Monthly Archives: March 2016

Enlisting other people’s eyes to see what you can’t

This past week, I’ve experienced a really good demonstration of the way that other people can help you form a clearer view of something you’re working on, or—I suspect—something you’re struggling with.

My “Nudge Your Way to Happiness” book is pretty near to being ready for publication.

I know I keep saying this, but it is.

It is.

Although I knew it probably wasn’t 100% error-free, I really did think it was just about good enough to release.

But then Alex kindly offered to go through the whole thing with a fine tooth comb, and I was astonished (but actually very happy) that she found things that needed changing on about half the pages.

2016-03-30

Some were just small inconsistencies, but there were several glaring errors I’d completely missed.

Happily, therefore, I’m getting them put right.

However, help in gaining fresh perspective doesn’t always have to come from someone you know.

For instance, also this week, I learned a ton by watching a talk about publishing and writing given by Jack Canfield, one of the authors of the “Chicken Soup For the Soul” series.

Having sold 500 million books, he probably knows what he’s talking about.

He made the important point that a book should start as strongly as possible.

It should thoroughly engage the reader, leaving them eager to get into the meat of the book itself.

When I re-read my own book’s introduction that I’d written a couple of months ago, I immediately saw that I could have made a better job of it.

I had used it to describe the book, rather than telling some kind of strong story which would inspire readers.

So I rewrote it, and shared the new draft with Alex and my brother Geoff, both of whom have been amazing sounding boards for my work.

They could see where I was going with the new version, but for different reasons both of them thought I still wasn’t quite there.

So I sat down a couple of days ago, and wrote another one.

Hopefully it’s a case of third time lucky.

The new introduction feels much more personal, and much more of a story I hope people will want to read.

Of course I’ll only know how well this has worked when the book goes on sale.

We have one more round of proofing to do, but this is definitely only a matter of a few more days rather than endless months.

The bigger take-out from this is that if you find yourself struggling with some kind of dilemma, some situation you feel perhaps isn’t quite right, never hesitate to ask for other people’s advice.

Whether you decide to take it or not is, of course, entirely up to you.

But at so many points in my life, I have found it incredibly valuable to see my own problems afresh through the eyes of others.

The surprising truth I learned from a chimpanzee

A documentary project in the 1980s took me right inside the chimpanzee enclosure at London Zoo.

What an extraordinary experience.

Instead of being on the outside looking in, we were inside with a dozen or so of these delightful creatures, who of course are truly not that different from us.

2016-02-08

After we’d taken photographs, their keeper suggested I might like to crouch down with arms open and sure enough one little guy jumped up and hugged me (lightly, fortunately).

It was a profound moment as I stood up with the affectionate chimp pressing himself firmly against my chest.

He was lighter than I would have expected.

Although I’m not especially an animal lover, I have to confess this was a moment I’ll never forget.

I know I was hugely privileged to have experienced it.

After this spot of human-primate bonding it was time for me to leave, so I lowered the little guy to the ground.

Then came the most poignant moment of all.

As the keeper and I prepared to head off, the little chimp was joined by one of his pals, and they padded off with their arms round each other.

I wanted to know what this might mean, and their keeper explained that they were sad that we were leaving, so were comforting one another to kind of say ‘it’s OK, I’m here – I care’.

Feeling that someone cares for you and about you can be a crucial factor in determining your overall state of mind.

Unfortunately it’s not uncommon if you’re going through a rough patch to mistakenly believe that nobody does: it’s a cruel trick your mind can play on you.

Perhaps we can learn from the chimpanzees, however.

One good way to feel others care for you is to care for them first.

Put your arm around them, and they’ll almost certainly reciprocate.

Tell them you love them and they (hopefully) will tell you that they love you too.

Maybe it’s a good day to show those around you how much you care for them?

You may get a pleasant surprise in return.

The surprising companionship of a fire drill

There are nine million books in the Stanford University library, where I mostly work.

With so much paper sitting around on bookshelves, it’s probably very sensible to hold as many fire drills as they seem to.

Often when I’m there, though.

