Thursday, 31 January 2013

Timed tasks.

It's just after eleven in the morning as I sit down to write this. I'm in my local library with my laptop in front of me and iPod earphones playing Dylan tracks on shuffle, just loud enough to (mostly) drown out the conversational racket all around me. By the way, when did libraries stop being places in which people had to whisper? Call me old-fashioned, but I really did prefer it that way.

Anyway, I've allowed myself an hour to write - it's generally how long a Moodscope message takes me - in fact simply to get this far, ten minutes have already ticked by.

And my point? Well when I opened my eyes this morning I knew it was going to be one of those 'so so' days: not dramatically awful, but not especially sparkling either. I knew. My Moodscope score confirmed it.

When I feel a bit yucky, I know how easy it can be to give in to the glums if I don't set goals for myself. If I'd sat in my office at home, I'm sure the morning would have drifted past unproductively, so coming out to the library gave me a sense of mission. It also seemed to help that I'd allocated an hour to this particular task, twenty five minutes of which (gulp) have now passed.

I'm even successfully resisting the urge to check my email until I've finished, which is helping focus me on the task in hand.

Maybe it's an approach that can work for you, too, next time you're facing a less than dandy day? The key steps seem to be:

1. Choose a mission for yourself, ideally one that can be completed in a limited period of time.

2. Change your location if you can, even if it means moving to a different room in your home. Who says you can only prepare vegetables in the kitchen? Why shouldn't you change the duvet cover in the living room?

3. Carrots and sticks can be helpful. Modestly reward yourself for achieving your goal, but definitely decide what your 'prize' will be before you start.

It's not really rocket science is it? In fact I'm sure it's something you've already tried in the past. Sometimes, though, perhaps we all need a little reminder of such survival tactics? I know I do.

So there we go, time's up, and the achievement does feel surprisingly good. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to check my email.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Self analysis?

I wonder what you'll learn today that you didn't know yesterday?

When you were at school, it was all part of the process that you'd sit through lessons all day, then when the bell rang you'd go home with more in your head than you'd started with.

Much as excellent teachers like to speak of lighting fires rather than filling buckets, I'm sure there's still a great deal of the latter in today's classrooms.

I imagine most of us still go to bed with more in our head than was there in the morning, but unfortunately much of this can be stress, noise and aggro - a great name for a firm of lawyers handling environmental distress cases perhaps, but no way in which to retire for a relaxed night's sleep.

Perhaps there's a different way of looking at this, though? Maybe instead of trying to turn a blind eye to these unwanted thoughts, it can be possible to ask yourself what, if anything, they've taught you? Even if this is something so seemingly obvious, for example, as 'I don't like it when other people make unreasonable demands of me'.

Then again the day might not have been all bad, providing you with a different sort of learning opportunity - the chance to ask yourself why, perhaps, you felt positively about something good that happened. 'I like it when I make myself a hot drink and sit calmly in silence for ten minutes.'

There's nothing wrong with learning for learning's sake, in fact it can be a pleasure in its own right. But learning about yourself... well, that's learning for life's sake isn't it?

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Rosie's rules.

As I sat sipping a coffee the other morning, a mum and baby were at the next table. Well, mum sat at the table while her little girl (a big assumption, I know, but she was dressed in pink and her mum was calling her Rosie) was strapped into her buggy.

Now Rosie was being as good as gold while her mum enjoyed what I'm sure was a rare and welcome moment of peace. However, uttering only small contented gurgles, Rosie was nevertheless struggling against the buggy's straps - desperate to see everything around her. It wasn't enough to observe what was immediately in front of her, She wanted to see it all, including the stuff round the corner, and that's what small children do.

They have an insatiable desire to look and learn, especially since much of what's going on around them is taking place (in their world) for the first time ever. It's how they make sense of the world - or at least try to. (I have to confess that I'm 56 and it still doesn't make much sense to me.)

The thing is, kids are great at being into everything, especially when they're small. As we grow up, it's common to become more inward-looking - but it makes you wonder if there could just be a link between not noticing the world around you, and suffering from low mood?

Clearly it would be naive to suggest that this is all there is to it, but I'm sure that actively seeking out the new, and going out of your way to examine your world in all its (yes) glory can play their part in giving your mood a helpful lift.

How difficult is this? For Rosie it was clearly no more than child's play, and if she could do it, I'm sure we can too.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Cotton wool care.

The phrase 'wrapped in cotton wool' is sometimes spoken in a belittling sense, as the user sets out to accuse somebody (often a parent) of mollycoddling something or someone (often a child).

When it does refer to a little one, it suggests over-protection and the denial of the chance for a child to learn how to stand on his or her own feet.

It's funny. We take for granted the fact that small children need to be cared for, recognising that this can go too far in a few cases, yet how many of us get anywhere even remotely close to wrapping ourselves in cotton wool?

Be honest, how many of us properly care for our bodies? Too often, perhaps, it can be a matter of ignoring problems in the hope that they'll go away. Occasionally they do. But not always.

I suspect men are worse than women when it comes to self-maintenance, but maybe not that much. The thing is, however, mind and body are pretty closely connected (hopefully anyway - the brain-in-a-jar thing only seems to work in old horror movies) and the maintenance of one impacts upon the other. Looking at my own Moodscope graphs makes it clear that my mood generally takes a tumble if I'm under the weather physically.

This much seems obvious, so it doesn't take an enormous leap of logic to accept that being pro-active about your physical health would probably have a positive impact on your emotional wellbeing.

Getting exercise (if you're able to), eating healthily, making sure you have sufficient sleep: they're all sensible actions if you wish (and who doesn't?) to give your mood a boost.

