It sometimes seems as though we live in a selfish world.
People allow shop doors to close behind them, without looking to see if there’s someone following. They don’t make way for others when they’re walking along a footpath. They carry on loud conversations on their phones right in your ear.
And these are just the minor irritations of everyday life. I’m sure you can think of much worse examples yourself.
So what’s the answer? Do you fight fire with fire? Do you become twice as selfish yourself?
Well I think (and hope) not.
There’s a lot of evidence that altruism can play a big part in overall mental wellbeing. In a neat twist, it turns out that doing good can actually make you feel good. And I suspect the reverse is equally true. Those who behave selfishly end up with lower moods.
I also hope that just occasionally our good manners can rub off on those who have lower standards when it comes to considerateness.
But even if you can’t make a dramatic change to your world, you can at least improve your own day by thinking about others.
Why not give it a try today?
Almost certainly you possess the remarkable capacity to put together explanations when you see something happening (in the street for example).
A huddle of people are looking up at a tree, so there’s probably a cat stuck up there. A man is sitting on a shop doorstep, and he’s likely to be homeless and will ask you for money.
Of course we don’t always get it right. Our assumptions can prove wrong. The tree observers could be council workers discussing a pruning job. The man in the doorway could be simply tying his shoe.
But there was no doubting the cause of the little scene I passed the other morning. Outside a pre-school, a young mother was smiling and waving through the window. I saw her first. A few paces on, I spotted her little boy inside, with the unhappiest face in the world.
He clearly didn’t want to be there.
As I walked on, it seemed mean and heartless of the mother to be smiling. Surely she’d be upset to see her son in such distress?
Thinking a bit more though, she was probably doing the right thing. Trying to get her little boy to see it as normal, nothing to get het up about.
And this is probably a good way to think about how you’d like others to be with you, if and when your own mood is low. You hope they’ll empathise with you. The last thing you’d want is for them to suddenly get as low as you.
It’s a fine balance though, worth exploring when the boot’s on the other foot and you’re around someone else whose mood is low.
The answer is almost certainly to be yourself, and to behave as normally as possible.
Moods are contagious.
Sharing time with someone who’s ‘up’ can rub off on you, giving you a lift.
Unfortunately however, being around miserable people can mean you end up being dragged down yourself.
Some might suggest that you should steer clear of those who are low, and whilst there may be a small degree of sense in this in terms of those you have no connection with, most of us have little choice over whether we are with our friends and family.
Indeed it would be a pretty uncaring and cold world if you simply cut off anyone who wasn’t in a great place.
What to do therefore? Well I think you can sympathise with people without taking on their problems themselves. If you think about this, professionals such as therapists have to function like this, otherwise they’d be gibbering wrecks at the end of the working day.
On a path where many may be carrying too much weight, you’ll not be of much use by offering to take their loads from them. You’d soon collapse yourself.
Better to show sympathy and offer encouragement.
Which, if the original load was on your shoulders rather than theirs, is probably what you’d want too.
As you’ll find if you mix up the diesel and unleaded pumps, cars don’t work with the wrong fuel.
We kind of know this, just as we’re aware that babies aren’t likely to take to spare ribs, and should remember that you must never, ever give dogs macadamia nuts.
So why, if we’re this astute when it comes to the nutritional needs of cars, babies and dogs, do we seem to ignore that having a healthy diet is crucial to our own physical and mental wellbeing?
Why do we sometimes think it’s fine to shovel down junk without expecting to see an associated decline in our health and all-round happiness?
Of course there’s a lot of psychology surrounding what we eat and why. It can get complicated.
But one thing that generally holds true is the principle adhered to by computer experts, among others: garbage in, garbage out.
You’ll have choices today about what you eat. Try to make as many sensible ones as possible.
Your mind and body will thank you, even if your willpower gets a bit challenged.
I’m the world’s worst when it comes to taking time out. I wish I wasn’t, but something inside me seems to stop me stopping.
I know I’m not alone. I’m certain you’ll have gone through this yourself from time to time or (although I do hope not) as unreasonably and unceasingly as I’m inclined to do.
But the thing is, when I do slow right down and take time off, the clarity of my thinking improves to an enormous extent. Problems that seemed insurmountable appear much more manageable with the perspective afforded by a rested mind and a brain that’s no longer frazzled.
Often it’s not good enough to expect that an opportunity to rest will pop up by accident. It needs to be planned, and put in your diary in indelible pen – just as if it was a vital appointment or a crucial meeting.
Don’t wait too long to do this for yourself. I spoke to the wife of a retired clergyman the other day who said that when she got home from the shops, her husband told her that he’d booked them a fortnight’s vacation.
Now that’s the way to do it.
‘Ever since you started hanging around with X, you’ve changed.’
It’s one of those allegations which seems to get levelled in relationships which are struggling through a rough patch, the insinuation being that the accused isn’t who he/she used to be.
The fact of the matter of course is that we do tend to take on the characteristics of the people we spend the most time with.
Socialising with optimists may give you a more half-full view of life, whilst being around those with a fundamentally pessimistic outlook might well drain your own glass.
Most of us have some around us who need to be there whatever the weather, but there’s nearly always a ring in your social circle that’s more discretionary – people you can choose to spend time with (or not).
I think life might become bland if we opted to fill this ring entirely with the super-happy. But isn’t it worth going a little out of your way to benefit from being with those who generally lift your spirits rather than dampen them?
You know who I mean. Why not arrange to catch up with them?
If you don’t succeed at first (they say) try, try again. We’re told that persistence always pays off, and that we can do anything once we set our minds to it.
Now while there’s nothing wrong with determination, there are times (and days) when you’re not going to achieve your objectives, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you grit your teeth.
It would, for example, be plain daft to struggle on with a tree-felling task if the only tool you had was a steak-knife. Better to put the whole thing off until tomorrow, then come back equipped with a chainsaw.
The same principle can apply to days when you just can’t get things together. Whatever you do, you seem to be taking two steps back for every one you make forwards.
When this happens (and it will) there’s nothing wrong at all in postponing the task until you’re on better form again.
No sense in flogging a dead horse. Every sense in realising that we all have limits.
Please remember this next time you have one of those days.
Experts in the field of positive psychology tell us that we can get as much out of giving kindness as we do out of being shown it by others.
An ongoing campaign exhorts people to ‘practice random acts of kindness’ and there’s a lot to be said for this principle.
Actually it can be fun going through your day finding odd and unexpected ways to be kind to other people.
For instance I always loved the idea of paying a toll on a bridge twice, telling the official that you were covering the charge for the car behind you too. This random person would then be waved through with a ‘the guy in front got it for you’.
But it can be as simple as holding a door open for someone, or (on a train) offering them your newspaper after you’ve read it, or picking up litter in the street and putting it in a bin.
It doesn’t have to be much, but to feel good it ought to be as spontaneous as possible.
Why not have a think about this today, then see where you might be able to casually drop an act of kindness into someone’s day?
It’ll feel good. Promise.