Monthly Archives: May 2016

Look after your body to look after your mind

Despite attending a boys’ grammar school in the 1960s and 70s, I got through my academic life reasonably intact but minus any knowledge of Latin whatsoever.

I have to rely on encyclopaedias therefore to know that when the Greek philosopher Thales said ‘Mens sana in corpore sano’, not only was he apparently showing off by using Latin when he might well have said it in Greek, he meant what you and I would commonly understand as ‘A sound mind in a sound body’, and probably know best as the phrase ‘A healthy body is a healthy mind’.

Perhaps you’ll stop for a minute to consider this, though.

Quite simply, your mental wellbeing is in large part linked to your physical health, so you can go a long way towards giving yourself a mental boost (I was going to turn ‘a shot in the arm’ into ‘a shot in the head’ but that would have suggested something else altogether) by keeping yourself as active as you can.


For those who are confirmed keep-fitters, you know what to do.

As the rest of us, we’ll need to up our physical activity quotient in more cunning ways.

Here are five thoughts to get you started:

1. Get off the bus one stop earlier than you usually do, or park the car further from your destination, and walk the rest of the way.

2. When faced with an elevator, consider taking the stairs instead. Especially if you’re going up. (Maybe not if your meeting’s on the 34th floor, however.)

3. If you’re meeting with a friend, neighbour or work colleague, suggest that you walk and talk. You’ll both benefit from the exercise, and some great conversations can take place when you’re side-by-side.

4. Head out for a fast stroll just before you’re ready to eat. Get your meal fully prepared, then put on your coat and get yourself outdoors. Take some music with you if you like, and look forward to an improved appetite when you return.

5. An hour before bedtime, take a walk round the block or up the street and back (don’t forget your flashlight). You’ll probably sleep better as a result too.

Here’s to us all being of sound mind, or a little sounder at least.

Emotional pain – where does it hurt?

A skilled doctor, nurse or consultant will try to help his or her patients describe their pain as accurately as possible.

They’ll aim to find out about it in a number of different dimensions such as: intensity (How much does it hurt), location (Where does it hurt?), quality (What does the pain feel like – is it burning, stabbing, aching etc?), and duration (Is the pain continuous, or does it come and go? Does it only hurt when you do something specific?).

They’ll also be interested in how unpleasant you find it – and to what degree you have an urge to escape the unpleasantness.

And you just thought you’d got an aching leg.


The point is, physical pain is often used as a diagnostic tool, providing a medical expert with his or her first clues about what’s wrong.

If I have a pain in my side, it doesn’t really matter that I don’t know where my liver or kidneys are.

If I point to where it hurts, and do my best to describe what it feels like, the professional will generally do the rest.

I think we’re not surprised that physical health is tackled in this way, so I wonder why we may not always be inclined to take a similar approach to our mental wellbeing?

If you’re feeling down, do you stop to think about where the hurt really is?

Is it in your head, or your heart, or your stomach?

All these and others are valid places to have feelings.

What does the hurt feel like?

Is it a kind of a sharp pain?

Or more of an ache?

I won’t go into the whole pack of questions you might ask yourself, but think about what a professional might ask you about physical pain, and you’ll almost certainly see the type of things you might ask yourself about emotional pain.

Just as important, if you do have better days, be sure to ask yourself why this feels good.

See if you can pinpoint where the good feeling sits, and how it actually feels.

I’m sure we’d all like more good days, so it’s a good start to understand what we actually mean when we say we feel good.

Putting feelings into words is an invaluable step towards understanding them.

And speaking them out loud (to someone who cares) is a brilliant way of being understood.

Why parts of life are like the back of a tapestry.

Have you ever studied the reverse side of a tapestry?

You don’t often get the chance, of course, because they’re often framed when finished, but now and then you may come across someone working on one.

Take a look at the back.

Often you can kind of work out what’s going on on the other side, but generally the side that’s hidden from view can be a bit of a mess, with hanging threads and tangled stitches.

Does this matter?

Well, not really.

The Tapister (and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that’s what tapestry-workers were known as) beavers away from both sides, but of course the goal is to produce a woven image which looks good just from the front.


So, what of the back then?

Should we criticise its messiness?

Should we snip off all the hanging threads?

Should we somehow try and tidy it up?

Well, again, not really.

The structure of the tapestry’s reverse is what makes the front work so well.

It’s what holds it all together.

It’s what gives the work its shape and form.

Perhaps there are elements of your own makeup which you may wish were different?

Maybe there are episodes of your life that you long to have been able to handle differently.

But (and it’s a big but) isn’t it those loose threads and uneven stitches which have been instrumental in making you who you are today?

Instead of unproductively wishing you could change the unchangeable, maybe there’s merit in recognising their value?

Celebrating them even.

In fact, here’s (wholeheartedly) to the messy background embroidery that’s got you to where you are today.