However it also makes sense to follow up on health issues that you might be ignoring. If there's something that needs attending to, maybe today's a good day to address it.

Unless you're planning on attending a fancy dress party dressed as a snowman, there's no need to wrap yourself in cotton wool, but neither is it a sensible idea to go to the other extreme. Please take care of yourself.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Check your emergency systems.

Businesses know they must maintain the systems and equipment they have in case of emergency. Fire extinguishers should be checked and topped up. Security alarms must be tested on a regular basis. Staff need to participate in fire drills to ensure that everyone knows how to evacuate safely and quickly.

I definitely don't want to make you feel guilty, but I wonder if there's perhaps someone in your life that you take a bit for granted? You know, I think we can all do this at times.

Maybe there's a friend you hope you'd be able to rely on in a crisis? Or a member of your family who you're certain would be there for you if it all turned to custard?

People like this are important all the time, but specially so if the going gets tough, so I'm certain it makes sense to nurture your relationships with them. It's not just in case you need help, of course, but it's certainly a consideration.

What's more, if you rely on them, they probably depend on you too - so a spot of two-way maintenance never goes amiss.

An email or phone call can be a good start, but there's no substitute for meeting (and connecting) face to face if you can.

How about it?

Saturday, 26 January 2013

I promise to do my best.

These days they're called Cub Scouts but when I was a lad I belonged to the Wolf Cubs before I graduated to the Boy Scouts. In fact I was a member of both organisations right on the cusp of name changes (rebranding to use today's vernacular) - just as the 'Wolf' and the 'Boy' were dropped, in an effort to bring the Scout Association kicking and screaming into the Sixties.

Yes, I really am that old.

I loved being a Cub and I LOVED being a Scout, and I was thinking about my old Cub promise only the other day. It began with 'I promise to do my best' then segued into 'to do a good turn for somebody every day', which I still think is an admirable goal.

The phrase 'a good turn' might seem slightly quaint and out-of-date, but the idea of doing someone a favour is something which I trust will never go out of fashion. Doing things for others is a sure-fire way to boost your own wellbeing, and of course it also helps to build a better world: a more rewarding place for us both to live in.

As a Cub I was told to be on the lookout for old ladies who wanted to cross the road (what a funny old world I grew up in) but in case there's a shortage of shy female octogenarian street-crossers in your neighbourhood, may I suggest that you go a little out of your way to find other people to help during the course of the next 24 hours?

If the person behind you in the supermarket has just a couple of items, why not let them go ahead of you? If you still have time on your car park ticket as you're ready to leave, how about handing it on to someone who's just driven in? Finished your newspaper on the bus or train? Offer it to a neighbour.

The more unexpected your help and the more out-of-the blue it seems, the greater the impact it should have. And the greater the impact, the bigger the kick it will give you.

So seek out those chances to do a good turn today, and - oh yes - do your best, too.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Looking for meaning.

A clown without a circus is just a man with an oddly-painted face and over-large shoes.

A priest without a congregation is just a gentleman talking to himself in a big chilly building.

And a waitress without customers is just a woman with an apron, notepad and pencil.

One way or another, most people's lives have purpose when they interact with others. Feeling a sense of purpose can help you believe that you're living a life of meaning. For some this can be a profoundly life-changing mission, but there's just as much potential reward to be had from being a parent or through working at a job which gives you a sense of achievement at the end of the day.

This is fine in theory of course, but what happens when your mood has taken a nose-dive? It's at times like these when, far from feeling you have a sense of purpose, just about everything can seem meaningless.

So how exactly do you tackle this meaning-deficit?

Think, perhaps, of a piggy bank into which you drop just a few small coins now and then. Sooner or later it will be heavy with cash, but it rattles hollowly to begin with. You need to start somewhere however, and perhaps the same applies when it comes to seeking meaning in life?

When your tank is low, the smallest shared interaction can help. Remarkable as it may seem, and even if you need to force them out, a smile and a hello to a stranger - a shop assistant or receptionist for instance - can be like pennies in the belly of your meaning piggy bank. Stroking someone's dog (best, perhaps, to stick to small ones if you don't know them) can remind you that your world has more than one species.

If you want to be part of something bigger, it often pays to start by thinking small.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

We're not alone.

You are one of seven billion, and so am I. We make up a pretty small part of the world's population of seven thousand million. It's a big number.

The law of averages makes it fairly likely that there will be somebody else out there whose outward appearance is much like yours, to the extent that if you were both lined up in an identity parade, an eye witness could have trouble telling you apart.

Much more likely is that there will be many others who pretty much share your temperament. They'll think like you, worry about the same kinds of things that you do, and probably have similar hopes and fears.

Just as there are bound to be others like you, so too will there be others like me. But even though this logic is reasonably undeniable, it doesn't stop us both (I suspect) feeling from time to time that we're struggling through life in a way that's shared by no-one else.

When you're low, how can anyone else be feeling the same way? How can someone else's state of mind possibly be like yours?

And of course when you and I think like this, it can feel lonely and a bit hopeless. But this tends to come about when we compare our own inner feelings with the outward appearance of others, and appearances can be deceptive.

If you're anxious, you may believe those around you aren't. If you're unhappy, you may think you're the only one. I'm sure none of us enjoy that lonely feeling of believing that nobody else is going through what we are, because it can end up making us uncomfortable with who we are.

But right now someone else is feeling just like you do. I'm sure that knowing you're not alone won't in itself solve your problems, but perhaps it can help to stop you agonising that they're unlike those of anyone else. They may well have conquered them, and if they did, so can you.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Learning to drive.

