Thursday, 31 January 2013

Being 'on strategy'

When I worked in the media and comms world, part of my role as a brand guardian of sorts was to make sure that every campaign and communication coming from the brands I looked after was on strategy, on brand.  In other words that it was true to its brand values, it was aligned with what the brand was all about, it made sense in the context of whatever else the brand was doing, it was consistent.  So, a brand purporting to be all about responsible childcare or similar probably shouldn't then sponsor 'Magaluf uncut' or something.  A brand whose main campaign is all about cooking from scratch shouldn't then appear in an article about the best ready meals. A brand about healthy living wouldn't partner with a fast food chain. For example.

I used to get really indignant when somebody suggested an activity that went against what the brand stood for, especially if the activity was being pushed for commercial reasons...a tricky balance in an essentially commercial role but a balance it must be.

Similarly it used to befuddle me when the businesses I worked for and with made business decisions that totally contradicted the very strategy we'd spent days, weeks and years fine tuning.

For me, a strategy is like a navigation tool. It helps you decide which paths to take, which decisions to make. When faced with a new opportunity the strategy gives us an excellent framework or guidelines, within which to decide whether or not to pursue that opportunity.

That was always really clear to me and I'm sure my staunch regard for 'the strategy' frustrated those around me with whom I argued frequently when 'off brand' or 'off strategy' decisions were made.

So, why then, having been so clear cut on the 'right' decisions for my clients, have I been tying myself up in knots about decisions I make for my own life?

Since leaving the world of London and corporate life behind me a few months ago I have been pondering how to write the next chapter of my story.  And I've pretty much worked out what my strategy is here. I've set out some guiding principles, I know what I want to achieve and why and where to look for it and how. I know what the important elements are and which of my values I'm looking to fulfill.

But I can't help but keep a little eye on jobs coming up in the 'old world' I used to occupy.  On the one hand this feels like a good idea, hedging my bets and all that. Should this new path not quite work out I still have something to fall back on ('fall' 'back' on...says it all). But on the other hand, not only does keeping one eye on the 'old world' mean I only have one eye left for the new world, it also means I keep torturing myself with having to make decisions about whether or not to dip my toe back into what I used to do.

For example, because I indicated I may still be in the market, a recruitment contact called me with a fantastic job that had come up. Great (very great) salary and package, travel, dream job.  I agonised for ages over it. Should I say I'm interested? I feel like I should be interested. But am I? no? Really? How about just go and see what happens? What if you say no and then end up with nothing? etc...this is me, talking to me, as is my wont.  It was really beginning to bother me and all she'd done so far was tell me about it!

my moment of clarity
And then, suddenly, as I stepped from a train onto the platform at Slough station yesterday (I would have chosen a more romantic setting for my moment of enlightenment had I had the choice), I had a real moment of clarity.

That job, amazing or not, is absolutely not, in any way whatsoever, on strategy. It does not follow any of my guiding principles.  It does not answer any of the values I have identified as being most important to me right now. It is almost the exact opposite of the new life and lifestyle I'm trying to build.

Dream job it may be. But is not my dream.

And so it's easy. There is no question, no internal debate, no dilemma.  I do not want that job. I don't even want to entertain the idea of it. There's no point. It would certainly make it easier to pay the bills, but at what price?

And, biiiiiiiiig siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh. That felt very good indeed to have reached that point.

I tried to work out why something so very obvious took me so long and felt so hard and I think it's because of 3 reasons:

1. I feel a bit selfish turning down big fat high powered jobs to follow my dream of a more fulfilled life...but I'm just going to have to get over that
2. I'm scared. Scared the new thing won't work out, scared I'm making a big mistake, scared we won't be able to manage financially etc etc...but I think in this case I just have to feel that fear and do it anyway.
3. I was also scared of finally making the leap. Of fully jumping with both feet onto this new path. Of letting the old stuff go.

And that last one was the main one. I was scared of letting the old stuff go.  Never mind whether I liked or wanted the old stuff. It was my stuff. It was familiar. It was stuff I knew and could do. It was stuff I knew how to talk about and that earned me money and in which I had progressed and achieved and succeeded.

But in which I hadn't been happy.

So it's time to let it go, to get on strategy, embrace the 'new world' wholeheartedly and see where this scary new path takes me.*

*disclaimer: I reserve the right to change my mind should this whole new world thing not quite go to plan! but at least I'll have tried it first.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Happiness: why bother?

It has struck me, as I've become more and more interested in the science of happiness and been sharing and talking about it more and more, that not everyone shares my enthusiasm.

