Monthly Archives: June 2015

Is loneliness another type of hunger?

It may be fair to say that hunger and thirst can provide useful prompts, as long as you belong to the remarkably privileged proportion of humanity for whom food and water isn’t a daily concern.

If you feel hungry, it’s generally a prompt to eat.

And when you feel thirsty, it’s probably already past time for a glass of water.

We take these physiological signs so much for granted that we don’t really think about them. And of course although it’s another story, such unconscious reactions sometimes mean we absent-mindedly reach for less-healthy food and drink.

What I’d like to talk about right now, though, is another human response altogether.

I’m thinking about loneliness.

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When I feel good, I really don’t mind my own company. In fact I positively enjoy it.

But when I feel less chirpy, when the black dog won’t leave me alone, well these are the times that loneliness can kick in, leaving me feeling lost, alone and ignored.

Maybe you know the sensation?

When you’re hungry or thirsty, you know what to do.

It’s easy, isn’t it? Feed yourself. Drink.

But when you’re lonely, well it’s not always so obvious.

You’re lonely because you’re not interacting and socialising with others, and you’re not interacting and socialising with others because you’re lonely.

Nasty. No wonder they call it a vicious circle.

The trick, however, may be to deal with your lack of interest in being with others in the same way you’d gently persuade someone to eat after they’d lost their appetite.

I think you’d offer them small, tasty appetisers.

So when your mood is keeping you in your cave, remember the importance of feeding your soul: establish tiny connections with others.

A text message. An email. A phone call. A brief face-to-face exchange with a neighbour, or passerby.

Think of loneliness as a different kind of thirst, and solve it by sipping.

A new season

In most parts of the world right now, the season is shifting. Looking out to the garden from our kitchen table right now, I see flowers blooming, plums ripening, new life taking hold. Summer is dawning. Or it could be turning to winter where you are.

In times of change, it can be grounding to return to basics.

Familiar things.

Nature.

Wisdom.

I’d like to focus for a second on the four elements that classical traditions around the world identified long ago.

We know them as earth, water, air, and fire.

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Let’s listen today to the wise words of voices gone by, as they bring a bit of nature-inspired insight to our day. Sometimes a helpful nudge can come just from hearing a different perspective on the world around and inside us.

“And still, after all this time, the Sun has never said to the Earth, ‘You owe me.’ Look what happens with love like that. It lights up the sky.” – Rumi

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” – Thoreau

“Earth laughs in flowers.” – Emerson

“To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.” – Watts

“People are like tea bags – you find out how strong they are when they’re put in hot water.” – Roosevelt

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.” – Dinesen

“Take a walk in good fresh air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you.” – Muir

“If you were a bird, and lived on high, You’d lean on the wind when the wind came by; You’d say to the wind when it took you away: ‘That’s where I wanted to go today!'” – Milne

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” – Ward

“The finest steel has to go through the hottest fire.” – Nixon

“I survived because the fire inside me burned brighter than the fire around me.” – Graham

“When you’re tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the fire department generally uses water.” – Unknown

I hope these words bring some ease and lightness to your day.

Alexandra 🙂

Write it down to make it so

I don’t clear out my wallet very often, but some items lurking within are carried for good reason.

For example, tucked into the innermost pocket is a business card that’s been with me since the end of the 1980s.

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Although I can’t be precise, I know I’ve had it for at least 25 years.

It’s one of my own cards, back from when I was running my advertising agency in London, and on its reverse I’d recorded a five year personal financial plan in tiny writing, in those heady times when you could take the audaciously optimistic view that you’d still be earning a living in half a decade’s time.

I carry the card mainly for nostalgic reasons, but it’s also a good reminder to me that I’m someone who sets goals and commits to them, and I need to remember this because I can also be someone who doesn’t.

I become that other person when I’m going through the kind of patch that I (and perhaps you, too) hate.

When your heart is heavy, it’s nigh on impossible to set objectives for yourself, let alone commit to them.