There were very few cars with automatic gearboxes when I learned to drive . Finding out how to use the clutch and gear stick/stick-shift was part and parcel of the process for me.

Of course these days there are many more automatics around, but I still enjoy driving a car that puts me in charge of the gear I drive in. Four (or five) choices when it comes to going forward, and just the one when you need to reverse, which is not a bad analogy for the way we progress through life.

Although it's usual to move forward, there will always be times when you need to back up a little. When you do so, move slowly: there's no need to rush. And aim to go no more than a short way in reverse. It's usually used for parking rather than long-distance motoring, and that's why there's just the one backwards gear.

Use your forward gears in succession - both upwards and downwards. Get things started in first gear, which will move you slowly but surely. Change up only when the time's right. You'll know when it is. When you need to slow up, change down gradually.

Some may argue that taking a positive approach to life means being bullish and full-on all the time, but maybe it makes more sense to learn from a car's manual gearbox? There are several forward modes, and the trick, I'm sure, is to know which gear to use when.

In inclement conditions we're generally advised to drive slowly in a low gear. It gives you more power. Wise advice next time you're going through a difficult patch yourself, perhaps?

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

When things go wrong.

I suspect we all know someone who appears to skate through life seemingly untouched by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. If things do ever go wrong (and they'll almost certainly claim that this hardly ever happens to them) they appear to brush them off as meaningless, puffing that they're unaffected.

Superficially we may envy them. How useful, we might think, to have a hide that's thick enough to be able to ignore life's misfortunes. How nice to never fret about problems and setbacks.

I wonder, though. Maybe a person who's apparently so immune to day-to-day disasters will also be somewhat insensitive to life's brighter moments? Perhaps, too, they're relatively self-centred, and have only a low regard for those around them?

To be honest, it seems realistic to react to bad times and unhappy events. After all, isn't that part of what makes us human?

True resilience, I think, starts with an acknowledgement that you're going through a rough patch. It's not about pretending that everything is fine.

But then it continues with the awareness that, given sufficient time, things often improve. It's also helpful to look back at difficult times in the past, with a view to learning what worked for you then.

Perhaps you found it useful to talk things through with someone? Maybe you wrote a letter which enabled you to gather your thoughts? Alternatively a long walk in the country might have been part of the answer for you?

I think we each have our individual strategies for tackling adversity. There's a lot of sense in asking yourself what yours is, then having it ready for some day when it may again be useful.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Coming soon.

Even after all these years I still remember some of my school teachers, a few for happy reasons, others less-positively. In this last respect there was, for instance, an English master who regularly responded to bad behaviour in the back row of his classroom with an energetically-lobbed blackboard rubber.

The jury was out on whether or not he was a good shot, as the chalky missile invariably thudded into the wall rather than the pupil, but I rather suspect this was fully intended - a kind of shock and awe approach rather than downright physical violence.

I suppose the fact that I now spend a great deal of my days writing may be testament to the fact that he obviously did me some good, but it may have simply been because I tended to avoid sitting in the back row.

Fortunately other teachers made their mark for less combative reasons. One who taught Geography, for instance, was a genius at making the subject interesting and compelling, especially when it came to physical geography. To this day, I'm always on the look-out for a good terminal moraine when I'm on a train journey.

He had one little technique that I especially admired, which was that at the end of each well-paced lesson he'd provide his class with a short teaser about what would be coming next time we met. I'm sure he believed that this way we'd be keenly anticipating the next instalment of the curriculum. He was right.

It's always good to have things to look forward to, but there are sure to be less-positive times in life when, unless you plan things yourself, it can seem as if the future is pretty devoid of goals and anticipation. And that's never more so than when your mood is low.

At times like this you're unlikely to be planning anything ambitious, but it's definitely worth trying to set yourself some modest goals. Get through the morning and treat yourself to something tasty and healthy at lunchtime. Make it through the afternoon, then read a chapter of a good book, do a crossword puzzle, walk round the block or make a phone call.

You owe it to yourself to have one or two simple things to look forward to, even if you need to create them out of nothing.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Learn. And teach.

Six months on, and I'm still high on the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, in particular the evocative music performed as 205 individual copper petals rose to form a flaming cauldron. That song was 'Caliban's Dream', written by Rick Smith of the band Underworld.

For a reminder, or maybe even your first listen, you'll find it on YouTube if you search for 'underworld caliban's dream', but essentially it's seven minutes of pure unadulterated uplifty positiveness and all-round general loveliness. (As you can maybe tell, I'm a fan.)

Now I'd not heard it on the radio for a long time, so was thrilled when it was played on a local station as I was driving recently. Or at least I would have been thrilled if two things hadn't somewhat spoilt it. The first (arguably slightly forgivably) was that it was cut short, with only about three minutes making it to the airwaves. The second, though, was the soulless way in which the presenter 'back-announced' it.

'Caliban's Dream, from Underworld,' was literally all he said. Nothing about where the music was from. Nothing about the memories it ought to re-ignite. Nothing to engage with the listener.

He missed a trick. How many people would have recognised the song? How many more would have enjoyed learning, or being reminded, about its spectacular London debut six months ago?

We all know stuff, but we all know different stuff. I bet there's knowledge you have that others would find fascinating. Equally, the people around you are certain to hold ideas and information which you'd love to hear about.

By ensuring that you're constantly learning, you're doing your bit to keep a healthy head. And by sharing your knowledge you're doing the same for others.

Local radio presenters, please note.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Lucky stars.

Picture the blackest of nights. The sky is cloudless. It's warm enough to be sitting outside, and you're sufficiently far from sources of artificial light that your eyes can take in all the heavens have to offer.

