How To Start Meditating (Even If You Can't Sit Still)

Since my last blog about doing a silent retreat, lots of people have asked me how to start meditating. It's something I haven't written about before because there is so much information out there. But it seems that all the information can be confusing - where do you start?

Here is my attempt to set out some of the best ways to get into it.

First of all, everyone is different (of course!) and different approaches work for different people at different times. I've tried to set out some of the options and make recommendations. So read on for the description that best describes you...

You can't sit still
If you hate sitting still, you might find being motionless for 10 minutes pretty unpleasant. Even if you can do it, you won't enjoy it, and it is very hard to create a habit doing something you don't enjoy. So if this is you, perhaps try a yoga meditation, a moving meditation, or a walking meditation. There are some free guided meditations provided by Bangor University (plus many more meditations which do involve sitting still).

You want an evidence-based approach
One of the things that has really revolutionised meditation has been the development of structured courses that have been studied and evaluated. The two famous ones are Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the USA) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (developed by Mark Williams in the UK). Both have a good evidence-base behind them. You can find people who teach them throughout the UK and USA, or you can get books which take you through the courses (MBSR here and MBCT here).

You want a more spiritual approach
I started meditating with a more spiritual approach. Most religions have a tradition of meditation, even if it isn't a current mainstream practice. I started meditating with organisations influenced by Buddhist practices. For me, the advantage of these approaches is that I feel like they tap into a deeper reservoir of help and support. I would recommend Tara Brach as an excellent teacher in the Buddhist tradition. Her talks and meditations are free online. One of the things I particularly like is her focus on self-compassion and kindness.

You want a free online course
Here is one! I haven't tried it, but a trusted friend and mindfulness teacher recommended it. If you do it let me know how it goes!

You want something that works for an office environment
There are now a lot of organisations providing mindfulness in a work context. The advantage of these is that they are sensitive to the work situation and the fact you don't want to be talking about your deepest darkest issues in a room full of colleagues. The one I have worked with (and I think they are excellent) is Mindfulness At Work.

You want to meditate while out and about
So this is a bit of a cheat - it's not really meditation. But it is very cool, and makes you look at the world in a different way. It is Street Wisdom, a non-for-profit which encourages people to walk around the streets and look at things in a different way. I did one a few months ago. You go to the leader who gives you an instruction, like "Observe patterns" and you go off for 15 minutes only looking at patterns. Then you come back and get a different instruction, like "Slow right down" and you see how odd it is to walk slowly round the streets (and how the police look at you with interest - subversive!). Some people in our group had really amazing experiences, which you can read about on the website. Anyway, there are plenty upcoming in the UK but fewer abroad. You can set one up yourself by downloading the instructions from the website.

So there you have it. Some recommendations. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I've tried to keep it simple on purpose. The key thing is to start, and if possible, to find someone to do it with you - a buddy who can support you and keep you accountable. Agree a plan and try to stick to it. But don't let the best be the enemy of the good. Just like with exercise, some meditation is a lot better than none. So even 5 minutes will make a difference, especially if you keep doing it most days.


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Silence is Golden

I’ve just come back from a 10-day silent meditation course. I did my first one in 2012, and it was the best thing I have ever done - I don’t say that lightly. I’ve since done five of them, as well as an 8-day course and the odd 1-day course. People often ask me what they are like and it’s a really hard question to answer, but I thought, given the difference they have made in my life, it was worth trying to explain.

You arrive with a bunch of strangers, many looking a bit nervous, at the meditation centre. The one I went to in Italy is an old converted holiday house with a bit of an institutional feel, and you share a room with four or six other people. Not plush. But then they are also free. I’m sure there are plusher ones that you pay for.

The timetable is pretty hardcore. You are encouraged to meditate for around 10 hours every day, though the bare minimum is three hours. But there is a very loud gong at 4am which can be quite hard to sleep through, and there is nothing else to do except sleep and walk round a small walking track, so even if I’m taking it easy, I do at least seven hours each day.

You basically live the life of a monk or a nun for 10 days. The sexes are segregated, you share facilities with lots of strangers and just spend hour after hour in silent meditation or daydream.

What this means is that anything you don’t want to think about comes up in your mind. Wrongs that you did, wrongs that were done to you, strange memories from school days... all of these float up to the surface of your mind and you start to think about them. Then you remember you are supposed to be meditating and go back to doing that. But three seconds later you are back with a thought.

That is basically what always happens with meditation. But in this intense experience of it, you learn so much about your mind and your ability/lack of ability to master it. Because you can’t talk to anyone or distract yourself, you have to face yourself head on. The process forces you to take responsibility for how you feel and gives you a tool to manage that. You realise that one moment you can be happy and relaxed, thinking about a lovely memory, and the next moment, hot with rage as you think of some particularly unpleasant thing.

As the process goes on, an alchemy takes over. You get glimpses of how you can let things go. Glimpses of how to remain calm and equanimous when the unpleasant sensations of rage or guilt or fear arise. And you realise how incredibly powerful that ability is. 

It opens the door to being able to enjoy your life regardless of what happens (within bounds - I found myself thinking about Victor Frankl’s book on his experience of concentration camps, and how hard it would be to have complete control over your own mind in the most extreme of circumstances).

You also just get lots of time to think. In the smartphone age there is always something pinging at you or a game to play/blog to read. You never have time to be bored. But boredom is important. It pushes you past the things you don’t want to think about, and out the other end. For me, it gives me time to be logical about life - what matters to me? What doesn’t? This ability both to separate myself from my emotions, and have time to think clearly, paves the way to navigate life’s choices, big and small.

Silent retreats aren’t for everyone. The ones I go to are a bit like an extreme exercise camp - if you arrive very unfit, you could end up completely transformed, or in hospital! And if you have an injury or weakness that you are unaware of, it will probably improve, but could be exacerbated. I think it’s the same - I’ve heard first hand of miraculous results with people’s depression leaving them or long-standing physical ailments clearing up. But other people have awful experiences, and there is limited support on the course because the focus on self-responsibility is so strong. Also you are encouraged to sit still three times-a-day from Day Four onwards, which helps you look at your aches and pains objectively, but some people really torture themselves (this is not the idea - but the instructions do push you to sit with the pain). I suspect the teaching is set up for a more relaxed Indian approach, and when it meets Western culture with the intense pressure so many of us put on ourselves, it can do damage. I also think there should be more time spent doing self-compassion.

So, yes, it is the single most transformative thing I have done in my life. But despite this, I recommend it with caution. It is very strong medicine. There are lighter retreats that exist with more support and that may be a more gentle way to examine one’s mind. However the course I just did was wonderful. Yes it was hard work, and yes I was glad when it was over. But it left me feeling much more balanced, happier and focused on what really matters.

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Kissing Joy As It Flies

I just got engaged!  For those of you who have known me a while, you will know this has been a looooong time coming.  But amazingly, miraculously and magnificently, it finally has.  Suddenly the world seems full of sunshine and rainbows - I walk around with a big cheesy grin all the time.  It's also been such a pleasure telling my friends, and seeing their happiness in my good fortune, which makes me feel really loved.  (Actually - responding to good news is more important than responding to bad news to create good relationships, something I have really been experiencing.) 

