Monthly Archives: July 2015

Walking back to happiness

Does it strike you as somewhat odd that we have the word ‘perambulate’ to mean ‘to walk through’, yet a ‘perambulator’ isn’t, as you might expect, simply ‘one who walks through’, but can also be used as the word to describe a type of transport for a baby, shortened in Victorian times to ‘pram’? (Probably more commonly known as a buggy these days, or was that what we used to call a push chair?)

Baby carriages aside, it was the other use of the word which came to mind this morning when I heard a well-known Nancy Sinatra song on the radio, and idly mused on how it could have been were it to have been entitled ‘These Boots Are Made For Perambulating’. It doesn’t really work, does it?

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Perambulation, however, does have a lot going for it. Walking is that remarkable form of exercise you can get simply going from one place to another, which most of us have to do anyway each day.

Mind and body are strongly connected. I’m pretty confident that you’re unlikely to leave home without either of them, but more importantly you’ll feel mentally better when you also feel physically better, and a great and simple way to achieve this is to, well, perambulate.

So if you can – and when you have the choice – why not try to add some walking to your day today?

You might say the benefits will go from sole to soul.

How to weave a more connected day

I don’t really know why, but the minute I’d been taught to produce joined-up writing, I immediately went back to forming my letters unjoined-up. That doesn’t, however, prevent me nostalgically recall the days of ink wells, scratchy nibs, and a style of penmanship called ‘Marion Richardson’.

What prompted this memory? It was simply because I was visualising the word ‘connect’ in my mind, in joined up writing. Do this with me if you will, and imagine the one single stroke of the pen that threads those seven letters together. Appropriate, isn’t it, to see the word ‘connect’ itself connected?

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Maybe you can also envisage a line which weaves itself through your day, tying together your connections with others?

On my better days there may be many of these, but on less-good ones the connections are likely to be far fewer and farther between.

It is of course a chicken and egg situation. Which comes first? Do I have fewer connections because I don’t feel so great? Or do I not feel so great because I have fewer connections? To be honest it’s probably a bit of both, and maybe you too understand this feeling.

Contact with other people is a fine way to add to your day, so as you go through the next one, why not imagine that line flowing sinuously from one human to another?

C-o-n-n-e-c-t.

(Not very Marion Richardson, but you catch my drift.)

Why generosity has little to do with money

Do you need to be well-heeled to be generous? Actually, I reckon money has precious little to do with it.

You can be generous with your praise.

A Mum, Dad and their four young children sat at the next table to me at breakfast one morning. The youngest occupied a high chair, all were impeccably behaved, so I complimented the parents as I got up to leave. Although it was no more than a few words from me, a total stranger, Mum and Dad looked momentarily surprised, then beamed in pride.

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You can be generous with your time.

This has most impact when you feel as though you have little to give. Are you so busy that you’re ignoring someone important? Is your schedule really so full that you can’t give fifteen minutes to one of the people around you who’d really appreciate it? There are 96 quarter-hours today. Why not be generous with at least one of them?

You can be generous with your attention.

The next chance you have, why not go that extra mile to truly listen to someone you’re having a conversation with? Ask questions which allow them to elaborate on their stories, do your best to imagine yourself in their shoes, don’t change the subject until they’re ready to. Listen as hard as you can.

You can (and should always, please) be generous with your love.

In some aspects life may seem to move slowly, but inevitably our time together is finite. At the end of their days, do you think any man or woman has ever wished that they’d loved less? I think not. When you love someone, please let them know. Often.

Please give generously today, no matter how little you have in your purse or wallet.

Learning from birds of a feather

Is it the same for you? When a flock of birds flies overhead, I’m invariably drawn to watch them. There’s something quite mesmerising about the way in which so many separate creatures come together as one.

Twisting and turning in unison, they wheel through the air as if they have one giant collective brain rather than dozens, or perhaps even thousands, of tiny individual ones.

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For a bird, it’s an instinctive way to behave. The average starling is almost certainly not consciously thinking ‘left a bit, right a bit’. Instead, she just flies with her flock.

Of course we humans tend not to exhibit this kind of behaviour (for a start, we lack the wings for airborne stunts) but this certainly doesn’t prevent us enjoying that feeling of being part of something bigger.

Think back to happy periods in your past and it won’t be too surprising if at least some involved being around other people – in some cases, perhaps a lot of other people.

Maybe there were good times in which you ‘belonged’ to something? Your school, a social or religious group, a work team, a youth organisation, a sports team, a book group or an amateur dramatic society for instance?

