Monthly Archives: September 2015

Will you earn yourself a badge today?

When I was in the Scouts, there was (and still is, I believe) a proficiency badge for almost everything.

Whatever your interest, it seemed as if you could earn a badge by demonstrating your ability or knowledge in it: something else to ask your mum to sew on your sleeve.

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Towards the end of your Scouting ‘career’ it was common to sport a whole armful.

While they weren’t all necessarily fun (whose idea was the ‘House Orderly’ badge, part of whose conditions involved me having to clean the examiner’s extensive collection of brass ornaments, for goodness’ sake?) there was considerable satisfaction in acquiring new knowledge and skill in return for a small embroidered mark of recognition.

Learning new things is generally agreeable, regardless of whether or not there’s a tangible reward at the end, and in fact, whether you enjoy it or not, there’s broad acceptance that it’s good for you, making an important contribution to maintaining a healthy state of mind.

Perhaps you can earn yourself a virtual proficiency badge today? It could be for working out how to fix something that’s broken.

It might be for persuading someone to walk you through a period of their life you’ve often wondered about.

Or how about getting yourself a badge tonight for cooking something you’ve never tackled?

‘Photocopier Repairer’, ‘Family History Researcher’, ‘Adventurous Chef’ badges, anyone?

When too much focus can be a bad thing

There’s a strange trick I sometimes do if I’ve taken out my contact lenses, and want to see some small detail on the TV screen.

If you make a very loose fist with your hand, it’s possible to engineer a situation where it forms a kind of tube with the tiniest chink of ‘open’ at its far end, and a much bigger opening at the side closest to you.

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Press your eye tightly against this larger aperture and, bingo, you’ve built yourself a kind of lens system, which makes images look sharper when you point your hand to focus on them.

If you’re a little short-sighted and haven’t tried this, do give it a go, although if there are others in the room, it may help to explain yourself.

What’s thought-provoking about this little optical experiment is that, although it does create clarity out of fuzziness, it does so only for the tiniest proportion of your field of view.

You may be able to see the time on breakfast TV, for instance, but it’ll reveal nothing of the newscaster.

Actually, during the course of an average day you probably tend to be pretty good, figuratively, at focusing on the small stuff, as this is how you get through the things you need to do.

When you do, however, you may simultaneously lose sight of the big picture.

I guess what we really need is a mind like one of those ‘picture in picture’ displays sometimes used in live news broadcasts where they’re waiting for a press conference to start, but nobody’s standing at the microphone yet.

Of course it makes sense to concentrate on what’s in front of you (specially when driving) but it does no harm to keep one part of your mind partly open to what’s going on in the world around you, both geographically and emotionally.

Please look after this human

When the Brown family encountered him, he was sitting expectantly on his suitcase in the station after which he became known.

Having stowed away from Darkest Peru to London, with only marmalade to sustain him (his kind do like marmalade, though), attached to his coat was a hand-written label which said “Please look after this bear. Thank you.”

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So the Browns took him home to 32 Windsor Gardens, where they did exactly as asked on the label.

They looked after that bear, Paddington.

I’ve always thought him lucky. I mean, if you were feeling a bit vulnerable, wouldn’t it be good if you could simply write a note asking people to look after you (thank you), and safety pin it to your chest?

The trouble is, it doesn’t work quite like that, does it? For one thing, I’m certain you’d attract some funny looks.

Unfortunately you’re mostly expected to take care of yourself, lovely though it would be to have someone to do it for you.

Taking care of your body isn’t selfish, it’s sensible, and it’s an important way to build up your emotional resilience.

When times are good, I expect you look after yourself unconsciously: but on duller days you may question the point of eating healthily, getting exercise, aiming to get decent sleep, and making sure you drink plenty of water.

However it’s precisely on these duller days that such actions are crucial.

Just as an effective army’s tanks are always sent into battle fully fuelled and maintained, you’ll tackle setbacks faster when your body is in proper working order.

According to my records, you’re not a duffel-coated bear, so please look after yourself. Thank you.

How to give yourself a buddy boost

If it was actually true that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, couldn’t we just shut down all the schools and have kids spend all their time on Facebook?