What do you see? The chances are, you'll be staggered by the vast array of stars up there. Although experts differ somewhat in their view, it seems likely that in perfect conditions around two thousand are visible with the naked eye from any one place on the surface of our planet, and many many more when you peer through a telescope.

But the thing is, those two thousand stars are there all the time, even when you can't see them. In fact, even as we speak they're above your head at this precise moment. Clouds, ceilings and daylight may make them invisible to you, but they're right there, right now.

Of course it's not just stars that form a rich potential feast for your eyes. Everywhere you look, there's more to see than most of us for one moment imagine. Your world is full of detail and wonder, yet on a low day you may (like me) wander through it paying scant attention, eaten up with your own negative thoughts. Oh yes, I know what this is like.

However at any one microscopic moment, your mind can hold just a single thought, and it's a relatively simple trick to make this a neutral one (as you actively engage with your environment) instead of the unhelpful ones which are probably churning round and round in your head.

A night sky can be breath-takingly majestic. With an open mind, so can a walk down the street.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Motor or dynamo?

Active. It's one of Moodscope's twenty cards, defined as 'engaging or being ready to engage in physically energetic pursuits'. (I think that's pursuits as in activities, rather than pursuits as in what cops do when they hope to arrest robbers.)

Interesting, isn't it, that the psychologists who devised the original 1980s PANAS mood test from which Moodscope was developed recognised that checking to see whether or not someone is inclined to undertake some kind of physical activity is a good marker of overall mood?

It seems to makes sense. I know I feel far from energetic when I'm going through choppy seas. I feel like doing, well, very little to be honest.

When I was young, my brother and I loved building things, and often had little electric motors lying around - the kind that came with kits to assemble your own model car or aeroplane. They'd be powered by a couple of 1.5 volt batteries and the direction of their rotation could be reversed by swapping over the batteries' positive and negative connections.

But it was with no small amount of awe that we discovered that if you replaced the batteries with a small light bulb, it could be momentarily illuminated by simply spinning the motor's rotor with your fingers. If you apply power to an electric motor it rotates, but when you do the opposite and rotate a motor, it generates power: this is of course precisely how a bicycle's dynamo works - powering your front and rear lights as you pedal down the street.

It's a neat phenomenon which, I suggest, is also similar to what goes on in your mind when you rate how active you're feeling. When your mood is better, you feel active. But it's also true that getting active is a pretty sure-fire way of lifting your mood in the first place.

The sign that you're not feeling very active ought to be akin to a red warning light on your dashboard. And for many, it's an easyish one to fix through doing nothing more complicated than getting your body working a little more than it might usually.

We're not talking marathon running here, simply suggesting that it's good to walk, and fine to undertake an energetic bout of housework, garden leaf-picking or car washing.

Take care of your body. Unless you've been keeping something from me, it's the only one you've got.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Please tell us what you think of Moodscope.

I'm doing my level best to avoid looking like one of those clipboard people in the street (you know - the ones you avoid by crossing the road or pretending to talk on your phone) but the thing is, Moodscope really needs your help.


Please can you spare just a few minutes to answer some survey questions for us?

The thing is, we get lots of invaluable feedback from Moodscopers, but if we're to keep going in the right direction we need to know more. Are there parts of what we do that you like? Tell us so we can do more of them. Are there bits that we've got wrong? If you let us know, we'll have a better chance of putting them right.

Your answers can be given anonymously if you like, so please feel free to speak your mind. Think of yourself as a critical friend: the kind who wouldn't let me sit through lunch with spinach on my teeth.

As ever with these things, there's no time like the present. The form is a pretty quick one to complete, and doing so now means (a) you'll know you've helped us and (b) it won't be one more thing on your (I'm sure) already lengthy To-Do List.

My thanks to you as ever, and here's that link one more time:

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Feeling better? Don't ask.

I like to think of myself as being pretty mild-mannered.

I don't fly into a furious rage if someone cuts me up in traffic. I definitely don't throw a hissy fit when someone uses the last of the toilet roll without replacing it. And I only get slightly miffed (honest) when a telemarketer calls at an inappropriate moment (although, frankly, isn't any moment inappropriate when it comes to telemarketers?).

However, lest this should paint me as some paragon of patience, there does actually happen to be one scenario which makes me see red, in a furious, livid and really rather ashamed kind of way.

Maybe it's just me, but I do get disproportionately angry when, after I've been going through a bad time, someone who really ought to know me well asks 'Are you feeling better?'.

I shouldn't blame them of course. They've almost certainly said it innocently. Unfortunately, however, in the mind of the receiver this very innocent little question can translate itself into 'I'm really not sure there was anything terribly wrong with you anyway, but I'm assuming you're now over it'.

I know it's wrong in so many ways to interpret it in this way, but that's the danger of closed questions. They make assumptions. They discourage meaningful answers. And they make me cross.

So if you really want to know how I feel, please do the proper open-ended thing. Ask 'How are you feeling?', then you're more likely to get the truth from me.

It's good for us to connect with others, and the more we do it, the better we're likely to feel. It's crucial to remember, though, that good connection is just as much about quality as it is about quantity.

A good radio interviewer asks open-ended questions, rather than ones which solicit no more than one word answers, so perhaps today's a day to make like a broadcaster?

As for me, am I feeling better? Well I was until you asked me.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Coping with criticism.

As I've said in the past, I used to work in advertising. In those days, when market research supported my creative work it was the best thing in the world. Market Researchers? What a noble profession. What perfect people to prove that your way is the only way.

