented by the public, and the part that definitely isn’t. The difference? Well let’s just say the former is generally a good deal fancier than the latter.

Of course the great majority of people never get to see Caffe Nero’s store room, so their impression of the premises is the one the business wishes them to have.

I wonder if something similar happens when you and I compare ourselves with others? You know, I think perhaps it does.

For instance, when I met a friend for coffee last weekend she said it was good to see me looking all shiny and happy, but the truth was that inside I felt anything but.

I think many of us do this. We look around and imagine everyone’s happier than us, less anxious, more content, better adjusted. But that’s simply because we’re comparing our insides with other people’s outsides, and more often than not this delivers a strictly one-dimensional view.

If you’re someone who, like me, struggles with low mood now and then, I think it’s pretty common to imagine it’s only you who feels this way: the rest of the world is full of the joys of spring while you (and only you) are withering on the vine.

But of course this simply can’t be true, can it? After all, depression and anxiety are two of the most common triggers for visits to the doctor’s, and around one in four people will be formally diagnosed with a mental health problem during their lifetime.

Battling with low mood is hard enough as it is, but blaming yourself for it is the ironic icing on the cake.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to accept yourself as you are.

Even better? Love yourself for who you are.

How positivity added a decade to life-spans

Nuns who wrote the most positive statements lived a full ten years longer than those who wrote more neutrally.
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In 2001 researchers at the University of Kentucky conducted a fascinating study focused on over 600 nuns.

The decision to look at nuns was made because they formed a remarkably homogeneous group of women, whose physical backgrounds and conditions were about as alike as possible. For instance they had similar diets, lived together in similar surroundings, did not have children, and also did not smoke or drink to excess.

The research began by analysing brief autobiographical statements these nuns had written when they joined their convents in the 1930s and 1940s. Their writing was rated for its positive or negative content.

For example, one Sister showed low positive emotion by writing “With God’s grace, I intend to do my best for our Order, for the spread of religion and for my personal sanctification.” On the other hand, another Sister demonstrated high positive emotion, declaring “Now I look forward with eager joy to receiving the Holy Habit of Our Lady and to a life of union with Love Divine.”

By the time the analysis was done, the nuns were between 75 and 94 years old. In fact 42 per cent had already died.

Among other things, the researchers were curious to know whether there might be an association between positive mindset and longevity, and these results were truly incredible. Nuns who had expressed the highest levels of positivity sixty years previously lived, on average, a full decade longer than those with much lower levels.

High positive emotion was also strongly associated with considerably lower levels of Alzheimer’s disease.

Now you may not be a nun, but it seems to me that we can all learn from this remarkable study which suggests that taking a positive approach to life can have the most profound physiological effects.

Act positively, live longer.

Pretty powerful stuff, I think you’ll agree.

The 3-step bouncing-back strategy

Tackle self-blame by recognising what you accuse yourself of, then gathering evidence which proves this is a fallacy.
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There will be bad days and when they come, it’s not your ability to hold firm against them which counts, but your determination to stand up straight again once the storm has passed.

So, are there tips and hints which can help you do this? Sure.

One idea I really like is designed to help you bounce back from the self-blame that frequently accompanies tough times.

1. Start (yes, really) by becoming your own worst personal critic, making a list on paper of all the ways in which you hate yourself. Don’t hold back. Let’s imagine you’ve been unceremoniously dumped by a friend, so let rip with the self-blame: I was selfish; I was too wrapped up in my own life; I wasn’t there for him when he really needed it.

2. Now challenge each of these items of self-blame. Are you truly selfish, over-wrapped up in your own life, and undependable? While none of us is blameless in such respects, I’m sure you’re a better person than you’ve made out, so make a second list, again on paper, which in this case might read: Why I’m unselfish; How I’m not over-immersed in my own life; Why I’m dependable.

3. Lastly, picking one of these challenges to your own self-blame each day, write a mini-essay – a couple of paragraphs say – arguing your case. Provide the evidence that proves you’re not selfish, then continue day by day until you’ve rebutted each of the false accusations you’ve made about yourself.

Don’t just try to think your answers in your head. It’s crucial to physically write down this stuff. It’s also vital to spread the task over a few days.

It will (and should) feel like hard work, but it’s a strategy that works, and it’s one which I call on myself from time to time.

Perhaps it will work for you too, maybe it won’t. The most important point, though, is to equip yourself with the tools to help you bounce back, because one thing is always true.

There will be bad days.

3 tips for goal-setting when you don’t feel like it

Having modest goals to look forward to can help you through rough days. But make them achievable, imminent and specific.
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Were you to visit a psychologist or psychotherapist for help with depression, he or she might first ask you to complete one of the mental health profession’s standard tests – perhaps the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI). This way at least you’d begin the recovery process with a line in the sand to remind you of where you started from.

The first version of the BDI was developed over fifty years, and it’s a well-validated, much-respected measure. Its 21 multiple-choice items include the following, which I think is particularly pertinent to today’s post. You’re asked which of the following best describes how you’ve felt over the last seven days:

1. I am not particularly discouraged about the future.

2. I feel discouraged about the future.

3. I feel I have nothing to look forward to.

4. I feel that the future is hopeless and that things cannot improve.

Of course, the statements are ordered in such a way that number one would probably be selected by someone with little or no depression, while number four might be the choice of someone feeling pretty hopeless.

So when I suggest that having goals to look forward to can play an important part in your overall happiness, you don’t just have to take my word for it: psychologists say a deficit in this area can be one of the leading signs of depression.

Of course, if you’re not careful it’s an area that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know that when my own mood is low, I lack the motivation to set goals and make plans in the first place, making it likely that my low mood inexorably leads to little to look forward to, and therefore an even *lower* mood.

Great, eh?

Fear not, though, all is not lost. Over the years I’ve learned the hard way that the only goals and plans I’ll make on a bad day are trivially modest ones. But a trivially modest goal or plan is better than no goal or plan at all.

I think the best small goals for spectacularly awful days need to fulfill three criteria:

1. They need to be pretty easily achievable, with just a modicum of effort.

2. They need to be pretty imminent – it’s easier to look forward to something later on today or this week than it is to get excited about some outcome far into the future.

3. They need to be specific. Define exactly what you’re looking forward to.

So, on a bad day:

Good: At 6pm this evening I’m going to walk to the store to treat myself to a copy of Hello magazine. (Well, you get my drift.)

Less-good: Sometime in the next two years I’m going to learn to play the banjo.

In short, if things are looking good for you right now, by all means plan away, but if they’re not, do please at least think about setting yourself the tiniest of goals.

Having something to look forward to is better than having nothing to look forward to. Psychologists agree.