Monthly Archives: March 2016

The two ways of jumping off the top board

There were two ways to jump from the top board at our local swimming pool when I was a kid.

The first was to race up the ladder and leap straight off.

The second involved considerably more caution and a degree of leg-trembling hesitation before taking your heart in your mouth and gingerly stepping off.


I definitely fell into the second group, and was reminded of this when, two days ago, I clicked a button on my laptop to send the files for “Nudge Your Way to Happiness” to the printer.

It felt like it had taken forever for my brother Geoff and I to assemble the book’s pages.

There was always yet another glaring error you kicked yourself for missing the last time you’d proofread it.

But eventually on Friday evening I decided it had to be good to go, so I stepped up to the edge of the board and…


Soon after I moved to Silicon Valley in 2013 I went to a meeting at Facebook’s headquarters.

The company in those days was famous for its bold typographic motivational posters which were produced in-house on an old letterpress printing machine.

One memorably said “Done is better than perfect,” encouraging people to “ship” rather than perpetually procrastinate in the impossible search for perfection.

And I thought of this, and jumping from the top board when I clicked that button to send the file.

I’ll get a bound, printed proof on Tuesday, and if all looks good, it will go on sale pretty quickly – within just days actually.

Details of how to get the book will follow very soon.

So how did it feel to jump?

Pretty amazing really.

And when I was down in the water?

How was that?

Well, I wondered why I’d been so wary about jumping in the first place.

So if you’ve been thinking about doing something but for one reason or another have kept putting it off, perhaps now’s the time to take that leap into the unknown.

For as another of those lovely Facebook posters said: “Fortune favours the bold”.

Why it’s sometimes good to replay your back story

A secret guilty pleasure of mine here in California is rifling through the boxes of discarded items that people occasionally leave outside their front gates, actually in the hope that a passer-by will pick up something they like the look of – a kind of “freecycling”.

This was how I came across a box set of the final season of “Six Feet Under”, which I’ve now watched and enjoyed.

Now, I know I viewed the first two seasons when they were on TV in the early “Noughties”, but since that’s now 15 years ago I’d understandably become a bit hazy about how the tale began.

Sometimes you forget the back story.

In fact, working on my book has reminded me that sometimes you even lose track of your own.

So today I’d encourage you to spend a little time reflecting back on how you got where you are today.


To prompt you, maybe you’ll allow me to collect my own thoughts in this respect, particularly around the tools I developed to manage my own emotional health, and the first thing to admit is that I spent 30 years failing to do so.

In spectacular fashion.

Depression became a thing for me in my 20s but it wasn’t until I was 50 that I finally got around to doing something about it.

That was 10 years ago.

My doctor referred me to a psychiatrist and after an initially dreadful first appointment (another story for another day) I saw someone who helped a lot – suggesting I keep some sort of record of my mood for three months in order that her suspected diagnosis of bipolar disorder could be confirmed.

It led me to invent the measuring and tracking system behind Moodscope, and enabled another psychiatrist – as I was passed down the chain – to place a checkmark in the bipolar box.

Measuring and tracking my mood became crucial to me, and I’ve done it nearly every day for the past nine years.

It helps a lot.

But tracking alone was never going to provide the full answer.

Close reading of dozens of positive psychology books helped me understand that good emotional health depends on taking positive actions everyday – small things that help you feel better.

For example, even when I didn’t feel like it, I forced myself to talk to others.

I always left my desk at lunchtime for a walk, which felt better if it involved an element of being around a bit of “nature”.

I got up a little earlier every morning to write a list of things to do, albeit that on a bad day they’d be pathetically simple, like shower and shave.

These little actions have now become such a part of my day-to-day life that I sometimes forget that 10 years ago I had to work really hard to turn them into habits.

It’s where the idea of the Moodnudges originally came from.

And coupled with the benefits I get from measuring and tracking my emotional state, it forms the core of the “Nudge Your Way to Happiness” book.

So that’s my back story.

I wonder what yours is?

Two books to heal the soul

The psychological benefits of reading a good book are sufficiently established that they even have their own scientific-sounding umbrella term.


The name “bibliotherapy” was first coined in 1916, but as far back as the time of King Ramses II of Egypt, the broad idea was accepted enough that the motto “House of Healing for the Soul” was carved over the entrance of the king’s personal library.

So I’m happy to tell you about two splendid books today. (No, neither is mine.)

The first, published tomorrow, is “10 Keys to Happier Living”, written by visionary psychologist Vanessa King.

Vanessa is a board member of Action for Happiness, an organisation I mention a lot, with good reason.

As well as being good friends and champions of Moodnudges, AfH established a list of ten key principles based on the science of happiness, which actually drive a lot of my writing.

In fact, I keep their list permanently on my computer’s desktop.

