Monthly Archives: May 2015

The virtues of accidental exercise

Your Moodnudges post as usual, but with an important request for help towards the end.

But first, just in case you think I don’t eat my own dogfood (although what a horrid thought that is, in a literal sense) last Sunday, Alex and I set off for a picnic, inspired in part by my post of May 20th.

We piled tasty food into a backpack, then set off for a hike in the redwoods about 15 minutes from home.

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As I forecast in the post, the meal itself was sublime, sitting in the dappled shade of a little tree at the top of a hilly meadow, itself at the highpoint of the five mile trail.

All in all it was around three hours before we were back at the car, tummies replete and – almost unintentionally – bodies well-exercised.

In fact it was Alex who, as we made our way back to base, pointed out that we’d ended up getting “accidental exercise” and that this was in fact A Good Thing.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m not the type of person who would sign up for a gym membership.

Nothing against this of course if it’s your sort of thing, but it’s just not mine.

Like most though, I thoroughly enjoy the blissful sensation of resting after giving my muscles are good honest workout.

Runners will know what I’m talking about: that chemical rush which follows a period of exertion.

Why should athletes have all the fun, though?

Getting exercise, particularly if it’s outdoors, can be a tremendous way of lifting your mood and perhaps you’ll be able to think of your own “accidental” ways to get it?

Meeting a friend for a walk can feel great.

Gardening could be another thought.

A spot of strenuous housework can do it, even though that’ll be indoors.

Just like hiding disguised carrots in a child’s meals so they get to eat their veggies, there’s a lot to be said for some camouflaged calisthenics.

Before we go, one more thing please.

You may know that we recently ran a survey asking about ways others can help if you feel low.

We found out what helps. But what about the kind of “help” that doesn’t actually help at all?

Will you be good enough to answer a few other questions? It doesn’t make a difference whether or not you completed the first questionnaire. Please make sure your voice is heard:

https://joncousins.typeform.com/to/WcOXKi

Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all

Usually when something goes wrong, I want to take action and fix it as quickly as I can.

If our daughter forgets her lunch at home, I will stop on the way to school to get her a new one.

When I can’t sleep, I try every sleeping remedy known to man.

If I end up in a tense situation, my instinct is to talk it through until everyone is drained and exhausted out of their minds.

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Now in many cases, taking action to solve a problem is very useful.

But in some cases it may not be.

I heard some wise words this morning that I’d like to share with you. My friend Janya pointed out:

“When we’re injured, or hurt somehow, sometimes we just need to do nothing. Let ourselves heal, physically or emotionally. Let situations settle. Turn towards gentle self-care and relaxing deep breaths, and sit with the pain. It will pass, whether we’re fussing about it or not. And sometimes all the fussing can make it worse. So I ask myself, ‘what if all I have to do is give this space and time to heal?’ And often, that’s enough.”

I wonder if you might find a bit of space and time in your heart today to let a hurtful thing heal. Just do nothing and let it be exactly as it is for now. And see what happens?

I’ll be sitting right here with you.

Our research: How can others help someone whose mood is low?

A rather long post today but an incredibly important one.

This past Sunday and Monday I asked if you’d contribute your voice to a survey. This was a follow-up to another recent post when I sought ideas for ways that other people might help you if you’re feeling low.

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A magnificent total of 228 readers completed the questionnaire, for which a huge thank you. The members of our Moodnudges community never cease to amaze me.

How was the questionnaire generated? I amalgamated the suggestions that were made by readers, then turned them into the form of a questionnaire whose possible answers for each potential way of helping were: Definitely important; Somewhat important; Neutral; Somewhat DON’t want; Definitely DON’T want.

So, what did we learn?

Well, for a start, here are the top ten most preferred ways for someone to help when your mood is low:

  1. Listen to me without judging me.
  2. Reassure me that I’m loved.
  3. Accept me warts and all, no matter what.
  4. Allow me to be honest about my mood without trying to “fix it” for me.
  5. Cuddle/hug me, if you’re someone I love.
  6. Have conversations with me which aren’t 100% heavy – perhaps even make me laugh.
  7. Be fine with me crying if/when I need to.
  8. Listen to me without offering lots of advice.
  9. Be comfortable sharing silence at times.
  10. Give me space and peace to just “be”.

