Monthly Archives: August 2014

4 thoughts about why learning boosts your mood

Take advantage of small learning opportunities today to make you happier tomorrow.
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Rarely does a day go by without Google’s “autocomplete” feature bringing a smile to my face.

For example as I set out to write today’s post on the mood-enhancing effect of learning, I decided to ask Google to remind me of just why this may be so.

So I dutifully typed in “Why does learning make you…”, but before I got a chance to add the word “happier”, Google helpfully threw four possible searches back at me. And right there at the top of the list was “Why does learning make your pee smell”.

Huh?

Naturally this was too good an opportunity to be allowed to slip through my fingers, so I had the search engine show me the results of, I think you’ll agree, this very bizarre query. Don’t forget that these autocomplete suggestions are supposedly driven by what people actually ask Google.

Sadly I’m still none the wiser. The pages to which it linked were all about the effects of asparagus on pee-odour. Diddly squat (sorry) about why learning could have a similar result, so I’m afraid your guess is as good as mine on that front.

However, in the serendipitous way of search engines, I next found myself reading a report issued by the UK government earlier this year in which a widely-administered survey showed a significant association between frequent library use and reported wellbeing.

Broadly, the study suggests that people who visit libraries more are happier than those who don’t. They (and we) can’t of course know whether going to the library makes you happier, or whether happy people are more inclined to visit libraries, but I’d like to suggest that certainly in my own experience it’s the former.

When my mood takes a dive, I can find great solace in meandering through the neatly-laden shelves of a good library. (Book stores work, too, although sadly these days they’re becoming thinner on the ground.)

My library-wanders are, I’m sure, a form of informal learning, and I can think of at least four ways in which this may lift my mood:

1. Learning something new, even something relatively trivial, forces me to stop thinking the negative thoughts that had hitherto commandeered my mind.

2. Learning something new, specially something novel, can be fun and/or pleasurable.

3. Learning something new can boost my self-esteem and confidence. Now I know something I didn’t previously.

4. Some of the new stuff I learn can even be really useful.

You know, every day you and I are confronted with dozens of learning opportunities, so in the recognition that each of them may also be a happiness opportunity why not make the most of these in the next 24 hours?

Explore the unfamiliar, ask lots of questions, watch a TED talk, even look for self-learning from challenging or uncomfortable situations in which you find yourself.

Learn, learn, learn.

And, quite categorically, if you come across the barest hint of a clue about how learning could possibly affect the odour of one’s pee, please do let us know via the comments section of the blog.

Only if you have a nose for these things, though.

How to break a negative thought cycle

Stop an unwanted spiral of negative thinking by noticing the world around you in exquisite detail.
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Is being lost in thought a good or bad thing?

Perhaps it can be either, depending on the thoughts themselves.

The phrase, of course, describes that state where your thinking becomes all-consuming to the extent that you become oblivious to all that surrounds you.

It is, of course, not quite as straightforward as suggesting that getting lost in happy thoughts is good, while doing so in negative thoughts is necessarily bad.

On the one hand, too much happy day-dreaming could stop you getting on with life, while on the other, occasionally you may resolve some kind of issue by thinking deeply about it from all sides.

In the main, though, the point I’d like to make is that getting lost in negative thought can generally be a pretty miserable experience. Perhaps you’ve been unlucky enough to experience anxious, angry or unhappy thoughts which simply won’t go away? I know I have. Left unchecked, these can turn into a kind of mental equivalent to that ear-bending audio feedback that occurs when someone with a microphone wanders too close to the loudspeaker.

Ouch.

But just as audio feedback, which sound engineers sometimes call howlround, can be stopped by introducing distance between microphone and speaker, a spiral of undesirable negative thinking can be interrupted by “forcing yourself” to focus on something completely different.

But how do you do this when your mind seems set on darker source material? One good way is to begin taking extraordinarily good notice of the world around you, concentrating on seeing things as though for the first time.

Explore their shape, colour and texture. Perhaps their smell and sound too.