Vanessa’s new book fleshes out these keys in considerable detail, along with practical actions you can take to put them into use in your own life.

I can’t recommend “10 Keys to Happier Living” highly enough, so order a copy here:

The second title I’m delighted to tell you about is Rachel Kelly’s “Walking on Sunshine”, a deliciously warm read consisting of 52 bite-size tips and tools (one for each week of the year) designed to help you manage everyday life’s pressures.

Rachel, another friend of Moodnudges, was a journalist on The Times of London and – like many of us – has battled with depression at various stages during her life.

She’s been bravely honest about her struggles, and has also written about the healing power of the written word in another best-selling book, “Black Rainbow”.

“Walking on Sunshine” is on my bedside table right now.

I know it will work well on yours too:

So, two books which are just about perfect for anyone’s house of healing for the soul.

Why being a cry baby might not be such a bad thing

The Stanford campus was still as I walked from my car to the university library last Saturday.

It was early enough for students to still be in bed, rainy enough to deter at least some of the visitors.

But suddenly the silence was punctuated by a baby crying in the arms of her mother.


I hadn’t really thought about it before, but a baby crying on campus must be sufficiently unusual for me to notice it, even though that particular sound is something most of us are programmed to register and, if necessary, act upon.

And then it triggered a whole other thought.

Babies cry for many reasons.

It could be a way of saying “I’m hungry”, “I’m tired”, or “I need a cuddle”.

As a parent, often through a process of trial and error, you adjust to the idea that crying means something’s wrong, so you work out what needs doing.

Feeding, putting down for a nap, picking up to cuddle, for example.

Parenting an infant sometimes means being a mindreader, but at least there’s some kind of universal distress message in the form of crying.

A sobbing baby generally (and hopefully) gets what she needs.

Once upon a time you and I were babies.

And when we needed something I’m sure we were good at the crying thing.

But having grown up, even though our communication skills are better developed, paradoxically it’s probably the case that we’re less good at articulating what we need, and often don’t even know ourselves.

So the next time you feel grumpy, how about starting by asking yourself if you know why?

Next, work out what it is you need.

Then either ask someone else for it, or help yourself.

The former will be the case if you need a hug, and probably the latter if it’s a sandwich.

No one ignores a crying baby, so please don’t do the equivalent if it’s your own inner infant sobbing.

Are you ready for a Self-Reflection Sunday?

I used to love the fact that Sundays were different, but in many ways they’re now just like every other day.


As a kid, most shops didn’t open on Sunday, with the exception of the newsagent (I was a paperboy).

For a few of my formative years, there was some degree of church, either with Sunday school or monthly church parades with the Scouts, both of which would probably sound quaintly Victorian to a present day teenager.

(Honestly, I might be getting on a bit, but I’m not ancient.)


Then there was Sunday lunch – a proper big meal in the middle of the day, nearly always a roast of some kind, usually with the radio playing something like “Two–Way Family Favourites”.

Don’t ask.

However, young as I was, I also think of Sundays in those days as involving at least some element of self-reflection, which was probably good for me.

What had happened in the preceding week? What did the coming one hold in store? How was I doing?

With this in mind, and it is indeed Sunday after all, maybe you’ll allow me a few minutes to take stock on how things are going with the book project.

“Nudge Your Way to Happiness” is ever closer to being on sale, although the final tweaks and polishes are inevitably taking a little longer than anticipated.

The manuscript is edited and typeset.

The cover is close, but still needs a few adjustments.

And it’s surprising how long it takes to put together what’s known as the “front matter” and “back matter”: title page, copyright page, table of contents, acknowledgements, appendices, etc etc.

My brother Geoff is now back in London after ten days of giving me invaluable support with the project in California, and still helping from afar.

And hopefully it really won’t be too many more days before I’m able to send two PDF files to the publisher – one for the cover, another for the insides – which is how it’s done these days.

So that’s me taking stock this Sunday.

Now, how about you doing the same?

Two mood tests compared: initial findings

Every day I count my blessings at having such brilliant readers.

You may recall that a couple of days ago I asked for help with a survey that asked you to complete two different measures of mood.

One was the test I’m using in the Nudge Your Way to Happiness book (getting closer and closer to completion by the way, and shaping up even better than I could have hoped).

The other was a test called the PHQ-9, often used by doctors as part of the process in diagnosing depression.


I was keen to see how the results compared, even though my test is a “how are you feeling right now” thing, while the PHQ-9 asks you to look back over the past two weeks.

You and I both know, I’m sure, that it’s possible to feel temporarily OK in the moment while having been at a low ebb for some time overall.

Alternatively someone can have been great overall, but might feel momentarily low because of some or other temporary nastiness.