But there is also a little fear behind the happiness and excitement. What if this feeling doesn't last?  What if there are problems and sadness ahead? What if I don't always feel like a fairytale princess?  

The thing is, of course this exact feeling won't last.  No feelings do, exactly.  They fluctuate and change and grow and diminish constantly.  That is being human.  There will also be problems and sadness ahead - no life occurs without misfortunes and difficulties.  But there will also be joy, unexpected delights, hilarious evenings and wonderful moments.  That's the nature of life - constant change.  So how do I let go of this strange fear that seems to go along with the excitement and happiness?  William Blake puts it beautifully:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise

William Blake (1757 - 1827)

Good one Will. I guess we humans haven't changed much over the past 200 years.  I can remember many of the happiest times of my life being tinged by a nostalgia that they wouldn't last and a desire to hold on to them for dear life.  But Blake has it right - we can't bind ourselves to joy.  It is transitory and flies past, just as other feelings come and go.  What we can do is kiss it as it flies.  To me that means truly savouring the moment, without worrying about the future.  Right now, it means enjoying the whole wedding thing - indulging myself going round expensive bridal shops, and getting a kick out of choosing ridiculously cute dresses for the flower girls.  

It also means enjoying this period with my fiancé.  Knowing it special, and again, savouring it. Remembering that it is just one of many special times we will have in our lives together.  Keeping a note of some of the best things in my gratitude journal so I can look back at them in the future when life brings me a different set of joys and challenges. And if I find myself getting nostalgic about the present....I will just read a bit of Blake.



5 Steps to Build a Good Relationship

When I started blogging, I made the decision not to write about romantic relationships. My love life was pretty much non-existent, and it was an area I felt too vulnerable in to share. I still feel a bit uncomfortable about writing about it, if I'm honest. My love life is really happy at the moment, but something still stops me from wanting to be too public about it, possibly because it feels like tempting fate.

However I'm going to do it anyway. It's a big omission to leave out romantic relationships when writing about happiness because they are one of the strongest drivers of wellbeing. 86.3% of married people report high or very high life satisfaction, as opposed to 75.4% of British singletons - see the chart below.

Life satisfaction by marital status, April 2014 - March 2015

Source: Office of National Statistics

Source: Office of National Statistics

I don't want to depress any singletons reading this on Valentine's Day. I think the key is connection with others, that is just much easier to make happen when you are in a romantic relationship. We are a social species, and even introverts need to be around others to get a boost (though for less time than extroverts). On average, we need about 6 hours of time with others per day. I found when I was living on my own and working from home that my mood would sink if I didn't go out and see friends or family. I learnt to build that into my day to maintain my cheer. It didn't actually matter if I talked to them much - just working in companionable silence with someone else made me much happier.

During my long period of singledom, I thought a lot about how I could create a good relationship when the right one came along. I thought about complaints past boyfriends had made, and what I might do differently. Now I am finally getting the chance to practice! Here are some of the things I am trying to do (often unsuccessfully) to create the most positive relationship I can:

1. Ask about his day. This might seem like a small thing, but it is indicative of a much larger shift in attention. I can easily be a bit self-focussed, and want to talk about all the things that have happened to me. But taking a moment to shift my focus onto him and his experience of the day make a big difference to how connected I feel. This is linked to listening properly too.

2. Cook for him. I'm a veggie, and he is a carnivore, so this one isn't going that well. But I've made a few things that he seemed to enjoy, and it's at least in part the thought that counts. I want him to feel cared for and loved, and I think food is a really good way of doing this (N.B. he also cooks for me - this isn't a 1950s set up!).

3. Fight fair. We haven't had too many fights (yet) but it has been really important to me to establish the rules of engagement early on. One rule is that I always remember he cares about how I feel about the outcome - part of his happiness is reliant on my happiness. A second is that I remember the same goes for me and his happiness. A third (which is the hardest for me) is that I wait for the right moment to talk difficult things through - i.e. not when I'm angry but when we are getting on well. A fourth is that I do eventually bring them up, and don't leave them to fester. A fifth is honesty, including avoiding omission or false implication.

4. Compliment him. If I think something nice, I say it. According to relationship expert John Gottman, couples that last have a ratio of 5 positive things to 1 negative thing. I know how much I appreciate a compliment, and it makes it much easier to take on board any suggestions for improvement!

5. Lots of hugs. I read a great suggestion originating from a book by Steven Stosny and Patricia Love to have six six-second hugs with your loved one each day. 36 seconds of huggage should be able to fit into anyone's day. The human need for touch is such an interesting thing - premature babies in incubators are still taken out and given to their mum to have skin-to-skin contact. Despite the inevitable exposure to germs, it leads to much better outcomes.

So it's still early days for my boyfriend and I - we are in the honeymoon period and haven't really been tested. But it also feels like are off to a much more positive start than previous relationships. I think at least some of that comes from having had the time to think about things when I was single, and admit and learn from past mistakes. And now, finally(!), I have the chance to put my thoughts into practice.



How I Plan To Become A Productivity Ninja

So far, January has felt like an impossibly busy month. After a fairly hectic Christmas break, it seems like there is just SO much to do, and my ‘to-do’ list surfaces in my dreams making me tired and inefficient during the day. When I’m feeling very busy, I start to lose my connection with what matters to me. I start sweating the small stuff - the minor unpleasant exchange or the pushy person on the tube - and I don’t feel like I connect fully with people. If someone is upset, I default to trying to sort their problem out, rather than truly listening to them.

I don’t think I’m the only one. I think a sense of busyness can undermine our ability to prioritise what really matters.

There was an interesting experiment in 1973 known as the Good Samaritan study. They were trying to work out what might make people more likely to stop for someone in trouble. All the people in the study were students studying religion. First they had to answer a personality questionnaire about their religion, and then they had to give a talk in another building. The talk was either on seminary jobs or the story of the Good Samaritan. The first group were told they were running late for the talk and better hurry, the second that they should go straight there, while the third was told they had a few minutes spare but should head over anyway. On the way, they had to walk past a man slumped in a doorway, who moaned and coughed twice as they walked by. The question was, did they do anything to help him?

There was a sliding scale of response (full paper here), but basically, the only thing that made a significant difference to the likelihood of them stopping was whether or not they were in a rush. 63% of those not in a rush offered some kind of help, 45% of the medium rush group helped, and only 10% of the high rush group helped.

That’s a big difference - 63% vs. 10%. And it’s one that I sympathise with deeply. Few things make me more self-involved than being in a rush. But what can I do about it?

I was trying to work this out (beyond leaving earlier to get to places, running the dangerous risk that I might find myself with some time to sit and relax). But I couldn’t come up with much more. Then I found myself at an Action for Happiness event, listening to a fantastic talk by ‘Productivity Ninja’ Matthew Brown. It was as though he was speaking directly to me with the advice I needed to hear. The quote that really stuck in my head was: “Being busy is a form of laziness.” by Tim Ferriss. Ouch!