Notice how one thing connects with another. Imagine you’ve just landed from another planet, with no preconceptions to colour your view of this new world.

Perhaps ridding yourself of unwanted thoughts by thinking about something else seems simplistic. But hey, let’s not knock it if it works.

Why a happy mind needs a healthy body

Just as a home needs regular maintenance to keep it in shape, happiness will be more in reach when you take care of your body.
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After Alex and I had been away for a few days recently, I felt that our return journey really was “driving home”. Our house had become, for me, our home.

So what’s the difference between a house and a home?

Although you may beg to differ, I’d suggest that a house is a building designed for people to live in, whereas a home is a lot more than that.

It’s not just designed to be lived in, someone actually does live in it. It’s a place in which those who live feel safe and comfortable. A good home should be filled with love and laughter. It should also be a place where it’s safe to cry when you need to.

Home is where the heart is, they say, and I’d agree.

It takes work and love to create a home, and maybe in some ways this is an analogy that can apply to our minds and bodies, because just as a home generally needs a house as its “container”, your mind only exists thanks to your body – its own kind of container.

What happens to a home when the house in which it was created is neglected?

Perhaps as the paint starts to peel and broken windows aren’t fixed, the people living within it are able to sustain their sense of home-ness. But after a while, when the roof begins to leak, and damaged fixtures and fittings don’t get replaced, even the cosiest of homes may begin to deteriorate.

When it comes to working on your mood, wanting it to be relatively positive, it can be tempting to focus solely on feelings and emotions. But to forget your mind’s container is to ignore a crucial aspect of your wellbeing.

So please make efforts today to take care of your body.

Aim to get a good night’s sleep. Do your best to schedule some exercise – perhaps a little more than usual. Eat sensibly and healthily, but deliciously. Rest when you need to. If some health issue has been nagging away at you, maybe make arrangements to deal with it.

Just as every home needs a house, all happy minds need healthy bodies.

The importance of investing in your connections

Your connections with others play a big part in your wellbeing, so there’s great value in making the first move to catch up with people.
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Perhaps to some extent, loneliness and solitude are two sides of the same coin. Both require you to be alone, or to at least feel you are, but whereas loneliness is generally viewed as an unhappy state, many see solitude as something to savour.

Although it’s never easy to recall such things with clarity, I think that as a kid I spent a fair amount of time on my own. Perhaps this explains why in some ways I’m quite content to spend extended periods of time alone, particularly during my working day.

I’ve travelled alone, lived alone – and even laughed alone (please don’t tell the men in white coats about that one). However this doesn’t mean I don’t understand the sadness of loneliness, nor does it suggest I haven’t experienced it.

Out shopping the other weekend, I was slightly unnerved to find shelves full of Halloween decorations. True it’s still a fair way off, but last October 31st I’d only just arrived in the USA – and here we are again, almost a year later.

Of course I’ve been busy and a lot has happened, but it’s fair to say that I miss my old friends in the UK. Also, to be honest it doesn’t feel as though I’ve made many new connections in California beyond those I already had when I arrived last year.

It is, of course, largely an issue of my own creation. After all, what should I expect when I closet myself away working so much of the time?

But, and please forgive me for conducting some personal analysis in your company – I hopefully do so for your benefit as well as mine, the truth is that I’ve actually met quite a few people here in Silicon Valley but then haven’t been terribly good at connecting with them again after a first meeting.

Although I’m certainly reasonably happy in my own company, I also greatly value being around others, specially like-minded others, but equally I know that connections only flourish when you put energy into them. It’s easy for me to forget that, and perhaps it is for you too?

So the next time you experience a (hopefully only small) twinge of loneliness, please remember – as I must remind myself – that your connections with others play a big part in your overall wellbeing, and it takes only a surprisingly modest amount of effort to rekindle the glow of a dormant relationship.

So make that call, write that email, send that text message, and then look forward to a catch up. And a lift up.

Why your body will love you for helping others

Doing things for others may help boost your immune system, leaving you less prone to physical illness.