These make sense to me, but an observation I find fascinating is that while there was broad agreement about some ways of helping (“Listen to me without judging me”, for instance), others showed considerable divergence.

For example, in response to the suggestion “Reassure me that I’m doing great even if I’m maybe not”, just look at the percentages for each of the five answers:

21.8% Definitely important.
29.3% Somewhat important.
24.0% Neutral.
17.8% Somewhat DON’T want.
7.1% Definitely DON’T want.

Wow. Quite a few people do want others to boost them in this way, but a sizeable proportion clearly don’t.

Here then are the top ten most polarised ways for someone to help. (Some can’t abide them, while others can’t do without them). The most polarised are at the top of the list:

  1. Reassure me that I’m doing great even if I’m maybe not.
  2. Be ‘pushy’ enough with me to get me to interact socially.
  3. Help make plans for me, understanding that I won’t be good at that myself.
  4. Phone me for a chat that’s just light and cheery.
  5. Reassure me that my low mood is temporary and that it will pass.
  6. Help me with my chores.
  7. Thoughtfully encourage me to get some gentle exercise.
  8. Kindly encourage me to get up and shower.
  9. Relentlessly keep being there for me, no matter how I am around them.
  10. Ask me to do something to help them.

One clear conclusion from this research is that people are pretty certain to have their own individual favoured ways of being supported when their mood is low. It’s really not a case of one size fits all. This is an exciting finding – potentially of enormous value when it comes to encouraging people to support one another.

Right now, I think there are a couple of next steps for us:

(a) We should run another questionnaire to gather input on the things that DON’T help when you’re down, even though some supposedly helpful ideas in this first list are clearly already not want some want.

(b) Having done that, we need to produce some kind of ‘tick-box’ document which anyone can complete and give to potential helpers. It will provide a way to tell helpful people (friends and family, say) “Here’s how to help me, and here’s what to avoid doing at all costs”.

One last thought. I’m aware we have a fantastic variety of brilliant experts among our readership. All manner of skills are represented.

So (a big ask) if you, or someone you know is a whizzkid with data and would like to help us by taking a look at the anonymised raw findings of this research, please get in touch. I’ll happily share the numbers. I suspect they contain real gold, which needs mining.

What colour’s your T-shirt?

If you don’t mind, I’d like us to try a little experiment.

What springs to mind if I ask you to think of a cheery colour?

The average human eye is capable of distinguishing between around ten million different colours, so you’ve one or two to choose from.

Setting aside more esoteric shades such as Falu (a deep red) or Smaragdine (an emerald green) I’m guessing you won’t have selected black, midnight blue, or brown as ‘cheery’.

I imagine instead that you’ll have gone for something more like scarlet, orange, sky blue or daffodil, even if you didn’t use those precise labels.

When we think of cheery colours we tend to think of brighter ones.

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I wonder, however, what colours you wear when you’re struggling through choppy water mood-wise?

My own experience suggests that it tends to be the drabber end of the wardrobe that’s pulled out on days like these.

A while ago I made a conscious decision to wear brighter colours at weekends.

(You probably don’t need a calendar to know what day of the week it is in our house.)

I expect you’ll know yourself that wearing brighter colours can help you feel, well, brighter.

Having recognized this, though, and with the health warning that I’m hardly a fashion advisor, I know I’m inclined to reach for dull colours on dull days.

Better, I’m certain, to wear something a little sunnier in order to give myself a boost.

I wonder if you might also see yourself in this?

I wonder if you already know that bright colours can help?

If so, perhaps this can be a reminder.

If not, maybe it can be a suggestion.

Why not put on something cheerful?

Oh yes, one last thing. Yesterday I asked if readers would be kind enough to complete a survey form which will help us put together a list of the best ways for someone to help a friend going through a rough patch mood-wise. I’m happy to report that 130 have already registered their views. But for anyone who hasn’t yet made their voice heard, there’s one last chance here:

http://goo.gl/forms/6iKoM8mVL3

Thank you.

Get out of Samesville

When Alex and I took her two girls out for an adventure last weekend (we went to the excellent Bay Area ‘Maker Faire’), we decided to take the train rather than the car.