Now I have LOADS of productivity ideas to try out. There were so many ideas that I figured the best thing was to single out my top three, and try to start turning them into habits, otherwise I risked overwhelming myself even more. These are:

1. Eat that frog (N.B. this is a metaphor not a recipe). The idea is you do the biggest and most difficult task first thing. You have to plan to do this the night before (otherwise you would clearly find a way to wriggle out of it). I am still struggling with this, but I can see how much value it would bring. Plus then you get to feel smug all day.

2. Email management... There was a lot on this, and I definitely need to change my email habits, but the one idea I’m going to start with is to check my email in batches during the day. It’s amazing how difficult I find it not to check my email when I’ve got a few minutes spare. But spending that time looking around, thinking about my priorities, even daydreaming a bit, seems a much better use of time than constantly reacting to every little thing that comes in. Matthew compared this to constantly going to the front door and looking outside to see if anyone was there.

3. Using software to help schedule tasks and to-do lists. I already use Trello when I need to collaborate with others and Calendly to enable other people to book slots in my diary. Now I have started blocking out bits of my Google calendar for time to do specific tasks. But my to-do lists are still on pen and paper, and probably need to migrate somewhere more high-tech.

Wish me luck! This is definitely work in progress. But at least I have some suggestions of where to start. And an excuse to call myself a ninja.

You should soon be able to see Matthew’s full talk on AFH’s Youtube site.



Where is the happiest place to live

For as long as I can remember I've been going on holiday to Galloway.  It's in the south west corner of Scotland - a part of the country that's often ignored as people power up the motorway to Glasgow or Edinburgh and beyond.  My earliest memories are of staying in my grandparents' stationary caravan - its bizarre self-composting loo that you had to climb up and sit on like a throne, and its garish swirling '70s wallpaper. I remember lying in my bunkbed, whispering to my sister and listening to the adults' low voices next door.  Later my parents bought a crumbling farmhouse nearby and the bunkbeds moved with them.  

The sea at dusk.  Photo taken from the cliffs on my most recent trip.

The sea at dusk.  Photo taken from the cliffs on my most recent trip.

For a city kid, my holidays in Galloway were quite apart from the rest of my childhood.  They were times when I could roam free, create hideouts, climb trees, make up stories about fairies and return home for dinner when I heard the sound of a bell ringing.  The house is now in much better shape, nice wallpaper and double-glazing.  But the magic it holds for me is exactly the same.  I still feel a sense of freedom and belonging there that I don't feel anywhere else.  I've heard the phrase "landscape of the heart" to mean the landscape that's part of you.  For me it is a small corner of south west Scotland. 

I was there over New Years Eve. The night before I left I walked down to the beach.  My eyes gradually became accustomed to the dark, and I looked up to see the stars above me.  As I walked back, I wondered for the millionth time whether I would be happier if I lived there.  I've never lived in the countryside, despite having moved around a lot when I was working for the Foreign Office.  I worry that I would feel isolated if I was there all the time, and that moving is a romantic dream rather than a practical option.  Plus there is my work and my boyfriend's work.  London has one big advantage over the rest of the country, and that is the job market.  

But practicalities aside, would I be happier if I moved to Galloway? Is it something I should aim for in the long-term?  Of course...I decided to see if there was any data on it. Happily, the ONS have created an amazing tool which you allows you to compare different wellbeing levels in the country.  I figured I should check out how Galloway compares to Islington (where I'm from), and Chelsea (where I'm living).  I've stuck the charts of how they compare at the bottom of this blog, but the basic answer is, yes - Galloway is better than Islington on all measures, and better than Chelsea on most measures.  People in Galloway say they are happier, less anxious, feel their lives have more meaning and are more satisfied with their lives.

In fact Islington, the borough I've lived most of my life, is one of the unhappiest places in the entire living in Chelsea is step up (though to be honest, it's really not me). And the happiest place is the Outer Hebrides - though moving there seems a bit drastic.

One thing I noticed returning to London is the speed everything is done at here.  In Galloway, going to a shop seemed to be as much a way to socialise as to actually buy something. I'll admit to finding this a bit tricky to adjust to, trying to find my inner zen while waiting 10 minutes to be served by someone engaged in long discussion about the best local butcher.  But I know from the happiness research that connection with others is crucial.  And it's so easy to feel in too much of a rush to connect with others in the city.
So for now, I'm going to try and keep my country head on in the city.  I'm going to try to make sure I spend time in parks, or get the train out to the countryside on the weekends.  And I'm going to try to be sociable with shop assistants (though mindful of those in the queue behind me).  And most of all, I'm going to make sure I take the time to look up at the sky once or twice every night.

Here are the charts for the following questions (all using ONS Annual Population Survey data).  People were asked to respond on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 was "not at all" and 10 was "completely".

Screen Shot 2017-01-09 at 21.33.23.png

Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?

Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?


Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?

Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?


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Does Having Children Make You Happier?

First of all - I’m not a parent.  I’ve always wanted to become one, but it’s taken me a long time to find my guy.  Now I’ve finally found him (hurrah!), we’ve started to have the odd conversation about the future and having kids. So after wanting them for so long, I’m finally faced with the possibility I might actually have them. I should be thrilled, right?  Well, yes I am.  But I’m also terrified.  On the one hand I’m scared that I’ll become really attached to the idea of having a child and then suffer if I’m not able to conceive.  On the other, I’m scared by the idea that I will conceive and the scale of change and responsibility that would ensue.  After all, I would love to have a dog but I don’t want the a child...well...that’s a whole other level!

My nephew.  He loves washing machines.

My nephew.  He loves washing machines.

In times of turmoil, what better than to turn to the statistics?  What do they say about children and happiness?  At first sight, it’s not good.  Most of the data seems to indicate that having children makes you less happy.  One study showed working women rate looking after their children somewhere between commuting and housework. It damages your relationship (I’m reminded of an article where the guy said it was like running a crèche with someone he used to date) and it tends to reduce self-reported wellbeing.  

Some of the pain of parenthood seems to be associated with what country you are in.  American parents are 12% unhappier than their non-parenting counterparts, while Portuguese parents are 8% happier than their non-parenting counterparts, according to a 2015 study.  A lot of this seems to be explained by the cost of childcare and the lack of state support for parents.

But something I notice about some of the amazing mothers I’m lucky enough to have as friends is the huge amount of pressure they put on themselves.  Most of them work full-time (and if they don’t, this is another stick they use to beat themselves up with). They get home after a full day’s work and measure themselves against impossibly high standards. Have they made fresh soup or (heaven forbid) bought it from the shops?  Have they lashed out at a loved one or said a harsh word?  How else are they failing? It seems like there is always an inner monologue doing themselves down.  And I suspect this is why having kids seems to be a period where people are so judgmental of each other - this inner monologue spills over into criticising others or opening the way for strangers to feel they have a right to criticise you.

This isn’t just true of the mothers I know, though it does seem to be particularly prevalent in women.  I haven’t even had children and I’m great at doing myself down with a harsh, critical inner voice.  I suspect this will be the most difficult thing to handle if I do have a baby. That, and lack of sleep.  

One way I have found to reduce negative thoughts is to distance myself from them through practicing meditation.  The practice of letting your thoughts go and coming back to the breath or body helps to weaken how true they feel.  The other is to actively practice self-compassion.  I try to replace the negative voice with a really kind one - imagining what I’d say to a good friend of mine and then repeating it to myself.

