Monthly Archives: October 2015

Why it can help to treat a broken spirit more like a broken arm

Imagine you’d been doing something goofy and – ouch! – had ended up with a broken arm: seriously, there’s nothing humorous about a shattered humerus.

Now, the health professions have standard practices for dealing with fractured limbs, so it ought to be relatively routine to get you fixed up.

2015-10-30

You may well end up with a plaster cast, and you’ll probably need to wait around six to eight weeks before it’s all healed up again.

I believe you may also discover the joys of scratching itches with a knitting needle pushed down in the gap between cast and arm.

Expect sympathy from people, along with plenty of felt-tipped-pen graffiti from those who view your cast as an artistic opportunity, and prepare to make adjustments to your everyday life as you realise how tricky it can be, for instance, to take a shower without wetting your plaster.

But you’ll get better.

Contrast this, however, with doing something – perhaps not so goofy – and ending up not with a broken arm, but a broken spirit.

Suddenly things aren’t so straightforward.

You’re unlikely to be whisked off to the emergency room, so might not get any professional help unless you seek it yourself.

Beyond thinking that you’re maybe acting a bit quiet, others have no equivalent of the white plaster cast to know you’re unwell – so unless you have unusually perceptive friends and family, be prepared for little sympathy.

It’s not fair, is it?

Why should the physically-afflicted get all the attention?

What might we learn from this, however, when it comes to dealing with low mood and depression?

Beyond accepting that asking for help can be terribly important, perhaps the principal principle is that healing takes time: it just doesn’t happen overnight.

In the same way that we expect a broken arm to heal as long as we allow it time, we should believe that a period of low mood will generally last for only a finite period, and that we’ll feel better in due course.

But it’s important to be realistic about resilience.

Recovery is absolutely possible, but only Elastic Man bounces back instantly.

Finding things when you stop looking for them, including happiness

You know how teeth-grittingly annoying it is to mislay something.

You’re certain you put your keys down somewhere when you got home, for example.

You’re quite sure you had them with you: how else could you have unlocked the door, for goodness’ sake?

2015-10-28

But can you now find them now?

Can you heck.

So what do you do?

Well, you keep searching, sometimes with increasing desperation, but you keep searching.

Often, though, a helpful strategy can be to temporarily stop.

Sit down and have a cup of tea, and the answer often pops into your head while you don’t think you’re focusing on the problem.

So you find them, and who knows why you’d ever have put your keys on the shelf in the bathroom?

But that’s where they were.

Phew.

Something keeps you searching, (in the case of keys, it may well be a sense of panic about what might happen if they don’t turn up) and it’s probably the determination that you will eventually turn up whatever it is that’s gone missing.

You have a clear goal in mind, and you believe you’ll achieve it by hook or by crook.

How different from the way it can feel when your mood has taken a wrong turn, though.

The other night I was with some people, one of whom had been battling through some weeks of depression.

It was by no means the first time in his life that this had happened to him, but despite knowing he’d come out of it in the past, it seemed different this time.

He couldn’t see it ending.

The thing is, though, I think it feels different EVERY time.

You may be certain that you’ll find your keys, but when depression’s black dog nips at your heels, I’m afraid it’s easy to slip into convincing yourself that this time it’s going to be for good.

But it won’t be, will it?

I suspect you’ll have beaten it in the past, and you’ll do so again.

So perhaps we should show a little more faith?

Maybe, just as we nearly always find the keys, we need to trust that we’ll re-find our happiness?

It’s out there somewhere, perhaps not on the bathroom shelf, but you’ll almost certainly locate it (generally once you’ve stopped looking for it).

Try a new food today and get a mood boosting side order

To be honest with you, I hadn’t really set out to eat deep-fried locusts that day, but who was I to refuse when they were served up with a squeeze of lemon juice in little paper cones at a kick-boxing match in Thailand?

What were they like?

Well, crunchy and a bit on the leggy side if you know what I mean, but surprisingly not unpleasant really.

2015-10-26

That said, I’ve not been tempted to sample them again, and wouldn’t place any kind of insect on the menu if I was choosing my last meal.

I’m glad I tried them, though, as I’m a firm believer in experimenting in life (after all, my mood tracking work and this blog itself came from a period of my own self-experimentation) and I’m certain that there’s sense in the idea that breaking away from the straight and narrow, and doing things differently, is one great way to keep your mood up.

Although it may not seem like it, when you eat something for the first time, you’re learning.

You’re discovering what it tastes like, how you react to it (and in the case of locusts whether you’ll actually be able to bring yourself to swallow them).

It’s easy to believe that learning only takes place in classrooms, but the simple truth is that you have the potential to discover plenty today, if you open your mind to new experiences.

So actively seek out these opportunities today, if you can.