However when the researchers came back and reported that the public would rather stick pins in their eyes than be exposed to my advertising, well, what did they know? What use is research anyway? Those who understand advertising, do advertising. Those who don't, go into market research. Ouch.

Over time, you're supposed to get better at accepting the stinging rebukes that only a focus group fuelled on Pringles and warm white wine can unleash on your lovingly crafted storyboards. But of course the truth is that it always hurts, even if you show it less than you once did. Tears in the boardroom are so unprofessional.

Now and then, their barbed comments were unjustified. Maybe the facilitator had turned up late, or someone in the group had wound up everyone else. Perhaps they were really disappointed with the Sauvignon Blanc.

Generally (and sadly) though, they usually had a point, even if they expressed it rather vitriolically.

Handling criticism from others is never easy, especially if you happen to be at a low ebb yourself, so perhaps it can help to recall what I learnt at the pointy end of market research debriefs:

1. They're not having a go at you, just at the work. When someone criticises you, try to view it as a comment about some aspect of your overall makeup which isn't actually the core you. 'You're always moody' might be partly true, but for a start it's probably not 'always', and in any case your low mood is a behaviour rather than a fundamental part of what makes you. So even though it's most unfair, see if you can view it as them moaning about your 'work' rather than about you per se.

2. It's up to you to choose how much notice you take. Reporters say they always ignore readers' letters written in green ink. Some people moan and groan simply for the sake of it, and have a pop at you while they also grumble about everything else in life. If you can, take little notice of feedback from this type of unhelpful person. In any case, though, you really can choose to turn your back on anything that's said to you. At the end of the day you've probably got much more power over this than you may sometimes believe.

3. By and large they're saying it because they want to help. With the exception of the professional moaners referenced above, a lot of criticism is levelled because the person making it wants to see things change. They want people and businesses to do a better job. They want the world to be a sunnier place. Nearly always, look behind the flak and you'll find an element of truth. If you choose, learn from it and - if you wish - act on it.

Meanwhile to the lady who, in a focus group years ago, grumbled that the family I'd sketched on one of my concept boards inadvertently looked like Martians, I can only say 'Madam, you were quite right'.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Giving without losing.

If a shepherd gives away three of his fifty sheep, he has a smaller flock than he began with.

When a greengrocer gives away half his apples as free samples, there's less in his shop than there was when he opened that morning.

Should a millionaire give away half her fortune, her bank account would be less flush than it was.

It goes without saying that there are some things in life - sheep, apples, money for example - whose quantity diminishes as you distribute them. I give to you, then you have some of what I had, while I now have less.

But of course there are other things which don't leave us worse off when we give them away. I've typed this message, for instance, which is now on your computer or phone. But it's also still on my mine. If you recorded a version of The Yellow Rose of Texas on your ukulele and sent me an MP3 (Thanks. Just what I always wanted.) we'd both have copies.

So, thank goodness some would say, the idea of depletion through giving-away falls apart in the digital world. It's a principle, after all, which is part of what underpins the information revolution, but as a matter of fact it's nothing new.

Consider my Exhibit H: Help. If you give me your help, do you somehow have less of it to give? Well, not really. Help is a mysterious resource which can be given, or not, in a seemingly infinite range of amounts - without taking anything away from us.

Giving lots of help may of course tire us - even overload us at times. Broadly, however, giving your help doesn't cost you. In fact it's even better than that, as it could even leave your emotional bank balance better off than it was. Helping others can make you feel good in and of itself, and what's not to like about that?

I imagine there won't be too many opportunities to give away sheep today. So why not think about giving away some of your help?

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Feeling part of something.

Some say that having a religious belief makes you less likely to suffer from depression, and more inclined to recover faster from it if you do experience it. However, when the research organisation Gallup looked at this in the United States a couple of years ago, their findings were less clear-cut than you might have expected.

While it was true that very religious Americans (those who rarely missed a weekly visit to a place of worship) did indeed seem less prone to depression and anxiety than those who said they were non-religious, this last group actually did better (ie they reported fewer bouts of depression and anxiety) than people who described themselves as only moderately religious.

Don't you just love research? Right when you think you've got a strong hypothesis, along comes the real world to confound your thinking. It's not for me to claim I understand what's going on here, but I'm sure it's a complicated old mix of cause and effect, along with what people tell researchers and what they actually do/think, coupled with lots of other factors too.

I'm not (really) religious but some of my best friends are, and I'm perfectly comfortable with this. However, leaving religion to one side, I do still get the feeling that there's something important about feeling I'm part of something that's bigger than me. It helps give me the feeling that I'm living a life of some meaning (an outlook that can be seriously undermined if I'm going through a tough time).

Where do you find meaning? Well, without going into things too deeply, perhaps one easily accessible way is to actively work at getting to know the people around you better? Developing empathy for others and allowing them in so they can reciprocate can help, I think. If you want to feel cared for, caring for other people is a fine place to start.

If you're very religious, you may have this already sewn up, but if you're like me, it won't hurt to try and get a little closer to the people with whom you come into contact today.

Not necessarily physically, of course. I wouldn't want to get you arrested.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Being comfortable with the real you.

Quite often I write about being comfortable with who you are, and when I do I'm sometimes taken to task by a Moodscoper or two. In the nicest possible way, of course. We're an awfully civil community here, for which I count my blessings.

In general there's much to be said for accepting yourself as the person you are, for there are certain aspects which may be pretty much set in stone. Sometimes, for instance, I think I'd like to lose a few pounds (well okay, quite a few pounds) but since I enjoy my food, like a drink or two in the pub now and then, and am frankly unlikely to take up marathon running, it's probably better that I should be satisfied with who I am rather than becoming dissatisfied with who I'm not.

