Monthly Archives: January 2016

Why self-generosity has nothing to do with selfishness

As a small person, the expected thing after you were fortunate enough to receive a pile of candy was to share it with someone.

Perhaps this was a sibling, or a playmate, but it definitely wasn’t good form to hog the goodies all to yourself.

The easiest way to divvy it all up was to go through the time-honoured ‘one for you, one for me’ process, hoping of course that there would be an even number of pieces, meaning that your partner in crime wouldn’t be better off than you by one item at the end of the sharing.

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My plan today was to remind us both of the power of generosity, and how good it can feel to do things for others.

But the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that you’re probably already doing quite a lot in that respect – perhaps more than your fair share, in fact.

And if that is the case, it may feel a bit like ‘One for you, one for you’.

What’s happening to the ‘one for me’?

By all means please keep up your support and help for others today, but at the same time please don’t neglect yourself.

In fact, why not go further than simply not neglecting No 1?

How about treating yourself in some way?

Give yourself some time.

Give yourself some headspace.

Give yourself a pat on the back.

Give yourself a gift.

Give yourself a break.

Don’t forget the ‘one for me’ today.

(That’s you, not me, if you see what I mean.)

Once a lightbulb, always a lightbulb

There’s that old joke, isn’t there, about how many therapists it takes to change a lightbulb: the answer being one – but the lightbulb has got to really want to change.

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Perhaps it’s true that many who go into therapy do so in the hope that they’ll change as a result.

Maybe there’s something about themselves, or their life, that they don’t really like, and there’s a feeling that working with a professional will help them instigate change.

Nothing inherently wrong with that, I guess.

There can be times in life when we all need help and encouragement to move things on a bit.

Could it be, however, that there’s the danger of adopting an all-or-nothing mindset which drives us to assume that nothing can change unless everything does?

That, say, we can never be a satisfied caterpillar until we metamorphose into a butterfly?

Big earth-shattering changes such as these are generally thin on the ground in a lifetime.

When people do move on, it’s more often than not a slow-and-steady process rather than an overnight transition.

Knowing this, I wonder if it makes sense for us to place a little more emphasis upon being comfortable with who we are, rather than uncomfortable with who we’re not?

I suspect that this time tomorrow you’ll still be pretty much the person you are today, so it’s maybe a better use of the next 24 hours to look for reasons to feel good about yourself than it is to while away the time pining for changes which may be out of your reach.

You know what?

Sometimes the lightbulb may be reasonably happy as it is, thank you very much.

After the forest fire, a new forest.

For me, driving through countryside shortly after a devastating fire was a sad experience.

Everything was black.

The trees left standing were stunted and bare.

The acrid stench of smoke clung to my throat.

It was easy to imagine there could be no future for this territory, that its end had come.

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But so very often this is not the case, because after the rain has come, and after nature has worked its incredible wonders, small shoots of green appear.

Then slowly, steadily, gradually, the environment returns to normal.

Sometimes it does even better than this – the effects of the fire may enrich the soil, resulting in a greener and more pleasant land one day not so far down the road.

Someone comparing before and after pictures might be led to declare the area resilient, and indeed this is exactly what it has demonstrated.

But note: the fire still happened.

If we’d been there when it was burning, we’d have seen only destruction.

Resilience didn’t mean the vegetation was fire-proof.

It didn’t somehow repel the flames.

No, the resilience is what came later.

It’s the way in which the environment deals with change, accepting it, kind of shrugging its shoulders and saying ‘well that was a mess – better get on with fixing things now though’.

I think we can learn from this.

Resilience and being able to bounce back from adversity are tremendous qualities, but usually there’s no way to prevent the bad stuff happening at the time: the storm must simply be weathered.

However it’s what comes later that counts, and an acceptance that things are as they are can go a very long way to giving you the strength to believe that they’ll get better again.

Surprisingly, after a forest fire there’s nearly always still a forest.

Get a quick boost of meaningfulness

Unless you’re fantastically fortunate there will almost certainly be times in life when things feel a bit meaningless.

A bit blah.

Sometimes this can be the result of circumstances – when someone you love (or loved) is no longer there, for instance.

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But it can also come about if the black dog comes calling, often for no apparent reason whatsoever.

When you feel like this, it’s received wisdom that it can help to believe that you’re living a life of meaning – that there’s some greater purpose for you being here.

But it could be that your low mood will have you questioning the very idea of this.

Some are able to turn to religious beliefs at a time like that.

But what can you do when the feeling of being part of something bigger might help, but you have no particular religious faith?

Here are five possibilities.

Maybe one will work for you.

Perhaps they’ll inspire you to think of others.

1. Get out into nature.

There’s nothing like a walk in the big outdoors to remind you that you’re one (vital) component in a complex, rich world.

2. Listen to a piece of beautiful, moving music.

Another human being wrote that, and others performed it: they weren’t so different from you.

3. Visit a church or cathedral and take time to soak up its atmosphere.

Think about the people who built it, and their motivations for doing so.

Again, they were human beings very much like you and me.

4. Spend time with children – a reminder that the human race is a never-ending relay, of which you’re an important part.

5. Borrow a library-book biography of someone you admire, preferably someone whose life seemed full of meaning.

As you read it, look for clues: what led them to being the way they are, or were?

While none of these are certain to provide you with a magic remedy on a meaningless day, they might help a little, and every little helps.

What I learned from running a carnival sideshow

I worked for an American fun fair for three months in my early twenties.

