Small, practical, free experiments designed to help improve your mood and expand your life--whether you're recovering from depression, surviving a crisis, or just wanting to open up new horizons.
Try them and see which ones work best for you--and please report back in the comments, to tell me about your experiences with these suggestions.

Click here for my psychotherapy website.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Lighten Things Up

The practice
Especially at this time of year, make sure you get exposed to plenty of natural light--either by getting outside every day for a good 45 minutes, or by using a full-spectrum light lamp.

Full-spectrum light lamps can be had for under $100, and unlike drugs, there are no adverse side-effects from using light to boost your mood.

The theory
Some people suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). As we go into winter and daylight hours decrease, they feel depressed and crabby. The solution is more light.

If you work in a windowless office, it's even more important to get light. In Sweden and other Nordic countries, most offices and homes have natural light bulbs, because people there are equipped to deal with long hours of darkness.

(The other solution is to take a mid-winter vacation somewhere sunny. Ten days of bright sunlight in December seems to reset the brain enough to get you through to spring.)

The result
More light works. Within a week of using a light lamp, people affected by SAD tend to feel happier. Whether you opt for an hour's walk in daylight, a winter holiday, or a full-spectrum lamp, you'll feel differently with lots of light.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Keep A Journal of Ease

This idea was lent to me by a client, who gave me permission to tell other people about it.

The practice
Every day, note down the things that were easy. For example:
'There was no queue at the post office.'
'That sore throat I had just went away all by itself.'
'My yoga class felt so relaxing.'
'The meeting I was dreading ended up only lasting fifteen minutes, and Steve agreed to everything I needed.'

The theory
We all have habitual neural networks, that correspond to our usual ways of operating. They fire off at the slightest thing. The result is that we tend to interpret the world according to our habitual view. When something happens that doesn't fit that view, we classify it as an exception, and fire the habitual network anyway!
In order to change our habitual perception, we have to flesh out a different neural network. By focusing on easeful things, you begin to build out a new neural network of ease. Every easeful experience you spend a moment of awareness on builds it more. Gradually, it will supercede your old network of anxiety--the one that is convinced that things will be tough, and that life is always a battle.

The result
My client has been doing this for a couple of weeks, and says that already, her life just feels more easy. She is building a new neural network, that's now beginning to fire all by itself, noticing ease as much as difficulty. This is turn is giving her a new set of beliefs and predictions for how things will be, based on the evidence of ease that she's now collecting, rather than discarding. And that makes her calmer, and happier.

Try it. It will take you maybe four minutes a day. What could be easier?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Grow Some Plants, or At Least, Do Some Digging

The practice
Find a way to do some gardening. Whether it's re-potting your house plants into good new compost, or planting a row of pole-beans alongside your house or on your balcony, gardening is good therapy. You don't have to do anything complicated. Hanging out with plants, enjoying their progress from sprout to leaf to flower to fruit, is satisfying and calming in itself. But actually, it turns out having your hands in the soil is extra good against depression.

The theory
I have always said that I feel better when I can garden, on however modest a scale, but it was only today that I discovered new scientific research that indicates why. The bacterium mycobacterium vaccae, present in soil, apparently increases serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurochemical that seems to be linked to depression--if you don't have enough of it. Mycobacterium vaccae also encourages growth of serotonin receptor cells, which means that it makes it easier for your brain to be positively affected by serotonin, too.

Obviously the scientific data is more complex than I'm making it sound. But the bottom line remains the same--getting your hands in some soil is scientifically proven to be very likely to make you feel better.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Get Out of the Procrastination Vortex: Do One Thing A Day

The practice
Are you caught in a Procrastination Vortex? It goes like this:
- You have a lot of important things to do.
- When you look at your Important Things To Do list, you feel so overwhelmed by everything on it that you don't do any of them.
- You go to bed feeling guilty and anxious, swearing you'll do the things tomorrow.
- Next day the same thing happens, only now several more things have added themselves to the list, which is now even more overwhelming...

Here's the way out of the Vortex: DO ONE THING A DAY.

The theory
If you do one thing a day off your Important Things To Do list, you will get a lot more done than if you set yourself the task of doing ten things, and do none of them.

One thing a day adds up, especially if you prioritize, so that the one thing you do is the most important thing on the list.

The result
Try it. You get a lot done this way, you make steady progress, and you feel relief rather than the anxiety, guilt and stress caused by procrastination.

And here's an extra bonus: the satisfaction and relief that result from getting an important thing done every day make it more likely that you'll also accomplish a couple of other small tasks, just because you're on a roll. But don't forget to congratulate yourself and take a few minutes off to relish ticking that important task off your list.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Try Saying 'No'

The practice
Many of us have a hard time saying no, especially to people who are asking for help. For some of us, “no” is culturally unacceptable. So we say yes and resent it. This week, when you don’t want to do something, try saying no and see how it makes you feel. What stops you? How do you feel about yourself when you don’t say no? How do you feel when you do?

The theory
When you can’t say no, you end up resentful and grudging. Or exhausted. This practice is about finding balance between our own needs and everyone else’s.

You don’t have to be unpleasant about it. Try these various degrees of softening:
“Tonight I can’t. I have things I need to take care of.”
“It’s so nice of you to ask, but I don’t really feel like going out tonight.”
“I’m sorry, but no.”
“You know, that’s not really my thing.”

The result
When you can say no when you need to, you can say yes with more authenticity. Other people start to trust you more, because they know that when you say yes, you mean it. And you start to craft a life that better suits what you really want, and who you really are.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Say Yes To All Invitations

The practice
For a set period of time (for example, a month), practice saying yes to all invitations that come your way. (Unless of course an invitation is dangerous, seriously disruptive, or involves something that goes against your values.)

For example:
A. “Would you like to come hiking with us on Saturday?”
You think: But it might rain, I could get cold, I’d have to get up early….

You say: “Yes!”

B. “Can you help me move on Sunday?”
You think: Drat, I hate moving. I wanted to go to a matinee.

You say: “Yes!”

C. “I have a spare ticket to the opera. Would you like it?”
You think: I’ve never been to the opera, will there be easy parking, will I get bored?

You say: “Yes!”

The theory
Saying yes as a policy* gets you out of your rut fast. It expands your comfort zone and forces you to explore new things. In the process you can find that your life becomes richer, you meet new people, you discover new things you like (and some you don’t). It’s a great policy to implement any time you start feeling lonely, cut-off, bored, or in a routine that’s starting to make life feel like work.

(*Use your own judgment though. If you feel an invitation is dangerous, seriously disruptive, or involves something that goes against your values, then say no!)

The result
Here’s how it can work: Your colleague Jane asks if you can help her move house on Saturday. While helping her move, you meet her friends Sasha and Pete. Sasha invites you to a crochet circle at her house on Thursday. You, at a crochet circle? But you go anyway, and there you meet her elderly aunt, who has an in-law unit to rent in an area you like. You go to see it, and decide to rent it—wow, you found a new place. There’s a flyer in the mailbox too, for a new cafĂ© opening that night. So you go, hoping to have fun and meet people in your new area, but the band is dreadful and the only person you talk to is the barrista. Too bad, you think. Ten days later Pete invites you to a barbeque at his place. You’re nervous to go because you don’t know anyone else who’s going, but you say yes anyway, and when you walk in, there’s the barrista, who introduces you to his friends…and so on.

For a film inspiration, watch “Yes Man”.