In fact, I have met with rather a lot of resistance from various different angles.

I cannot really understand this, except to say that I think a lack of understanding is actually the problem.

What I have noticed is a certain disdain for prancing about going on about being all jolly and happy instead of just getting on with it and focusing on with more important things.

Or a distrust for supposed 'scientists' wasting their time working out what makes people happy.

Or a scoffing at a 'pollyanna' type view of the world.

Or deeming it as a bit selfish and flimsy to dedicate time to such a frivolous hobby as being happy.

Or a whole heap of counterarguments for why positive thinking and optimism is in fact dangerous etc etc.

Even Freud thought it was a total and utter waste of time bothering to try and be happier when man is essentially doomed to a life of misery and should just get on with it.

Luckily psychology has come on a lot since Freud's day and I think everyone else is just missing the point. Which is sad, and which is why I spend so much of my time extolling the virtues of positive psychology to all and sundry, because I want as many people to benefit from its lessons as possible.

Essentially, I think some people just take issue with the word 'happy'. It's a bit cheesey and American I suppose in a way...if you choose to see it as such.

But the point of positive psychology isn't just to be happy. I know that sounds weird, but it's true. There are countless benefits to being happy which I will come on to. It may be what we strive for overall, but it's also a route to better health, a longer life and so on.

Positive psychology isn't just the science of happiness but also the science of optimism, resilience, strengths, creativity, performance, wellbeing, fulfilment, meaningfulness, success...generally speaking all good stuff and all linked to, feeding from and contributing to happiness.  Seligman and Czichsentmihaly, two of the founding fathers of positive psychology offer us this definition:

 " the scientific study of optimal human functioning that aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive".

But why? What's the point? Why should we bother about any of this and why is going on about happiness actually quite important?

Because, quite simply, it's good for you. Yes, it feels good, but it also does you good. It's good for your physical, mental and emotional health and they all feed off of each other in a lovely virtuous circle. And far from being selfish, it does those around you good as well. Not only are moods catching, but being in a good frame of mind ourselves is a much better place to start from to help somebody else. Think of it a bit like having to put on your own gas mask before helping others in a plane crash. 

Happier people tend to have more friends, be more optimistic, have clearer goals and stick to them. Have happier marriages, seek out more experiences, are more creative and more resilient. Are better able to exert self control and have better coping mechanisms. They have more energy, better immune systems, less disease and are more active. They do more good for other people, they care more. They're more open to new ideas and opportunities. At work they tend to have higher levels of productivity, creativity, quality of work and income. Shawn Achor's work  shows us that happiness breeds success at work, and not the other way round. 

And happier people tend to live longer.

The famous 'nun study' showed that the happiest and most optimistic of the nuns in the study outlived the least happy and optimistic by an average of 10 years. Longevity of life could be predicted by levels of happiness and optimism some 60 years earlier.

Seligman looked at the optimism levels of 120 men who'd suffered a heart attack and then followed them for another 8 years. Half the men died from a second heart attack.  The only thing the research team found that differentiated those who had died from those who had not, was their levels of optimism. Not blood pressure or anything to do with their physical health or habits. Optimism.  Being in the top quartile for optimism proved as good for one's cardio vascular health as not smoking 40 cigarettes a day.

And it's not just about improving all the good stuff, but also crucially decreasing all the bad stuff, specifically our tendency for depression.  Sin and Lyubomirsky's meta analysis in 2009 proved that positive psychology interventions designed to cultivate positive feelings were also successful in ameliorating the symptoms of depression.

For anybody who has been reading my blog from the beginning, you will know that my interest in positive psychology stems from a particularly bad patch in my own life, since when I have been learning about and applying the rules of happiness in an attempt to see which of them work best for me. And it has made such a massive difference to me: 

I have lost 3 stone.  I have a regular gym routine which I enjoy as opposed to seeing as a chore.  I have made a career change and am in the process of making another one.  My marriage is stronger and features more understanding than confusion. I am better able to both recognise what I feel and need and crucially to express it.  The back problems which had totally dominated my life are now, mostly, under my control.  I've had one cold in the last 2 years. I'm less ruled by food cravings. I am much less likely to feel, behave and play the 'victim' but to be able to see things from other people's point of view and take responsibility for what happens to me and in my life. I am more curious and inquisitive. I write more. I take more photographs (if that were possible). I have been learning more. I am more resilient. And I feel much, much better. 

The point here is not to blow my own trumpet, far from it...I'm not terribly good at giving myself credit. The point is to say that it's not just about the people in the studies or the numbers and the scientists.  It's about real life. About me and about you.