2016-03-27

Sometimes, it can be quite nice to be forced to take a quick break.

At other times though, it can get kind of annoying to be torn away from what you’re doing, with no real idea of how long it will be before you can get back to your desk.

The drill last week was one of these latter occasions, when I was deeply involved in something, so much so in fact, that it took me a while to realise that the alarm was going and everyone was leaving.

Feeling slightly miffed, I shuffled my papers together and left the building, lurking around just outside the front door, hoping that it wouldn’t be too long before I could get back to my writing.

Generally it’s all pretty disorganised when people leave the building for these drills, but for once a Fire Marshall was present and he seemed particularly keen that everyone – including both staff and library users – should assemble in one place.

So slightly against my better judgement, I drifted over to the area where people were gathering, and actually ended up quite enjoying it.

The marshall was good.

He clearly explained what was going on, and made the sensible point that if a building is really on fire, it really is best not to hang around too close to it.

He thanked people for their cooperation, and explained why the university needs to conduct as many regular drills as it does.

And… for a few minutes, I felt part of something bigger than myself.

Although it wasn’t in any profound kind of way (it was only a fire drill) it acted as a useful reminder that it’s possible to feel connected to other people in quite modest ways.

If you’re feeling low, there’s no need to wait for a fire drill.

All you need to do is take yourself where there are are other people.

It could be a café.

It might be a talk of some kind, or a movie screening.

Even getting on a bus can increase that feeling of being part of some kind of community.

Next time you are in need of a lift, please remember the power of putting yourself in a position where you may get a reminder that you’re part of something bigger than yourself.

Judging on the right side of the brain.

In neuroscience circles it’s definitely no longer fashionable to speak of the brain having a logical left side and a creative right side.

That’s a pity as it was a rather neat theory.

Scientists do agree that different parts of the brain process in different ways, but it’s nowhere near as neat as a simple left/right thing.

However when the idea was more in vogue, I remember one happy holiday in Greece working my way through a brilliant book by Betty Edwards, called Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain.

2016-03-25

Originally published in 1979, it’s still available and still, in my (right) mind brilliant.

Rather neatly, Betty Edwards trained as both an artist and a psychologist.

To me, one of her most helpful insights was that when we attempt to draw a dog, for example, we need to shut off the bossy, logical side of our brain which tries to tell us it already knows what a dog looks like.

We should instead, the book suggests, intensely study the shape of the particular dog that’s in front of us, and carefully, gently capture its lines onto the paper.

Although I’m by no means doing justice to her philosophy, I wanted to bring it to your attention because I think all too often it’s possible to leap to conclusions over-hastily in life, using past experience to prejudice present circumstances.

We meet a new person, for example, and because they physically resemble someone we’ve disliked in the past, we paint this newcomer in a similar light.

Or someone pays us a compliment about the way we dress and we hark back to someone else who only ever seemed to do this as a sly way of having a dig about the way we usually looked.

Today, therefore, why don’t we both try to suspend our prejudicial thinking, approaching life in a more open-minded way?

Of course simply by saying this, I’m prejudging you to a certain extent.

Maybe you’re always, always open-minded?

If so, feel free to ignore me.

But if there’s even the tiniest bit of youu that has a tendency to jump to conclusions, maybe it will help to do a little less of that today.

Why learning’s best when it’s hard work.

Back in the day, there was one particular person that I frequently used to present advertising concepts to who almost always gave me the impression that I’d got the whole thing hopelessly wrong.

As he listened, he’d screw up his face into a fierce frown, making you feel as a presenter that he abhorred everything about you and your damn stupid ideas.

It took a surprisingly long time before I understood that he frowned when he was concentrating and thinking hard.

His look of utter disdain actually meant something else entirely.

(Well, hopefully.)

I recalled this the other day when I sat down to record a demo for the Stanford University radio station, KZSU.

2016-03-23

For the past few months I’ve been training to start work as a volunteer DJ, and doing a recorded demo was the final piece in the jigsaw before I can be “air cleared”.

Actually I’m really excited.

Radio is something I’ve long wanted to do.

