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:

Twelve Blocks to Listening this Christmas

Are you imaging a happy and stress free holiday season? I’ve been thinking about how to make this happen, and mindful of the need to limit disagreements, I’ve decided to focus here on communication skills, specifically listening skills (very useful if you are an expat and separated geographically).

I’m used to listening intently in the therapy room, but suspect I am not so good at practicing those skills in my non professional life. My husband has been know to say “If you’d be quiet for a moment and listen… “ Oops.

musical christmas

All good conversations being with listening and I guess, any time of year is a fine time to hone our communication skills? The benefit is when we feel listened to we don’t get so cross.

The ancient song Twelve Days of Christmas, is about gifts given on the twelve days running up to Christmas. You’ll remember it goes:

‘On the First day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree.’

There are some unusual sounding presents;

‘Twelve Lords a leaping’

In the spirit of that much loved song I would advocate planning, in good time, presents for those important ‘others’ in our lives. To minimize stress, I try and maintain a sense of humour, it can also be a useful device for deflecting those tense moments that can epitomize family gatherings.

With usually far flung family ensconced for extended periods and children subjected to adults, and vice versa, frankly anything that brings harmony to the scene will be welcome. And let us not forget the hours of extra chores most of us embark on at this time of year.

Sadly those enforced hours together, will for some couples, be the end of the line. I’m thinking of the spike in divorce rates immediately after the holidays; the sombre fact is there are more divorces in the New Year than any other time.

However, before I get too carried away and become curmudgeonly, let me state that I do want to be happy and joyful, as befits the season, so to minimise discord would be helpful.

I have compiled Twelve Listening Blocks for this festive season, the hope being that respectful, clear communication will improve relationships, keeping negativity in check.

Have a look through the list and consider what rings true for you. This is not an opportunity to berate yourself, we are all guilty of at least some of these behaviours, its about raising awareness and choosing to stop, if you feel inclined.


  1. You are second guessing what the person is thinking instead of listening fully.
  2. Notice the pull to compare stories, “oh yes that happened to me too”. I’m guilty of this one. At least make sure let the other person finish telling their story first before you tell yours!
  3. Finding yourself practicing in your mind what you are going to say next instead of listening.
  4. Allowing yourself to be triggered and letting your thoughts drift off from the conversation.
  5. Personalising everything the other person says, again, over identifying with your own experience.
  6. Selective hearing, filtering – only listening to what grabs you.
  7. Discriminating, making judgements about the other person without hearing them out.
  8. Problem Solving; telling them what they “should” do. I recommend limited use of the word should. If they ask for advice, make sure they’ve finished speaking first and rather than telling them what they should do, you might want to ‘own’ your words saying “I would … “ that way you won’t get the blame if the advice doesn’t turn out well.
  9. Discounting the other person. For example, by not accepting a compliment when it is offered.
  10. Hanging on to the conviction that you are in the right. Try to be open to the other’s point of view, listening to their perspective.
  11. Trying to outdo the other person by putting them down. Even witty put downs are not funny for the person who is the butt of the joke and can create emotional distance. Placating and patronizing are also subtle techniques we may employ as put downs.
  12. Changing the subject inappropriately, just because you suddenly feel like it. There are times however, when changing the subject can be a way of moving on. For example, when an argument is going around in circles, the option to change the subject can be openly acknowledged “Shall we leave it there?”.

Whatever you are doing in the month of December I hope it is a happy one for you. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog Laura J Stephens in 2014. On Twitter? Join me @LauraJStephens


Messages: The communications Skills Book by Matthew McKay, 2009

Read the Introductory Chapter to ‘An Inconvenient Posting’


First published Great Britain 2012 by Summertime Publishing

© Copyright Laura J. Stephens
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher.
This is book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not,by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent
in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
This is a work of nonfiction. The events and experiences herein are true and have been faithfully rendered as the author remembered them, to the best of her ability. Some names, identities, and circumstances have been changed for reasons
of privacy.
ISBN 978-1-904881-80-3
Book design by Creation Booth –
Painting ‘At Home: Houston’ 2009 by Diane E Wilkinson


For anyone who has ever struggled to relocate themselves.




From the happy fog of a good night’s sleep I am woken to a clattering noise; someone is rummaging in the china dish on my chest-of-drawers. Lifting my head a few inches off the pillow I can just make out a silhouette in the half-light. There is a cowboy in the bedroom.