Where people politely pick me up on this concept, though, is when it comes to the nasties such as depression and anxiety. They wonder if I'm suggesting that someone who suffers from a mood problem should simply accept it as a given - as a permanent condition.

And, of course, I'm not. I'm really not.

Sadly there may be a tiny few for whom long-term treatment is the only answer, and it's crucial that they get the support and care they so vitally need. For millions more, however (and I'm convinced that it's the majority) the real you isn't the you who's currently experiencing problems. With the right help, the right mind-set, the right level of acceptance, it should absolutely be possible to visualise yourself being in a better place.

Almost certainly this can't happen overnight. While moods fluctuate day to day, real change takes place over time, and we hear evidence of this all the time from Moodscopers. Patience is a necessity when it comes to emotional repair.

Yesterday I talked about not being defined by your current state of mind, if it's a low or troubled one. So maybe the 'us' we should be comfortable with is the true 'us', not necessarily the one we may be feeling right now.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Depressed? Or have depression?

There's a lot of it about at this time of the year in the northern hemisphere. Just about everyone I speak to has a cold, cough or both, and although I hoped I might skate unscathed through the winter months, right now I too have my fair share of the sniffles. I wouldn't get too close to your computer screen if I were you.

But here's the thing. I find it intriguing that people often take different linguistic approaches to describing their physical and mental health problems.

With a physical illness they're likely to explain 'I have a cold' or 'I've got the flu'. However, when it comes to a mood problem, some may be inclined to say 'I am depressed' or 'I'm anxious'.

It would sound absurd to say 'I am a cold' or 'I am the flu', yet it's all too easy to turn a mental health problem into something which seems to define us, rather than a problem that is hopefully time-limited.

Although it sounds a little awkward, surely it's better to regard depression or anxiety as things we have, rather than things we are?

'I am depressed' sounds pretty long-term to me, whereas 'I have depression' feels a more temporary condition - even if it doesn't roll off the tongue quite so easily as the 'I am' version.

Why should it matter, though? What difference does our choice of words make?

Well actually I think it's probably pretty important. If I tell someone that I'm depressed, it seems to pigeon-hole me. And of course I hear myself saying the words when I speak them out loud. It can feel as though I've become the condition, whereas what I'd very much hope is that it's a somewhat temporary state of mind.

Whether or not you buy into the entire concept of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), it's fairly certain that we do listen to the stuff we tell ourselves: so it wouldn't be surprising if a steady diet of negative thinking led you to feel crabby, while a rather more positive approach resulted in a happier outcome.

So next time you're going through a rough patch, there may be sense in regarding it as something that's happening to you rather than something that you are.

'I'm a runny nose' sounds rather ridiculous, just as 'I'm depressed' should, too.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Thanks, thrice.

Right now I'm running two daily diaries. One is my regular journal whose pages I fill each morning with a summary of what happened the previous day. The latest volume is the seventeenth in a series which began back in 1996, and somewhat obsessively I haven't missed a single day in what will soon be seventeen years.

Right now, however, I'm more interested in telling you about the other smaller diary in which (at the suggestion of a friend) I jot down two or three things each day for which I feel grateful. The way it's turned out, these too tend to revolve around things that happened the previous day - and they can range from a delicious meal or a rewarding conversation to some kind of significant development on the Moodscope project.

There's a lot to be said for this sort of 'gratitude journaling'. In fact it's pretty widely believed that positive emotion is a strength we can build by actually experiencing it: think positively and you'll end up thinking (even more) positively.

Although I'm collecting my things-to-be-grateful-for in the morning, you may find it makes even more sense to do so last thing at night. This way you can head for bed with positive thoughts whispering to your mind.

Some suggest aiming for a fixed number of items: three seems to work well. You can simply summarise them in your head, or (as I prefer) write them down. To me, doing so seems to formalise and crystallise them.

Whether, whenever and however you decide to experiment with recognising the things you can be grateful for, there's no time like the present to have at least a little play with it. So, what three things can you be thankful for right now?




Now, how did that feel?

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Learning to juggle.

Jugglers, I suspect, are made rather than born.

Until someone tells me otherwise, I'd put money on juggling being a skill you acquire over time rather than a talent you produce spontaneously.

Of course the scientist in me recognises that you should never completely discount theories until they've been firmly disproved, and you never know, there might just be a 'Victorian Bernard: The Three-Year-Old Savant Juggler' story waiting to be found in some dusty archive. But, for now, let's accept that the best way to become a juggler is to, well, juggle. Beg, borrow or steal a set of padded juggling balls (known in the trade as 'thuds', since that's what they'll end up doing - on the ground - most of the time) and begin to practice.

However, just as I've already suggested, to begin with most of your time won't be spent juggling. It'll be spent failing.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

Time after time, the balls will fail to sail through the air, but flop forlornly to the floor.

The real nub of this process, of course, is how you respond to this lack of success. The way to learn to juggle is simply to continue with your practice. The more you do so, the less you'll fail, and this is one way of dealing with adversity: the 'if you don't first succeed, try, try and try again' school of thought.

Perhaps bouncing back, though, needs to follow a different path sometimes? Maybe you'll discover that, try as you might, you just don't seem to have the aptitude for juggling? In this case, I wonder if it makes more sense to make the sometimes brave decision to move on to something else: tightrope walking perhaps? Or stamp collecting. Or soufflé cooking.

There are at least two big ways to deal with adversity. One is to believe that you'll overcome the problem in time. The other is to take a different route.

I'm sure you'll know which makes sense for you, and when.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The sweet smell of anticipation.