I call it a fun fair, but it was properly known as a carnival – and as a temporary ‘carnie’ I travelled around the small towns of Northern California that blissful summer, helping to set up the sideshows and relieving the locals of their hard-earned dollars, sometimes giving them a plush toy in return, if they managed to win.

Mind you, winning wasn’t easy.

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The sideshow to which I was allocated was called Scat Cats.

Three or four giant wooden cats stood at the rear of the tent, each with a circular cut-out mouth: you won by throwing a baseball through one of them.

Easy?

Well, no.

Appearances were deceptive, and when you looked closely (which you couldn’t really do from the punters’ side of things) it was evident that the hole’s diameter was only marginally larger than the ball.

The only way to get one in (and we were taught how to do so, in order to make it look easy) was to throw the ball with a strange kind of pushing action, straight out from your chest.

Trying to get it in using a ‘coming in from the top’ strategy wouldn’t work, as the ball would meet the aperture as an ellipse rather than a circle, bumping into either top or bottom, or sometimes both.

(Imagine you were a tiny person on the surface of the ball – as the target approached, its circular shape would be foreshortened into an oval.)

Of course, this didn’t stop people having a go.

It was ‘all the fun of the fair’ to try but not succeed, walking away convinced that you’d been so close.

If only.

To some extent the players of my game were aiming at impossible goals.

I suppose they didn’t mind, although they may have if they’d stopped to think it through.

However, in general we do best when we have real, achievable goals to look forward to.

So what goals could you set yourself today?

And how could you reward yourself for achieving them?

They needn’t be big – in fact it’s often helpful, especially if your mood is at a low ebb, to choose easier targets which you might be able to reach in much shorter time periods – but they should be specific and attainable.

Although I’d steer clear of the Scat Cats game should you come across it, if I were you.

The lesson for today: don’t stop learning.

Some years ago, the UK government launched a National Curriculum for schools.

I was doing some work in education at the time, so had copies of the manuals laying down the precise content that teachers were expected to deliver.

As the 11-year-old son of a friend looked through them with me, he said: ‘So when I’ve learned all this, I can leave, right?’

He was just about to start seven years at secondary school, so I had to chuckle at his suggestion that he might be allowed to leave and start work at thirteen, say, if he rushed through all the expected material (and clearly showed prodigious educational capability) in just a couple of years.

It isn’t like that, of course.

However much – or little – you learn, you have to serve your full stretch of five or seven years, because going to school is about far more than working your way though a set of prescribed requirements.

It’s about learning ‘softer’ skills such as getting on with others; finding out more about yourself; working under your own steam etc.

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I hope it’s also about discovering some area of learning that really inspires you, whether or not it’s an academic subject.

In my experience, the most content people are those whose minds are still bright and enquiring, those who’ve never lost their desire to learn.

Of course there are people who in their latter years succumb to cruel conditions such as dementia, robbing them of varying degrees of their cognitive abilities, but there’s no doubt in my mind that a hunger to keep learning goes hand-in-hand with chirpy seniors.

This phenomenon isn’t just limited to older people.

We all tend to thrive when we add to our learning every day.

You’re very possibly not following a syllabus right now: all the more reason to seek out opportunities to increase your knowledge in the next 24 hours.

The eternal benefits of noticing all that’s around you.

Don’t look.

That’s right, don’t turn round.

Behind you, however.

What’s behind you?

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Now, I’m taking a chance that you’re reading this in the same place you usually read your emails.

Maybe not, of course, but if you’re like me you’re possibly a creature of habit, which suggests that you’re pretty familiar with your current surroundings.

You are? Thought as much.

So, what is behind you?

(Again, no looking.)

Perhaps it’s just a wall – but what colour is it, and what if anything covers it?

Or maybe there’s furniture of some kind?

What does it look like? What might be stacked on it?

There again, it could be that there’s a person (or people) behind you.

What are they doing?

What are they wearing?

The point is, we regularly go about our day oblivious to the world around us.

When we’re in the old familiar places, how often do we stop to take things in?

When we’re somewhere new, do we look about us, or just breeze through with eyes fixed ahead?

If you wanted a hospital patient to recover more quickly, would you give them a bed whose window looked out on a brick wall, or one with an ever-changing view?

The latter, I suspect.

The thing is, taking proper notice of the world around you is a sure-fire way of adding to your overall wellbeing, and it’s there in front of you (and behind you, too) right now.

So, go on, take a look – then why not carry on doing so as the day progresses?

Think of it as free medicine with no side-effects.

Out with the New, In with the Old. Huh?

It’s the first Moodnudge of 2016, the first day of a new year.

So let me wish you a Happy New Year.

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And isn’t it interesting that we use the word ‘happy’? Not ‘wealthy’ or ‘successful’ or ‘healthy’ or even ‘fun’.

But ‘happy’.

I’m not a great fan of new year’s resolutions. No offence if it’s your thing, but to me it often feels as though you’re setting yourself up to fail if you make ambitious resolutions at a time of year when you may not be at your strongest.

I would, instead, encourage you to do something else today, however, and that’s to work on an Old Year’s Revelation.

A revelation is a striking disclosure.

Something you may not have realised before.

And the revelation I’d love you to uncover is the one biggest thing you have to be grateful for about 2015.

Even if it wasn’t the best of years for you, all but the very darkest clouds generally have some kind of silver lining.

So please think about it. Even better share your Old Year’s Revelation in our Comments section.

And let’s all look forward to creating some new happy memories in 2016.