A few heart pounding seconds later, and I realise the cowboy with his back to me is my husband David, and this can only mean one thing, it is Go Texan Day.
David is proudly donning a black felt Stetson and tan leather cowboy boots, which he has teamed, I notice, with his everyday shirt and chinos. He slides his car keys and wallet
into his pockets, plants a kiss on my forehead and casually leaves for work. I have no doubt David will spend the day with his co-workers acting as though it is completely natural for a Welshman to be dressed half cowboy and half business man. 
Our three girls, determined not to be outshone by their father, are wearing the full get up to school; white cowboy boots, blue jeans, red checked shirts and daisy patterned bandannas. They stride through the kitchen waving their Stetsons and yelling.
“Yee ha, Go Texan day!”
Our family has been ‘going Texan’ for two years now, since we relocated to Houston from the south of England. This year, we are keen to be part of Houston’s annual Rodeo celebrations.For the next few weeks the girls are only interested in one thing, the headline event, a Miley Cyrus pop concert at the Reliant Stadium. It is the finale to three weeks of exhibitions, livestock shows and country ‘n’ western bands, a unique celebration of The Lone Star State. Even Elvis once played there.
Finally it is the day of the concert. Our Sunday lunch of roast chicken stuffed with garlic is wolfed down and we retreat to our bedrooms to get ready. I surprise myself and decide to go for the Western look too; threading a leather belt in the loops of my jeans I notice the turquoises inlaid with silver not my usual style – which I’d purchased right here in Texas, in a ‘one horse town’ called Old Town Spring. At that time it had been a big deal for me to venture beyond Houston’s outer limits. I shiver as I remember the sadness and, tightening the pretty belt, I smile to myself – how strange that all seems now. I grab my Stetson, catch my image in the mirror and wonder if I look the part. As I search for the tickets in the clutter of the kitchen drawer, Elisabeth, my eldest, eyes me suspiciously. She is unmoved by my enthusiasm.
“Mum. I can’t believe you got dressed up for it.”
“Well, I’d like to join in too,” I say.
“Yeah right… hopefully we won’t see anyone we know.” She’s only twelve and already I have become an embarrassing mother.
“Let’s go girls,” shouting up the stairs, “Bye David, see you later.”

We arrive at the Reliant Stadium and join the dense, humid crowd as it snakes around the auditorium. The sounds are chirpy and chaotic, stalls selling colourful T-shirts and baseball caps line the route. Excited little cowboys and cowgirls wear Stetsons edged with tinsel. We mingle in the smell of hot dogs and sweet popcorn, making me suddenly hungry again.
Locating our aisle, we pause at the top of the steep steps leading down to the stadium. Inside it is vast and yet surprisingly cool, courtesy no doubt of the sealed roof and air conditioning.
White, red and blue flags flutter gracefully above us – half are the American flag, the others bear the white star of Texas – each one is big enough to cover a tennis court.
“Look, Mum,” Megan’s tanned arm points upward, her mouth is open slightly, “Show-offy flags!”
We squeeze past vendors wearing white flared trousers, trimmed with cerise rhinestones. They carry boxes of food slung around the waist. After nearly two years in Texas, I
finally understand what they are saying.
“Come on y’all and git yur eats,” they hold up peanuts and shake bags of cotton candy like cheerleaders.
We find our four plastic, moulded seats among the crowd of mums and children. The girls have counted off the weeks, and eventually the days, from the international school calendar pinned to the cork board on our huge American fridge. Finally they will get to see their teen idol, Miley Cyrus. Megan, our middle child, sits between her sisters holding a
polystyrene tray. They help themselves to refried beans spread over a layer of corn chips. They each have a bucket size soda with a foot-long straw poking out, enough to hydrate a whole playground of kids for only a couple of dollars. Far below us, a rodeo starts.
“What’s going on?” Megan asks.
“Um, not sure,” I hesitate, “It looks like we’re going to see some rodeo after all.”

There had been no mention of three hours of livestock action before Miss Cyrus came on stage. I wish I’d known, I could have warned the girls what to expect.
“I thought rodeos were in fields,” Megan says.
She has a point, knowing the concert was inside the Reliant Stadium I hadn’t anticipated the livestock coming indoors. I turn and look at her, “We’re lucky to catch the rodeo,” I offer positively. Megan looks doubtful,
“Okay, but when’s Miley coming on?”
We are interrupted by a burst of activity on the floor of the stadium. A lone calf zigzags crazily inside an enormous pen. A cowboy shoots out from a hidden entrance at the side. His Stetson flays back and forth wildly as his long, blue-jeaned legs grip the girth of his chestnut horse, hooves rhythmically pound out a large circle around the calf. His right arm rotates aloft, whipping the air with his lasso.
In one swift, balletic movement the calf snaps, upended onto his spine. His hooves point skyward, his body inert forming a triangle shape. I glance at Elen. The corn chip nestled in her little cherub hand stops halfway to her mouth. Her blue glass marble eyes hold their gaze on the hapless calf. The colour is still draining from her face as she says in a small voice,
“Is he dead?”
“No, no sweetheart, he’s just caught in the cowboy’s rope.
He’s showing how clever he is at lassoing,” I say.
“But he’s dead… he’s not moving, Mummy,” says Elen.
“It’s okay, it’s the Cowboy’s job to look after his animals and make sure they don’t run off.”
I reach over the arm of the seat and place my hand on her leg.
“He’ll be fine in a minute.”
Elen’s soft hand closes over mine. The corn chip falls to the floor forgotten.