So far from being frivolous, flimsy fancy. Or being selfish. Or being something to feel embarrassed or ashamed of.  Or prancing about like Polyanna. Or to be scoffed at or shunned in favour of more meaningful pursuits like profit or whatever. Taking measures to increase our levels of happiness is as important as any other health and wellness habit.  Incorporating measures to boost our happiness should be as much a part of our daily routine both at home and at work, as cleaning our teeth, eating our five a day and going to the gym.  Physical health is built on the foundations of emotional health and like any kind of muscle, the happiness muscle needs regular exercise and practice to keep it in tip top condition.

Not only can we choose to actively improve our wellbeing with so called positive psychology interventions, but not to do so would be really rather irresponsible and a massive missed opportunity.

This is such an important area that not only are there now charities set up with sole intention of improving happiness (notably Action for Happiness) but politicians are also starting to take note. Bhutan even measures GDHappiness rather than GDP, for example. If you type 'happy' into the Amazon bookstore there are over 35,000 results.

So all you naysayers out there, I'm afraid this isn't going to go away. So rather than poo poo, take interest, get involved. Rather than dismiss all of this as silly nonsense, you'd do much better to take happiness seriously.

And that, my friends, is why bother.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

An Attitude of Gratitude

No matter what study or advice you read about living a happier and more meaningful life, gratitude will feature somewhere.

This isn't new news really.  Countless religions have incorporated giving thanks into their worship since time began. The US has a whole day of thanksgiving.  But a more secular type of gratitude is fast sweeping the nation, nay the world.

And that's because cultivating an attitude of gratitude has been shown time and time again to be one of the most powerful, lasting and universally effective ways of boosting happiness levels.

One reason why expressing gratitude has such a positive effect is because it goes some way to counteract our 'negativity bias'. 

When man roamed the earth amongst sabre-toothed tigers and the like, it was pretty useful for our brains to focus in on the impending feline attack rather than stop and savour a beautiful flower, for example.  Nowadays though, whilst we still need to be able to spot danger, this negativity bias can get a tad tiresome and if left unchecked, can lead to that all familiar routine of focusing on the bad stuff, dwelling on life's problems instead of picking up on the better bits.

By forcing our minds to pick out the things we are grateful for we override this negativity bias and allow ourselves a surge of positive emotions more frequently than if we didn't bother. Finding things to be grateful for even during times of trauma can help us to adjust and move on. And saying thanks to somebody else makes them feel lovely too.

I also think that being grateful also has a side effect of making you more present and mindful in the moment as's pretty difficult to be grateful for something if you're not really there experiencing it in the first place.  I've blogged before about the reticular activating system which is basically your brains clever internal search mechanism. It works like a key word search and whenever you plug something in (new job, new car, gratitude, redecorating, cake recipe), your unconscious will do its darndest to seek out and highlight for you things that fit that description. So, once you start to practice gratitude, you'll gradually start spotting things to be grateful for as you go about your day.

Sonja Lyubomirsky (an eminent psychologist who writes plentifully on the science of happiness) refers to gratitude as "a kind of meta strategy for achieving happiness".  So if you're only going to do one thing to try and boost your own happiness, then make gratitude the one you pick.

But what does it really mean to 'cultivate an attitude of gratitude'?  There are some really quick and easy things you can try:

1. Start a gratitude journal. Write down 3 things each day you are grateful can be anything, big or small and doesn't have to be grand sweeping stuff, just make sure you are grateful for it.

Some people do theirs at the beginning of the day to get themselves in a positive mindset for the day ahead, some do it at the end of the day to reflect on the day behind them and to end the day on a high.

Personally, I do mine last thing at night.

I started off this new habit about a year ago by writing my 'gratefuls' down in a little journal by the side of my bed. Having them written down like this has two benefits. Firstly committing them to paper somehow validates and reinforces the whole process, and secondly because whenever you read back over them you experience a little smiley boost of happiness all over again.

That said, about 6 weeks after starting my journal, I sort of drifted out of the habit and decided what would be even more powerful than writing them down would be to share them with somebody else so now, Alex and I share our 'grateful's with each other every night just before we go to sleep instead.

We've tried many variations. We've tried straight "what I'm grateful for" but sometimes this feels a bit sickly and forced so we've also tried "what went well today" which allows you to give yourself some credit as does "what I achieved today"; we've tried adding in a "if I had the chance to live today again I would do xxx differently" as a way of reflecting and learning from experience; we've tried "one thing I did differently today" as a way of accounting for making progress and adapting to change and we've tried "what I'm looking forward to is..." because looking ahead to future experience is, like being grateful for past experience, a good way to increase positive emotions.  Each version has had its pros and cons and we seem to just flex depending on what's going on at the time. The important thing is that what we're doing every time is looking back over our day together and finding the positives.