Although I’ve dabbled in the past with hospital radio in the UK, this will be my first opportunity to present on proper FM radio in the San Francisco Bay Area (also streamed live online).

But the thing is, although I’m hugely looking forward to getting on air, the learning process has been pretty heavy going.

So much so, that when I sat down to begin my demo show I doubted I’d be able to pull it off.

But I did it, recorded it, and it sounded surprisingly okay to be honest.

Plenty of room for improvement, but not bad for starters.

I even experimented with a “Morning Moodnudge” feature, which seemed to work.

Making the recording involved a steep learning curve, and I’m sure I was frowning, just like the gentleman back in London I used to present ideas to.

But learning is good, even (and perhaps especially) when it challenges us, pushes us, and maybe even scares us a little.

I expect you already know this deep down, but maybe it will be helpful to have a gentle reminder.

As you go about the next couple of days, why not try to find small chances to learn something new?

Even better if it makes you frown with concentration a little, because as I proved to myself last week, beyond the frown lies satisfaction, achievement, and a boost in self-confidence.

So until the next time, this is Jon Cousins on KZSU, Stanford.

It’s here. The new book’s cover.

Five weeks ago many hundreds of Moodnudges readers were generous enough to vote on possible cover concepts for Nudge Your Way To Happiness, the forthcoming book.

The idea that garnered most support showed three weather symbols, progressing from a rainy day to a sunny one, so this was the one which has gone on to be refined and polished.

A huge and heartfelt thank you to everyone who had their say, and commiserations to those who favoured the alternatives, one of which could well appear on a possible Nudge Your Way to Happiness 2.

(I know, I know, let’s get the first one out first.)

Anyway, I’m delighted to say that when a printed and bound proof of the book arrived at Moodnudges HQ a few days ago, I was absolutely certain the right choice had been made made.

It’s looking super.

Here’s a picture, (appropriately) outside in the Californian sun:

2016-03-21

Lots of people are asking about the publication date, and although I can’t give you a precise one, I can tell you it’s getting tantalisingly close.

We’ve given the proof a final, final check and I’m incredibly near to being able to give the printers the green light.

Compared to blogging (and writing emails like this one) book publishing is a much slower process, but in a world where nothing’s supposed to take more than five minutes, I find this gently reassuring, somehow.

A reminder to us both, perhaps, that now and then it’s good to take your time.

OK, World. Spread a little happiness.

After a couple of years in the USA I’m almost used to the idea that in written dates, the month comes before the day.

So in the UK and some other parts of the world, today is 20/3/16.

But in the US it’s 3/20/16, or Three Twenty.

And in a terribly convoluted way, this is particularly apt.

Today, you see, is the United Nations International Day of Happiness, clearly deliberately arranged to fall on a date which rhymes with Glee Plenty.

(Cough.) Clearly.

2016-03-20

Anyway, although it’s good to promote happiness any, and every, day of the year, you and I have special call to do so today.

So on the basis of happiness being like jam, because it’s just about impossible to spread it without getting some on yourself, here are five suggestions for actions you can take today.

And please do.

1. Think of someone who deserves your proper thanks, but so far has been under-recognised. Please thank them properly today, making your gratitude specific. Spell out exactly what they’ve done, doing your level best to ensure your gratitude is truly heartfelt.

2. Hand out smiles today as though they cost you nothing, because they don’t. And remember, by the way, smiles are even better when you mean them.

3. Please do your utmost to go about your day being constructive rather than destructive. Praise rather than criticise. (You’re great.)

4. Give people the benefit of the doubt. When someone is short with you for no apparent reason, assume they’re fighting a battle elsewhere in their life. Show kindness rather than anger.

5. Take one small action to maintain the environment we share with each other. Pick up a piece of litter. Plant something. Feed the birds.

OK, I know I said five suggestions, but let’s add one more for luck:

6. Why not forward this email to a friend, and encourage them to do the same again with one of their own friends? This way, we’ll amplify our efforts to spread, er, Glee Plenty.

Happy Happiness Day.

