The Collective

Ditch The Guilt

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During the same weekend that I grit my teeth when the Duchess of Cambridge spoke about mother’s guilt  ( I tried to imagine Prince William ‘fessing up to the same thing – no me neither ), I read another article in the Observer by the goddess, Mariella Frostrup about tackling her insomnia. I don’t suffer from insomnia but have many friends who do and go to incredible lengths to try and ‘fix it’.

The big reveal was on its way:  what was Mariella going to attribute it to?  Hormones, the menopause, too much sugar, not enough sex… I can’t lie, I felt deflated when her answer did come.   For while anxiety and regular insomnia are synonymous with hormonal change in a woman’s 50s, it didn’t explain the nocturnal struggles experienced by younger women. On closer inspection she discovered, a picture starts to form that’s recognisable to any women who is knee deep in the mothering, marriage and career years. Read More…

The Happiness Factor

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Ever wanted to know the exact age of maximum human unhappiness? Economists can be relied upon to translate complex phenomena with unparalleled precision and last week, a US National Bureau of Economic research study pinpointed the average moment of peak misery at 47.2 years.

Happiness, it has long believed, follows a U-shaped curve. You start off with high hopes and big dreams (smashing the proverbial glass ceiling, marrying Brad Pitt, owning a wardrobe full of Prada) but in your 20s, 30s, and early 40s, things get steadily worse as the demands of work and family take their toll. Your life, you realise, (especially if you have small children) is actually a never ending tickertape of loading a dishwasher, complicated pick up rotas and a lorra lorra laundry. All while despairing about your C-section overhang, looking after elderly (and increasingly batty parents) as well as wanting to KILL your husband.

Then things gradually get better as those pressures lift or as the School of Life is wont to champion, you adopt a ‘good enough is good enough’ mantra and accept that while your life is rather lack lustre, it takes a good deal of skill to keep even a very ordinary life going and that to navigate the daily challenges of family and love, work and children is quietly heroic.

What is interesting is that this happiness curve is to be found everywhere; David Blanchflower , who conducted the study, crunched numbers in 132 countries and found evidence of this U-shape happiness diagram in every one of them although noted that people reach the lowest point a year later in less developed countries. Curiously, even a 2012 study of chimpanzees and orang-utans also found that apes have a mid-life happiness low point at around the age of 30.

The bad news? Apparently we only climb half way up the curve on the other side. Anyway, it does beg the question: how can we try to be happier. And whilst bigger life picture worries –ageing parents, financial problems – often loom large, how can we learn to cope better?

Who hasn’t wondered at the formula, and while there is no one -size-fits-all answer to the question, there are little everyday steps that can help foster a sense of calm and contentment. Naturally, anything worthwhile can take a bit of getting used to. Learning to live in the moment, a hackneyed phrase does have remarkably wide-reaching effects, even something as simple as making the time to enjoy and focus on your meals without looking at a screen or reading the papers will affect enormously how that food is digested.

I love the very sage words of C.S Lewis who counselled: don’t think less of yourself as a person but think of yourself less. Compassion is something which, rather encouragingly keeps cropping up. I contemplated a Veganuary for all of about five minutes a few weeks ago, but I did read something that made me sit up and smile. William Sitwell , the journalist and former editor of Waitrose magazine had written a feature about trying to be vegan for a week. Many of you will remember how he resigned from his 19 year job as editor when his flippant email reply to Selene Nelson, his “vegan tormentor” who suggested running more plant-based recipes became public. Remarkably they have become friends.

There is a lot to be embraced in what Selene Nelson writes; ‘The whole movement of veganism is centred around life, compassion and love – for animals and for the world”. It’s a message which chimes with a sustainability movement which is gathering apace but surely also promotes a way of circular thinking that only adds to life.

The 90/10 rule is another good one to remember here. Namely that s**t happens but it’s how you deal with it that that matters. At least 10 per cent of life is not going to pan out as you wish no matter how organised, efficient or punctual you are. How you respond to that 10% will largely depend on how positive that other 90% of you is. Being happy is accepting that you can’t control that 10% of what goes wrong, so don’t waste time worrying.

Possibly we also get to a stage in our mid 40s (our mid-life crisis) where it’s all so hum-drummy that we just want to give up. I would add challenge yourself here…..- get up a bit earlier if needs be because stepping outside of your comfort zone is one very easy way to make you feel ALIVE and boosts your confidence. Not to mention the natural glow it will give you. That feeling you are still learning, well into midult-hood is very addictive. Try it, because it’s never too late to polish up a skill, start a hobby, learn a new instrument. We have a civic duty to be interested and interesting not least to our partners and our friends.