Whichever way you do it, just try it. Both of us have definitely noticed a real difference and now even find ourselves looking out for things during the day to share with each other later.

2. If writing's not really your thing, take a photograph of something you're grateful for every day.  I love photography and so I started a grateful 365 project (you will find it under the Snapping Happy tab) this year.  I have to say, So far I am struggling with this one.  Last year I set myself the challenge of taking a photography every day of the year and loved seeing what new images I could create every day.  Having my subject restricted to something I'm grateful for is turning out to be quite frustrating as it happens which wasn't quite the point so I need to have a think about what I can do with that one now. If anybody gives it a go themselves, let me know how you get on!

3. Write down a list of people you're really grateful to and why and just reflect on it. Maybe repeat it every month or so.

4. The 'build' on that one is to actually then pick one of these people and go and tell them how grateful you are.

I tried this one myself as well recently. It suddenly occurred to me that one of my best friends in particular had always been a real rock for me and I couldn't remember ever really having said thank you.  I wanted her to know how very much her support had meant to me so I wrote her a card.  It felt a bit weird to begin with, almost embarrassing in a way being so open about my feelings but I think it was important to just bash through that and do it anyway. It felt really good to have done it. 

5. And finally, I have seen recently a lovely idea which I'd really like to start doing.  It's called a gratitude jar. Every time you (and your partner/family) have something to be really grateful for, you write it down on a little bit of paper and post it into a jar, like a little gratitude piggy bank. Then on New Year's Eve 2013, you open the jar and go back through all the wonderful things you had to be grateful for in the year just gone, moving into 2014 on a upwards curve.

I'm so grateful somebody was clever enough to not only have that idea, but also to share it.

I'd be really interested to hear anybody else's experiences of practicing gratitude. Maybe you already follow one of the habits above? Or maybe you're going to start now and report back? Or maybe you do something entirely different...whatever it is I'd love to hear about it in the comments box below.

Whatever route you try, you can be sure that sprinkling a little gratitude on your day will help to shift that negativity out the way.

So, start right now, what are you grateful for today?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

A tale of two seeds

Once upon a time there lay two little, brown seeds in the rich, lush soil.

The first seed said:  

"What shall we do? It is so dark in here. I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I'm scared.  What will happen to us?  I am only little and I have never been here before. I'm worried that if I try to push my way upwards through the hard soil I may damage my delicate shoots. And who knows what lies deeper beneath us waiting for my roots should I send them down there. And what about when I blossom? What if a snail tries to eat me or if somebody tries to pick me? Oh no, it is far, far too dangerous out there for me. No, the safest and best plan for me is just to stay, curled up, all nice and warm and safe in here. That's what I shall do. I'll wait until it's a bit safer. I'll be fine."

"That is you choice."

Said the other seed.

"But my dream is to rise up from here, to grow, to blossom, to see the world.  I'm going to push and push my way up through this soil, taking all of its goodness as I go. I'm going to try and try until I finally burst through, up into the clean, fresh air. Until I can feel the warmth of the sun on my beautiful buds, which I shall unfurl until they spring into full, fragrant, pink blossom.  Bees will drink from my sweet petals and lovers will smile as they pass me. And I shall be kept safe by my strong roots, bedded deep, deep below the earth, solid and secure. I shall feed off the rich, bountiful soil and drink from the refreshing, spring rain. I shall dance in the breeze and gaze at the moon.  It may not be easy getting there but, my, will it be worth it."

And so, up and up and up she grew.

While the first seed sat, and waited, alone. In the dark.

One situation. Two points of view. Which seed are you?

Tuesday, 15 January 2013


No, not the proper paid for kind, the kind I get from writing.

I came home in a grump, feeling low, feeling fed up and demotivated and lethargic and blah blah blah.

I then spent 2 hours writing on here (this is my 4th post tonight) and making being purposeful, creating and getting out some stuff bubbling up, using the act of writing to process stuff swirling around in my head.

And now, whilst I'm not leaping for joy, I certainly feel much better.

I often question why I write this blog. I'm pretty sure at least half of it is entirely uninteresting to anybody other than me (and quite a lot of it isn't that interesting to me either!). Sometimes it feels a bit self indulgent,  or a bit uncomfortable or a bit sort of blah.