But before ending on that slightly negative note, has the data got it right?  Just asking how happy people are may miss the more elusive joys of parenthood.  Sonja Lyubomirsky, Happiness Professor and mother of four, suggests there may be an issue with measurement. She quotes Ingelhart and colleagues: ‘’One minute when your child comes running to greet you with a smile and a hug may be worth a hundred minutes of cleaning up after them”.  This is implied by the data in a very sad way. One of things that makes people most unhappy is the loss of a child - it’s one of the few things which people don’t adapt to and return to their previous level of wellbeing. The crushing grief experienced by parents who lose a child suggests that there may be a flip-side of joy that is not being properly captured.

Perhaps this is where a narrow wellbeing scale can only do so much to reflect the human experience, and the different aspects of joy. So many people have told me that having children was the best thing they ever did. They talk of times when their baby melts into their body and falls asleep, or holds their finger, or gives them a smile. Their eyes go misty and I can see they will cherish these moments all their lives, despite complaining about lack of sleep and not having had a shower for days.

So perhaps this is one time I will not take the route advised by the data. Though if I’m not able to conceive I plan to take a lot of comfort in it!

Izzy McRae is a coach, happiness teacher and founder of the Gratitude Garden app. Her next course, the Happiness MBA, starts on 21 November.

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Giving Anger The Credit It Deserves

Last week I lost my temper. I arrived into JFK airport after a long flight, and joined the queue for immigration. Because I’d already got an Esta, I could use the same process as the Americans, but despite this, all foreigners were ushered into a separate queue that filtered into the same immigration terminals. I waited and waited. The queue didn’t seem to be moving. Then I realised - they were letting one foreigner in for every 20-30 Americans. I ended up waiting around 40 minutes, while Americans whipped past.

By the time I reached the end of the queue I was seething. I raged at the immigration woman (never a good idea!) that she was being totally unfair to make foreigners wait so much longer. She told me Americans had priority and basically to suck it up.

About 30 minutes later, the rage finally started to subside. I checked in on myself. Why had I lost my temper? Why had it felt so important to make my point that I had risked upsetting an immigration official? I thought about my previous assumption that anger was a secondary emotion, tending to cover up something less pleasant that we didn’t want to feel - sadness or fear. But I wasn’t sad and I wasn’t scared. So why was I angry?

I realised that what had made me angry was unfairness. In fact, what often makes me angry is unfairness. This anger drives me to try to improve things that I would be better to leave alone if I were acting purely in my self-interest. So perhaps I haven’t given anger the credit it deserves. We have a natural desire for things to be fair, and when things are unfair we can quickly become angry. So do capuchin monkeys in this wonderful experiment.

Why is that important? I think our willingness to fight for fairness underpins successful societies. We work better when things are fairer. So do families, companies and communities. Corruption, the bastion of unfairness, makes people miserable. And corrupt countries tend to be poorer than those that aren’t. When I lived in Pakistan, I saw how corruption undermined people’s sense that working hard and being honest would be rewarded. If that doesn’t work, why bother?

So anger can be useful, pushing us to fight for fairness. But I’m still very wary of it as an emotion. I still think it often covers up sadness or fear, and is therefore not completely honest as an emotion. Also, what people find unfair varies wildly. In politics the right often feel ‘fairness’ means the government getting out of the way and allowing individual ambition to be rewarded, while the left usually thinks ‘fairness’ means giving a helping hand. Then there is the practical reality that to really fight for what is fair requires persistence. And persistent anger is not a great place to be. Finally, anger can easily misfire. It’s such a powerful emotion that it can blind us to the best course of action, and prevent us for feeling empathy and compassion for others.

Perhaps this is why our natural desire for fairness is often considered childish. The teenagers’ cry through the ages, “It’s not fair!”. But those who battle for fairness, with patience, persistence and compassion are rarely considered childish. So anger has a useful place to alert us to battles we might want to fight. But it’s always better to let the anger cool off a bit before deciding whether to go for it, and what our tactics should be.

Izzy McRae is a coach, happiness teacher and founder of the Gratitude Gardenapp. Her next happiness course, the Happiness MBA, starts in November.

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If Governments Only Cared About Happiness, What Would They Spend On?

As anyone who has read my blog before will know, I spend a lot of time pondering the ingredients of happiness. So much of it seems situational - I’ve been very happy working incredibly hard, and very unhappy working incredibly hard, depending on the job. I’ve had a great time being single with no money (as a student) and a miserable time being single with no money (more recently). So if this question is difficult to answer for myself, how can governments be expected to not just answer it but actually put policies in place that make us happier?

Thankfully, this hasn’t stopped brave social scientists from trying to do exactly that. Increasingly, by comparing the data on how happy we are with our life circumstances, they are coming up with some slightly uncomfortable suggestions on what areas should be focused on.

The economist Richard Layard has argued convincingly that the first thing we should do is spend a lot more on mental health, as the cost would be cancelled out by knock on savings from lower crime and less need for disability benefits, social services and physical healthcare. I couldn’t agree more.

But beyond increasing spending on mental health, what else should governments be doing? Traditionally, governments try to make most of their citizens happier by improving their standard of living. This is usually measured by GDP per capita (i.e. the sum of what a country produces, divided by the number of people - a rough approximation of how much money people earn on average). The tacit assumption here is that more money equals a better life. But in reality, above a certain threshold people tend to get used to having more money and it cheers them up less. They just adapt to a higher living standard, without getting any happier. What does make them happier is being richer than other people... but inevitably not everyone can be above average!

So to make people happier, governments have to do two things. First, find something that people don’t adapt to. There is no point in focusing on something that only gives people a temporary happiness boost until they adjust their expectations. And second, find something that people don’t measure relative to others. It would be futile to make one group of citizens feel better if that made another group feel worse.

If the key is find things that people don’t measure relative to others, and don’t adapt to quickly, what are they?

Andrew Clark, an economist at the Paris School of Economics and the LSE, studied this question in relation to life satisfaction, and found the data threw up two things that fit the bill.  First, unemployment.  Do people adapt to being unemployed? No. Unemployment makes people really miserable and carries on doing so regardless of time. Do people measure themselves relative to others who have jobs? Only a bit. There is some evidence that being unemployed is slightly easier in high-unemployment areas, so perhaps people do measure themselves a little against others, but not a lot. 
Second, couples.  Do people adapt? A bit. There is a boost in life satisfaction around the entry into long-term relationships, and then it tails off somewhat, but not to the previous level. Do people measure themselves relative to others? The data suggests this only happens a little bit. (Though personally I have certainly found it more fun to be single when surrounded by lots of other singletons.)

So this throws up an easy question - should governments focus more on reducing unemployment?...and a more difficult one - should they get involved in trying to help people find partners and stay with them?

I suspect most people would agree that the government should play some role in helping people find jobs. The UK government already spends a lot on helping people back into work. If its sole focus was happiness, perhaps it could spend more, increasing the subsidies it provides for employers to hire people who have been unemployed for a long time, and those with poor mental health.

