Monthly Archives: June 2015

How to spend time with a friend when you don’t feel like talking.

Kissing in the back row of the movies? It was rather clear what The Drifters had in mind when they sang this back in 1974.

Abandon thoughts of kissing and back rows, though (sorry), and I believe there’s definitely a rather different set of circumstances in which an outing to see a movie with someone else can make sense.

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Like me, you may well have been in the situation where you’re a bit down in the dumps. You know it would do you good to get out of the house. You know it would do you good to be in the company of a friend. But your state of mind somehow can’t cope with the thought of having to spend a couple of hours in conversation.

That’s when a trip to see a film can provide a neat solution. You get out, you’re with a friend, but you’re not expected to talk – with the possible exception of discussing what you’ve watched after you’ve seen it.

Seeing a film at the cinema instead of on the TV at home also has the distinct advantage of getting you away from your domestic surroundings, which may themselves be getting you down.

What’s more, the popcorn’s usually better too.

Take a break, take a detour.

Maybe it’s a metaphor for life. I remember when I was back in the UK that almost every morning I would walk down the same stretch of road on my way from home to the coffee shop where I liked to start my day’s work.

Then one day a stretch of pavement had been taped off by the police. My nosiness got the better of me the morning after, so I took a slightly different route that would take me by whatever it was they’d been investigating.

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It turns out that there was nothing to see, dashing my chances of a new career as a crime correspondent, but much more interesting was the new route itself which took me down a footpath along the side of a playing field, running parallel to the way I usually go.

I was only a few yards – literally – from where I would usually have been, but for a few precious minutes I was in a green place. Grass, trees, birds singing.

I don’t think it was just my imagination: it felt as though my heart-rate noticeably slowed.

I felt momentarily calmer.

When we talk about the power of getting out in nature in terms of its benefits on wellbeing, it’s easy to assume this could only be possible with a full day’s hike in the countryside.

Fortunately it can be a lot easier and more accessible than this.

Just a few minutes in a garden or park can do the trick. Even, at a pinch, opening the window.

If you’re feeling a little blue, just think green.

How making something can make your day.

The word ‘creative’ is used as an adjective most of the time. But in my former advertising career it was also a noun. People referred to me as a creative, and they often referred to my output as ‘the creative’ too.

(On occasion I suspect they referred to the work as something far less complimentary beginning with the same two letters, but let’s perhaps not go there. Everyone has bad days.)

All very confusing.

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When we were young, I’m sure you and I were both creatives. We made things, we drew, we painted, we cut, folded and glued. We imagined.

But then in many cases, something happened. You grew up. You were expected to follow the rules, to paint inside the lines, to conform rather than rebel.

To consume rather than create.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Making stuff and coming up with new ideas is fun, liberating and even a little exhilarating. A mood-booster if ever there was one.

Even those who insist that they haven’t an ounce of creativity in them are forgetting that things were very different once upon a time (in those making, drawing, painting, cutting, folding, gluing and imagining days).

And just as you don’t forget how to ride a bike, I believe you never lose your abilities to be creative – they simply need to be un-forgotten.

So what could you make today? Why not unleash your inner creative?

Go for it.

Are you a better friend to others than you are to yourself?

Let’s just imagine for one moment that a good friend is having a hard time. How might you help her?

For a start, you’d probably be kind. You’d encourage and support her, and try to help her see that you empathise with her.

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You might make some gentle suggestions, some of which could revolve around her looking after herself – trying to get a good night’s sleep, eating healthily, getting out for a walk, not ‘self-medicating’ with alcohol or drugs.

I’m sure you wouldn’t criticise her, nor tell her that she only has herself to blame.

You wouldn’t ignore her.

But now let’s imagine that the person going through the bad time isn’t a good friend.

It’s you.

How would you help yourself?

I’m sorry to say that when the going gets tough, many of us are much less kind to ourselves than we would be to our friends.

We can be downright mean, behaving in a way in which we’d never do towards a friend.

So next time things aren’t quite right for you, please do me a favour.

Be kind to yourself. Be your own friend.

When’s your playtime?

Every morning at precisely 10.15 – like corks from bottles of bubbly – the kids in the primary school over the road from where I used to live in the UK burst through the doors into the playground in joyous release.

It was playtime.

For fifteen minutes there was that sparkling sound of children enjoying themselves, letting off steam, racing around like splendid little demons.

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Have we forgotten everything we learnt at school?

Back then we knew that after you’d been focusing hard in lessons it was vital to let go of stuff; to run, skip and jump for all you were worth.

Keeping active is one of the very best ways of boosting mood, almost certainly doing more for you than any pharmaceutical intervention, but persuading someone whose mood is low to ‘get up and go’ is one of the hardest things in the world.

Howevever even if you’d wanted to, there was no getting out of playtime. The bell rang, and off you went.

Perhaps what we might learn from this is the value of a timetable. On days that aren’t so sunny for you, schedule in doing something that will get you out of doors and (just a little) out of breath, even if it’s simply going for a brisk walk. Decide on a time and stick to it.

Everyone deserves their playtime.

The totally unexpected benefits of low mood

It’s probably fair to say that virtually everyone suffers from low mood.

For a fortunate few this may simply be the occasional bout of feeling a bit below par.

For others, of course, it can be more serious.

