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We are not cows.

Cows have an excuse for it.

Rumination, that is.

Although it’s popularly said that cattle have more than one stomach, the truth is that they do have just the one, albeit with four compartments.

Their digestive process is something we won’t go into because it may well be your breakfast-time.

Suffice it to say, though, that a cow is an example of a ruminant, and the word ruminant comes from the Latin ruminare, which means to ‘chew over again’.

You, on the other hand, have a different kind of stomach.

Basically food goes down the hatch just the once.

Humans don’t ‘chew the cud’.

But we do sometimes ruminate in the other sense of the word.

The kind the dictionary calls ‘negative cyclic thinking; persistent and recurrent worrying or brooding’.

Although it’s an easy trap to fall in to, rumination when your mood is low seldom does you good.

The kind of thinking which just goes round and round usually doesn’t get you anywhere.

But being conscious of it is a good first step.

So if you catch yourself ruminating, do your damnedest to send the notion packing.

Unless, of course, you’re a cow.

How to stop spiralling negative thinking

In 1964, when John Lennon plucked a single guitar note at the beginning of The Beatles’ ‘I Feel Fine’, its sound issued from a loudspeaker where it was picked up once again by the guitar and returned to the speaker.

Round and round went the sound, causing distinctive ‘feedback’, the first time this phenomenon appeared on a commercial recording.

Thanks to producer George Martin, Lennon’s feedback was musical and under control.

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But that’s not always the case.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced the ear-splitting howl that results from a public address system whose volume is turned up to 11.

Now and then, a similar kind of behaviour can be exhibited by our thinking.

Thoughts go round and round, becoming amplified in the process.

If George Martin was at your controls, only the good stuff would be allowed in, and these circular thoughts would make you feel, well, fine.

In fact it’s you at the controls, of course, and if you’re anything like me, it may be the negative ideas that seem to resonate most.

An anxious view, a worried thought, can remain cascading with you for days if you’re not careful.

So quite simply, don’t let it.

Just as shielding a microphone, or turning the volume down, can prevent audio feedback, so you can deliberately tell yourself to Stop thinking those thoughts.

Nobody can tell you what to think.

But you can.

Your phone – the 21st century equivalent of a mood ring?

For a while in the 1970s, mood rings were all the rage.

They supposedly indicated the wearer’s emotions by changing colour, and they were allegedly scientific.

Mind you, this was also the time of pet rocks.

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By 1976, mood rings had entered popular culture to the extent that they featured in a Peanuts comic strip, when Peppermint Patty got so upset with Charlie Brown that her mood ring exploded.

Not a pretty sight.

You really don’t want that happening.

Fast forward 40 years, and some believe that smartphones can act as a kind of mood ring, one that actually does work.

The idea is that by tracking your movements and behaviours, your phone can detect whether you’re having a good or bad day.

Proponents of this theory suggest that someone who’s feeling low is likely to be more immobile (perhaps even staying at home) and less social – sending fewer emails and texts, and making less calls.

The opposite might be true for an individual who was in high spirits.

Now I’m slightly uneasy with this model, mainly because it seems to me that you could easily look inactive when you’re actually at home immersed in some kind of project you’re loving, so not communicating with others could in reality be the result of you having a great time.

Alternatively you could be rushing around making dozens of calls trying to solve some kind of crisis, stressing you out hugely.

I discuss this because I was contacted last week by one of the organisers of an initiative called the Mood Challenge, which is offering substantial and generous grants to studies which explore the use of the iPhone (it’s Apple-specific) as a way to better understand mood.

I know some Moodnudges readers are themselves researchers, and may be interested in applying, in which case I’m happy to pass on details of the Mood Challenge’s website:

http://www.moodchallenge.com/

But I’m also keen to open up a discussion about this in the Comments section below.

Do you think it’s possible to use “passive” monitoring on a phone to measure mood?

Passive in this sense means your phone would work out how you are, without you needing to do anything.

Or does it seem more likely that mood measurement requires “active” participation by the user – taking some kind of “test”, like the Moodscope one, or the questions in my imminent Nudge Your Way to Happiness book?

I think I’m pretty much in the second camp, but I’d love to know how you see it.

Ladies and Gentlemen. The Stanford Marching Band.

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Sometimes it’s the smallest things that can give your mood a lift.

So here’s a suggestion.

I’m reasonably confident that as you go about the coming day you’ll come across something a little out of the ordinary.

It might be a tiny bird perched where you’d normally not expect it.

It could be a new building suddenly sprouting up, or fresh flowers somewhere new.

So when you spot this kind of thing, stop.

If you’re carrying something, put it down.

If you’re driving (and it’s safe) pull over.

Then just pay attention.

Enjoy the novelty and newness.

Shut out whatever you were thinking about before, especially if it was something unimportant.

Double-especially if it was something unhappy.