But the thing I’ve been thinking about more is whether governments should get more involved in helping people find partners. If so, how? It throws up dystopian images from films like The Lobster, where you get turned into an animal if you can’t find a partner within 45 days. Having been single for a long period myself, I have often felt like there was already a bias towards couples (though I’ve never been scared of being turned into a fish). Could the government have helped me out? Organised a few dates for me?! Weird. Probably not. But I do wonder if there is a government role in providing more support for couples to stay together.

There might also be another less obtrusive way for governments to help their singleton citizens. I think a lot of the unhappiness around being single comes from loneliness, and there are easier ways for the government to intervene to solve that problem than trying to partner everyone up. Indeed, as people get richer (a major government aim), they have the money to buy their own houses rather than live in big family groups, and I suspect partly as a result, everyone has become lonelier.

I offer this up as food for thought. I don’t have any conclusions, but it makes me very happy the evidence is being collected and studied with the aim of helping governments make better policies.

Finally, as individuals, we can attempt to tackle the issues of adaption and comparison directly. We can try to avoid comparing ourselves to others, and try to adapt to negative things quickly while staying appreciative of positive things. But governments can’t do this for us. Or can they? Possibly through education, but I think I’ll tackle that another time.

The Wellbeing Group in the Centre for Economic Performance is writing a comprehensive analysis of wellbeing over the life-course. They aim to do this in a way that can really help policy-makers.

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Why You Should Give Yourself One Night Each Week

One of the more recent steps I’ve taken to increase my happiness is to start going to a regular dance class. I sat down and wrote a list of things that made me happy, and then considered how I could do more of them. Climbing and dancing were right up there on the list. Then I was lucky enough to find this total beginners dance class which is very silly and very fun. I also started swing dancing and found a gang of people to climb with.

Tap Dancing Class at Iowa State College, 1942 By Jack Delano

Tap Dancing Class at Iowa State College, 1942 By Jack Delano

I’d say spending one evening a week dancing and one evening climbing has made a massive difference to my happiness. I feel much better in my skin because my body is used to exercise, and I’ve also made some really nice new friends. It also has a lasting effect across the rest of the week. Even when the rest of my life feels a bit gloomy, I’m looking forward to Tuesday evenings to get my swag on. (That’s what Beyoncé calls it. I’m not 100% sure I’ve used the term correctly. Don’t judge.)

Can I encourage you all to take a moment out of your day to watch this cockatoogetting his swag on to Backstreet’s Back. You might have watched it before, but it’s worth a repeat. Apparently there are very few animals that can actually dance, i.e. move spontaneously to a beat - mainly different types of parrot and the odd Asian elephant. But we humans are at it all over the world. Dance seems to be a natural instinct for us, with almost all human cultures having developed some form of dance. Apparently the evolutionary reason for this may be to spot genetically robust mates, to ward off other people from your mate, and/or to foster a sense of community.

To be honest, none of these fully feel like they capture the whole picture. For me, there is something about switching off the analytical part of my brain and putting my focus into moving instead that feels amazing. Also, there is a big difference between how I feel practicing a dance move to a teacher saying “ONE two three four, ONE two three four” to when they play the music and switch it up loud. Suddenly I get a jolt of energy and joy and just let rip.

There is a lot of evidence that dancing is good for you, physically and mentally. In fact, one study even indicated an 8-week tango course has comparable effects to an 8-week meditation course, decreasing depression and increasing satisfaction with life, effects that were maintained even a month after the courses ended.Another study showed reduced depression following salsa lessons, though over half the participants dropped out - a common problem in my experience with dance classes.

I’ve also seen evidence that dancing can help with cognitive health, as anything does which requires you to learn new stuff, and memorise things, e.g. complicated moves. It also helps with decision making as you have to decide which move to make next, and seems to delay dementia. And the range of movement and balance required in most dances mean it is particularly good exercise for the body.

Although there is lots of research implying dance is the bees knees, I don’t think it has to be dance to get the happiness hit. If anything, my climbing evening is more important to me. I just think the key is to spend one night a week doing something purely for your own enjoyment, especially if you feel like you are improving at it. We can be blocked by the fear of having to face a class full of new people or worrying we won’t know the right steps. But it can transform your week, even when you have to drag yourself out after a tough day at work.



What Percentage of Happiness Can We Control?

Happiness is hard work. This isn’t what anyone wants to hear, and you might not agree. We have all watched friends transform from miserable to happy as a result of a new relationship, a new job or some other change in life circumstances. And life circumstances clearly do affect our happiness. People in relationships are, on average, happier than single people (though not by a huge amount). Unemployment, however, is highly correlated with depression. I know from my own life that being surrounded by people I like and having meaningful work are both hugely important for my happiness.

There can be a quick fix to increasing happiness - landing your dream job, meeting the man or woman of your dreams, winning the lottery, etc. But these (a) require a great deal of luck and (b) tend to be more complicated than they seem at first. On top of this, we are remarkably good at getting used to our circumstances, whatever they may be. With the exception of particularly difficult events which make us less happy permanently (for example, losing a child or repeated bouts of unemployment), we tend to adapt to our circumstances - positive or negative.

Or at least, so the theory goes for most of us. But then there are people like the Buddhist monk and writer Matthieu Ricard, who seems to be much, much, much happier than most people. His happiness was measured by an fMRI scanner, and found to be completely outside the range of normal humans. He has spent tens of thousands of hours meditating on compassion and love.

And there is the research by Sonja Lyubormirsky. She looked at identical and non-identical twins, and found that around 50 per cent of happiness was hereditary and 10 per cent was down to life circumstances (averaging life circumstances out across a life time - i.e. not when you’ve just been dumped). But that still leaves 40 per cent of our happiness in our control.

This 40 per cent share is where the hard work comes in. I’ve been tackling the 40 per cent for a while now, and I think I’ve managed to increase my happiness by about half that amount. The first bit of effort is finding out what you need to do to change your 40 per cent. For me, meditation is crucial, but it is really hard work and easy to let slip. Then there is exercise - one change I’ve made is to make sure I go dancing once a week, and climbing once a week. These two things have really made a difference.

Are they hard work? Well, not really, but I do need to prioritise them, and sometimes they make me feel a bit out of my comfort zone - either socially, or due to the exercise itself (especially the dancing). Then there is gratitude journaling, which I found so hard to do consistently that I made it into an app...and I still sometimes don’t get round to doing it (don’t tell anyone!).

There are plenty more tips and tricks, all of which can be tough for various reasons. Either they require you to prioritise your happiness ahead of other pressing tasks; or they require you to set aside time in a really busy day; or they require you to address slightly uncomfortable questions and habit patterns. For all of this, having a community of similarly-minded people to cheer you on and hold you accountable makes a huge difference.

That is why I would strongly recommend going on happiness course to find similar minded people. I’m running one online called the Happiness MBA, which starts on Monday 25 July, and will encourage participants to be a virtual community for each other. There is also the wonderful Action for Happiness’s 8-week course, Exploring What Matters, which is taught in person and is spreading around the world, so you might find one near you. If not you could always offer to run one or make your own little happiness community.




What Jobs do The World’s Happiest People do?

Are farmers happier than musicians? Do members of the clergy feel more satisfied with their lives than politicians? Are people happier in better paid jobs?