If not today, then soon.

Mind you, if you’re tempted to try a locust or two, I should start modestly if I were you.

I’m told the servings come in three sizes.

Small. Medium. And Plague.

The surprising happiness-boosting benefits of keeping your eyes open

My Dad’s mother had an unusual way of describing her TV viewing behaviour, which she described as ‘looking in’ – as in ‘I looked in at Dixon of Dock Green last night’.

Since this seemed an odd turn of phrase, I thought I’d better check to make sure I wasn’t imagining it, and found just a handful of entries (but see below) in Google for “looked in at television”, one of which referred to a speech made in the UK House of Lords in 1954 by Earl De La Warr.

2015-10-25

Apparently he’d been ill and had spent a week ‘looking in’ every day, only to discover a surfeit of crime plays.

No change there then.

Today we’re more likely to say we ‘watch’ TV, of course, but I wonder how accurately this describes our behaviour? The dictionary suggests that the word ‘watch’ means ‘to keep under attentive view or observation’, yet when the box is on all evening, I’m sure our degree of attention is not necessarily undiluted.

I wonder how you might describe the use of the sense of sight when the average person goes about their everyday life?

Would you say they ‘look’ at the world?

Do they ‘see’ it?

One thing that’s clear is that we’d rarely apply the word ‘watch’ to it, unless of course they happen to be sitting at a cafe table watching it go by.

On a low mood day, it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own thoughts, which doesn’t always help.

That’s when it can be really helpful to take notice of the world around you.

It seems that when we do this, we give ourselves a break from our inner rumination.

So as the day progresses, rather than simply looking and seeing, why not try and purposefully watch?

Not in the same way that you ‘look in’ at TV, but in a more observational, questioning way.

Watch the world as if for the first time.

As for that apparently rare phrase “looked in at television”, there should soon be one more entry for it, if Google does its job of finding today’s piece of writing.

I’m sure my Gran would have been tickled pink to have been associated with the venerable Earl De La Warr.

And vice versa, possibly.

A reminder that you’re probably not a hunter gatherer

Our hunter gatherer ancestors didn’t take Prozac.

Of course, we’ve no way of knowing whether they might in theory have needed it.

Who knows, they could even have consumed their own naturally occurring mood-lifters in the form of certain plants, but it seems likely that they would probably have lived a life in which their emotions were driven by external factors such as whether or not they had food and safe shelter.

2015-10-23

In such circumstances, I suspect you’d accept your lot, and would go with the flow.

With no healthcare system, physical illness might well be fatal, but in general I guess that tribe members would be reasonably fit, eating frugally (no super-sized meals) and benefiting from plenty of exercise.

No going on diets for them, nor gym memberships.

Hovever, it’s very different for us of course.

In the 21st century developed world there’s no real shortage of food, and we can often go through a day without getting much ‘mandatory’ exercise: we don’t have to walk for water or battle marauding enemies.

Instead, annoying as it is, we must take care of our bodies rather than expecting that they will take care of themselves.

The way you feel can be strongly affected by what you eat and drink, and the amount of exercise you get, so try to keep this in mind as the day progresses.

Wherever possible, choose healthy food options.

Drink your fair share of water.

And aim to up the amount of exercise you get, even if it’s only walking up one more staircase than normal.

Or, of course, you could always move to the Serengeti.

Why just about no conversation is a pointless conversation

In a world before electronic communications, people passed the time of day by stopping to talk in the street, or by the village pond. The only tweets came from ducks’ beaks.

However, sometimes it seems that the more ways we have to connect with others, the less we actually do so.

These days, it’s not uncommon to hear stories of workmates who communicate with one another by email rather than walking a few yards to actually speak to them in person.

2015-10-21

We often live in communities so large that the chances of bumping into someone we know are remote.

We may drive to semi-distant supermarkets where, once again, it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll see familiar faces.

Some don’t know their neighbours.

You need a constant supply of air to breathe, and fortunately there’s a good supply of this wherever you go (albeit that its quality varies from place to place) so thankfully you don’t have to seek it out.

But in a way, our connections with others are every bit as vital as oxygen.

Shut them off and it won’t be long before we show the signs of missing them.

This may not happen as quickly as it would if our air supply was cut, but a lack of human contact can have a profound effect.

Today, therefore, remind yourself of the importance of interacting with other people, treating it as being almost up there with breathing in terms of priority, and make a conscious effort to engage in conversations with those around you, especially convivial chats with no great ulterior purpose beyond making you both feel a little better for the experience.

You may not have a village pond, but you probably do have a phone, so why not call someone and tell them you’ve just phoned for a chat?

Make the most of your talents to help someone else

For hopefully obvious biological reasons I’ve never been a mother, but if I had, I’m sure I’d declare that it felt as if I’d spent my entire life doing things for others, much of it involving picking up items of discarded clothing and small unidentifiable plastic toy parts.