Slowly and steadily through history we evolved to surround ourselves with our relatives, and also to live in bigger groups consisting of other families as well.

Perhaps we’ve been too quick to simply accept that families must inevitably drift apart, but it’s a fact of life. Few of us live five minutes’ away from parents, brothers, sisters or grown-up children.

So this makes it more important than ever to keep your mind open to the idea of being part of something bigger.

If a starling can do it, perhaps you too can.

(Or should that be you Toucan?)

Can you really act as if you’re happy?

Let’s just imagine that you’re a successful professional interior designer.

Now for all I know, you may indeed be, but even if you aren’t, perhaps you’ll humour me by pretending that this is indeed your chosen profession.

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Now let’s also agree that despite your accomplishments you have your bad days as well as your good. Times when your mood is nothing to write home about.

During a period such as this, I rather suspect your clients wouldn’t be too delighted were you to express your innermost feelings in the colour schemes you dream up for them.

Drab browns may not be exactly what they had in mind for their kitchen. Midnight black isn’t perhaps what they’d expected for the conservatory.

As a professional, there will always be times when you simply have to override your own mood in the work you do.

Is this somehow being untrue to yourself? No. I don’t think anyone would take this view, because at times we all have to step into a positive role even when we really don’t feel like it.

Is that breakfast show DJ really always deliriously happy? Does the flight attendant honestly never have a bad day?

The strange thing, of course, is that acting happy can actually make you feel happier – well at least a bit.

So maybe there’s something to be said for occasionally slipping into a different role when your mood has taken a dive? I know (I really do) how hard this can be, and there will always be times when it’s an impossibility, but why not experiment with this thought?

How about approaching your next down-day as if you were a professional designer? (Probably resisting the temptation to fill the world with throw cushions.)

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again

You can pluck fruit from trees, and feathers from chickens. And you can of course also pluck up courage, which was how the word ‘plucky’ was conjured up in the early 19th century, to mean having courage and spirit in trying circumstances.

It’s a fine word, I’ve always thought, which seems to sound like what it stands for.

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However I rather suspect that ‘trying circumstances’ are what most of us would think of as our daily lives, even though the challenges we face may be as nothing compared to a kid living on the street in Calcutta, say.

The thing is though, it’s not terribly feasible that you’ll go through life jumping from one success to another with the ease of a honey-bee instinctively gliding its way between pollen-rich blossoms.

The first time you try something, whether it’s baking a cake or riding a bike, you may not meet with the result you’d expected.

Perhaps your sultanas will sink to the bottom. Maybe you’ll scrape your knees and elbows (this latter having to do with bike-riding, you understand – it would indeed be most unfortunate to do yourself this degree of damage in the kitchen).

It’s when things don’t go your way that it pays to be a bit plucky: to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

Strategies for doing so may include having a quiet inner belief that you’ll get there – as you almost certainly have in the past. They may also embrace the idea that ‘right first time’ is a less helpful approach than it is to believe in ‘trial and error’.

Think about a time when some may have considered you plucky. What made them believe this? What were your strategies for bouncing back in the past?

And how might you use them in the present?

How to avoid tasks feeling monumental when you’re low.

Back in 1953, two intrepid climbers reached the top of the world for the first time. After a gruelling climb, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing got to the summit of Mount Everest.

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These days, hundreds climb Everest every year, with extraordinary newspaper photographs showing traffic jams of people awaiting their turn to get to the top. I’m sure it’s still a remarkable achievement for those who make it (however, although the numbers have increased dramatically, the danger hasn’t diminished – and many sadly don’t) but one can’t help but feel that what began in the 1950s as a bold expedition has become rather more routine.

Pioneering or not though, you’d have a clear goal in mind if you set out to conquer a peak, and goals can be good things. They give you purpose. They help to define your life. They equip you with something tangible to focus on.

Setting goals is all well and good when your spirits are high, but if you’re heading through a bad patch, it will probably be far harder.

With a low mood, there’s a tendency to take a pessimistic view of the world, believing (possibly correctly) that you’re capable of achieving little. Belief drives activity, or in this case, inactivity.

But even tiny goals can help.

Clearly you’re not going to climb mountains when you’re feeling dejected, but even a messy kitchen can seem like Everest in such circumstances.

So what do you do? The answer is probably to break a big task into much smaller bite-sized chunks. Rather than expecting yourself to knuckle down to get the whole kitchen spick and span, it could be sensible to promise yourself that you’ll spend no longer than ten minutes doing (some of) the dishes.

