Monthly Archives: April 2015

Low mood is generally not a permanent state of affairs

Here’s a little exercise for you. Imagine you’re a doctor. Your patient tells you that in the past few days they’ve:

  • Filled up with gas and driven away from the pump with the fuel cap unreplaced and still dangling.
  • Knocked over half a cup of coffee in a cafe.
  • Squeezed liquid soap onto their toothbrush, instead of toothpaste.

What would you diagnose?

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Well, to save you reaching for the medical encyclopaedia, let me explain. All three of these ‘symptoms’ have recently been exhibited either by me (the first two) or Alex (the third – Sorry to give away your secrets AC).

In fact, all we’re both suffering from is a rather nasty cold.

But I was thinking about this earlier today as I falteringly made my way along the street to get myself a coffee (yes, which I then promptly sent flying).

When you get a cold, there’s little you can do other than grit your teeth and get on with things, safe in the knowledge that you’ll get over it in a few days. Although they’re unpleasant, colds are generally just temporary.

We see colds in this way, but I wonder why it’s so difficult to have a similar degree of detachment to periods of low mood?

When – as they do – they come, it seems all too easy to convince yourself that you’re going to stay that way for good.

However, you and I both know (don’t we?) that things almost always get better, even though this may take its time.

Our family used to say “Three days to come, Three days to stay, Three days for a cold to go away”.

A little glib it may be, but perhaps there may be value in thinking about mood disorders in a similarly less-permanent way?

Winnie-the-Pooh and mood-boosting

“‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best,’ and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”

A. A. Milne got it right when he wrote Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926. Just like honey, anticipation is a sweet notion. In fact psychologists have suggested that our pleasure when anticipating an event can often be greater than what we get from actually experiencing it.

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This of course is all well and good if you and I are experiencing times of better mood, for this is when we tend to make plans and therefore have things to look forward to.

When you’re slinking through the doldrums though, it’s common (and sadly ‘normal’) to believe you have nothing on the horizon, which can feel incredibly painful.

We’re all less likely to make plans when our mood’s in the toilet. So at times such as these, perhaps it could pay to take a leaf out of A. A. Milne’s book?

Honey, you see, was just about an everyday experience for His Poohness, not something saved only for special occasions.

So, knowing that anticipation and expectation can contribute to building a better mood, what’s to stop you looking forward to those things you were going to do in any case?

Little, I suggest.

If you’re at work, perhaps you could anticipate listening to music on the way home? Or maybe simply look forward to the coffee or sandwich you’re going to have in an hour?

I know it might feel like ‘cheating’ to look forward to such run of the mill stuff. But if it works, what the heck?

I’m pretty sure Winnie-the-Pooh knew what he was talking about.

Why learning can be good for your mood

As I write this, it’s a Monday. An hour and a half from now, I’ll rise from this seat in the Stanford University library (pictured below) to make my over to an auditorium where Meg Whitman, current CEO of Hewlett Packard, former CEO of eBay is giving a talk.

I very nearly decided not to go, though.

What the heck?

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Hearing about the talk yesterday, I initially figured it as a must-see. But then reality took over. I’d got lots of work to do. I needed to write. I always write on Mondays. I didn’t want to get left behind.

But as I caught myself thinking these thoughts, I pulled myself up sharply.

Are you crazy? Eighteen months ago when you were still living in the UK, you’d have been deeply envious of someone who could catch a free talk by someone so illustrious simply by strolling round the corner.

Now, while I don’t know exactly what Ms. Whitman will speak about, there’s a pretty good chance it will be fascinating. Regardless of her talk’s content, I’m going to learn something, and perhaps I can remind us both that learning almost always feels good.

It can be a particularly helpful way to give yourself a boost should you happen to be feeling under the weather.

Of course I’m deeply fortunate to have the resources of Stanford at hand, but I suspect that learning opportunities are closer to you, too, than you may imagine.

Why not turn on the radio to catch a documentary? Or watch one on TV? You could find a podcast online.

Pick up a book, newspaper or magazine. Watch a TED talk. Ask a friend to tell you something you don’t already know.

Please, please do your level best to never turn down any opportunity to learn, wherever this may be. Today’s a great place to start.

And definitely don’t let routines get in the way. For although they can certainly be helpful at times, within every routine there’s a rut waiting to be found.

See your world in full detail

I first came across San Francisco’s historic Camera Obscura 35 years ago. Like me it’s still there, although unlike me it didn’t spend much of the intervening years in the UK.

So what is a camera obscura? Well, for the uninitiated it’s what’s sometimes called a pinhole camera – a box, or in some cases a whole room, with a tiny hole in one side. Light from outside passes through the hole, which acts as a lens, then falls on a surface inside, where it’s projected, upside-down but with colour and perspective intact.