Yet I think we both know that doing so can be an invaluable coping strategy.

But how can you have goals and stick to them when your spirits are low?

My suggestion is to do as I did all those years ago.

Just write them down.

Of course, committing them to paper doesn’t mean they’ll magically come true.

However, experience suggests that making a list of your goals can be a powerful way of turning intentions into reality, even if they are as unambitious as making yourself a sandwich or taking back your library book.

Setting objectives is great, and following through is even better.

But checking off your achievements can feel pretty good too.

Choose kindness

Let me tell you about a brief interaction that just happened in a park in Santa Clara.

A man was sitting on a park bench when a mother appeared in the distance, pushing a stroller in which sat a small girl crying her eyes out.

Her mom, well at least I assume it was her mom, looked tired and exasperated.

Her daughter seemed unable or unwilling to stop screaming, no matter what mom said or did.

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But then as they pulled level with the man, something interesting happened.

Instead of ignoring them or acting all grouchy at the noisy intrusion into his moment of peace, he smiled and waved at the little girl, and said “Hello”.

Instantly, instantly, her crying stopped, her eyes riveted to the man who’d spoken to her.

Mom chuckled appreciatively.

Peace returned – well, for another 50 yards or so at least – as the two continued down the pathway.

But the effect of this really quite small act by the man was indisputable.

Simply connecting with the tiny tot was enough to distract her, or comfort her, or surprise her (who knows what?) from her determined efforts to sob for her country.

I wonder if you recognise, as I did at that moment, that there are probably dozens of times a day when we have a choice about how we’ll react to the things that happen around us?

If someone pushes in front of you, it’s easy to get exasperated and huffy, but possible (although less easy) to just let it go, or even smile good-naturedly.

Small acts of kindness make the world a tiny bit better, and are generally good for the kind person too.

Perhaps I should have asked the man in the park how he felt when the small girl’s tears dried up, but I really didn’t need to.

It was me.

How NOT to help someone feeling low

What are the things that people hate most when someone supposedly tries to help when they feel down?

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Here’s what our recent research showed:

PLEASE DON’T DO THIS:

  1. Lecture me self-righteously.
  2. Tell me to get over it or snap out of it.
  3. Get angry or affronted if I say I’m not up for socializing.
  4. Ignore me or change the subject when I talk about how I feel.
  5. Ignore me and treat me as if I was invisible.
  6. Tell me to cheer up.
  7. Rush me to do things and make decisions.
  8. Tell me there are plenty of people worse off than me.
  9. Make sad faces at me.
  10. Ask me why I’m low when I’ve so much to be grateful for.

Just as we found with our ‘How to Help’ study, some people do actually WANT others to do some of the things that others can’t abide, so here’s a list of the most polarised actions, with the ones with the biggest love-hate discrepancies at the top.

TOP TEN MOST POLARISED:

  1. Hug me without asking if that’s OK with me.
  2. Overwhelm me with more love and concern than I can handle.
  3. Be over-keen to discuss my problems in great detail.
  4. Tell me “everyone feels low sometimes”.
  5. Pressure me to keep going, and tell me I shouldn’t let it get to me.
  6. Pressurize me to do things, such as socializing, that I don’t feel like doing.
  7. Tell me that you know what will help me.
  8. Tell me to cheer up.
  9. Ask me why I’m low when I’ve so much to be grateful for.
  10. Tell me there are plenty of people worse off than me.

As ever, giant and heart-felt thanks to the more than 200 wonderful readers who took the time to complete our questionnaire anonymously. We have some data geniuses looking at the findings even as we speak, so watch this space for developments.

They’re fascinating results already, to be sure.

Four simple steps to get us through rough patches

I don’t know about you, but I generally like structure. Especially in challenging times when it feels like the world is spinning or like I’m wandering through a fog. Having a simple set of guidelines to follow in these times has been a great help to me. Of course it’s also fun to be spontaneous and break routine now and then, but for the most part having a structure to rely on can be solidly reassuring.

