Monthly Archives: February 2015

Utter focus can be a beautiful thing

You’re seven years old. You’re lying on the floor, face squeezed to carpet, surrounded by hundreds of brightly coloured pieces of Lego. And right in front of your nose, on its green dimpled base, is the most incredible structure – all built by you.

Bit by bit, section by section, you’ve created this mini masterpiece, and you’re totally, utterly absorbed in it.

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So much so that when you’re called to the dinner table you simply don’t hear it. You’re shutting everything else out. You’re truly ‘in’ your castle, house or rocket.

Then, like clambering out of treacle, you’re slowly conscious of your mother calling your name. She’s sounding impatient because unbeknownst to you she’s already shouted it three times. But you just didn’t hear her, so focused were you on constructing your masterpiece.

Remember that feeling? Good, wasn’t it? (The complete absorption bit, rather than the tetchy mother.)

There’s much to be said for the blissful state of complete and utter focus on something (the condition which psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed ‘flow’).

And bearing in mind that, sophisticated though our minds may be, we can only think about one thing at any one moment, there’s a lot to be said for being able to forget about your worries for a while at least by focusing 100% on an activity that demands every neurobeat of your consciousness.

Once upon a time you were the master of doing this.

And you know what? I think you still can be.

How small satisfying goals can help

Although I like to think I’m a pretty productive guy, there have definitely been days in the past when I’ve achieved very little.

These weren’t cherished vacation days in the sun. No sir, they were downbeat, dismal times, when life stood still as my mood slinked along the riverbed like a bottom-feeding catfish.

I know I’m not alone in having had bad times, and while I hope you’ve avoided this worst kind of hiatus, something tells me that you may know what I’m talking about. Even if it’s not happened to you, you’ll almost certainly have witnessed someone you know going through it.

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Now of course, on your bluest days you’re extremely unlikely to have anything like enough motivation and get-up-and-go to plan activities which might end up giving you pleasure and enjoyment. Great if you do, but as I say, it’s not very likely.

So on the basis that sitting there in a funk doing nothing is likely to leave you feeling even worse, what to do?

Well, why not look for tasks whose completion will give you a sense of satisfaction? Not necessarily pleasure, not necessarily enjoyment, but a simple feeling of satisfaction, which can actually be one of the building blocks of happiness.

Tackle something which is realistically achievable rather than impossible.

Tidy a messy drawer. Water the plants. Bake a pie. Do the laundry. Clean the car. Pay the bills. Reply to a manageable number of emails. Put away your clothes. Make a shopping list.

Activities such as these probably aren’t going to leave you feeling as though you’ve had an amazing time, but they may just give you a gentle glow of satisfaction.

And even a gentle glow can help lighten the darkest day.

The power of not taking things so seriously

I wonder if you’ve noticed as I have that when you’re going through a bad time there’s a tendency to take everything in life terribly seriously?

The kinds of TV shows which might normally bring a smile to your face cease to do so. Chores and tasks can feel like total drudgery. Conversations, at least from your end, take on a funereal tone.

And that’s not much fun, is it?

Worse still, it becomes a vicious circle. You don’t have fun because you feel low, then you feel even lower because you’re having no fun.

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This is where, I suggest, we can learn from the younger members of society.

Kids get one thing very right, because they approach just about everything in a playful manner. Even walking down the street can turn into a dance or athletic display.

Now I know (or at least hope) that the next time you’re feeling a bit blue you probably won’t be breaking into a bout of twerking as you make your way down the high street.

But there’s a lot to be said for, even surreptitiously, sneaking in a little playfulness to your everyday activities. You won’t feel like it, but it’ll almost certainly do you good.

You’ll have your own ideas, but here are four to get you going:

1. Avoid the cracks as you make your way down the sidewalk.

2. Pet a dog in the street. I had a great chat with a sad-looking retriever outside the Farmer’s Market on Sunday morning. I asked how he was doing. He said Ruff.

3. Make funny faces at yourself in the mirror. Sounds goofy, *is* goofy, but it’s hard to keep a straight face. Literally.