Camera Obscura, 1096 Point Lobos Ave., San Francisco

Photograph by Sanfranman59

Built in 1946, the Camera Obscura in San Francisco follows the precedent of other US businesses built in the shape of what they sold (think giant ice cream cones and hot dogs). So the Camera Obscura looks like, well, an enormous camera.

But it’s what happens inside that really counts. Every six minutes a hood in the roof rotates through 360 degrees so that inside – in complete darkness – you get an all-around view of everything that’s outside.

Of course all you’re really seeing is what you could have observed standing outside, saving three dollars in the process, but that doesn’t begin to do the experience justice.

For there’s something extraordinary and magical about viewing the world – moving, in colour and miniaturised – projected on a horizontal dish. All powered by daylight.

You notice things you never normally would. You see – Really See – the world around you.

And I wonder if you and I don’t from time to time take our world for granted? I wonder how often we honestly absorb our surroundings?

Taking notice of the world around you is one fine way to lift your mood, so perhaps you’ll get a chance to drink it all in during the coming day?

No desperate need to do it in San Francisco, although I wouldn’t blame you if you did.

Eau Dear

What’s the solution when someone is suffering from water retention? Almost certainly it isn’t the one adopted by a patient I recently heard about from a friend.

This lady, you see, was told be her doctor that she was experiencing water retention. So, when she put two and two together after her appointment?

She stopped drinking water.

Yikes. Not surprisingly, she became dehydrated and urgently needed to be put on an I.V.

I hope someone also gently put her right on her misconceived self-treatment.

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I’m sure you know how important it is to get enough water every day. We all get it drummed into us. But for some it can be a difficult discipline to maintain.

And drinking the right amount of water (you should be getting around two litres a day) isn’t only important for your body. Knocking back the H2O has a knock-on effect on your mind and mood.

Perhaps it sounds obvious, but equipping yourself with a nice water bottle can help build and support the habit. It did wonders for me. I keep mine topped up and by my side as I go about my day. Perhaps this could also work for you?

And as for the ensuing regular bathroom visits, well they’re good for you too.

If nothing else they’re a helpful reminder to get up from your desk.

5 ways you can share to show you care

Although my brother Geoff and I used to live next door to one another, our homes are now 5,000 miles apart. Geoff’s in London. I’m in San Francisco.

Distance, though, doesn’t stop me feeling close to Geoff. So perhaps I can pass on a ‘trick’ we’ve accidentally stumbled upon? Maybe it’s something you too could use.

You see, Geoff and I are both keen on music, sharing each other’s tastes to a large degree. So when one of us finds a song or artist we think the other might also like, we email a link.

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Geoff, for instance, has just told me about a track called “Grow Till Tall” by Jonsi, a member of the Icelandic band Sigur Ross, currently being used in a UK TV commercial.

I’m not sure about your musical tastes, but if you’re curious this is it:

My bigger point? Well it’s not about music in particular, but rather about the gentle pleasure of finding ways of connecting with other people (almost always good for your mood) which involve some kind of sharing.

Why? I think it gives you an excuse or reason to be in touch with others without it needing to be a sometimes dull exchange of “I did this, I did that”.

So here, for starters, are five practical ideas in which you might reach out to a friend or family member. By email is good.

1. Send them a recipe for a delicious dish you’ve recently discovered.

2. Tell them about a book you’ve enjoyed reading.

3. Suggest a TV series you’ve loved (Alex and I are belatedly lapping up “House of Cards” at the moment).

4. Exchange emails with an old school friend to see if you can jointly assemble the names of everyone in your class.

5. Play a shareable online game like Words With Friends.

Perhaps this list will inspire you to think of others, in which case please do another type of sharing. Why not add them in the Comments section?

Pay it forward

In 1784 Benjamin Franklin was sufficiently moved by a letter he received from his friend Benjamin Webb to lend the man money. However, the loan came with an unusual condition.

Franklin asked that when Webb could afford to repay him, he should not do so.

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He must, instead, lend the same amount of money to someone else in distress, with the same strings attached.

“This is a trick of mine,” explained Franklin, “for doing a deal of good with a little money.”

Nice trick Mr Franklin. Very nice.

In fact the rather lovely idea of “paying it forward” dates back to a play written by the ancient Greek, Dyskolos, and also formed the basis of a 2000 book and movie “Pay It Forward”, starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment, in which the story was that one should do three good deeds to others in return for every one good deed received.

There’s even an international Pay It Forward Day on April 30th.

But why wait, I say?

Doing things for others is a great way to feel good yourself, as well as giving a lift to those you help.

So why not look for chances to do a good deed for someone else today? And if they thank you, simply request that they “please pay it forward”.

What an idea. Imagine if everyone went around doing this.

Imagine.