I thought you might like to know what I’ve found helpful, in case you find yourself in a tough moment and need a bit of a hand getting through it. We’ve all been there!

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This particular structure comes from a book I highly recommend: The Reality Slap by Russ Harris. He’s a legend in the field of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a methodology my therapist introduced to me that involves mindfulness practices and living by your values.

Here are the lessons I memorized from Russ’ book, which I turn to whenever I need perspective and strength:

1. Hold yourself gently. The very first thing to do is to realize you’re having a hard time. Give yourself some love, kindness, and empathy. Pretend that you’re comforting a friend in a similar situation, or that someone who you can depend on is really taking care of you. Try to soften and not be too hard on yourself, remembering that everyone goes through difficult times. We’re all human, we all mess up, and we all feel intense emotions. It’s ok to be gentle sometimes.

2. Get grounded. The second step involves getting back into your body. Take some deep breaths and sit up straight. Go outside and lie down on the warm grass, feeling the ground supporting you. Imagine you’re a tree with roots anchoring you to the ground and branches lifting up towards the sky. Our bodies have great wisdom, and tapping into this before deciding what to do can often be balancing and help provide perspective.

3. Take a stand. The third step is remembering to live by our values instead of our emotions. When we act or say things impulsively out of anger, fear, or hurt, we tend to think small and might end up making things worse for ourselves. I like to write things down when I feel a strong emotion, and then come back to what I’ve written later on with a calmer mind to see how to best approach the issue. Look at the bigger picture, decide on a course of action based on what you value, and stick to it.

4. Find the treasure. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “the conditions for happiness and peace can be found in every moment.” This doesn’t mean we go around smiling blissfully all the time, definitely. But there’s usually one tiny thing you can be grateful for even in the midst of the greatest suffering. Seeing a flower bursting into bloom. Curling up under a comfy blanket. Having a warm cup of tea. Even the tiniest bit of enjoyment can help.

And the final thought that I turn to after going through this process comes from Robert Frost’s inspiring words, “The best way out is always through.” I will get through this, easier times are coming.

You will get through this. Easier times are coming.

For now, be gentle, breathe, live by what you value, and look for little things to enjoy.

With love,
Alex 🙂

Go the extra yard to be kind to yourself

Last Thursday as usual I stepped out of the Stanford university library at 9 AM to call my mum back in the UK.

I try to call her right on the stroke of nine as she’s almost always sitting in her kitchen waiting for my call.

Almost always I sit on a park bench immediately outside the library to speak to mum.

It’s convenient.

Last week though, something made me decide to sit somewhere else, and so it was that I found myself perched on a low wall in Stanford’s main “Quad”, a giant courtyard surrounded by university buildings, with the astounding Memorial Church as its focal point.

My usual view when I'm making the phone call
My usual view when I’m making the phone call. Not bad but…

It only took a minute to walk from the usual park bench to my new vantage point in the Quad but it meant that instead of having a pretty non-descript blank wall in front of me during the call, my eyes were treated to the sumptuous sight of the church’s mosaic-encrusted facade.

I even described it to my mum, telling her that I wished she could see what I was looking at.

The view from just 50 yards further
…wait until you see the view from just 50 yards further on

It made me remember how good it can feel to go the extra mile (or in my case just 50 yards) to do something kind for yourself.

I’m sure you’re good at showing others kindnesses, but perhaps you don’t always extend this principle to yourself?

You wouldn’t be the first to fail to do so.

Why not think about this in the day ahead therefore?

Lay a place for yourself the table even if you’re eating alone.

Light a candle.

Drink your coffee from a posh cup instead of that chipped mug.

Use the nice soap in the bathroom rather than your usual day-to-day bar.

It’s often possible to give yourself small treats without going too far out of your way.

But a self administered small treat can give you an unexpected lift.