But apart from all of that, whether anybody else reads or cares or whatever, I can confirm that tonight at least, it helps.

Lights will guide you home

Over the last 7 weeks or so I've noticed that some job specs/opportunities/ideas have lifted my spirits, ignited my bones if you will (thank you Coldplay),like a little spark of energy or frisson of excitement. Whilst others have felt more heavy, like they were pulling me down.  Sometimes I'm reading something with interest and then a certain line or word will make my heart sink. And I say that because it literally feels like something heavy sinking inside of me...all emotions are 'felt' physiologically after all.

Without really analysing this at all, over time I realise I've been more and more drawn to the types of things and areas that have caused these little 'sparks' and I've been spending less energy on the sorts of things that have dulled them again.  I wrote  a post about 4 seconds ago berating myself for having no direction, but I guess I meant a purposeful direction that I'm in control of. Because actually over time, through no grand plan of my own, a sort of direction has been emerging. Whilst I've been lighting all those little fires, some have been sparking, even if only dimly and even if only inside me, and it turns out they've been lighting a little path for me to follow...I've yet to see exactly where it will lead to mind.

Now, some might call this intuition.  I've been told I have very good intuition, I just haven't worked out how to use it or listen to it and I think there's some truth in that.

I tend to have a 'gut feel' about things, but I normally try to reason and think or rationalise it which is clearly never going to work. My own brain normally drowns out the nice, quiet intuition bit. I've always been pretty good at recognising when something energises me but when things have drained me or made me feel just a leaden sort of dread, I've taken that to mean I was just scared or pathetic and should push myself, try harder and do it anyway.

For example. I'm currently working on rechanneling my energy and passion for learning, growth and wellbeing into a career in teaching. (and again, in an earlier post I mentioned not knowing how to talk about myself any more...turns out I do, there it is).  I've taught EFL before and always dreaded getting a class of older children. I think at the time it's because I was only about 5 minutes older than them.  But I've carried that thought with me. Whilst researching teaching posts recently I spotted there was a training position at the High School I attended, teaching Modern Languages, which I studied. Perfect. Except it felt quite a lot less than perfect when I read it. I felt like I should be excited, but wasn't.  To begin with I thought it was just because I was being a big scaredy cat. But actually, it's not that at all. It's because I'm more interested in unlocking potential than a specific subject, in skills than content, in learning than teaching and because I want to be able to make a difference to small children during their very aptly called foundation stage.

So, I've been reading my bad feelings about things wrong.  I think the reason why some things have felt wrong for me, is because they are. Mmm, not exactly a news flash!  I'm going to make a concerted effort to listen to these feelings more and instead of ploughing on, convincing myself I should do the things that feel wrong, use them to help me narrow down what I DO want instead.

Being a big positive psychology geek I've been doing a lot of reading about strengths recently.  The concept of strengths is not a new thing but my experience of how people tend to talk about strengths is not how the positive psychology world views it. They view it much more in terms of draining and energising. They argue that a strength is not simply something you're good at. We can be good at things that also drain us. It's a common problem in workplaces that a manager spots a 'strength' and then all related work gets sent in that person's direction. Meanwhile that person totally hates whatever it is they're annoyingly quite good at and gets more and more demotivated.  I've had plenty of conversations over the years (starting with my History teacher when I announced I wasn't taking History GCSE) that went something like: "but you're so good at it". I do like being good at things, but not when they make me miserable. It's taken me this long to work out that being happy is more important than being good or successful at something. And if positive psychology has taught me anything, it's that you're much more likely to achieve both of those things if you start off with the happy bit.

The real question isn't are you any good at it, but does it make your heart sing? Or does it make your heart sink?

So in a round about way, my ramblings about little sparks of excitement, listening to my intuition and the real meaning of strengths all come together to reach pretty much the same conclusion.

Trust. Yourself, your instincts, the path you're on.  There'll be little sparks to light your way. If you're looking out for them.

I am...

It struck me today that I don't know how to talk about myself any more.

Bit of a blow that one.

I went to a Phoenix Traders meeting. So for the first time in a while was meeting new people who knew nothing of me other than I had signed up to be a trader and I realised half way through the day that I really didn't know who I was in the context of the people in the room.

In media I was 'in media'. As Head of Learning and Development, I was 'in L&D', on a happiness weekend I'm interested in the science of happiness etc.

One of my earliest blog posts was called "who are you?" and was all about how you talk about yourself and your place in the world and how most people probably talk about themselves in terms of the job they do, or their children or something.