Then give yourself a few minutes to simply focus on this new thing that wasn’t there yesterday, and may not be tomorrow.

Last week I left the Stanford University library at 10 pm after another long day.

I was tired, ready to go home and get to bed.

But as the door closed behind me, I was delighted to hear, and then see, the Stanford Marching Band.

They’re a raggle-taggle bunch of high-spirited (and actually highly accomplished) musicians who perform at university sporting events.

I guess they were making their way back across campus after a sporting fixture of some kind.

Some had coloured lights on their instruments, and they played as they marched.

To an audience of…

Me.

Spectacular, and a complete gift.

I put my bags down and watched through the semi-darkness with a wide grin on my face, then walked back to the car with real spring in my step.

You’re probably not going to come across the Stanford Marching Band today (although if you do, please tell them I said hello) but I’d put money on there being something or other that’s different on your path through the next 24-hours.

So please, stop and pay attention.

It’ll be good for you, I promise.

Time for fun

Having fun makes us feel good, so shouldn’t we actively plan to have more of it?

* * * * * * *

When Alex went food shopping the other morning, she came back to tell me that our local supermarket was placing temptation in the way of customers by giving away small, tasty donut samples.

Delightfully, she’d watched as an elderly lady – perhaps in her eighties – made her way gingerly from the sampling table with a slice of donut in her hand and a twinkle in her eye. She was clearly delighted, chuckling to Alex: “And I haven’t even had my breakfast yet!”

Donuts before breakfast. Outrageous.

And why ever not?

Despite this lady’s advanced years (or maybe even because of them) she was obviously approaching her day in a playful manner, determined to squeeze every ounce of fun she could out of it, and I wonder if this might be a small lesson for you and me? Because I wonder if at times, and without really meaning to, we slip into taking life too seriously? It’s easy to do. After all, there’s always so much to cope with. Life can throw unexpected challenges and problems our way. Our own mindset might be somber and serious. So, too, could be the mindsets of others who share our life.

But how about the lady in her eighties? Could we accuse her of taking life too seriously? I think not. She’d gone out to tackle a chore – food shopping – most of use might regard as a dreary old drudge, but had ended up finding a way to have fun along the way.

Eighty-year-olds can do it, and so of course can eight-year-olds. Their entire lives are about having fun, generally effortlessly. In fact, when we set up our garage office a few months ago, Alex’s younger daughter Megan (8) subjected me to a mock ‘job interview’. After I successfully got the position (phew) she wrote me a brief employment contract which is mow pinned to the door. Among its stipulations? I must Have Fun.

Thanks Megan, I’ll do my best.

So how will you approach today? Will you take everything incredibly seriously? Or maybe you might just stumble on a way to do the equivalent of having a donut before breakfast?

Tell someone your favourite joke. Kick a kid’s ball back to them. Pet a dog. Listen to some music and dance as if no-one’s watching. Don’t worry if they are. Get your hands dirty. Pretend you can fly. Make a paper aeroplane and fly it.

Is today going to be a fun day? Well it could be. What do you think?

Focus on the here and now

The Ridgeway is Britain’s oldest road. In use for around 5,000 years, you’d probably best describe it as a trackway but having walked every inch of its 87 miles, I can certainly attest to its continuity and charm.

Now, unless you’re completely mad, you don’t walk 87 miles in one go. So since I’m only half-crazy, I spent an agreeable week back in 1989 taking it one chunk at a time, overnighting in B&Bs, pubs and hostels.

While I say it was agreeable, I shouldn’t forget that I acquired some pretty impressive blisters along the way and also had to contend with my boots literally falling apart after the first forty miles or so. I made it though the latter half with the soles literally tied on with string.

However these small hardships really do seem as nothing when compared to the amazing sense of achievement after the expedition was over, and some terrific experiences as the week went by.

Like most long(ish)-distance walkers, I adopted a simple philosophy. Don’t dwell on what’s already happened, like blisters and flappy soles. Don’t get anxious about what lies ahead (Would there be room at the inn when I got there, for example? And there wasn’t, always). Do, on the other hand, focus on the here and now; on the next few paces, the next few yards. That’s all. A walk of almost ninety miles is little more than a succession of paces and yards.

And when you think about it, for I’d like you to, this is not a bad metaphor for progressing through life itself, particularly when it has happened to deal you a rotten hand, hopefully temporarily.

As you have no way whatsoever to rewrite the past, is there really any sense in ruminating about it? What’s more, you almost certainly have less influence than you imagine over the long-term future.

So where does this leave us? Well, here. And now.

While it’s commendable to make plans for the future, it’s over the next hour or so that you really have the most control. No sense in obsessing about what’s been and gone, nor in troubling yourself about what is or isn’t still to come (you’re not a fortune teller). Just stay relentlessly focused on the next 60 minutes. When you’ve got through them successfully, there’ll be another batch right along behind them.

One. Step. At. A. Time.