On some of my darkest days, my only goal has been to make it through to bedtime: not exactly the loftiest of ambitions. But maybe better than nothing.

When you're going through a rough patch, nothing seems terribly meaningful. Every step feels like plodding through treacle. Each minute can add to the weight bearing down on your soul.

Thankfully it's not the way I'm feeling right now, but this doesn't stop me recalling what it's like. At times like this, you can have little appetite for life. In fact, were someone to ask you what you were looking forward to, it wouldn't be surprising if you replied 'Nothing'.

Nothing. Imagine that. Imagine genuinely believing (since that's one of the cruel tricks that low mood can play on you) that there's nothing (nothing!) on the horizon. No goals. No treats. No things-yet-to-come.

I don't know about you, but to me this doesn't sound like a very pleasant place to be. It would feel like being locked in a cell with no prospect of release.

The trouble is, it's a vicious circle. When your mood is low you stop making plans: you stop setting goals. But then when you stop setting goals, it's not unreasonable to expect your mood to dive even lower.

What to do then?

Perhaps this three-step process can help:

1. Acknowledge that, even if you're feeling very low, in principle people do respond well to having things to look forward to.

2. Admit that (feeling the way you do right now) you'll never in a million years be able to make big plans.

3. Accept that even the tiniest piece of anticipation is almost certainly better than none at all.

How tiny is tiny? I think it can be very tiny. Look forward to eating something good at lunchtime. Tell yourself that you'll take a ten minute walk this evening. Promise yourself a soak in the bath later on.

On a good day these may seem insignificant ambitions, but on a bad day they can make all the difference.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Learning is good for you.

On the day you were born, you knew little. True, you had your instincts. We all do. But just about all the knowledge you now possess has been acquired since then.

Some of it was gathered through experiment: that's how you know to test the bathwater before you step into it, and what avocado tastes like. A lot came to you through formal learning, leaving you able to quote dates from history, divide 7,610 by 57, spell necessary and tell me what the capital of France is.

Then there's the informal learning, which means you perhaps have the ability to stand up for yourself, know how to get along with others, and (maybe did have) the capacity to wheedle a little pocket money out of an older relative.

We take it for granted that a tiny child has everything to learn, but can easily slip into thinking that it's all downhill from there on the acquiring knowledge front, believing that it's okay to lose the insatiable appetite we once had to explore, discover and make sense of the world.

But when we lose our desire to do these things, don't we also perhaps lose some of our love for life? Don't we become more inward-focused and stuck in our ways?

If you were still at school, this is about the time of year that you'd be packing up your pencil case ready to begin a new term. Remember how that felt?

In which case, why not make a resolution to keep on learning new things this year?

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Blinkers off.

The blinkers on a race horse serve a purpose, preventing the animal from distraction by its neighbours and focusing its attention on the jumps and, ultimately, the finishing line.

Over the years, trainers have determined that this is the best way to win races: strap on the blinkers and your horse remains single-minded.

Now and then we all have tasks which demand our complete concentration, and when this is the case it can be helpful to do the human equivalent of donning blinkers. Turn the TV off, switch your phone to silent, ask others not to disturb you.

If you don't really need such laser-like focus, however, there's much to be said for doing just the opposite, paying as much attention as possible to the world around you.

If you were to sketch a down-hearted person you'd probably draw him with a hanging head. Chin to chest, his eyes would be fixed on the floor. When your mood is low, your perspectives become shortened, and your attention becomes limited. The cause is having the blues, the effect is temporary blindness to the world around you.

We can hack these dynamics, however, running the machine in reverse so that the cause becomes looking intently around us, and the resultant effect is that our mood is lifted, even if only a little.

So look around. Properly. Almost certainly there will be a lot to see, and pretty certainly you'll feel the benefits of paying proper attention, even if it's just that you avoid walking into lamp-posts.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Are you connecting?

Immediately before I give blood, a nurse drips a single drop of my red stuff into a small test tube filled with clear blue liquid, and in so doing is able to tell - among other things - whether I'm anaemic or not.

If I'm not, fine, I can go ahead and donate. Should I be anaemic, though, I think she'd send me off to see my doctor who'd probably prescribe an iron supplement and advise me to eat iron-rich foods such as dark-green leafy vegetables, wholegrains, beans and nuts.

It's a simple enough model, isn't it? A quick test reveals a deficiency in something, which you fix by consuming more of whatever it is you're missing.

It makes me wonder if a similar 'take two of these and call me in the morning' approach might work for us when we're in need of an emotional boost. I'm not thinking medication, more simple actions we can take.

Let's see how this might pan out, for instance, with human connection. When your mood is low, it's pretty common to keep oneself to oneself. In a 'chicken and egg' kind of way, you may feel blue when you have little contact with others, but are also likely to initiate little contact when you feel this way.

Imagine there was a blood test that would tell you whether you'd connected with a healthy number of people the day before, and visualise the nurse or doctor giving you the results: 'Ah, I can see you've been having fewer conversations than you normally might. Here's what I'd like you to do...'

And this would be what, exactly? I'm sure you'll have ideas of your own, but here are a couple of mine.

1. If you really don't feel like talking, email or text a friend you've not contacted for a while. Just a 'Hello' might be enough to elicit a reply.

2. Connections with people you don't know can work too. When you're in the supermarket or library, ask the person who serves you what sort of day they're having. Maybe it'll result in a little exchange.

3. Find an excuse to knock on a neighbour's door, even if it's simply to say you wanted to make sure they were OK. A few minutes on their doorstep could make a valuable contribution to defeating your connection-anaemia.