Sam and Meg got window seats, literally pressing their noses up against the glass for the entire journey.

They drank in every small detail of the neighbourhoods through which the train sped, a sensation both Alex and I recognised.

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We’d experienced it ourselves when visiting places for the first time.

For instance I’d seen Alex’s eyes dart hungrily hither and thither on her first drive through London with me.

Although there can be a certain amount of comfort in familiar environments, it’s also true that the same old surroundings can become soul-destroying when your mood is low.

Going somewhere new can, and often does, lift your spirits.

However, let’s face it, you’re unlikely to feel like setting off on some kind of ambitious expedition if you’re feeling one or two degrees under.

As is often the case, though, you can turn the underlying concept of going somewhere new into a practical idea for someone going through a rough patch.

Why not try this? Find a large-scale map of your immediate surroundings on paper, online, or on your phone, then shut your eyes and use your finger as a dart.

Where did it land? (If you end up somewhere familiar the first time, throw again.) At the very first opportunity, set off to explore, even if means no more than a ten minute walk.

Very often there’s something new just around the corner, and heading somewhere different can be an invaluable way to move on from those same old feelings.

One more thing. A short time ago I asked readers for their thoughts on what others might do to help them if their mood was low, and we’ve pulled these together into the shape of a short questionnaire.

If you’d like to ‘vote’ on what works for you, we’d love to hear from you. We’ll collate the answers and publish them shortly. Here’s the link:

http://goo.gl/forms/6iKoM8mVL3

Thanks!

Any excuse to celebrate

Celebrations can be fun.

So why not have more of them?

It’s easy to slip into believing that you should only do something to mark an event or achievement if it’s a BIG event or achievement.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.

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Perhaps it’s always possible to find something to drink to (even if only in a metaphorical sense).

You could, for instance, celebrate the number of days you’ve been here on Planet Earth:

http://www.timeanddate.com/date/duration.html

Apparently as of today I’ve seen 21,634 sunrises.

And why shouldn’t I feel good about this?

May 22nd is International Day for Biological Diversity (an interesting buffet table at their party, I’m sure).

Hergé, the Belgian illustrator behind the Tin-Tin stories, was born on May 22nd in 1907.

And a year before that, on this day in 1906 the Wright brothers were granted a U.S. patent for their ‘flying machine’.

The point is, even if you don’t go hunting for random reasons, there are generally opportunities to celebrate minor achievements in your own life.

Just because they’re modest doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be marked.

On Friday mornings I sometimes look back over the past seven days to list things I view as successes.

They might be as run of the mill as finishing a piece of work, or having enjoyed meeting up with someone.

It doesn’t really matter how insignificant they may feel in the scale of things, what’s important is allowing yourself to reflect on them in such a way that you feel good for a few minutes.

Pat yourself on the back. Toast yourself. Hang out the flags.

Set off the fireworks. Put on a party, even if you’re the only attendee.

Find a tiny reason to celebrate, and then do just that.

Pie under the sky

What’s the origin of the word ‘picnic’?

Well, although we know it came from the French ‘pique-nique’, which was used in the late 17th century as a term to describe a group of people dining together in a restaurant bringing their own wine (these days I think we’d call them students), even the esteemed Oxford English Dictionary says that pique-nique’s own roots are of doubtful provenance.

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Over time, of course, ‘picnic’ has become the word we use for a meal that’s deliberately packed up and taken somewhere, generally to be eaten outside.

I think there can be a tendency to view picnics as something to be saved only for sunny days, but perhaps you’ll agree that eating outdoors can be fun whatever the weather.

In fact I happily recall inviting friends to join me for a hike and lunchtime picnic to mark my 30th birthday one February in the midst of a blizzard.

Picnicking without regard for the weather is an excellent idea.

Well, I thought it excellent, although my frost-bitten friends may have seen things differently.

Another excellent idea is waiving the requirement for the food to be over-planned, even though the preparation can be fun in and of itself at times.

There’s no need to make a meal out of planning your picnic, though: taking any food outside – whatever the weather – can be a terrific way to lift your spirits.

It may do so only in a small way, but when it comes to mood wrangling, a good philosophy seems to be that every little helps.