It’s not always easy but I try very hard to find time to do things that make me curious. That ray of escapism is never more important than when life is a never ending treadmill. Doing or seeing something that makes your soul soar, will refresh and energise you in ways you can’t imagine. You will return to rest of your life with Herculean amounts of vava-voomness.

And finally, don’t underestimate the enormous benefit of eating well and exercising in nature, walking even, listening to music to alleviate stress. Getting enough sleep (although possibly therein lies a whole other article) makes for a happier you; so make the time to hit your pillow earlier. Or power nap when possible. And if all else fails, heed Gill’s advice and get downing those Broc shots.

Are You Really Listening?

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Are you really listening? The answer is very likely a big fat no. How often do you actually focus on what someone is saying. Instead, there’s the running ticker tape: the Ocado shop, when will Brexit go away, yesterday’s deadlines, the overwhelming in-box, the beep of your iPhone, what are the kids going to eat for dinner? And you are not alone. Research shows that only 10% of us listen effectively.

We might think we are listening, but more often than not we are chomping at the bit to jump in and share our experiences or offer advice – but are we listening to fully understand what it is that someone is trying to tell us, a factor which negates the efficacy of our day-to-day communication.

I am just as guilty. Silly because I know only too well as a journalist that the best type of interview comes when you really listen; and that’s the words along with the pauses (which incidentally are just as revealing as the words).

I get the best exchange when I’m not ticking off a checklist of questions that I’ve prepared ahead, but when I take part in a conversation which evolves organically. It’s when I receive the best insights, the sound bites no one else has written and not the rat-a-tat-patter of well-rehearsed answers to questions the interviewee has been asked a dozen of times. And, which frankly is so much more enjoyable.

Active listening (the ability to unpick the meaning of words and silence) is so integral to good communication and yet, it is so rarely championed – or even taught at school or later on in life. Think of the many many tomes which have been written on the art of speaking or public speaking since the time of Cicero, but when was the last time you read anything about learning to listen properly, something that can definitely be improved upon with a bit of effort. As a child, my Granny used to tell me, God gave you two ears and one mouth so you could listen twice as much as you speak.

The late American psychologist Edwin Shneidman said, “When you listen for the pain, hurt and fear in people, it is always there. And when people sense you doing that with no other motive than to alleviate all of those, they will lower their walls and reveal them to you.”

Listening promotes empathy along with being in the present. It takes some practice to not judge or let your mind wander off. The way we listen and engage with others mostly boils down to a mixture of the following: only listening to what someone is saying through the prism of our own perspective; at other times, we are assumptive listeners (the most obvious example of poor listening) whereby we assume we know what the other person will say. We are so caught up thinking about what the other person wants to say that we don’t hear what they are actually saying, either because we are too impatient or as a result from a past experience with them.

There’s also judgemental and defensive listening where we might criticise someone – and body language is also very much at play here – to the extent that the person withdraws. And finally, a sort of authoritative listening, the kind of listening where someone always has to be right. There’s a lot of ‘should-ing’ that happens in this kind of conversation typically, an approach which implies that the speaker does not have anything of value to bring to the table.

To really listen of course, it helps to shut out the noise in our heads and adopt lightness. This is something that I come back to time and time again and I’ve written about before, but have you noticed that when there is a light hand on the tiller, (controlled, calm and confident) that everything just runs more smoothly, everything just IS better. Adopting lightness in every aspect of my life I have come to realise – relationships, work, conversations, that dealing with problems makes me feel more joyful and curious, more outward looking. Not only does this clear the mind and enable you to be more in the moment, it allows you to be a good listener.

How can we be better listeners? A good listener knows that, somewhat paradoxically we also need to learn to be a skilled interrupter by which I don’t mean charging in with our own ideas or advice before you have listened to the end of a sentence, but asking questions which delve deeper, are open-ended and which encourage the speaker to carry on. By doing so, you are able to elicit so much more from the person speaking.

Another key trait of the good listener is not to follow every digression introduced by the speaker; to gently but ever so skillfully steer the speaker back to the point he was making. A good listener doesn’t moralise either, they are kind ,patient (and often curious) enough to listen without judgement, to reassure someone that whatever it is that they are saying is not strange, that the vulnerability of the speaker is to be encouraged and explored.

The good listener might also add a few, judiciously placed confessions to assure that whatever the speaker is saying falls in the realms of normal or acceptable behaviour. They confess not so much to unburden themselves as to help others accept their own nature, experiences and story. For ultimately they are really listening.