What effect does stress have on the likelihood that you’ll suffer from major illness?

Back in 1956 researchers at Cornell University began a thirty-year study following the lives of 426 married women with children. In particular they were interested in stress.

The scientists started with the hypothesis that those with the greatest number of children would experience the highest levels of stress, which in turn would lead to them experiencing the most episodes of major illness. In fact they went further than this, since they believed that in some cases major illness could lead to death. In effect they were predicting that the more children you had, the shorter you’d live.

But there was one big problem with this assumption. It was wrong.

After thirty years the study revealed that the number of children a woman had, her level of education, her class, and her work status had no correlation on her longevity. However, one really quite surprising factor did indeed affect whether or not these women experienced serious illness.

52% of those who had not volunteered for a good cause had suffered, whereas only 36% of the women who had regularly given their time by volunteering had experienced major ill-health. Their stress had been dissipated through their volunteer work.

When you’re stressed, your body’s “fight or flight” response kicks in. Your cortisol levels rise, your heart and breathing rates increase, your appetite decreases.

Now in the short term there may be physiological advantage to be had from these changes, but if your stress continues for a lengthy period it’s pretty certain to have a negative effect on your wellbeing. Your immune system is likely to take a severe bashing.

Although managing such serious stress is beyond the scope of a brief post like this, perhaps there’s some degree of relief to be had from recognising how much benefit the women in the Cornell study gained from doing things for others.

If you’re in a high-stress situation yourself right now, maybe it’s unrealistic to consider signing up to become a volunteer somewhere. But that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from this feel-good phenomenon: just look for small opportunities to do something for someone else.

Almost certainly you’ll come across some today, so by all means take advantage of them.

Because by helping someone else, you’ll also be helping yourself.

5 tips to beat pessimism

Think positively, remember that things will change, take small actions, know you can create your own future, but stay realistic.
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Imagine you’re feeling low and stuck in the doldrums, then some well-meaning soul admonishes you to ‘keep your chin up’.

It’s hard not to seethe inside, isn’t it? I mean, I’m sure their advice comes with the best intentions, but really. Don’t they know how downright hard it is to adopt even a mildly optimistic outlook when you feel so bad?

They want to help. You feel like punching their lights out.

Think of the phrase in its most literal meaning, though. When I’m low and feeling pessimistic, I know I have a tendency to cast my eyes downwards. My whole head tilts forwards. My chin heads for my chest.

But am I stuck like this? Well no actually.

I can, if I choose, pretty easily elevate my head so I’m looking up. And this simple physical action, specially when accompanied by a simultaneous relaxation of hitherto hunched shoulders, can play a modest part in moving my mindset from wholly pessimistic to at least a tiny bit more optimistic.

So what else can help?

A recent spell of feeling low myself reminded me how I tend to view everything through a deeply gloomy filter when things aren’t going well. It also encouraged me to recall five optimism tips which work for me. Perhaps for you too?

1. Choose to think positively. You’ll probably need to remind yourself to do this, and a positive phrase written on a small piece of card you’ll see often can work wonders. ‘Things will get better’ or ‘I always have a choice’ do the job for me. What might help you?

2. Ignore the feeling that you’re living under a permanent grey cloud. I bet you’ve had brighter times, so believe that you will do so once again. Keenly anticipate the cloud’s passing rather than expecting to live under it forever.

3. Think about what you can make happen rather than dwelling on what’s happening to you. Don’t be a victim of circumstances. Begin taking small actions. It doesn’t matter that not all will succeed. One or two may, giving you a feeling of taking back control again.

4. Your future doesn’t have to be the same as your past. It’s too late to change what’s already happened, but it’s always within your power to choose a more positive path today and tomorrow. And if you can’t change the circumstances that are making you pessimistic, don’t forget that you can always, always choose how you think about them.

5. Be a realistic optimist. Cultivating a more optimistic outlook makes sense. Being unrealistic doesn’t. Rarely are things entirely perfect and you’re setting yourself up for probable disappointment if you expect them to be that way. Stay realistic.