If you’ve been in a situation in which others have entirely depended on you, you’ll know that it can be incredibly demanding work, leaving little time for much else, but even when you’re being run ragged by supporting others, it’s likely that you’ll feel at least a small degree of satisfaction from doing so.

There’s no doubt that helping people and, in general, showing kindness to others delivers a physiological lift whose chemical effect some experts suggest is similar to a diluted morphine hit.

No wonder some refer to it as a ‘helper’s high’.

Of course, when we do things for one another, it doesn’t just give us a boost – it helps to create a better world, a more integrated community, an environment in which it’s nicer to live.

So why not look for small ways of helping those with whom you come into contact during the next 24 hours?

If you’re physically strong, offer to lift something for someone who isn’t.

If you’re skilled at something, do a favour which utilises your ability.

If you’re not in a hurry, give way to someone who is.

It’s often the small actions which have the most impact.

Why nature helps us feel part of something bigger, and why that’s good

Ah. Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

(The hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the knee bone.)

Your body’s something special, you know.

Please note, I’m not coming on to you, merely pointing out that bodies are an extraordinary collection of components working together as one.

Broadly, we need most of the bits to operate as expected if we’re to be a living human being.

You’re more than just a thigh bone.

When you think about it, the way our anatomy works is not that dissimilar from the manner in which society functions, too.

Although we all work pretty well as autonomous units, our true potential is generally only reached when we’re part of something bigger, and this is often what gives our life meaning.

Sadly, if your mood is low (one of the times in life when it really can help to feel part of something bigger) you’re least likely to actually want to involve yourself in the kind of activities which this seems to entail.

So how can you be part of something bigger when you actually feel very small?

I’m convinced that one great answer is to get yourself out into nature.

A walk by a river or along a beach can remind you that there’s a big, beautiful world out there.

A stroll through a forest can promote a sense of awe when you stop to think about how long its trees have already lived.

Even some time in a garden or park can work, though, especially if you get up close and personal with a flower or shrub.

Study its form, breathe its perfume, wonder at its colours.

Some find their sense of meaning in formal acts of worship, and there’s much to be said for this, if that’s your thing, but taking a closer look at the world around you is another fine way to remind yourself that each and every one of us is part of something bigger.

Take care when you compare

When I ran an advertising agency, I was in the privileged position of getting to see how big businesses operated behind the scenes.

I also often had occasion to talk to people working in those businesses in a way which entailed them confessing to me how things really were.

It was common to find that beneath the shiny surface veneer, most organisations spent quite a bit of their time flying by the seat of their pants.

Their people are often poorly motivated, and inter-departmental (even intra-departmental) warfare is rife.

Yet, as I say, look at that organisation from the outside, and you’d probably believe they were a paragon of virtue.

My good friends at Action for Happiness in London use a powerful line in one of their posters (which promote, well, actions for happiness) that suggests we shouldn’t compare our insides with other people’s outsides.

I love this idea, as I think it describes exactly what we’re often inclined to do.

Even worse, we probably take a jaundiced view of our insides, which we then compare with the ‘grass is always greener’ conclusions we draw when we observe others.

If your life goes through a grey patch, you may peer around and imagine everyone else is fine, compounding your own despair.

But this is because you’re comparing you own inner feelings with the masks that many others may be showing to the world.

You’re comparing apples with oranges.

Better by far, if you can, to accept that most of us are flakier on the inside than we seem.

Perhaps in some ways we’re all slightly mad.

Well, I do speak for myself, of course.

Keeping an open mind to the possibility of being happy

When President Kennedy proposed in 1961 that by the end of that decade the United States should set as a goal landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth, nobody could deny he was taking a positive approach.

He and his advisers knew that the challenge to achieve a moon mission was immense – dangerous and expensive, too – but it was the right message at the right time, and in six short years the impossible was achieved (unless you’re a committed conspiracy theorist, that is).

However, although the project was driven by positivity, I’m sure it succeeded in part because there were those who took the trouble to think through what could happen were things to go wrong.

That wasn’t pessimism, it was realism.

It’s also important to recognise that JFK allowed that the whole thing was going to take time.

Note that it was ‘by the end of the decade’ rather than ‘by this time next week’.

Of course, when life seems to have dumped you into the abyss, it’s not terribly easy to take a positive approach, is it?

In fact, if someone suggested that I should do so, on one of my shabbier days, I’d probably tell them where to stick their approach.

However, deep down I think even I’d acknowledge the merit of keeping a small part of my mind open to better times.

Perhaps it would be reasonable, for instance, to accept that things could just get better, even if it might take months?

After all, they put a man on the moon. You could feel better.