Turns out it's very noticeable that this is the case when not only do you not have children, but now you have no job either and no common cause uniting you with everybody else in the room (other than flogging cards).

I was a bit disappointed to realise that I've tended to identify myself either by my ties or differences to others before and now, in this weird uppy downy limbo land, I'm a bit lost at sea.

So, really, I don't actually want to know who I am in the context of the other people in the room...I should be able to talk about myself quite freely in the context of me, myself and I.

So, I'm going to make a concerted effort to get my 'story' straight. I don't have to have all the answers, the story could be "I'm taking some time out to consider my next move". But whatever it is, I should at least have considered it ready for the next time somebody asks.  I don't mean interview type stuff, I mean normal, human, day to day interaction type stuff.

For that I'm going to go back and follow my own advice and have a good old think about my answer to the questions "who are you and what do you do?"

But first I need to get the dinner on...because right now I'm a wife and head chef to one hungry husband.

ups and downs

Somebody commented on a recent post of mine that they weren't too concerned about me and recent events  because they believed me to be 'happy'.  Which I was very grateful for because I do consider myself, generally speaking, to be a 'happy' person.  I tend to bounce back quite quickly, I tend to manage to claw my way out of bad patches, to find opportunity in even crappy situations, to notice beauty around me and blah blah blah. I repeat, 'tend to'.

It usually upsets me if somebody considers me to be a mope or a misery guts so I was pleased to be considered as 'happy'.

But that doesn't mean I don't also feel incredibly unhappy at times. And very often just at the moment. And very deeply.  It comes back to a post I wrote a few months ago about the difference between a permanent characteristic or trait, and a temporary state.

Perversely, part of being truly 'happy' is allowing yourself to fully feel all manner of emotions as opposed to trying to cover them up or smile through them. And that includes feeling sad and unhappy.

As it happens, being honest about how I'm feeling isn't one of my strong points, at least not consistently and is one of the things I've had to do most 'work' on (I really hate that phrase...see, good progress, honesty).

Anyway, the point is, life isn't a  bed of roses...whatever that means.  And happy person or not, I'm certainly encountering a lot of those thorns.  I think the emotion I'm feeling most, is exhausted.  It is exhausting just feeling so much, and then feeling nothing. My emotions have been so all over the shop, up and down and round and round so much recently that I'm surprised I don't also feel travel sick.

One minute I feel excited and upbeat and optimistic. I spot an opportunity, I go for it. I'm proactive, I'm full of ideas and dreams. The next minute I'm fed up because I haven't heard back from any of those opportunities (so impatient), the ideas I had before seem flat or stupid or I can't be bothered to now put them in place and who would care anyway even if I did.  I've always been cursed/blessed (take your pick) with an over active brain that won't stop churning out ideas. Which is great, but it does also mean that I can never possibly fulfil even a small percentage of those ideas, that I get a sort of choice paralysis over my own ideas trying to work out if any of them are actually any good or things that I actually want to do or not.  Maybe I should just put the spares on ebay or something.

Part of the problem is I don't really have a plan. Which is a bit daft considering most of my working life has been in roles involving the word 'planning'.  But to have a plan I need to have an end objective, I need to know where I'm aiming for and that's all still a bit fuzzy.

At the moment, I'm drifting through my days with no clear structure or direction.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not flaking about or lying on the sofa all day, far from it. Some days I'm on the internet for a good 14 hours solid researching and applying and writing and whatnot.  But until something starts to take shape I'm having to cast my net quite wide. I'm 'lighting lots of fires' (thank you Mark Earls for that lovely phrase) and seeing which ones burn brightest...or which ones bother to burn at all actually at the moment. And I'm finding it really rather uncomfortable, and all that flapping to get a spark to ignite is, as I said, exhausting.

I'm also not interacting with anybody really. Fine if that's not your bag, but it is mine. I like being around other people (to a point and with some exceptions!).

I'm not contributing to anything, I sort of don't really have a point right now.

I'm not 'creating' anything and that's really important to me too.

So I could randomly wander the streets trying to interact and start making papier mache decorations or something (actually been there done that, made a load of salt dough ones at Christmas) but I'm not sure that's going to quite cut it.

There are things I could do to help myself, though. I could set myself some routine. I could put some structure in my days and weeks. I could be making sure I'm moving around more and getting outside more.  I know all of these things would make me feel a lot better but knowing is not the same as actually doing.

I could also be making sure I factor in time for things I never had time to do photography, swimming, walking, the online courses I signed up to etc. But I feel a bit guilty every second I'm not spending trying to sort my life out.

