Perfect Day

Now that January is safely out of the way, taking with it those dark days and doomed resolutions, I’m in a safe space to talk about being happy.

My inspiration? I recently went on a Flourishing and Thriving course facilitated by leadership coach, Kim Gregory. It sounded refreshingly upbeat compared to some courses I attend as a therapist; Death and the Dying is booked for later in the year …

My Saturday was spent with a relaxed circle of delegates learning about positive psychology techniques, some of them were new to me, some not. I have selected a few to share here with you.

I have mentioned before, in my memoir and blog,, the benefits of expressing gratitude. Yes, even to yourself, being thankful it seems makes you a happier person. For example, scientific research has proved we can help control our emotional reactions in difficult situations with the power of positive thoughts. Next time you are going to the dentist or whatever makes you feel bad, make a conscious decision to think about something that makes you happy. See for yourself if the normally intolerable, really does becomes bearable.

Need ideas? No need to overthink it. On the course, my happy thoughts were scribbled down:

I imagined choosing a nutty chocolate from a large selection (I can smell the cocoa bean aroma), slipping between freshly laundered sheets (I can feel the cool cotton on my skin and notice the lavender scent), imagine the smiling face of someone I love, the suspense of opening a beautifully wrapped gift, or giving a gift, even hearing I’ve passed an exam came to mind.

You get the idea … So next time you are feeling challenged or anxious just tune into your own happy thoughts and see what happens.

The gratitude exercise involves choosing a journal you like, or a diary would work just as well (avoid writing in a tablet before bedtime as it stimulates the brain). Before going to sleep, each night cast your mind back and recall three things that went well that day.

I keep my journal in the bedside draw, even if I’ve had a horror of a day, I can usually think of a few things that went well, or at the very least did not go wrong! Again, the science proves if you do this for three weeks and jot your findings down, you will be a happier person. That is how long it takes to grow new neural pathways in your brain. Amazing isn’t it?

If you are prone to depression or low days, and frankly everyone has some of those, this is welcome news and could help transform your life, optimising your mood and vitality. What is more, you can do it without spending any money; it just takes a little self discipline to get started.

You can also use your own powerful imagination to create new positive thoughts and images, then by simply learning to say “stop” to negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones, you will retrain your thinking processes and experience positive feelings as a result of those happy thoughts.

Apparently the “mother of all gratitude experiences” is to write a gratitude letter to someone you really respect and explain all the things you love and appreciate about them. Ideally you should take it to them and ask to read it aloud while they listen. Being British, and naturally inclined to reserve, this sounded somewhat toe curling, so this is work in progress for me; I’ve written the letter so will let you know how it goes.

The exercise I found to be most useful is the Perfect Day exercise. Cue Lou Reed’s seductive piano intro to his Perfect Day. This song immediately puts me in a good mood. Skip the lyrics if its not your thing:

Just a perfect day

Feed animals in the zoo

Then later

A movie, too, and then home

Oh, it’s such a perfect day

I’m glad I spent it with you

Oh, such a perfect day

You just keep me hanging on

You just keep me hanging on

etc …

What would your Perfect Day involve? What you would be doing and would you chose someone to do it with? If you are an expat you might recall happy times in another country.

My list included; a scenic walk with a friend or loved one, laying on a sun lounger in the garden while reading or listening to music, writing, having a massage, shopping without the pressure to find anything in particular, playing tennis and so on.Poolside radio

Sharing my list here makes me realise how ordinary it is, perhaps I should have mentioned skydiving or something more unusual. And yet these are simply the everyday activities that nourish me. And when I’m refuelled I’m more relaxed and happy.

My list inspired by my own awareness coming to the fore, I’ve managed to find time in the weeks since the course for these activities. If you, like me, are a big doer then you may find that writing your own wish list for a Perfect Day and giving yourself permission to go for it, will indeed help you to thrive and flourish. I’m sure you deserve it.

You can follow Kim Gregory on Twitter @StrengthsAtWork or visit her blog at:  

www.strengthsconsultancy.com/blog

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Mindfulness: Happiness is an inside job

You may have heard the buzz around the practice of ‘mindfulness’? Its use has becomes far reaching, with schools and even governments employing its use. Its origins lie in centuries-old Buddhist meditation practices and breathing exercises.

I was sitting over a latte trying to explain what mindfulness is to a friend and have to say I found it quite difficult to describe, I thought it would help to write about it, so here goes …

Put simply, mindfulness requires us to focus on ourselves, tuning into the here and now; stilling the mind and concentrating on the present reality.