It’s all part of the two sides of life’s rich tapestry.

You have more control over thoughts than you may think.

Having once ridden my bike down a steep slope straight into a canal lock (don’t ask) I certainly recall the stomach-churning feeling of knowing I was out of control.

Although I trust you’ve never made precisely this foolish mistake, it’s a pretty safe bet that your childhood will have involved at least one occasion on which you careered down a hill without the power to stop yourself.

Of course, you tend to have little or no fear when you’re young, so having no hope of slamming on the brakes doesn’t necessarily bother you: in fact it’s probably quite exhilarating.


As you grow up, however, you tend to develop more worries about being out of control, exercising rather more caution.

But while we recognise the need for control over our physical actions, how often do we stop to think that we generally have the same kind of power over our thoughts?

It’s easy to get swept along on a wave of believing that thoughts show up in your mind unbidden, resulting in feelings over which you have no choice.

It’s certainly true of me at times, when I find myself reacting unhelpfully to some kind of unpleasant situation.

It’s as if my mind hurtles towards the same old conclusions without for once stopping to wonder if it has a choice.

Controlling your thoughts ought to be easy, but when you do actually pull it off it can be a weird feeling – something akin, perhaps, to picking up a trumpet as a total novice and blowing a B flat out of the blue.

Where on earth did that come from?

It could be something you already do on a regular basis, in which case keep it up.

However, if you’re like me, you may need a reminder that you’ve more control over your thoughts than you may sometimes believe.

If you find yourself about to slip into negativity today, see if you can’t apply the brakes.

You might just surprise yourself in being able to take a slightly more positive approach.

Getting the full facts can help gain a better perspective.

Even the luckiest individual will, at times, be faced with periods of ill-fortune.

Unfortunately it’s a fact of life that we’ll come up against challenges.

Maybe we, or those close to us, will struggle with ill-health.

Perhaps we’ll be hit with financial worries.

It could be that we’ll need to deal with relationship problems.

It would be an extremely rare person who lived their entire life free of adversity.

Having ways to successfully deal with crises is one of the most useful skills anyone can acquire, but fortunately it is exactly that: a skill that can be picked up.

You’ve only to look at small children learning how to deal with disappointment for proof of it being something that can be developed.


Here’s a useful tip.

When things go wrong, it’s an understandable reaction to assume the worst.

While this can make us feel worse, it’s probably more sensible than it would be to pretend that everything’s fine.

Burying your head in the sand is rarely a sensible strategy, even if you are an ostrich.

Often, however, we assume the worst simply because we don’t possess all the facts.

We fill in our knowledge gaps with general gloom, since this feels like the most appropriate thing to do.

This is where a little concerted fact-finding can come in.

Health problems may take on a more manageable perspective when you’ve got a better handle on their implications (usually from a professional – be ultra cautious if you’re relying on Google for your medical knowledge – if someone was going to remove my spleen, I’m certain I’d rather a surgeon performed the operation rather than a random internet user following a YouTube tutorial as he went).

If the problem involves money, begin by making an accurate list of all the amounts involved.

It may be easier to bounce back from relationship issues once the parties involved have a proper understanding of how each of them really feels.

Making sure you have the full facts about challenges may seem obvious.

But we don’t always do the obvious when met by misfortune.

On darker days, make plans, but make them modest.

What’s for dinner tonight?

Anything planned for next weekend?

Which friends will you be catching up with in the coming month?

When you’re going through a rough patch, it’s unfortunately rather too easy to believe you’ve little or nothing to look forward to.

Even the most optimistic of us can turn into glass-half-full individuals when times are tough.


A sense of keen anticipation about upcoming events tends to be a good indication that you’re in a relatively good place, while the opposite – a feeling that there’s nothing on the horizon – is probably a pretty good sign that all’s not well in your world.

If you feel like doing little else than pulling the curtains shut and climbing under the bedcovers, you’re unlikely to be in the right frame of mind to make big plans, nor should you beat yourself up for not doing so.

When the black dog visits, your sense of perspective gets skewed, so even if you do try to make important decisions, your conclusions may well be distorted.

However, this needn’t necessarily prevent you from setting yourself smaller, more winnable, objectives.

So don’t try to re-plan your career, but do think about what you might enjoy for lunch.

Instead of struggling to make decisions about a forthcoming family gathering, simply decide what you’ll watch on television this evening.

They may seem trivial goals but the truth is, giving yourself something to look forward to can make a big difference to the way a dull day goes.

Why you and I are like tiles in a mosaic

Consider one single tile in a mosaic.

Examine it closely.

Probably it is of just one colour, and has little in the way of texture.

Does it have beauty of its own?

Well, perhaps.

But where it truly comes into its own is when you gradually move your eye back from the singular to take in the plural, when you realise that this one small square of colour is actually a component part of a much bigger picture.


Some lucky tiles play important parts.