Or I could stop giving myself a hard time about having a plan or not and just accept that the way I'm doing or not doing things at the moment is the way I've chosen, for whatever reason, and just allow myself to feel whatever it is I'm feeling about it all.

Which right now is fed up and let down.  Yesterday it was buoyant. The night before it was distraught. The day before that  I just had a perfectly normal day and so on...

I suppose, at the end of the day, good old Ronan Keating was right.  Life is a rollercoaster: Just gotta ride it.

I'd better buck(le) up.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

What my Christmas decorations have taught me

I hate taking down Christmas decorations. It's boring, fiddly, depressing, takes ages and gets messy. And reveals a load of dust and dirt that needs cleaning up in its wake. And signals very definitely the end of Christmas.

Normally it looms large like this huge daunting task in front of me and subsequently gets put off until beyond 12th night (one year I even convinced myself it was best to leave them up until Candlemas. (Yes, in Feb). This may or may not have contributed to events in my life that have led me to feel the need to write a happiness blog.

Problem  with leaving a big fat task like this one is that, unlike paying the bills or calling your aunt or whatever, it isn't just the elephant in the room but the 6 foot flashing multicoloured adorned tree and associated paraphernalia in the room and is therefore quite hard to ignore and the longer you (erm, I, classic dissociation) leave it, the worse I feel and the harder it seems to start.

Well, that's how it felt yesterday. Today, once it was already too late (not my fault, I was convinced 12th night was last night and mother convinced me otherwise), I had a bit of an epiphany. Which is nice, since it's also Epiphany today.

And I thought to myself that there were very many parallels between my decoration procrastination and life lessons in general.

Nothing major, but it went a bit like this:

1. Today is my last opportunity to take my tree down. After today I can't even pretend I was confused over which night was 12th night and I'm far too busy from tomorrow to do anything about it.  It becomes non-negotiable, like (for people who still have a job) getting up and going to work.  What if we made all those tasks we need to achieve non negotiable as opposed to know, like going to the gym or putting money into savings? Sounds like an interesting tactic, no point trying to talk yourself out of something you have no choice over anyway.

2. I already have a lot to do today. I had pretty much nothing to do yesterday which somehow seemed to take me all day and made me knackered. Today I'm a whirlwind of activity and positive action so one measly bit of tree removal is nothing. That reminded me of something I learnt a while back when I first started my photo a day challenge...that being disciplined and achieving in one area of your life spills over into others. I can confirm, on today's evidence, this is true. If you want to get something done, get something else done. Or if you want something doing, ask a busy person.

3. I was feeling fed up and down yesterday so everything felt like hard work. Taking down decorations felt miserable. I'm feeling a bit more buoyant and optimistic today and so have more energy for the bits and bobs I need to do. I've also been able to re-frame it as, rather than the end of something, the beginning of something else and look forward to a nice clear, clean house rather than dread the act itself.

4. And most of all, I've done it bit by bit, little by little across the day. Every time I got up or walked past something, I plucked it off the tree or down from the wall.  I didn't mean to do it that way, it just sort of happened but I realised what I'd done was not only break the massive task down into more manageable chunks, but also to just get on and start. Rather than mull it over or put it off, I found myself just sort of doing little bits here or there and by the time I knew it, it's pretty much all done.

I say pretty much all done, because what I did next was write a blog about it instead of finishing it. Oh well, Candlemas it is then.

So there we go, the things that performing the simple if tiresome task of taking down my Christmas decorations helped me to remember about getting things done.

Now to apply them to the rest of my life!

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Thanksgiving, the end of the world and a fresh start

Have you ever noticed that when bad things happen, we tend to let them seep over and colour everything else? Take new year's eve for example. By all accounts we had a really lovely evening. Then right at the last minute a rather heated and personal debate got a little out of control thanks to the tongue loosening effects of celebratory fizz. I found myself the next day apologising for 'ruining' the night, when in actual fact the debate in question lasted probably about 5 minutes out of a good 7 hour stint and whilst it shut the night down pretty quickly, it can't possibly have retrospectively ruined the 415 minutes of fun that came before it. Plus it was clearly bed time anyway. I think we do things like that all the time, allow one small yukky thing to colour all the other good stuff.

Especially when we're already down.