4. Dance. It even works in the car or the bathroom when nobody’s watching.

A little bit of play goes a long way, for as George Bernard Shaw once said: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

How forgiving yourself can help everyone around you

I have a confession to make. I’m not generally an angry person, and I don’t tend to hold grudges, but I do sometimes momentarily snap at people.

It’s usually in response to one of three main triggers: fear of abandonment, fear of being late, or fear of someone being angry with me if I don’t meet expectations. Maybe those are all the same fear, actually.

It does seem to depend a bit on what day of my monthly hormonal cycle I’m at, how much sleep I’ve had, and how much background stress is around me.

But I’m not proud of it.

The other day I snapped at Jon, when he was feeling low, and the next morning my WellBee score plummeted from its relatively stable 70-80 range down to 19. I felt guilty, angry at myself, afraid, and miserable.

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The thing is, I’m sure we’ve all had moments like this. We’re only human, after all. And as worthwhile as it is to keep trying hard to learn and improve and open our hearts more, sometimes we’re going to crash and burn. I think this might even *need* to happen sometimes, to make space for a new understanding or opportunity to emerge.

A couple of days after the snap, I realized there wasn’t much point in beating myself up – that would only make things worse for everyone. I started forgiving, softening, being gentle with myself, and that helped me be softer and more gentle with people around me too. Being kind to ourselves has a ripple effect, and ends up helping everyone. Maybe even the world!

So here’s my little nudge for you: if you find yourself locked in a self-critical pattern today, maybe just try to find a tiny bit of soft forgiveness to wrap around your tender heart. It might not help immediately, but cultivating that feeling of gentleness will eventually help us grow beautiful blooms of hope and love, for ourselves and for others.

I know I feel a warm loving heart when I think of you reading this – a moment of connection in both of our days. Thank you for listening, and please share your experience if you feel so inspired.

Alexandra

Help someone else and help yourself to a better mood

You and I have an opportunity to build a better world, and the most exciting thing of all is that we can do it today.

I’m not talking about a revolution. I’m not advocating immediate world reorganisation.

And you’ll probably be pleased to hear this. I imagine you’ve rather a lot of other things to do in the next 24 hours in addition to saving the world.

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Fortunately the change I’m suggesting is easy to bring about, and can be easily fitted in between picking up the dry-cleaning and taking back your library book.

So what’s it all about? My suggestion, quite simply, is that you and I do something for someone today.

Don’t just offer help, but actually give it.

Hold a door open. Bake someone a cake. Pick up the litter in their front garden. Put a card through their door out of the blue.

Make someone a cup of coffee. Make them laugh. Make them think.

Walk their dog. Buy him a bone. Pass on a magazine or book (to them, not the dog obviously).

In a nutshell, your mission today is to actually do something which will benefit someone else.

Experience suggests that both you and the recipient will benefit when you do so.

And because you’ll be pulling this off (I hope) along with thousands of others who’ll read this same message today, our collective actions could indeed build a better world.

We won’t solve all its problems. But it’s a start, isn’t it?

How to tell unwanted thoughts where to go

Don’t you just hate it when some thought creeps up on you, then – before you know it – seems to take over your whole life?

Fatima K. is a Moodnudges reader who recently told me about something like this that happened two years ago when she was dealing with the loss of a very close family member.

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She explained that she went through hell and almost started feeling numb as her brain showed her countless images of the person she’d lost, and both the nice things that had happened – and the terrible ones.

But here’s how Fatima said she approached this: “A lot of it is fuzzy now, but I’d read somewhere about ‘standing up’ to your mind/thoughts. So when my mind told me I was a terrible family member and that I hadn’t tried as much as I could have, I resulted to telling it to basically go suck it. Treating the thoughts as a nuisance to my life belittled them and gave me the courage to move on.”

What a great idea. Fatima defused the noisy inner voices by giving them a good talking to, sending them on their way.

How did this feel? Back to Fatima: “It’s important to note that when I ‘stood up’, it wasn’t a war between me and myself, it was more like a protest by me against the thoughts. Like standing up to a bully, no matter what they did to try and stop you.”

For Fatima, this was a real life-saver. I wonder if something similar could work for you?

Your thoughts don’t have to define who you are, or at least they needn’t if you don’t allow them to.