I am mainly writing this post for myself. If you find it helpful too? Bonus.
If none of this resonates, then I heartily congratulate you. You’ve cracked it. May you go forth and have yourself a Hygge Little Christmas.
But for the rest of us there’s something about Christmas that can bring out that certain crazy strain, despite all our best intentions to do things differently, to have that ideal, chilled, and fun-filled festive season we just know is possible.
Right now, it’s late November. Manchester’s streets are twinkling with lights, the German Markets are in full swing. I’ve got teary eyed at least once over Christmas Ads (manipulative swines). I’ve ‘treated’ myself to a Christmas edition woman’s magazine (a genre I typically avoid year round but can’t resist this time of year).
All is calm. All is bright.
It’s the time of anticipation, of endless possibility. The time when I can just think about what I might plan, but not worry too much about whether it’s done or not. Time – there’s plenty of it yet.
Fast forward to a few weeks later. I’m feeling distinctly bloated, tetchy and sleep deprived. The to-do list is still oppressively long. The magazines I bought a month ago are merely testament to all the home decor ideas and seasonal recipes I’ve not attempted. I’m already well into the Christmas booze and chocolate stash.
Ok. That might be a exaggeration. But I know that for many of us, by the time Christmas itself comes, the failure for it to match up to our expectations can leave us pretty narked.
So here are my twelve ways to avoid Christmas Martyrdom, and for having an Imperfect, Mostly Happy, Mostly Relaxing Christmas. Read the rest of this entry »
[Original image by Kat. Made available via CC licence: https://flic.kr/p/5JBC2K]
I’m a major believer that with a bit of reframing we can get more fulfilment from most situations, including our jobs. But sometimes tweaks and attitude adjustments just aren’t enough. Sometimes things just aren’t right, and we have to take a leap and make a major change. But for some reason we stay where we are.
About a year before I left the United States to move back to the UK, I remember having a phone conversation with my Mum. It was a familiar one, where once again I debated out loud whether we should stay in the U.S. or take a major risk and move to the UK – we’d been retreading this ground for about a decade. I’d lived in the USA for 15 years, it was where I’d spent my entire professional life. I had an American husband, 2 American children to think of too.
I remember something she said that stayed with me: “you’ve been jumping up and down on this diving board for quite a while now, sweetheart– at some stage you’re going to have to decide to dive in or walk off.” Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been reading Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig, a book (I’ve found) that will raise a concerned eyebrow if you leave it lying around the house. It’s a beautiful book, detailing Haig’s struggles with depression, and ultimately his emergence from it in its most crippling form.
I’ve not suffered from depression. (Though I think there were definitely quite a few weeks there after my first son was born when I was extremely close).
I’ll admit, depression is one of those things that in the past I have felt somewhat terrified of. And I know I’m not alone in that. It’s a perhaps a typical response for those of us who can be serial ‘fixers.’ Depression can make us feel utterly useless. Before I knew better, I know I have been guilty of either asking someone suffering from the illness to ‘look on the bright side’ or, worse, judged them for not ‘moving on’ – all in an attempt to navigate my way out of my own feelings of anxiety. [Note, there are things you can do to support someone struggling – mainly by being there for them, and listening without jumping in with advice. Useful guidance here from Mind].
Haig’s book is a sobering reminder of how we judge and attempt to ‘manage’ depression so differently than other illnesses:
Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations.
‘Come on, I know you’ve got tuberculosis, but it could be worse. At least no one’s died…’ […]
‘Ah, meningitis. Come on, mind over matter’ […]
‘Yes, yes, your leg is on fire, but talking about it all the time isn’t going to help things, is it?’
So this was a good book for me to read. It gave me more insight into what the experience of depression was like, and further deepened my compassion and understanding. But beyond this, whether you suffer from depression or not, this book is a gorgeous exploration of those things that make life very much worth living – those often small, taken for granted experiences that all together can create a joyful life:
Things I have enjoyed since the time I thought I would never enjoy again.
“Cold swimming pools. Oceans. Seas. Rivers. Lakes. Fjords. Ponds. Puddles. Roaring Fires. Pub Meals. Sitting outside and eating olives. The lights fading in the cinema, with a bucket of warm popcorn on your lap. Music. Love. Unabashed emotion. Rock pools. Swimming pools. Peanut butter sandwiches…Will Ferrell in Elf…Watching every Hitchhock movie. Cities twinkling at night as you drive past them, as if they are fallen constellations of stars. Laughing. Yes laughing so hard it hurts. Laughing as you bend forward and as your abdomen actually starts to hurt from so much pleasure, so much release, and then as you sit back and audibly groan and inhale deeply, staring at the person next to you, mopping up the joy…” [pg. 244-5]
I’ve started creating my own list. It’s been a fun and affirming thing to do, helping me to be more aware of those small, often fleeting moments that can be heaped with happiness.