So maybe you’ll get a chance to eat your next lunch outside? Simply drinking a tea or coffee ‘al fresco’ can work, too.

Even if you’re forced to wear a coat.

While it may not be clear where the word ‘picnic’ came from, it’s pretty evident that food eaten outdoors often just tastes better.

Ten strategies for coping with bad times

Let’s not beat around the bush.

There are times when we all have to deal with situations and circumstances that are likely to be mood-lowering, even for the most resilient individual.

When this happens it’s helpful to have some coping strategies on which to fall back.

Think of them as a kind of first-aid kit for the mind.

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I’m sure you’ll already have a few of your own for such challenging times, but here’s a list of ten, one or more of which may be new to you, or at best forgotten.

1. Make a list of the things you like most about yourself.

2. Get out of the house or office to enjoy some time in nature.

3. Forget technology. Talk face-to-face with your family and/or friends.

4. Listen properly to your favourite music, giving it your 100% focus.

5. Fill the bath tub for a long hot soak. Bubbles always help.

6. Polish off a few small jobs you’ve been meaning to do for ages.

7. Sit down and absorb yourself in a really good book.

8. Watch an amusing TV show or movie.

9. Play with a pet – someone else’s if you don’t have your own.

10. Do something – anything – spontaneous. Just get up and do it.

Of course not all of these will suit you, but some may.

So keep them in the back of your mind ready for a grey day, just as you might keep medicines in a kitchen or bathroom cupboard.

Create new happiness routines

I’ve previously suggested that routines, if followed mindlessly, can become boring and restrictive.

I said that a routine might even turn into a rut.

Yet, of course, the simple truth is that almost everyone can benefit from having regular ways of doing things in a particular order.

In my case it’s how I get out of the house in the mornings and to a certain extent how I structure my working days.

The word ‘routine’ comes from the French ‘route’, which as you know means a way of getting from one place to another.

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A second, interesting, use of the word ‘routine’ is when we adopt it to mean the act of an entertainer – a dance routine, for example.

My morning routine gets my day off to a good start.

That’s its purpose.

I wonder, then, if it might be possible (and a helpful idea) to establish routines designed solely to promote your happiness?

I think it may be.

Let’s imagine some examples.

Maybe you’ve worked out that listening to audiobooks can put you in a better mood?

So perhaps you could stock up on recordings and get into the habit of listening to them while you commute?

Maybe having a vase of flowers in the house lifts your spirits?

How about planning a regular day of the week to pick or buy some, and focus on developing this as a new routine.

Does talking to a certain friend or relative generally make you feel better?

Why not, therefore, aim to speak to them on the first weekend of the month, or every Wednesday?

That kind of thing.

We often tend to be good at following routines, so having one or two which are specifically designed to help us feel good can be worth their weight in gold.

Do the things that make you happy

“The other day someone asked me why I was banging my head against a brick wall, so I said ‘It’s nice when it stops.'”

This didn’t really happen of course and, what’s more, a corny joke like this is hardly going to get me a gig as a stand-up.

It does, though, serve to illustrate the absurdity of undertaking an unpleasant activity simply because you’ll enjoy the relief once you’ve stopped.

And it’s also a perfect reminder of the sense of simply doing stuff which makes you feel happy.

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It’s not complicated, is it?

But I wonder how often you remember this very straightforward idea? If you know what makes you feel happy and you’re failing to do it,, is it any wonder that you’re feeling worse than you might?

If this comes across as preachy, it’s really not meant that way.

In fact I can be more guilty than most of not remembering to accomplish those simple things I know could make me happy: this post ought to serve as a reminder to us both, therefore.

Here’s my suggestion.

Why don’t we both make a list of simple things that boost our mood?

You know, a proper list, written down.

Then we’ll need to work out ways of making them happen.

For example, two rather random thoughts that come to my own mind are (a) stroking someone’s dog always feels good, and (b) I love sitting down to draw something (and haven’t done this for years).

How will I make these happen?

Well I’ll certainly be on the look out for friendly-appearing mutts.

And one lunchtime I’ll sit outside with a sketchpad.

So, what will you do?

When will you do it?

Please feel free to add your list to the comments section.