Perhaps they form the eye of some person represented in the mosaic, and since the eye of an observer is always drawn towards the eye of a picture’s subject, it’s their good fortune to receive more than their fair share of attention.

Others have seemingly less important supporting roles, making up a background or a piece of the sky.

However, it can be blindingly obvious when ancient mosaics have just a single tile missing, rather like the irritation caused by a computer screen with a dodgy pixel.

The truth is that every tile has a part to play, and it’s their coming together that turns a chip of clay or stone into something with great meaning.

I think that in some ways you and I are rather like mosaic tiles.

We may be able to exist reasonably well on our own, but where we really come into our own is when we’re part of something bigger than us.

How do we pull this off?

I think there’s one very simple strategy which is to focus on those who are closest to us.

Spreading warmth, goodwill and love to others is a pretty perfect way of feeling that you’re not alone.

It’s probably not easy to do so if you’re feeling down in the dumps—but perhaps that’s actually the most important time to give and therefore receive: to feel connected.

How are you feeling, in many ways actually?

I imagine you might answer in several different ways if I asked you how you feel, right now.

You could interpret my question as being about your temperature.

Do you feel hot, warm or cold?

Alternatively, you might believe I was enquiring about your energy level.

Do you feel exhausted or raring to go?

woman in rain

There again, and more likely, your answer may relate to your current emotional state.

Are you happy, sad, angry, scared etc?

The truth is, at any one time you feel a mixture of physiological and emotional sensations, and the overall way in which you feel is almost certain to be based on a combination of factors.

For instance, if you were reading this on your phone at the bus-stop in the rain, you’d probably be feeling dejected, cold and worn-out.

It’s good to talk about feelings, even better when we do so in context.

If all I know is that you’re dejected, I can only guess at why this might be.

But if you also tell me about the cold, worn-out, bus-stop stuff, well I can empathise with you.

I can imagine what it must be like for you.

Perhaps I can help you make sense of it and keep things in perspective.

If someone is (really) interested in how you feel, try to explain.

It can be harder than it seems, but there’s big value in doing so.

Similarly, if you truly want to know how someone else is feeling, you may need to do some gentle interrogation to burrow beneath a simple ‘not bad’.

Finally, if by some bizarre quirk of random mind-reading I’ve happened to pick on your precise current circumstances and you actually are waiting for the number 37 in the rain, sorry. I truly am.

I’m sure there’ll be one along in a minute.

The invisible beard

When a friend recently shaved off his long-term beard, a number of people who knew him asked, after looking at him quizzically, whether he’d got new glasses.

They knew something about him had changed but despite a beard being a pretty significant facial feature, it was surprising to hear how many were clearly oblivious to its existence.

It wasn’t as if the covering was mere (sorry) bum fluff—he’d sported a full-on bushy beard.


We do, of course, tend to notice things more when they change, even though we may not always be very good at identifying what exactly it is that isn’t the same.

Our attention is drawn to situations that have changed since we last encountered them.

I’m sure this had evolutionary advantages.

To your early ancestors, a newly broken branch could have indicated the presence of a hidden predator.

Notice it and they survived (and ended up passing on their genes to you).

Miss it and they were prehistoric toast, long before any gene-transmitting opportunities presented themselves.

Taking notice of the world around you offers bigger benefits than simply ensuring your personal safety, however, because doing so has definite mood-enhancing potential.

You may believe that everything stays the same, but look more closely and I think you may discover that your surroundings are subtly altering all the time.

Keep your eyes and ears open.

There’s plenty to see out there.

More on the $500,000 Mood Challenge

Just over a month ago, I talked about an initiative called the Mood Challenge, that’s calling for proposals from people interested in exploring ways in which the iPhone can be used to further our understanding of mood.

The programme, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will award a total of $500,000 to successful participants and finalists.


I know some of our readers are themselves researchers, and a lot more have their own views about this kind of research—many of which were reflected when I last posted about the challenge.

Since then the organisers have run an online webinar.

Now, thanks to our good friends at the Quantified Self who have transcribed the audio part of the presentation, we’re pleased to make this freely available for anyone interested in learning more about this fascinating initiative, but without the time to watch the webinar (although that has been archived, and is itself online).

Links to the transcription and the original webinar are below.

The closing date for initial submissions are a week today (May 22) so I’ll leave you with two thoughts:

1. If you’re a researcher interested in entering the Challenge yourself, please make free use of the transcribed webinar, and good luck with your application. Both Quantified Self and Moodnudges are happy to support the participation of as many people as possible.

2. If, let’s say, we (Quantified Self and Moodnudges) were to submit our own joint entry for the challenge (yup, there’s still time) what suggestions and reflections do you have that might give our application a fighting chance of success?

Here are the two links:

The transcription:

The original archived webinar:

Thanks in advance for your help. I can assure you that the Quantified Self team and I will be fascinated to read what you have to say.