Even a small achievement such as this can help you feel better, leaving you better equipped to tackle another ten minutes a little further down the line.

Goals are goals, big or small.

Why is it so rewarding to ask questions?

Shortly after children learn to talk, they start asking Why.

Why is the sky blue? Why does that man have funny hair? Why do I have to go to bed? Why can’t I have a kitten?

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They’re certainly not rhetorical questions. When a child asks something, they expect answers with all the fervency of an determined interrogator.

Why? Well it’s what children do. It’s how they learn. It’s the way in which they make sense of the world around them (we hope).

Unfortunately like a lot of the stuff that came naturally to us as kids, we can be inclined to stop asking questions. Perhaps we feel our learning days are behind us, especially if our memories of school days are less than rosy.

But equating learning solely with school is almost certainly unhelpful. We didn’t, for instance, need the structure of teachers and classes in order to learn before we were old enough to start school, did we?

In much the same way, we have the wherewithal to keep learning long after we’ve hung up our school uniforms, and acquiring knowledge (sometimes simply for its own sake) is a fine contributor to maintaining a positive mindset.

When your mood is low it can be hard not to ruminate, turning problems over and over in your mind. But when your curiosity gets the better of you, causing you to hunt out answers to whatever’s bugging you, you’ll be inclined to forget your worries, if only for a while.

So why is the sky blue? Try Google. It has 302 million results for that particular question.

The importance of watering and feeding someone special. You.

I have a strange and unpleasant recurring dream that I’m house-sitting for friends, looking after their pets, but for some nightmarish reason I neglect to feed the animals – I seem to forget all about them.

Thankfully it all ends (in the dream) just about OK, as I fill the food bowls just in the nick of time.

But only just.

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It’s a weird old dream, as there’s no way on God’s earth that I’d ever behave like this in real life, but for some peculiar reason it’s a scenario which has played itself out in my dozing mind on several occasions.

I don’t tell you this in an effort to analyse my own dreams. But it did make me think how conscientiously we provide food and water for animals, but often completely fail to think so rigorously about caring for ourselves.

I know, all too well, that if my mood isn’t so great I pay scant attention to meals. Sometimes I’ve not got much of an appetite so will skip eating altogether. At other times I might mindlessly scoff whatever junk is close to hand.

It’s so clear that what we eat has an enormous impact on how we feel. Why wouldn’t it?

So it utterly beats me why I’m surprised when my mood stays iffy if I’ve not been eating and drinking healthily.

Today’s a day to be thoughtful about what we consume, I think.

I wonder if we sometimes take more care of our pets than we do of ourselves?

How having the courage to head out alone can pay dividends.

Curiously, I’ve often found I meet more people when I travel alone than I do when accompanied by others.

A few years ago I headed off on my own to the Maltese island of Gozo for a few days of ‘chillaxing’ with a book by the pool.

I’d been aware of a group of British painters who were staying in the same hotel, as it was hard to ignore their easels propped up all around the grounds each day.

That evening in the bar I got chatting with the group’s teacher, an older white-haired gentleman called Ley Kenyon. He was coping well with students who’d arrived for his course with a wide range of abilities.

The more we talked, the more I learnt about him. He wasn’t only an accomplished painter, but also a diver who’d worked with Jacques Cousteau and taught the Duke of Edinburgh to dive.

But there was more. Ley was a Prisoner of War in Stalag Luft III at the time of the Great Escape in March 1944 and – he explained – had been asked by the British commanding officer to make a visual record of the digging of the tunnels. So he’d gone underground himself to draw.

‘Where are your drawings now?’ I asked, sure they’d be safely locked up in a museum somewhere.

‘Oh, they’re upstairs.’

What? Yes that’s right, they were in Ley’s suitcase, in plastic sleeves, and a couple of minutes later they were down in the bar where I inspected them incredulously.

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Extraordinary pieces of history, right there in my hands.

I honestly believe we wouldn’t have ended up chatting if I’d not been on my own, and it’s an powerful reminder that it’s often possible to forge human connections in the least expected circumstances. Human connections are so important when it comes to our wellbeing, but connections are much less likely to happen if you don’t step outside your front door.

So, perhaps, rather than bemoaning the fact that you’ve got nobody with whom to go somewhere, head out on your own, tread boldly and keep an open mind.

You never know who you’ll end up talking to.