I’ve discovered it is not something just for other people; we can all use it to help us concentrate better and reduce our stress. Life can be so challenging and complex and we all experience suffering in different ways; physically, emotionally or spiritually. This can lead to a sense of disconnecting from ourselves. Mindfulness can help us to tune in and reconnect with our inner space; that might be our own subconscious or simply the ongoing internal dialogue we have.water lily

INVITATION TO PAY ATTENTION IN THE PRESENT MOMENT

I’d like to invite you to stop what you are doing and give what is written here your full attention. For example, you could do this in a multi tasking, half hearted kind of way; whilst checking your phone, eating a sandwich or allowing your mind to wander off, OR you could read this blog mindfully.

If you’d like to try, reading with your full attention might involve:

  •          Pausing from anything else you are doing
  •          Becoming aware of the feeling to be ‘pulled’ to carry on with other activities … notice other thoughts and feelings creeping in and perhaps the need to rush.
  •          There may be something distracting you; a noisy environment perhaps? Allow yourself to observe how your senses are being stimulated and those thoughts and feelings as they crowd in. Try to let them go, think of them as just thoughts and sensations.

‘Mindfulness’ means ‘to remember’ or ‘to recollect’ the present moment. It can be surprisingly difficult to achieve staying in the moment for any length of time, and yet the benefits are well documented.

There is a plethora of information available on how to practice mindfulness; possibly too much to capture and keep your attention in one blog post! So I have compiled some links and book resources to help you decide an appropriate place for you to dive in, should you wish to.

PEACE, SILENCE & SOLITUDE

You might like to try a breathing exercise to help step out of the auto pilot state and reconnect with the present moment. You will need at least ten minutes but can take up to an hour if you wish:

Sit quietly, close your eyes and ‘go inside’. Allow yourself to become more aware of distractions. It is completely natural for your mind to wander, just notice this happening and take your attention back to your breathing.

Focus on the cool air coming in to your nose. You can think of your breathing as a mantra, counting up to six as your breathe in, and eleven as your breathe out (I found this quite difficult at first but learned to do it easily in a few days.)

Remember to be gentle and compassionate with yourself; being mindful takes practice and resistance is normal – humans are designed to be constantly thinking!

After a little while of focusing on your breathing you could ask yourself these questions:

  •          What am I thinking?
  •          What am I feeling?
  •          What is happening to my body?
  •          What inner sensations am I aware of?

Try to notice, acknowledge and stay with each answer.

Accept all your experiences, even the unwanted ones. You can have strong feelings but you don’t have to react.

Now gently re focus on your breathing, it is a constant in your life, always there for you, follow the breath all the way in and all the way out.  Do this for a few minutes; take as long as you can.

Notice when your attention wanders and again gently bring it back to your breathing.

Feel your awareness encompass your whole body; expand your awareness so your body feels as though it is breathing.

Allow any sense of discomfort, resistance or tension. Sense the space around you, hold that sense and imagine yourself being soft and opening up (your might find it helps to visualise your favourite flower opening up and blooming).

Did you know …

One of the best ways of developing

mindfulness is to start a regular

meditation practice.

Daniel Siegel

pebblesBy allowing ourselves to be still, anchored to our breathing, we learn to tune into our thoughts and feelings. In this way mindfulness can helps us to deal with negative emotions such as anger, fear & greed. It can therefore impact positively on our relationship with our inner self and others.

Mindfulness can be simply maintaining awareness in the moment, whether you are reading a blog or eating a sandwich (and if you are take notice of the taste, texture, smell and how your sandwich looks!).

I have found mindfulness most useful as a becalming tool, particularly when I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed, it provides a welcome opportunity to stop, rushing, doing, planning etc and generally going too fast. In the stillness I am free to tune in to what is really important and make more considered decisions and that must be a good thing.

RESOURCES

Guardian Articles:

Should we be mindful of mindfulness?

Julie Myerson: how mindfulness based cognitive therapy changed my life

Coping with stress: can mindfulness help?