The ONS has been collecting the data for the past three years, and What Works Wellbeing (a Government-funded think tank) have just collated it to examine exactly these questions. The results are really interesting, at least to a happiness geek like me. So what do they show?

Money helps - but not much

Life satisfaction is tied to some extent to salary, but less so as the salary rises. The chart is below. On the vertical axis, life satisfaction is plotted. On the horizontal axis, salary. As people earn more money, there seems to be an increase in life satisfaction. But this isn’t the whole story. Financial brokers, who are paid on average around £120,000pa, seem to be of middling life satisfaction. Clergy, on the other hand, who are paid around £20,000pa, are tremendously satisfied with their lot (although I think they get their accommodation with the job, so perhaps their salary is artificially low). Ditto elected officers and representatives.

Who is happiest?

The survey looks at four questions: how happy people said they were yesterday, how anxious they were yesterday, how satisfied they are with their life, and how worthwhile they feel their life is. I was most interested in the jobs with the happiest people. They seemed to include sports related jobs - sports players, coaches, fitness instructors, dancers etc. Also people who did things with their hands - knitters and weavers are right up there. Also upholsterers and glass and ceramics makers. Farmers were also pretty happy. CEOs and elected officers are very happy, perhaps because they have a feeling of control. Hilariously, careers advisers aren’t very happy. Perhaps they should have a look at this data!

There seemed very little correlation between salary and happiness (unlike salary and life satisfaction). There was also not much correlation between salary and feeling like your life was worthwhile. Clergy topped this (again) but the rest of the pattern changed a bit. People in therapeutic professions make up many of the top ten - medical practitioners, psychologists, counsellors and therapy professions. Musicians are third (behind clergy and elected representatives).

Who is the least anxious?

So what professions have the lowest anxiety? Ok, so the data is a bit weird here. Some of it seems to be due to a small sample size (otherwise I really don’t understand why podiatrists are so anxious). Coal mine operatives are way off the charts in terms of anxiety, perhaps because they do dangerous jobs in a financially shrinking sector. But the strangest thing was that the professions with the lowest anxiety seem to be the ones I assume would have the highest. Ambulance staff! Paramedics! Air traffic controllers!! I can only assume these jobs attract people who are able to respond to stress in a calm way. I haven’t seen any studies on this though, and would be curious to know whether my hunch is correct.

Creative, active and spiritual jobs seem to make us happiest

Anyway, the clearest thing the data shows is that money does not have a significant impact on life satisfaction, happiness, a sense of life being worthwhile, or anxiety. Working with faith, sports, music or nature do seem to make people happy, though becoming a CEO or an elected representative also seems to do the trick. And if you are an anxious person, become a paramedic. That will sort you out. Just kidding. I guess the final lesson is never to take data too seriously, given it can only report on a sample, and sometimes it’s hard to separate cause and effect.



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Brexit - Time to Get Serious About Compassion

So last week I wrote about how to cope with other people’s negative emotions. The following day, the Brexit result was announced. The result packed such a big emotional punch that even though I normally try to keep out of politics, I felt I had to write about it. Brexit shows how difficult it can be to remain compassionate and balanced in response to a slew of anger and hatred.

The first thing I noticed was my own anger. Sometimes directed at people in the media, sometimes at friends for their views. Facebook has become a pretty toxic place with people using language towards others I haven’t seen in a long time. A week on, the anger seems to be growing rather than reducing. Racist attacks on one side - people being told to ‘go home’ or worse. And classist insults on the other - leavers being called scum, morons and bigots. Hidden divisions in society have been whipped up and intensified in a matter of days. Where has all this anger come from? Here are my thoughts:

1. Fear. When I meditated upon my own anger, I found there was a lot of fear underlying it. Fear of the speed of change, fear of what a weak economy would mean for my finances, fear of not being liked for my views, fear of what it revealed about others. And many people will be much more frightened, especially those who don’t have a British passport or suddenly don’t feel welcome here.

2. Sadness. I also found there was sadness at the ugliness revealed on both sides of the debate - the lack of compassion shown to others, be they from a different country or a different economic background.

3. Brain-numbing complexity. It is much easier to be angry than to accept that the other side might have any reasonable arguments for their position. This is because once you accept this, you have to also accept that issues like immigration are really really difficult and involve balancing different interests, including your own, and the result will always be unfair on some.

4. Self-justification. If you have said or done something you feel uncomfortable about, there is an incentive to keep demonising the other group, to make you feel more comfortable about your behaviour.

5. Tribalism. Social media can sometimes work like an echo chamber, with lots of support for similar views and penalties for expressing views outside the mainstream. It can exacerbate divisions rather than heal them.

So where is the silver lining? I may be overly optimistic, but I hope there is one. I love the UK and still have deep faith in the people living here. I feel that the EU referendum has unearthed inequality that we have long ignored, and although the unearthing has been painful, it has been done in a democratic and mostly orderly way. I hope that the anger will mellow into an understanding of the fear and sadness on both sides, and lead to a tolerant and compassionate discussion of what to do next.

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How Can You Avoid Catching Other People’s Negative Emotions?

I often pick up people’s moods. This can be great when they are happy; I love a group laughing fit over a very silly joke. But when people around me are anxious, I can find my shoulders rising and my mind racing. It’s particularly unhelpful when someone is angry. I get angry too. That’s a really bad combination! Better then to avoid the London Tube in rush-hour - carriages full of seething people coughing loudly in each other’s faces, and having armrest territory battles.

When someone is feeling negative, while it may be helpful to empathise with them, it’s not great (or indeed helpful) to feel the same as them. How can we stay kind and open, without picking up their negativity?

Ruby Wax has some tips. I’ve just started her book Frazzled, and recently went to her show. She has worked incredibly hard to be a happier and more compassionate person, and she is both funny and honest about how difficult it is. Finally, someone is making this stuff FUN!

Selfie with Ruby!

Selfie with Ruby!

1. Ruby suggests that if someone is shouting at you angrily, rather than listen to what they are saying, you should focus on their nostril hair. This helps to avoid “lobbing the ball of anger back so they can’t slam you with it again”. I’ve tried this and it’s surprisingly helpful. Not necessarily focusing on nostril hair, but just listening to the tone of their voice, or looking at the expression on their face, or something that gives you a bit of perspective on the situation, rather than getting drawn into a battle of words.

2. The second tip is to send them compassion. This is particularly true when they are upset, but also when they are angry (given anger often comes from fear or sadness). It’s good to empathise, but empathy on its own can be exhausting. Compassion on the other hand has positive energy around it. The wonderful Matthieu Ricard has written extensively on this. He points out that though there can be empathy-fatigue, there is no such thing as compassion-fatigue. I find that when someone is very angry and/or upset, it’s possible to do a tonglen exercise, breathing in their suffering and breathing out love. Something to try.

3. The final thing is when you notice you are copying someone’s negative emotions, to take a deep breath and put on a smile, reminding your body in these physical ways that you have a choice around how you respond. Smiling is also surprisingly contagious, and can really lighten the mood. I’ve found it very helpful in confrontational situations. People find it very hard not to smile back, so you are activating their natural physical response to your advantage!