What I Wish I Had Learned At School

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Does success at school translate into success at life? I write as little people are (finally!) back to school and everyone else back to the full throttle of metro-boulot-dodo. I’m also trying to work out how many times in the past thirty years I have used a simultaneous equation? Yes, my point exactly. Instead, I’m wondering how useful would it have been to learn – and in no particular order – how to negotiate a pay-rise; how not to get gazumped; the truth about childbirth or the best way to navigate the work place which, let’s face it, is where most of us will be spending a very very long time.

The School of Life dictionary (genius if you haven’t come across it) makes the very sage observation that given how long we spend at school, it is bewildering and deeply counter-intuitive how often success at school does not automatically translate into success in life. The root of the problem, it concludes, is that school curricula are not reverse-engineered from fulfilled adult lives in the here and know. That is, schools don’t ask what skills and knowledge will actually serve us in adulthood and devote themselves to nurturing star pupils in those areas.

Instead, schools are typically fixated on several unhelpful ideas that include: you have to learn what is known already, rather than develop the capacity to solve problems to which no handy solution yet exists; that it is the intellect that needs to be trained, whereas it is the quality of our emotional intelligence that will make the biggest difference in our professional and personal relationships.

Schools, it explains, teach us to redeploy rather than originate ideas; to seek permission; to meet rather than change expectations. Schools teach us anything OTHER than the two skills that really determine the quality of adult life: knowing how to choose the right job, and knowing how to form satisfactory relationships.

It isn’t, it asserts, the case that all we need to do to succeed at school is to flunk school. It’s a far more complex juggling act than that: “A good life requires us to do two very tricky things: be an extremely good student for twenty years, and simultaneously never really to believe in the long term validity or seriousness of what we’re being asked to study. We need to be outwardly entirely obediently while inwardly intelligent and committedly rebellious.”

What do I wish I’d learned? That A-levels on Emotional Intelligence had been a compulsory part of my education. I could have saved myself a lot of time, angst and grief: the endless procrastination or worrying what someone else thinks or why someone hadn’t replied to an email. Or else a helpful prod that we are all very very different indeed.

It’s the single most useful thing that will help you to thrive in life and the work place and so much more important than any career service at school or university will ever impress on you. Certainly it will help you manipulate a meeting or an encounter to your best advantage if you are able to ‘read’ the emotions of others around you.

What else could a double lesson of General studies have included? The ability to fail well is up there. This is definitely something that wasn’t taught at school although thankfully a growth mind-set is high on the agenda at a lot of schools today. Mistakes are our greatest teacher so embrace them when they happen. Failing encourages us to be emotionally tough and resilient and learn to cope with the hurdles that get thrown our way.

Which leads me neatly onto my next point of stepping out of your comfort zone. Try it. You have no idea how empowering or alive you will feel until you do. Useful to know too is that not many things are ever truly that bad. The things you worry about the most are never the things that actually happen. And if something does go wrong, frame it with this thought: in five years, will this really matter? Worry you will soon see turns out to be our biggest time waster.

Adopting lightness, in every aspect of my life – relationships, conversations, dealing with problems and work – has changed my perspective enormously. When you feel lighter and move with lightness, everything just works out better. Everything just IS better.

No one tells you at school when they say that you can be a rocket scientist or anything a boy can do that one day, you will be rooting around the recycling bins at 1 am in the morning for an egg carton for the Year 4 project. While breastfeeding a baby. On about three hours sleep. Even with the most committed, 50:50 split partner, juggling work and small children is tough.

What have I learned? Don’t be afraid to say “no”. Often this means listening to your gut. An entirely good thing (and very reliable tool in your decision making process). Your “no” makes your “yes” more powerful. There’s much to admire in someone who knows their limits, who can manage their time wisely and is realistic with the expectations placed on them. People will respect you, not resent you. Learn to work smarter not harder. Oh, and cut yourself some slack.

On this very topic, you need to learn to put yourself first. Far from being selfish, when you put yourself first, you are taking responsibility for yourself, which has always struck me as quite a sensible thing to do. When you put yourself first, EVERYTHING BENEFITS.

Learn to forgive. Know that most hurt is unintentional and a product of insecurity, self-doubt and worry. Being slow to anger and judgement or feeling less persecuted by the aggression and un-thinking of others. It will, I promise you make for a far happier life. Remember too that not everyone is like you.

Throughout our lives we can only hope to be good teachers as well as good students. To return to the School of life, we should never want to be liked just as we are: “Only a perfect being would be committed to their own status quo. For the rest of us, good learning and teaching are the only ways to ensure we have a chance of developing into slightly better versions of ourselves.”