Low mood – and ultimately depression – is debilitating, destructive and downright dastardly, so it would be hard to believe that it has any upside whatsoever.

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An old friend kept her mood issues pretty much to herself, but because we were able to be honest with each other she did open up to me.

Somewhat to my surprise, chatting to her did make me see one definite advantage I’ve accrued from my own trips to the dark side.

‘Ah,’ she said. ‘But you understand.’

And with those four words she explained the powerful idea that the bad times we go through make us better able to empathise with others. They help us connect with the people around us who’ve also either gone through it, or who are going through it right now.

Empathy, of course, is inclined to be a two-way road. I understand you, you understand me, we understand each other.

We’re told that to be upbeat we should surround ourselves with positive people, but isn’t this rather simplistic?

Sometimes those who understand you best are your fellow travellers.

How do you feel? Or what do you feel?

Ivan Pavlov, the Russian psychologist, proposed the idea of the ‘conditional reflex’ at the end of the 19th century, when he demonstrated that dogs who were given food while a bell was ringing would eventually salivate at the sound of the bell alone, even when no food was actually present.

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Apropos of nothing I wondered, as you do, what breed of dog Pavlov ‘recruited’ for his experiments. Clever as Google is, it seems there’s no record of this – apparently he simply used indeterminate breeds.

Now I’m not sure about salivating when a bell rings (unless the ping of the microwave counts), but I reckon we probably all experience other forms of conditional reflexes, among them that old chestnut of answering ‘Fine’ or ‘Good’ when someone asks how we are.

How do you feel? Fine.

Or Good.

You probably just say it, however you actually feel. In fact it probably becomes such a conditioned response that it’s hard to even ask the question of yourself. How do I feel? Er, fine?

Here’s a little suggestion, though. Change just one word in the question and your internal response may prove more helpful.

Instead of ‘how do I feel’ ask yourself ‘what do I feel’.

It’s different, isn’t it? Not so easy to answer, either, I suggest.

Knowing what you feel is a good way to truly get to how you feel. So why not try this today? Change ‘how’ to ‘what’.

See where your thoughts take you.

Talk to the animals

When a dog and his owner walk around a corner in the street, it’s the human who’s generally at the rear, and the canine that’s straining at the leash (maybe in the expectation that a ginormous juicy bone awaits him).

This was the scene I experienced one morning when I left home, the dog in question being a golden Cocker Spaniel, its owner a chuckling schoolboy tugging at the lead with all his might.

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In my mind’s eye I saw a picture of the boy taking his dog to school, and imagined how the day would pan out. Thirty schoolchildren, one teacher, one Cocker Spaniel. Mayhem, probably.

Actually I’m certain that my imagination was working overtime and the lad was simply walking the dog round the block before returning it to his Mum’s car. The Boy Who Took His Dog To School was an entertaining vision for a couple of minutes, however.

Although (with the exception of a goldfish) I’ve never actually owned a pet, there’s little doubt that being around animals can be a substantial mood lifter, especially when it’s a creature such as a dog, cat or horse which seems to understand you, perhaps even to know how you feel.

If you’re a pet-owner you’ll already appreciate this, but if you don’t share your living arrangements with a furry or feathered friend, do try to make opportunities for close encounters with other species.

Offer to take a neighbour’s dog for a walk. Talk to a cat in the street if she feels inclined to allow you to. Simply, and quietly, observe a wild bird or squirrel.

Even pretend you’re Dr Dolittle, if you like. I won’t tell anyone.

Is there a relationship that needs repairing?

It was obviously one of those days (for both of us) when I bumped into a friend. I know I was tired, and I suspect he was too, so we ended up having a slightly staccato conversation – one of those meetings that feels unsatisfactory and leaves you wishing it hadn’t been.

The following day it seemed important to repair the damage, so I invented a reason to drop by with some catalogues I thought he’d be interested in.

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This time neither of us was quite so exhausted, and although our chat was only brief, I’m sure we both knew we’d fixed the unease which had resulted from the previous day’s exchange.

Our relationships with others are so important, but like anything precious they can also be fragile. They benefit from careful handling. They sometimes need maintenance.

I think the mending of a friendship is best done with a light touch. When you know something wasn’t quite right, so does the other person. Probably no need for an inquest, then, just some appropriately warm words.

So are there any bridges which need building? There’s no time like the present to start the job.

Offer help without waiting to be asked

Altruism, of course, is unselfishly giving something to someone with no expectation of anything in return. This could be something physical, like goods or money, or it may be something less tangible, such as your time.

Some argue, however, that ‘pure’ altruism is never really possible. Why? Well, because there’s almost always a sense of satisfaction or gratification when you’ve given something away, an effect psychologists refer to as the ‘helper’s high’.

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Years ago I asked a friend who was at the time working as a clinical psychologist in the British national health service for his top tip for helping a friend who was feeling low.

Without missing a beat he wholeheartedly recommended asking them to help you. Quite simply, he said, see if they’ll assist you with some small task. I think he was spot-on with this advice. It’s nice to be asked, and it feels good to help.

Knowing how this process works, maybe you can also use it to your own advantage on days when you’re not feeling completely great yourself? Don’t necessarily wait to be asked for your help, just roll up your sleeves and offer it.

So when’s a good time to do this? Well, how about this very day?