Laughter, particularly as Haig describes it, is right up there for me. But also in there:
Lots of tealights all over the house on a dark winter evening | Reading the Saturday paper next to my husband in bed | Having fresh coffee placed at my bedside at 6.50am on a weekday | Wetherspoons chips | Crystal clear sea water | Swimming underwater with my sons | Losing time in the massive Paperchase in Manchester | Beautiful notebooks | Writing lists | Ticking off lists | Long hugs from Sam | My oldest son’s lightening quick, killer one-liners | My husband’s lightening quick, killer one-liners | Walking home from the station and pausing for a moment outside my lit-up, inviting house | Floating on the Ionian Sea with a glass of wine in my hand | Nordic Noir | Cackling at Gogglebox with my sons | A new mug | Extreme silliness with my friends | Lost in writing | Seeing someone I coach have a revelation | Hiking up a hill for the view | Taxis with the family to the airport at dawn | Teal coloured velvet. | Scones with clotted cream and jam | Blackberries from the brambles with Dad | Hearing someone’s story for the first time.
That’s my list so far. How about you?
Whether you’re an introvert and ‘quiet soul’ or not (disclaimer: I’m not) Pete speaks to any of us who struggle with ‘marketing’ or ‘promoting’ ourselves in a way that feels authentic and right. (And I say this as someone with a background in marketing). Social media marketing can feel especially superficial and distracting. The ‘rules’ for self-promotion appear to be to make many social connections as possible to widen your audience and possible market: Broadcast, broadcast, broadcast. It sometimes just feels like spamming.
A few of my own takeaways from Pete’s talk (although he covers far more):
Have you ever found yourself not letting a car into your lane because you let another car in a few miles back?
Shoved a plastic bottle into the general waste bin as you reassure yourself you that you are someone who typically recycles?
Ignored a homeless person and then reminded yourself of your contributions to Shelter?
Eaten a whole pizza because “I ran today.”
If we’re honest, most of us will recognise ourselves here.
Psychologists refer to this pattern as ‘moral licensing.’ It means that “when people are confident that their past behavior demonstrates compassion, generosity, or a lack of prejudice, they are more likely to act in morally dubious ways” [Merrit, Effron and Monin, 2010]. Studies show that individuals who express non-racist or non-sexist views are then much more likely to go on and make racist or sexist comments – the earlier statements giving them permission to do so because they’ve already ‘proven’ their lack of prejudice. And apparently we don’t even need to actively do or say anything ‘good’ for this to happen. Just the mere act of imagining ourselves doing something good can create just the same effect [Khan and Dhar 2006].
Is this why dieting and exercise can make you overweight?
Ok. Looking at all this in the context of our relationship with food and exercise is a bit of a reductive leap. But for many of us, that relationship is a moral one – characterised by judgements we lay on ourselves and each other. When we exercise and eat healthily, we are ‘good’ people, and when we don’t do these things we’re ‘bad.’ In biological terms, food is simply fuel. In moral terms, it’s a battleground.
I’ve always been addicted to story and story-telling in one way or another. I ended up teaching literature for many years and completed a PhD in English a decade a go. In that time I was busy examining, deconstructing, and theorising narrative and meaning-making, and I can still busk a post-structuralist debate (“does experience shape language, or does language shape experience?”). When I changed careers, I found myself immediately drawn to the marketing and communications side of business – still enticed over questions of how we make meaning.
I have more than my fair share of pleb tastes too. I’m the go-to person if you want to know the latest TV box set to gorge on (FYI: Fargo). I load up my kindle on a regular basis, whipping my way through titles like Christmas at Rosie Hopkins Sweetshop (yep) or Dawn French’s According to Yes. I got positively misty eyed at Star Wars – The Force Awakens.
To unwind, I go for the predictable stuff of chick-lit (horrible term, but I prefer it to ‘romance’) or mysteries. They’re comforting and familiar. But too much and you can end up with that post Christmas holiday feeling – overstuffed, a bit numb, and not really tasting that chocolate mint truffle any more. It’s then that I crave something more challenging, a narrative that opens up new thinking and fosters creativity, not mere comfort for comfort’s sake. So beside my bed are pen-inked copies of Thinking Fast and Slow and David and Goliath. Wolf Hall also loiters there accusingly, half-read.
Shared experience, through story, is how we connect with each other
Ultimately, story-telling, shared experience, is at the root of our ability to connect and empathise with others. Neuroscience shows that stories bring our brains together. Character-driven stories apparently cause oxytocin synthesis in the brain, and researchers have looked at how you can ‘hack’ the oxytocin system to encourage people to engage in co-operative behaviours.
I recently worked with colleagues to design a workshop that brought together people from different divisions and geographical locations in our organisation. Read the rest of this entry »
In the UK, the decisions around the government’s comprehensive spending review have been announced. While the scale of those cuts is perhaps not as deep as anticipated in some areas, the downstream impact on those of us who work in the public sector is as yet unknown. We know change will be afoot, it will likely affect us or those we work with directly, and all this is set against a backdrop of increasingly vexing international news of global conflict and crises.
While we know the old adage that the only thing certain in life is uncertainty itself, changes of this nature – which feel so completely out of our control – trigger anxiety and fear in even the most resilient among us.
Pondering this, I’ve gone back to remind myself of the few positive truths about our negative feelings regarding uncertainty.