4. Another tip for feeling connected on days on which you truly, madly, deeply feel unable to engage in conversation? Listen to a talk radio show. Don't just have it on in the background, concentrate and follow along, just as you would if you were chatting with someone.

Just as your blood needs iron, your soul needs connections. So when you're running low, be sure to take a supplement or two.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Body care.

I expect you're already pretty aware of many of the life-style factors that affect the health of your heart. You'll know, I'm sure, how much sense it makes to eat and drink more of the right things and less of the wrong. You'll be aware that smoking isn't the most helpful of vices to have. Too much stress is bad for your heart. Exercise is good for it. And so on, and so on.

We take for granted the fact that we need to adopt a holistic 'whole body' approach when it comes to cardiac conditioning: so why isn't it always as obvious to us that our emotional wellbeing can be every bit as much influenced by our all-round physical health?

While it may be an overclaim to suggest that depression can be somehow 'cured' by adopting a healthy lifestyle, it certainly does no harm to take care of your body if you want to take care of your mind.

Eat healthily. I'm sure you know what's good for you and what isn't.

Drink sensibly. This means alcohol only in moderation (if it's your thing) but plenty of glasses of water.

Exercise regularly. Every little helps. This doesn't necessarily commit you to a gym membership, but it does mean walking whenever you can. A little faster than usual is always a good thing.

Aim to get a good night's sleep. I know this is not easy for many, but it may help to start winding down a good hour before bedtime, to avoid caffeine in the evening, to eat at least two hours before retiring, and as far as possible to aim for consistent going-to-bed and getting-up times.

Your body and mind are intimately connected. Look after one and you'll also be taking care of the other.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

You be you.

The predictive searching gizmo on Google is a revealing way to learn out what other people think, as its suggested searches are based on what they've been looking for.

For instance, when I typed in 'how to be' just now, it informed me that the top four most common requests are: How to be happy, How to be pretty, How to be funny, and How to be good kisser. (On that last one, the top site returned suggests that it all starts with looking after your lips. Note to self: buy lip balm.)

The thing is, and it's confirmed by the large number of volumes you'll find in the Self Help section of a book store or library, we all seem to want to be something we're not. We're unhappy so we want to be happy (understandably). We think we're not pretty so want to be more attractive. We're a bit serious so want to be funny. Or we worry we're not a great kisser so want to discover what we've been doing wrong.

I guess self-improvement is a natural human drive, but it's a crying shame when this interferes with being comfortable with who you are.

Your life has made you the individual that you are. It has shaped and moulded you, and there's no-one on the planet who's exactly like you: surely something to celebrate rather than regret?

Rather than wishing you were somehow different, why not tackle the day being glad that you're you?

As Oscar Wilde said: 'Be yourself; everyone else is taken.'

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Be careful out there.

At the end of every roll call in the 1980s TV cop show 'Hill Street Blues', Sergeant Esterhaus would instruct his officers 'Let's be careful out there'.

This is advice we'd do well to heed on January 2nd, as Moodscope's statistics over the past couple of years suggests we're in for the unhappiest day in January, in average terms, and with so many long faces around, it's probably a good day to tread lightly.

Why should today be such a glum one? Well I think it's got a lot to do with the extended Christmas break being finally over, with many returning to work, and lots facing a quiet January after a few weeks of spending time around others. In the northern hemisphere it's not normally helped by nasty weather and pretty short days (even though they've been slowly lengthening since December 21st).

I think there are two quite different ways of handling the knowledge that the mood forecast isn't exactly set fair today. One (less helpful) is to head into the day with dread. Another, however, is to use the information as a useful fore-warning.

If you checked the weather bulletin before leaving home in the morning and learnt that rain was on the way, it would pay to take an umbrella and raincoat.

If you were told that it was cold and flu season, it would be sensible to take precautions such as regularly washing your hands and perhaps dosing yourself up with vitamin C.

In much the same way, maybe you'll head off into the day knowing that those around you may be inclined to a touch of the blues (they could be snappy or low-spirited) in which case it seems to make sense to cut them some slack. Do the same for yourself too - be kind to you today, in the comfort that after the month's moodiest day, the only way is up.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

A hopefully happy new year.

Depending on when you're reading this it's likely to be 2013 where you are, in which case allow me to wish you a new year that's hopefully happy.

Before someone reminded me, I'd all but forgotten the old New Year's tradition of 'first footing' that our family used to mark when I was young. Harking from Scotland and the North of England, it was said that the first person to cross a home's threshold after midnight on New Year's Eve should bring in a piece of coal, symbolising the hope that the home would be full of warmth in the year ahead.

Not many homes are heated with coal these days, but I still like the thought of first-footing, particularly the idea that the person doing it (who was ideally supposed to be a tall, dark-haired male) was doing their small bit to help others, and if there was one goal that I'd like to suggest we make our own in 2013, it is that we should all remember how good it can feel to do things for other people.

While I'm not suggesting that we should behave altruistically only because of the 'helper's high' buzz it gives us, it's no bad thing to remember that helping someone is very often a win-win deal, leaving both helper and helped feeling better than they did before.

Of course some people may be reluctant to accept an offer of help, even though they may really need it. I think this is when it can pay to behave a little more assertively than you might normally do. Ask 'Would you like some help?' and you could get little more than a polite 'No thanks'. But subtly change this to a 'Please let me help you carry those bags', and you're more likely to have the offer accepted. Perhaps it's a good idea to suggest rather than ask, and to define your contribution rather than leaving it open-ended?

Life could be a lot richer if we all went just a little out of our way to help one another in 2013, and perhaps this is one new year's resolution to which we might realistically stick?