So keep your chin up, by all means. But also keep your feet on the ground.

3 tips for self-acceptance

Practise self-acceptance by being kind to yourself, asking a friend to remind you of your strengths, and spending quiet time alone.
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Self-acceptance – being kind to yourself and believing you’re fine as you are – was the biggest predictor of how satisfied you are with your life overall in research carried out by our friends at Action for Happiness.

But guess what? In its study of ten “happiness habits”, self-acceptance was actually the least likely of the ten to be demonstrated by the survey’s respondents.

So in short, although accepting yourself as you are, warts and all, is a major key to happiness, most of us are really very poor at it.

In some ways I’m not that surprised. With a few exceptions I don’t know many people who are as kind to themselves as they are to others. In some cases, sometimes me included, they’re actually so beastly to themselves that if they behaved that way with their friends they wouldn’t have many left.

So how do you and I become less self-loathing, more self-loving? Action for Happiness offers three helpful suggestions:

1. Be as kind to yourself as you are to others. See your mistakes as opportunities to learn. Notice things you do well, however small.

2. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you what your strengths are or what they value about you.

3. Spend some quiet time by yourself. Tune in to how you’re feeling inside and try to be at peace with who you are.

Check out the Action for Happiness research findings.

To them I’d add one further thought. If you either have a child or were to have one, I think you’d expect to love them unconditionally. Even to your own necessarily-biased eye they may not be perfect, but you’d love them for who they are. Wouldn’t you?

So now imagine being the parent of your own inner child, and show that same unconditional, uncriticising, unwavering love to yourself.

Loving yourself is a pretty important pre-requisite to being loved by others.

How to stop worrying during the night

Displace anxious night-time worries with more neutral thoughts.
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Why don’t you sleep on it?

If you ask someone to make what may seem a difficult decision, it’s sometimes helpful to suggest that they don’t jump to an immediate conclusion but instead “sleep on it” by coming back to you the next day.

Often (but not always, and I’ll return to this in a moment) our minds are clearer after a delay of around 24 hours or so. “Slow wave” sleep can enhance our ability to make mental connections and integrate unassociated information.

However, while this is all well and good when it comes to better decision-making, “sleeping on it” is decidedly less useful when it means waking up worrying at 4:00am.

How do I know this? Well, unfortunately from personal experience, because I’ve spent rather too many sleepless nights recently. Although I have no problem dropping off, I’m wide awake again at four o’clock, a good couple of hours before I want to be opening my eyes.

And am I good at worrying. Yes siree.

Here’s the annoying thing, though. The stuff I’m worrying about does indeed have a somewhat sound basis. I’m not making it up. But in the wee small hours, anxieties which seem relatively manageable in the daytime can assume gargantuan proportions.

Round and round goes the thinking, rapidly turning into rumination. Faster and faster beats the heart. Further and further away goes the prospect of sleep.

Why does this happen? Well of course once you’re awake in the night there are none of the daytime’s distractions to take your mind off your anxieties, leaving its unpleasant thoughts to run amok.

Very (very) occasionally though, I find myself dropping back to sleep again and it is in this very moment that lies the secret to breaking the cycle of circular thoughts, for I realise that for some unknown reason I’ve been thinking about something else – not whatever it was that had been up to that point going round and round in my head.

Without realising it, my mind has gone elsewhere, generally by accident.

So it’s useful to be reminded that your brain is in fact capable of no more than one conscious thought at a time. During the day it’s thinking about the traffic, the food you’re eating, the movie you’re watching, the conversation you’re having, or the work you’re doing – so your anxieties are banished to the back of your mind.

But this is not the case at night.

Unless of course you create your own distractions. Which is definitely possible.

Some people recommend thinking of a watermelon. Why? Well, why not, I suppose. I tend to favour imagining rotating three-dimensional geometric shapes.

It doesn’t really matter what you think of, so long as it’s pretty neutral. But it can help to displace your anxieties with other distracting thoughts.

And although I wish I didn’t need to, I for one will be trying this out tonight.