I’m OK, You’re OK is one of those titles I’d feel slightly embarrassed to be caught reading on the train. When I bought myself a copy a while back, my other half reacted as if I had moved to the dark side. Before he knew it, I’d be lecturing him on how to Make Friends and Influence People, or letting him in on The Secret.
In fact, while I’m OK, You’re OK was highly popular during the 1970s, it’s actually pretty turgid stuff. In it, Thomas Harris builds on Eric Berne’s theory of ‘Transactional Analysis,’ which argues that from birth, through all our interactions or ‘transactions’ with one another, we adopt three different Ego States: Parent, Child and Adult. The theory goes like this:
As Parent, we behave or ‘mimic’ how we feel our parents or other parental/authority figures have acted. This may mean playing the authoritative and strict Parent, or a nurturing and rescuing one. And when we adopt this state, we are subconsciously positioning those we are interacting with as ‘Child’
As Child, we act and feel as we would have in childhood. We may have a negative emotional reaction if we are criticised (or perceive criticism) and may either sulk, withdraw or rebel. Alternatively, we crave and seek approval from others in order to feel validated, and when we adopt this state, we are subconsciously positioning the other as either a rescuing or dictatorial ‘Parent.’
It is as Adult that we are at our most objective and arguably distanced from these intrinsically emotional polarities of Parent/Child. We can stand back to see the reality of what’s going on and resist the temptation to leap to conclusions about intent or cause. We use our intelligence and reasoning capabilities to step outside the emotional ‘game’ or drama associated with the Parent/Child dynamic and instead focus on the practical steps needed to really resolve a situation. We adopt an ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’ life position.
A simple but effective way to gain perspective on our thoughts and actions
Of course there is a lot more to it than this, and the bases for the original theory have been much-critiqued. In many ways the model is perhaps just too simple, the Parent, Child, Adult categorisations neat labels we can ‘shoehorn’ our behaviours into.
However, I’ve found that the power of this idea actually rests in its inherent simplicity.
We often confuse what makes us happy with what gives us pleasure, but in fact, what makes us happy may not feel pleasant at a particular moment. Paul Dolan ( Professor of Behavioural Science at LSE, and author of Happiness by Design) argues a simple but powerful point: to feel happy, we need to attend to both pleasure and a sense of purpose in our lives.
And what gives people a sense of pleasure or purpose can vary; there is no one-size-fits all approach here. The trick is to get an equilibrium that’s right for you.
But in the workplace, a sense of purposeless or futility can be especially toxic, lowering our morale and ability to get things done. Why bother?
So how do we address this? A few very simple ideas inspired by Dolan:
1. Attend to your enjoyment of co-workers more than your ‘next career step’
First, we need to spend less time fixated on an imagined future state where things will be ‘better’ (when I get that promotion things will change). Instead we need to attend to the experiences on any given day that make us feel happy – spending time with a co-worker you really like, for example. When considering our happiness, we often overlook these simple everyday experiences, when in fact they have a major impact on our overall happiness. Far more than we realise.
2. Stop forgetting to say thank you
We’re forgetting to say ‘thank you.’ As organisations become increasingly dispersed and digital, and our in-boxes get more out of control, we can often forget the power of a simple acknowledgement. (I know I can be guilty of this). A report or proposal is sent, but due to other priorities, we forget to acknowledge it, and tackle other pressing tasks instead. A day or two goes by and we’ve forgotten about that ‘hey I did this for you’ shout-out from a colleague. And that colleague is now beginning to question the purpose of what they’ve done, and why they even bothered.
A simple recognition of the value of work done can go a long way in preventing that creeping sense of pointlessness that makes us disengage, and can have a real positive impact on motivation.
3. Don’t presume intent
Dolan’s main point is that we need to acknowledge people to make them feel valued and therefore happier. But I want to add that on the flip side, just as toxic to a sense of happiness can be the stories we tell ourselves about colleagues ‘deliberately ignoring’ us. This is why my other mantra is ‘don’t presume intent.’ Be mindful of when you may be committing a fundamental attribution error – inferring that because you’ve not heard from someone, that they are deliberately ignoring you, and are therefore a bad person. That response is often far more likely to be about you than the other person, who very likely has no inkling of the impact of their behaviour (and if they do, it’s another matter entirely).
Next time you have a decent conversation with a co-worker – whether it’s about work or which box-set you’re both currently addicted to – remember this is having more impact on your day-to-day happiness than finishing that major report, or getting a pay rise (momentarily satisfying though those things are). Seek out those connections and pay attention to how you feel about them.
Remind yourself to acknowledge others – a heartfelt thank you will do as a start. And remember that there’s nothing like feeling ignored to make someone feel like their work is pointless.
But if you’re on the receiving end, and feeling like your work is not valued, be aware of whether you are leaping to conclusions about the intent of the co-worker ‘maligning’ you. Chances are they’re fighting their own battles.
Want to learn more? Here’s a really short video where Dolan gives tips on workplace happiness.
And here’s a much longer one where he presents at the 2015 ‘Good Day At Work’ National Wellbeing Conference.