One reason for my interest is that an influential health task force here in the USA has just recommended that every American adult should be screened for depression, and one of the tools they’re considering is the above-mentioned PHQ-9.

A concern I have is that some of the PHQ-9’s questions are pretty heavy (e.g. How often have you had thoughts that you would be better off dead or of hurting yourself in some way?).

Screening people for depression means doing so on a repeated basis.

You can’t just do it once.

But if you regularly ask people weighty questions such as these, how do you know that this in itself won’t contribute to people feeling bad?

It wasn’t just me thinking that.

Here’s what some readers said:

“Wow the second one is terrible! What an awful way to get insight into your mind!” — Georgia

“Woah! The first part made me feel good about myself… after completing the second part I feel like I’ve been miserable for the past 2 weeks! Being in a positive frame of mind, I recognise this isn’t true – but if I was feeling negative, life wouldn’t feel rosy!” — Fion

“I see what you mean about possibly feeling worse after the official one! It almost puts thoughts of doom and gloom into my head. :/” — Manymules

Sharon is a therapist, and says, “You make an excellent point about the potential of feeling somewhat worse after taking one of the “official” depression screening measures. I find the PHQ-9 quite “clunky” for many clients and instead use your WellBee cards (essentially what your Nudge well-being test is) during our weekly check ins.”

Lesley, another reader, stressed the importance of wording. She said, “I took out a funeral plan a few years ago and arranged monthly payments. Each month on my bank statement there was an item ‘FUNERAL PLAN’ £250. I couldn’t stand reading this each month so phoned them up and paid the whole lot in full so I don’t have to see it.”

Of course it will take time to properly analyse the responses we got, but I couldn’t resist quickly running some stats, and here are the preliminary findings:

* There’s a reasonably strong negative correlation (-0.72) between the Nudge test and the PHQ-9. It’s negative because high scores on the Nudge test indicate higher levels of well-being, while a high PHQ-9 score means the opposite – it’s measuring depression rather than “happiness”.

* Getting a low score on the Nudge test (over a period of time) could therefore be an indicator of depression.

* Quite a few Moodnudges readers seem to be battling depression. The survey was anonymous of course, so we don’t know who is and who isn’t, but more than a third of responses were from people who have the symptoms of at least Minor Depression. 11.5% of the total could be identified as “Major Depression, moderately severe”, and a further 5.8% were categorised as “Major Depression, severe”.

If you felt your scores put you into any of the Minor or Major categories, it may be a good idea to speak to your doctor if you haven’t already done so. There are versions of the PHQ-9 with scoring tables online, if you’d like to explore it. Here’s one, for instance:

My guess is that someone taking the Nudge test every day would probably get scores that were a fairly good proxy for the PHQ-9, making it a potentially more palatable way of screening for depression.

For now, though, let’s get this book out and see what we learn.

Your help with something very important please

Once again, I’d love your help please.


Earlier this year the US Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) made a strong recommendation that every adult in the USA should be screened for depression.

This is huge.

It’s also pretty complicated.

Now, you and I both know how serious an issue depression is, and in fact here in the USA major depressive order affects 15.7 million adults in a given year – that’s about 6.7% of the population aged 18 and over.

Despite these huge numbers, though, nearly two out of three people suffering from depression receive no treatment of any kind.

Many have no contact with the healthcare system, ending up “muddling through” or trying to treat themselves.

Imagine doing that if you had a broken leg rather than a mood disorder.

So I think screening everyone makes a lot of sense, at least on paper.

Where it gets complicated, though, is that you obviously can’t just do it once, because you’d miss all those who weren’t currently suffering, but might be in a week, a month, or a year’s time.

It seeems to me that some kind of regular ‘checkup’ is therefore crucial .

However, look at the currently available screening tools and you may agree that asking someone once a week, for example, if they ‘had thoughts that they would be better off dead or of hurting themselves in some way’, might in itself trigger negative thoughts.

A depression test that leaves you feeling more depressed?

It doesn’t seem such a great idea to me.

But it got me thinking.

My new book contains a daily questionnaire which rates your emotional, physical and social health, giving you an overall well-being score, and it does this in order to direct you to one of three tailored “nudges” – some action you could take today to help you feel better tomorrow.

It therefore gives people a benefit from taking the test each day.

So what if “my” test actually correlates with the scores you’d get from answering one of the big, existing, tried-and-tested depression tests?

In this way we’d end up with a screening tool that people could actually use EVERY DAY – not just once every few months.


Okay, why don’t you and I put this idea to the test?

Please click on the link below to take two brief tests at the same time: the well-being test from “Nudge Your Way to Happiness” and the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ–9), one of the tools recommended by the USPSTF.

Once I have a bunch of data, I can explore how the two tests relate to one another, then report back.

Thank you.