In reality, of course, rather than being one or the other, I think it’s equally what – and who – you know.

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However both of these need care and tending. Just as your knowledge and learning require regular top-ups, there’s a good case for thoughtfully looking after your relationships with others too.

When we connect with people, all sorts of things can happen, including chemical changes in the brain.

If it’s a close relationship, oxytocin (sometimes called the ‘cuddling chemical’) can be released, but science works its magic even if you’re with friends that you’re not specially close to: a good giggle with someone you know can produce endorphins which calm the mind, reduce pain and minimise anxiety.

It’s no wonder that being around people can feel good, but it’s darned annoying that being sociable is generally far from your mind on days when your mood is low.

Getting together with others would probably do you good, if only you could persuade yourself to do so.

If there is a trick to this, it may be that it pays to be realistic about your expectations.

Let’s face it, on a bad day you’re unlikely to be the life and soul of the party. Perhaps meeting a friend for coffee is more reasonable?

Maybe think of it like medicine, then, which generally works even when it doesn’t taste nice.

So however you feel today – good, bad or indifferent – do whatever you can to connect with other people.

Your mood will thank you for it.

How offering a little assistance can lead to a lot of reward

If someone mentions the idea of doing things for others (which is generally a pretty sure-fire – and legitimate – way to feel good about yourself, by the way) the first thoughts to hit your mind might be physical acts such as baking them a cake, mowing their lawn or cleaning their windows, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with offering assistance like that.

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The trouble is, there’s not always time for good deeds such as these, so here are five things you can do for others today, no matter how busy you may be.

1. Smile at people. What’s it like when someone smiles at you? Nice, eh? So go first today, and get one in before they do.

2. Listen properly when someone’s talking to you, and use body language to demonstrate that you are. A radio interviewer nods her head at her subject to encourage him to go on. Think like a reporter today.

3. Compliment someone and be specific about it. Tell a friend that you like what she’s wearing, and that the colours suit her. Let a busker know you love the tune he’s playing.

4. Take a little time to chat to strangers. It might just be small-talk to you, but it could be a vital bit of human contact for the other person, especially if they’re shy.

5. Help someone see a positive side of their problem. There may not always be one, of course, but sometimes people get bogged down in negatives. Give them another view, which is sympathetic but a little more optimistic.

When you’re busy, why not try to do small things like these for others as part of your normal day?

Although by all means bake a cake if you’ve got the time. And the flour.

The dark side of looking on the bright side

I had to chuckle (I think) when I uncovered a 2009 survey revealing people’s number one for an ‘alternative’ song to be played at funerals: ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’, Eric Idle’s cheery tune from the Monty Python film, ‘The Life Of Brian’.

Twenty per-cent of people questioned by the charity The Children’s Society made it their top choice at the time.

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Now if you’ve seen the film, I’m sure you’ll recall that the character played by Eric Idle tries to cheer up Brian (Cohen), who’s being crucified alongside him.

In the movie, it’s obviously a pretty ridiculous example of urging someone to think positively, clearly written tongue in cheek, and you may agree that those who urge us to take a positive approach to everything, no matter what, are barking up the wrong tree (if not actually barking mad).

Every morning the newspapers are full of stories about those who have been placed in intolerable situations, having to deal with the most awful of circumstances.

If something unexpectedly tragic happens to someone you love, for instance, surely it’s entirely natural to feel abject misery at the time?

But that’s not to say that the positive-approach school of thinking has no merit whatsoever.

If someone cuts you up in traffic for example, you do almost certainly have a choice about how you’ll react.

For example, you could flush with anger, driving your car so it’s only inches from the rear of the offending vehicle.

Alternatively you could just let it go, and tune your radio to a classical music station where they’ll hopefully be playing something soothing, rather than, say, The Ride Of The Valkyries.

I’m pretty sure that those who go through life pretending that every single day is 100% positive are living in cloud cuckoo land.

On the other hand, maybe there’s merit in adopting a slightly tweaked version of the Monty Python song: perhaps you can (Often) Look On The Bright Side Of Life?