How does this work? Recent research suggests it’s due to something called mirror neurons. These are neurons that mirror what is happening to someone else. As far as I’ve understood (and it seems there is still a lot of scientific debate about them) they mean we mirror actions, touch and emotions. So they explain why we flinch when we see something painful happen to someone else. The mirror neurons give us a sense that it is happening to us. According to Vilayanur Ramachandran, we actually would think it was happening to us if there wasn’t another set of information sent to the brain from our bodies telling us otherwise. This means that if I saw someone being touched on the arm, but my own arm was numb, I would have the sensation that I was being touched. 

Mirror neurons also seem to reflect emotions (again, there is some controversy over this). But it makes sense to me. And it’s worth noting the wider implications of this mood-catching phenomenon. We are pack animals, and so it doesn’t surprise me that our brain chemistry is set up so that we feel an impact from others moods.  Happiness spreads three degrees of separation, so your friend’s friend’s friend will be affected by your mood. Unhappiness also spreads, but to a lesser extent. So there is a real social argument in favour of us taking the time to be happier. Happiness is a cooperative rather than a competitive sport. And for me personally, it’s a good reminder to keep meditating and practicing gratitude, keeping myself happy and enjoying life.



How to Say a Super-Charged Thank You

Want to know a quick and easy way to make someone’s day?  Tell them thank you, like you mean it.  But how can you do this without looking like you are: a) sucking up, b) overly emotional or c) being formulaic?

Here’s a trick that works really well.  I’ve tried it.  I found it in Vanessa King’s excellent book – 10 Keys to Happier Living.  Ready?  Here goes, three levels of thank you:

1.     The Economy: Say thank you for the thing.

2.     The Premium: Say thank you for the thing and note the beneficial impact of what they did, e.g. what it meant to you/ how it helped you.

3.     The Super-Charged Deluxe: Say thank you for the thing, note the beneficial impact of what they did and then (and this is the crucial bit) note the positive quality or strengths you recognise in the other person.

So, at work, someone sends you a helpful email that is clearly set out and saves you a lot of time.  You might say, ‘Thank you for the email – it made my life easy!  It was really kind of you to take the time to set it out so clearly.’ I was explaining this to a friend who came over for dinner.  He had texted me earlier telling me he was bringing over some snacks and extras to add to our meal.  Explaining the Super-Charged Deluxe thank you, I said: ‘Thanks for texting me earlier about bringing snacks.  I was only making one dish so I was worrying it wasn’t enough, and when I got your text I was able to relax and enjoy cooking.  It was super thoughtful of you.’  Even though he knew what I was doing, he said it still made him feel good, because I had recognised that he was thoughtful.

What stops us?  Laura Trice suggests it’s embarrassment.  I think she is right.  Quite often I’ll tell someone else how grateful I am for a friend’s help/support, but I feel like I can’t tell the friend to their face.  There is something deeply uncomfortable about telling someone how much what they’ve done means to us (especially for a Brit).

Maybe there is also the fear of looking like we are being manipulative, not genuine or, worst of all, gushing. We might worry about the perception that we are thanking people for something so that we can get more from them in the future. Incidentally, this is effective.  Studies confirm the fairly obvious truth that if people are thanked, they are more likely to help in the future, and not just the thanker, but anyone who asks for help.  But the reason this happens is because being thanked makes people feel good about their kind deeds.  So if you feel embarrassed about thanking someone, just remember you are doing a social good by increasing the incentives in society to be kind.

Gratitude also has a host of other benefits, as I’ve mentioned before. I’ve found that gratitude journaling increases how much I notice kindnesses, and so I probably thank people more.

Now, finally, to end with a Super-Charged Deluxe thank you to my dear sister: Thank you for proof-reading my blog posts honey.  It makes me much more relaxed about publishing them to know you’ve cast your beady eye over them first.  You never change them much, which makes me more confident about what I write, but the little tweaks you add make all the difference.  You have a perfect combination of an editor’s eye and a sister’s heart!



Life gives you Lemons? Make Lemonade!

It’s interesting.  I don’t think I would have made the Gratitude Garden app if I hadn’t gone through a difficult time in my career.  If life had turned out as I planned, I suspect I would have followed a more traditional route of working for someone else (rather than for myself).  I doubt I would ever have had the courage to set something up.  But the bumps in the road forced me to take a more philosophical view of my life and question at the deepest level what would make me happy.  Being miserable made me ask - What’s it all for, anyway?  I can’t say I’ve cracked the secrets of the universe, but I did realise that for me, at least part of the answer had to come from being the best version of myself I could possibly be.  And that meant I had to be brave.  I had to use my talents to do something that I felt wouldn’t happen unless I did it. And I realised that being creative and helping others was key to feeling like my life counted.

I think creativity often comes from adversity.  I’ve been fairly obsessed by Beyoncé’s video album Lemonade, in which she sings about Jay-Z’s infidelity, referring to her Grandma’s speech - “I was given lemons and I made lemonade”.  She has certainly done that - making something beautiful, furious and joyful out of a painful experience.  And going up the scale of pain and grief, yesterday I saw the ballet Betroffenheit, written and performed by Jonathon Young about his mental struggle following losing his 14-year-old daughter and her cousins in a fire a few years previously.  Rarely do you see something so moving and vulnerable on stage, or indeed anywhere.  Young and Knowles have made something beautiful out of their grief.  They have shared their experience, helping others who are going through similar things.  In both cases, the response to their work has been overwhelmingly positive, and I think that comes from other human beings recognising something true and generous.

 A few disclaimers. First, this is not to say that I’m comparing myself to either of those magnificent artists! Or that you have to suffer to create beautiful things.  I believe that when bad things happen, and they do to so many people, they can sometimes push us to do more than we ever thought possible.  They make us question everything, and then we can build from the ground up.

On a more joyful note, one of the most glorious things that has come out of launching the Gratitude Garden is how generous others have been.  I’ve had huge support and help from the charity Action for Happiness, which has the wonderful ambition of creating a happier and more caring world.  I’ve also had so many lovely comments from old friends, new friends, and even complete strangers, saying how helpful they are finding the app.  And then there is Nev Sattentau, the artist who did all the magical artwork I’ve used, who has not asked for a penny.

P.S. I've started doing a Huffington Post blog.  I am just posting the same stuff on both, but last week I didn't do so (took me a while to figure out I could cross-post).  So here is last week's blog if you missed it.


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Happy Mental Health Awareness Week!

Yeah, it's not super catchy...  But given one in four people suffer from a mental health issue in their lives, it is well worth spending a week focusing on it.  I'm a bit late with this blog - we're nearly at the end of MHA week - because I've been trying to write something about mental health that doesn't come across as a blog I would have written for the Foreign Office.  Also I've finally got a date to launch the app.  29 May.  Watch this space!!

Cheesy as it sounds, I am passionate about mental health.  The phrase "mental health" used to make me think about Victorian wards and weird machines that gave you electric shocks. However the phrase "physical health" makes me think of men with large white-teeth grins and bulging muscles... I'm not sure what is worse... OK the mental health image is clearly worse.  But why?  Why should talking about mental health be any different from talking about physical health?   