I notice a youngish man is peering over at me from the aisle steps, he grins good naturedly as he clings tightly to his daughter’s hand. She teeters on the steep steps, shivering
in a sundress and trying to balance two armfuls of Miley memorabilia.
“Would y’all mind moving along a coupla seats, only it’s kinda difficult for me to git in and out, owin’ to ma size an all.”
He grins again, patting his seriously oversized trunk. I smile back.
“No problem,” I say in my best Texas drawl and turn to the girls,
“Move along a couple of spaces please, this gentleman needs our seats.”
I have a feeling they are going to mount a protest or at least roll their eyes, but good humour gets the better of them and they move a little further away from the action.
Over the next three hours, the man’s daughter wags her metre-long Day-Glo sword across my face; each swipe narrowly missing my nose. Just as I’m losing the will to live,
there are signs the headline event is nearly upon us. Stocks and pens give way to a circular stage. Banks of coloured lights take aim at its centre.
The stadium is full to capacity, with 78,000 ecstatic people. There is no audible clapping, only a cacophony of endless, deafening screaming. Then everyone stands up, no one knows why; it’s what happens when people are in the moment. The excitement is palpable as the screaming reaches an unlikely pitch. At last, Miley is here, bouncing and waving
alongside her dad, Billy Ray Cyrus. Tall and talented, an all American dynasty, they blast around a bandstand of white Grecian pillars.
Miley is more grown up than I remember, but does not disappoint. Later in the set it’s Billy Ray’s turn, he strums his guitar with well-practised ease and sings his song, western
It’s about a girl who is going to give her dreams a shot, however big they are. Mmm, I think, I could dig that too. Am I going to give my dreams a shot or am I too settled here in
Texas now? The lyric reminds me that lately I’ve been wondering if I would have the guts to write a story – my story. I have even imagined a subtitle, ‘Corporate wife and therapist, lost in identity crisis and blindsided by culture shock’. It is beginning to seem unlikely. But this morning when David reached up high for my Stetson, he had rediscovered my journal sandwiched between some books. Maybe it’s the sign I have been looking for?
Waking the following morning I lie still in bed and wait for my senses, mind and body, to emerge.
“You’ve got the best of both worlds.”
It’s another song from the Miley concert, resonating around my head. A surge of happiness washes over me and I am suddenly aware how very fortunate we are to have had
the best of both worlds, living in diverse places, experiencing contrasting cultures.
I can hear David’s work shoes on the wooden floor of the corridor; he is travelling at a clip towards our bedroom. I feel my heart quicken a little as he strides over the cream carpet.
His face is obscured, silhouetted against a row of sunlit zebra slats projected on the wall through the slender shutters. I notice the image ripple with the movement of the pool and think how strangely opulent it seems.
“Oh good, you’re still here,” I say. I see now he looks smart in a navy linen jacket, chestnut trousers and a slim fitting shirt.
“Yep, I’m ready to go though,” resignation, and a hint of apology in his voice. He sits down, his bottom nearly squashing my legs under the light quilt. It feels nice. My mind
is buzzing.
“David,” I say in a low voice, “You know all the problems I had when we got here?”
His head tilts down, his hand smoothes his hair, “Yes.” His reply feels measured.
“Well, I learnt a lot living through all my difficulties. Do you really think I should share it?” I stare at his profile, dark hair, tanned neck against his white collar, “You know, in a
“Yes, definitely.” He turns to look at me and stretches his arm towards me running his hand over the top of my hip, I can feel his palm through the soft quilt. “Go for it,” he says and gets up to leave.
Jumping out of bed, I follow David along the corridor. By the front door we have a quick hug. His warm, dry skin smells of L’Occitane aftershave.
A black Lincoln with a mafiosi air about it is lurking on our cobbled driveway. Leaning against the passenger door is the regular driver, waiting to take him to the airport – a five-day dash to South East Asia and back.
“Girls, I’m going,” he yells.
David’s pull-along bag is stationed upright; a faithful dog waiting for his master. Elisabeth, Megan and Elen rush down stairs from their bedrooms and gather around his legs.
David crouches down to their level, circling his arms around them.
“Okay girls, I’ll be back on Friday. Be nice for Mummy and have a good week won’t you?”
“Love you Daddy,” says Elen.
He gently pulls each one to him in turn, smudging big kisses on their cheeks. The ritual done, he stands up and faces me.
“Right then,” he says, deftly tapping a little button on the handle of his bag, it pops up and he catches it with one hand whilst opening the door with the other.
“Wait,” I say, touching his arm and biting my lip, “I think I’m going to make a start on the book.”
“Good, you’ve been talking about it long enough, saying how that’s what you’d do ‘if only I hadn’t lost my journal’.” He cocks his head to one side with a cheeky grin. I think he means to encourage me. David settles back in the car and exchanges a few words with the driver. The girls have already scattered in search of breakfast and I wave at the black glass Lincoln as it glides away. Closing the oak door behind me, I lean against it feeling its cool, firm surface on my back, I allow myself a little smile.
That’s it then, decision made!

Want to read on? Buy the An Inconvenient Posting at or