Books

Loving What Is, by Byron Katie, 2002

For trauma: In an Unspoken Voice, Peter Levine, 2010

Videos

Thich Nhat Hanh – Ten Mindful Movements

Guided meditation: Guided Meditiation with Dan Siegel (Wheel of Awareness)

Quotation Reference

“Happiness is an inside job” ~ William Arthur Ward

Bouncing Back

After my sinus operation this phrase seems apt to me. For two weeks even the kids could see their Mum was a bit pale; a reduction in eye rolling ensued as plates were transported from the table without much ado. After that it was clear the people in my world expected me to bounce back, the only problem being I was getting better in barely perceptible shifts each day, not to a two weekly deadline. If I was going to allow my body the opportunity to heal I needed to manage my output and, horror of horrors, stop doing things (oh no). Thankfully common sense prevailed and all is well, although I can’t understand how I am both stuffed up still and yet able to breathe more effectively than before the op, very strange!Samantha-French-2

Many people in England are currently experiencing a setback beyond their control, ie the weather. A good friend, living a couple of miles from me, had her house flooded last week. The water is still rising up from under her living room floor and making its way down her hallway … The reason it’s flowing up through the foundations and not through the door – the water table is extraordinarily high in some parts of Kent, a result of the wettest January since records began (rainfall has been measured in England since 1766).

Other regions of England are worse hit, the county of Somerset is featured daily on news media; the army have been drafted in to aid relief. The BBC reporting, “it started raining on 9th December and it hasn’t stopped since”. I am reminded of a television program I watched in 2012 describing the phenomena of ‘global weirding’, a natty phrase which neatly captures the weird and extreme nature of the world’s weather experienced in recent years.

When I was living in Texas, a few years ago now, the droughts and torrential floods began reaching unprecedented levels – that’s my Houston neighbour’s house in the photo. We were fortunate not to have our home flooded, however, the two weeks after Hurricane Ike Came Calling gave me my own experience of coping with a significant setback – more of which chronicled in my book An Inconvenient Posting (unashamed plug).IMG_0348

My recently flooded pal epitomizes all that is good in the English character; she is stoic and apparently unchallenged by the pond in her home. She is resigned to knowing she couldn’t have done anything about it and has a plan in terms of what to do next, and how to prevent it happening again. It will be a long process, probably involving loss adjusters and unwelcome expense, but her head is up and she is ready to pick her way through it.

People vary dramatically in their coping skills at a time of crisis. Knowing this I was inspired to think about what mindset helps us to bounce back; below are some ideas I’ve brought together for you.

Ideas to promote resilience …

TRY AND STAY POSITIVE

–          Berating yourself about how you could have prevented or helped the outcome of the setback will change nothing and make you feel worse.

–          With this in mind, limit negative thinking to a few minutes. Try not to dwell on thoughts such as, Why me? What if? And counter these with positive ones; What can I do differently in the future? And How can I make things better? How or who can help me?

FOCUS ON CHANGE

–          Coming to terms with your bump in the road will help you to move on effectively and make the necessary changes more promptly – accepting that setbacks are part of life is key to moving on.

–          Sometimes it’s impossible to move on because of your ongoing predicament; remind yourself that eventually things will change. Perhaps you can begin to imagine what this might look like and conjure up some positive images to draw on?

–          Try re-evaluating your goals for that time when change comes. Taking control of your situation will make you feel better.

–          Ask yourself, How might I get help or advice? For example, losing your job is usually an upsetting and unwelcome set back. In addition to the obvious financial implications it can sap confidence and erode your sense of identity. On the other hand, it is normal nowadays, in fact most people lack job security. As a result, there is help at hand to provide support and ideas in the form of books and articles on the internet.

SEEK HELP AND ADVICE

–          Most people feel good about helping others so don’t be afraid to network effectively. And who knows, maybe there will be something you can do for that person in return. Research shows that when we help others it makes us feel good too.

–          Meet up with a trusted friend and have a good moan, then thank them for listening. This will help you gain perspective on your situation. Need a deeper discussion in which to process your feelings? You could find a therapist; look for one who you feel you’ll work well with.

MAKE SMALL CHANGES; BEGIN NOW!

–          The road back may be a long one; whilst it’s good to make a plan, you don’t want to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task in hand. Start with small bite size changes, challenge yourself to think about what you can do today that will help.

–          Made a mistake? We all do! Forgive yourself and do not be discouraged. Maybe there was something positive resulted from the mistake? An example that springs to mind for me, was the shower stall I had tiled with mosaic. I was pleased with my choice, thinking they were a stylish bargain and they looked good in the magazine photos… However, one year on the grout is constantly turning black and grimy; some tiles are falling out. It’s a small issue and yet every morning I look at the horrid little squares and stifle the urge to feel miffed I ever chose them. The learning; next time do a little research and ask  someone who knows!

Good luck and please let me know if you’ve been affected by a particular challenge recently.

Specifically interested in expatriate challenges? Try The Emotionally Resilient Expat by Linda Janssen