I think it's probably because of two things.  Firstly, mental health is considered only in the negative.  You can have bad mental health but not good mental health.  This is not true. if you look at indicators of mental health (self-esteem, happiness, etc.) these tend to be normally distributed just like indicators of physical health.

Secondly, it is considered that poor mental health can't be improved.  Anything that can be wrong with you that can't be cured becomes something we are very fearful of. Especially if there is a feeling it is catching.  Hopefully this attitude will change too, as the treatment of poor mental health improves through drugs and therapies.  

Maybe there is also the "catching" aspect.  A fear of people with poor mental health.  To some extent that is rational.  People who are suffering can lash out and upset our balance.  Hence the importance that "healthy" people to look after their own mental health similarly to they way they look after their physical health, building resilience to being knocked around by others.  We all have to deal with people who knock us around a bit (I mean emotionally, not physically!) and having a strong basic sense of who we are and enjoyment of life helps enormously to cope with that.

Anyway, a final word on prisons.  I shall try not to make this sounds like an FCO blog. Lots of prisoners arrive with mental health problems.  Even more develop them while incarcerated.  Here are the stats from the wonderful Prison Reform Trust:

  • Around 16% of men and 25% of women have had a previous psychiatric admission before they entered prison. The rate among the general public is about 4%.
  • 49% of female and 23% of male prisoners were assessed as suffering from anxiety and depression. This compares to 19% and 12% respectively in the general public.
  • 46% of women prisoners reported having attempted suicide at some point in their lives. This is more than twice the rate of male prisoners (21%) and much higher than in the general UK population (6%).

So it's bad.  And mental health in prisoners is getting worse.  The number of suicides and murders in prisons in England and Wales is the highest it has been for 17 years.  And it's not just prisoners. There is also an issue of poor mental health in prison guards, which is clearly also a serious problem, especially given the power they wield.  

It just seems such a waste to lock people up without putting proper resources into helping them, not least so they don't reoffend.  I can't see how you can improve the situation without more money or fewer prisoners.

Anway, here is the fabulous John Oliver being passionate and funny about America's poor treatment of the mentally ill. He notes that the criminal justice service is the biggest provider of mental health care in the USA.

Time to go back to watching Orange is the New Black.  They do a better job than I can do at turning this depressing topic into entertainment.  

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Gratitude - the evidence

BREAKING NEWS!!! The Gratitude Garden is now out for user testing in Canada.  Are you Canadian?  If so please tell your friends, neighbours, the postman etc.  

So why the big deal about gratitude?  Well, it seems to be closely linked with happiness. I'll be honest, I was feeling a bit sorry for myself over the weekend. I realised I needed to take some of my own medicine (yes, I sometimes forget). I thought about all the things that had happened that day that were good: Friends I hadn't spoken to for ages sharing my app with Canadians. Another friend coming over to help me think through what to do with my garden. The fact I have a garden. A lovely chat with my sister. The more I thought about these things, I started to realise that it had been a good day.  I might be feeling blue, but it had been a good day and despite not feeling it, I was #blessed.

I think the act of pushing yourself to find the good things that have happened helps get you out of your head.  It's easy to sink into a very self-absorbed, everything-is-crap mode.  In that mode it can be tricky to come up with good things.  Tricky, but not impossible.  And once you do, your whole mood can lift.  I write this with confidence because I've experienced it personally, and I know there is good research backing it up.  

There is lots of evidence that shows gratitude is highly correlated with happiness, self-confidence, contentment and hope.  But how does the causation work? Does gratitude cause these things or are people who are naturally confident and happy just more prone to gratitude as well?  i.e. Can practicing gratitude change you? 

To look into this question, Robert A Emmons - the top gratitude academic - ran an experiment splitting people were split into three groups.  The first group wrote down what they were grateful for, once a week, for ten weeks.  The second wrote down what hassles they had had, and the third wrote about what happened (i.e. neutral) each week.  He found that the gratitude group were more satisfied with life as a whole, more positive about the upcoming week, had fewer symptoms of physical illness, and did more hours of exercise than the other two groups.

Other experiments with daily requirements to write down things people were grateful for yielded similar results.  Now there is a huge body of academic evidence showing that practicing gratitude makes a difference to wellbeing - see Emmons' chart below showing the growth in academic papers on the subject!

So anyway, gratitude is all the rage, and rightly so.  Looks like all those religions telling us to count our blessings and be thankful had something in them...



Simple Happiness Exercise

You ready?  OK, so here is something guaranteed to give you a little glow.  If not, I'll give you your money back....oh, wait...

1. Get a pen and paper.

2. Think of someone who has been kind to you but you have never thanked properly.

3. Write them a note thanking them, adding a bit of detail about the qualities they possess that made all the difference, or the fact you were finding things tough at the time and they probably didn't realise what a difference they made.

4. Send it, or call them up and read it to them. Do it!

You can of course send an email or text as well, but there is something about having gone to the effort of a handwritten letter that makes it even more special.  When I think about some of the people I want to thank, I feel a bit sheepish about it.  Actually, very sheepish.  Won't it seem weird me writing to them?  It feels a bit un-British.  

But then I can probably use a bit of dry humour to get past the awkwardness, and I know how incredibly special it is to receive a note like that.  So I'm going to go ahead anyway, risking being mocked as always.  Risking being mocked is no reason not to do things that make you and others happy.  

If you need more convincing, there is an increasing about of evidence that gratitude letters promote happiness and life-satisfaction, and decrease depressive symptoms (see here).

OK, so here I go...Dear XXX...  You never know, it might be you!

P.S.  I hope you like the new rejigged site.  I've been getting it ready for when the app launches, which will be soon hopefully.  The app should come out in Canada soon, which allows me to user-test it in a limited market before I launch it worldwide.  If you are Canadian or you know people in Canada who might like it, please watch this space!  


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Risking Being Mocked

As someone who wants to rabbit on about happiness, how to be happier, and actually wants people to listen, one of the first things I realised I needed to do was to admit that I didn't start from a place of happiness.  Otherwise I ran a serious risk of being seriously annoying ("Look at me, I'm so happy!  Do what I say and you too can be happy!")  Instead, I had to be honest and admit that I got into this world at a time when I wasn't very happy with my life.  

Admitting to having been unhappy is a really hard thing to do in public, especially in this age of Facebook self-publicists (#blessed).  It leaves you vulnerable, and open to the risk of being painfully mocked.  But it's also what creates connection.  On the whole, people haven't mocked me when I've been vulnerable with them.  Instead, that is the moment when we start to have a proper conversation, when I feel the mood change in the room and people start listening to what I'm saying.  By dropping my defences, they feel able to drop theirs.

It has also been important for me to think carefully about where the boundary should be of what I will and won't talk about in public.  I always admire actors who refuse to talk about their love-lives...

Sharing difficult experiences allows people to empathise, and I believe empathy is one of the most important emotions we need to cultivate (alongside gratitude of course!).  In that vein, I would encourage anyone with a spare hour to watch the wonderful documentary "My Beautiful Broken Brain" about Lotje Sodderland's stroke and convalescence.  She has been so generous to let us into her world and her experience, e.g. letting us see the iPhone recording of her whispering about her despair in the dead of night from her hospital bed.  I found it truly moving.  

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