Sneeze a little happiness

A few weeks ago I mentioned that my Mum had taken a bit of a tumble, badly smashing her elbow.

I’m relieved to report that she’s now out of hospital having had a replacement elbow joint fitted by the brilliant people at Wycombe Hospital (thanks Mr. Taylor and team).

Of course it’s going to take a while before she’s completely back to normal, but her spirits are excellent.

She’s making great progress.

When we spoke recently, Mum told me about a conversation she had with a nurse while in hospital.

2016-03-18

They were talking about what I guess you might call “emotional infection”, which came up as they discussed the positive mood that Mum had experienced in her small six–bed ward, a lot of which was down to Mum’s own upbeatness, I suspect.

The nurse explained that just one patient can affect all the others in a big way.

When there’s a positivity “sneezer” there, the atmosphere becomes charged with good energy.

However, the opposite can be true when there’s a persistent complainer in one of the beds.

When I’ve been in one of my low mood funks, I’ve rarely found it helpful to spend too much time in the company of others who were also low (and who wanted the world to know it).

Of course, neither was it great to be around people who were, perhaps artificially, super upbeat.

Where I found most comfort was with others who “got” that I wasn’t great, but were themselves happy to let me be alongside them as life carried on more or less normally.

Now I do of course appreciate that we’re all different.

Your connection needs might be very unlike my own.

But I think it’s worth remembering this principle of emotional contagion.

Perhaps there are times when it would help us all to catch a little happiness.

You never forget your first gopher

There was a rustling in the bush behind me as I sat munching lunch one day last week.

Probably just a bird, I thought, and carried on eating a tasty Thai vege curry.

But the rustling continued, and began to sound distinctly un-birdlike, so I twizzled around and came face-to-face with – a gopher.

My first.

2016-03-16

Coincidentally I’d heard a piece on the radio in the week about one woman’s battle with these little burrowing rodents, who were making an almighty mess of her garden, but this little fellow was actually pretty adorable (sorry gardeners).

He was chewing through substantial twigs (sorry Mary and Mike, Stanford grounds-people) and dragging them down into his burrow to eat, presumably, even though that doesn’t sound terribly appetising.

Gopher: What’s for lunch?

Waiter: Stick.

Gopher: Super. I think I’ll take the Stick Tartare, please.

Actually this small rodent/writer rendezvous made my day.

It also made me reflect on the number of times in my life when I haven’t turned round to pay proper attention.

How often have I ignored my surroundings, particularly when I’ve been going through a period of low mood?

So, however you’re currently doing, may I suggest upping your attention level as you go about your day today?

Although I can’t promise you a gopher, I’m certain you’ll notice something equally fascinating, and it’s a great (and pretty painless) way to give yourself a sneaky mood lift.

Is a fifteen hour working day any way to take care of your body?

Last week I told you about psychologist Vanessa King’s indispensable new book “10 Keys to Happier Living”, based on Action for Happiness’s excellent and concise list of the same name.

Key No. 3 is “Take care of your body”, which I recalled with wry amusement as I pulled a fifteen hour working day in the Stanford library last Thursday.

2016-03-14

That morning I’d promised myself that come hell or high water I’d have my book as nearly finished as possible by the end of the day.

Fortunately the university library stayed open until 1:00 am (which is mad, but madly helpful sometimes) so I knew I had a bit of leeway.

By around 6:30 I was starting to feel tired, however, so I took a break.

A 30 minute brisk walk, picking up a delicious chicken salad en route, made a huge difference.

With my batteries recharged, it really wasn’t difficult to keep going until 11:30 PM.

Now I wouldn’t usually condone burning the midnight oil in this way, particularly if, like me, you’re prone to mood wobbles.

Sometimes, however, circumstances can force you and I to push ourselves.

When you do, taking care of your body becomes more vital than ever.

Perhaps you’ll take this on board in the next 24 hours, then, even if you’re not having to work flat out.

Whenever you can, look for small opportunities to make choices that are good for your health.

A little bit of exercise?

Great.

Delicious food that’s good for you?

Perfect.