happiness

Twelve Ways To Be Less Psycho this Christmas

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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 »

Facing the void. Coming to terms with what’s really holding us back.

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diving board

[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 »

Reflecting on Reasons to Stay Alive

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reasonstostayaliveI’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?’

[pg. 26]

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?

 

 

 

Learning the art of shouting quietly

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I’ve just finished watching the Youtube video of Pete Mosley‘s talk about ‘The Art of Shouting Quietly’ at a recent Glitch creative event in Nottingham.

 

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):

Read the rest of this entry »

Moral licensing: When good habits go bad

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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.

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What stories are you making up?

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Create your own storyI’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 »

Four ways to cope with uncertainty

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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.

Read the rest of this entry »