A few weeks ago I had a 'down' and found myself thinking what a crap 2012 I'd had.  Well, what nonsense. I haven't at all. In fact I've had rather a good year if I choose to look at everything I've achieved and been a part of. A 366 challenge completed, LPI accreditation, CPD Gold, head-hunted for a new job, 2 new blogs started, weight loss maintained and gym routine upped, 2 new qualifications, some lovely holidays and short breaks whilst still making a sizeable dent in my credit card debts, went to the London 2012 Olympics and the Paralympics Closing ceremony, waved a patriotic flag or too for the Queen's Jubilee, made new friends, got back in touch with old friends, and so on. Sounds pretty good to me and if I look back at my photo challenge, it looks pretty damn good too! In  fact, what a wonderful year I've had!

So why did it feel crap the other week?

Because of one little thing that happened not long before. No, not that, because of the way I was looking at what had happened not long before. On Thanksgiving, ironically.

Thanksgiving. What a wonderful tradition and festival that is.  A whole day dedicated to gratitude.  Many a study shows and many a religion knows that practising gratitude is one of the most powerful ways to boost our happiness levels. As well as just being a lovely thing to do really. Having spent all of 2012 recognising 3 things I'm grateful for every day (yes, every day, even 22nd November),  I've started my own grateful 365 project for 2013 and combined it with last year's photo a day challenge so that for every day of 2013 I have to take a photograph of something I am grateful for. It was mulling over the idea of a day of thanksgiving that led me to thinking...why not a whole year of thanksgiving, rather than just one day?

But I digress (as usual).  So what did November 22nd spell for me?  Well, to cut a 3 month long story short, it spelled the end of my probationary period and with it the end of my new job.  And therefore the end of my salary, the chance to pay off my credit cards, the bonus potential and more besides. Just before Christmas. Suffice to say it felt pretty bleak.

But even then I could sense a glimmer in there somewhere.

For a start, I'd hated it. A lot (another over egging of the negative there...I didn't hate all of it all of the time but generally speaking, 'twas not good). It was making me miserable. And ill. It was like trying to squeeze a round peg into a square hole. I know that's an awful cliche but it really did feel like that. There's a reason for having a probationary period. It's to check you and the job are a good fit. We weren't and it was pretty uncomfortable. So underneath the panic and various other emotions, was also a giant feeling of relief and freedom.

Freedom. That was a new one. Freedom and space to now really think about what it is I want to do. Not what I think I need to earn or what everybody else thinks I should be doing. Scary as hell but liberating. And no matter how down I've been on certain days since (very), or how hopeless everything feels from time to time (totally), I still wouldn't wish things to have panned out any other way really. I've been tempted to regret certain decisions that led me here, but really, what would be the point in that? I'm pretty sure taking the leap and discovering it wasn't for me after all is a million times better than not trying and never knowing and always asking "what if?".

About a month after Thanksgiving came the so called 'end of the world' on December 21st. How apt I thought, during another low. But when I read that the end of the Mayan calendar is actually a time for rejuvenation and renewal, for fresh starts and new perspectives rather than for doom and gloom, I saw some parallels. This is not the end of the world at all. Far from it. This is an opportunity. I now have choices. I have a chance to rebuild my life from the ground up.  I'm not saying it will be already isn't! But if I get it right it will be worth it.  And, thankfully, I also have the most incredibly supportive family around me who have my back in the meantime.

I remembered recently as well something that was said to me when I went for an aura reading back in the summer. The reading showed a whole load of creative excitement bubbling and the guy asked me if I was about to start a new job. Amazed I said yes. But he nodded and stroked his chin pensively (he actually did) and then said "mmm, I don't think this excitement is all for the new job.  I think this creative energy is for what happens next".  He didn't expand as to what that might be, but it'll be fun finding out...I have lots of ideas up my sleeve so we shall see.

So, to get back to the earlier point, turns out my 2012 was actually pretty good despite a few bumps along the way.

And it would seem I'm not the only one. Alex stumbled upon an article in The Spectator (full version here) about how 2012 was in fact the best year on record. Ever. Fact. It's a really fantastic article and I encourage you to read it if you haven't already.  What I found even more interesting than the article itself, was the content and tone of the comments underneath.  Nearly every single one of them poo pooing the positive evidence and clinging on to some negative point or other.  Another perfect example of how the human race finds it SO hard to accept positivity and much easier to draw on the negative.

All of this reminds me of a quote from A Tale of Two Cities:

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us"

It's a shame that more people don't focus on the best of times, couldn't just say: "Wow, that's fantastic".

So, I'm going to say it.  2012 was fantastic. New Year's eve was fantastic. Not having to traipse into London every day to do a job I don't want to do is fantastic, for now at least.

And 2013 will be whatever we make of it and all that it brings.

Happy New Year.