5 Ways to Wellbeing, Part 5: Give

When I was much younger, I wrote a very dark and cynical song that began:

It’s getting near to Christmas, and the city has a million lies to sell;
Glory to Mammon in the highest, peacelessness on Earth and joy in Hell…

And while I wouldn’t write the same song today, I’m still not in love with the commercial Christmas, which reminds you (oh-so-constantly) that in the season of giving, in order to give, first you have to BUY STUFF BUY BUY STUFF STUFF STUFF.

Or do you?

In fact, there are a great many ways to give that don’t involve money. Nothing wrong with giving money, by the way, or spending money on gifts – I’ve got my wife something nice – but let’s not limit ourselves to the commercial gesture.


You’ve probably heard the phrase “random acts of kindness”. I’m never sure, myself, how a random act of kindness is different from politeness – you know, letting people in on the road, holding a door open for them. Perhaps it’s only a matter of degree.

Not everyone will appreciate your random acts of kindness (or politeness), by the way. I remember a storm in a teacup from my university days, when one of the more radical feminists accused a guy of sexual harrassment because he held a door open for her.

Speaking as someone who holds doors open for people regardless of gender, age or other distinguishing characteristics, I thought at the time, and still think, that this was ridiculous. But just be aware: people won’t necessarily thank you for what is intended as kindness, or see it as such.

That’s no reason to stop, though.


And speaking of politeness – “thanks” goes a long way. (So does “sorry”.)

You know the advice about writing a letter to someone you’re angry with and not sending it? Write a letter to someone you’re grateful to, and take it to them.

This is part of the “gratitude visit”, which Martin Seligman and colleagues found in 2005 to be one of the interventions that reliably increased people’s happiness over the long term. It involves writing, and then personally delivering, a letter of gratitude to someone who’s been kind to you but has never been properly thanked. (Fuller instructions are here.)

Creative Commons License photo credit: Jayegirl99


I talked about this in How to be Happy, but volunteering is good for you as well as for society. Going beyond a random act of kindness, volunteering is one of the most positive ways you can give something of yourself to other people.

We often define ourselves in part by what we do, and usually we think about what we do for money. But what we do without being paid for it probably says a lot more about who we are.


Give loops all the way around again to Connect, where we started this series. By giving something to another person, we make a positive connection with them. All the more so if we don’t expect the gift to be reciprocated.

Action Now

What will you do in the month of December that is a gift without cost or price?

It could be a series of small things, an act of kindness to a stranger every day, for example.

It could be something you do once, like volunteering to help with a city mission Christmas meal for those who have fewer resources than you do. Or something you do for some time, like volunteering to be part of an organisation that helps people in a way you think is important.

It could be for someone you know and love, perhaps someone you haven’t been in touch with for a while, like the gratitude visit.

Whatever it is, think about how it helps you connect with someone else and give them something of yourself. And reflect on your experience afterwards, to get the full benefit.

What’s going on with me

You might or might not have noticed that this post came out a bit late. That’s because my wife is in hospital recovering from an infection, and I’ve been focussed on supporting her. You might be hearing from me a bit erratically over the next little while, because it’s a situation that’s going to take months, rather than weeks, to resolve.

Supporting her is going to be the main gift I’m giving this year. But I will keep on posting as and when I’m able. I’m thinking of doing some video posts to change it up a little, too. Stay tuned!

How to be Happy

Do you want to be amazing? Become an Amazing Member and get immediate access to member-only resources like the How to be Happy ebook.

(I naturally won't pass your email address on to anyone else.)

5 Ways to Wellbeing, Part 4: Keep Learning

I’ve always liked learning things. Part of the reason is that I’m good at it – at least, if they’re knowledge-based things. But even things I’m not good at, like physical skills, I still enjoy learning. Why?

Turns out our brains are curious, and they enjoy new experiences. Keep Learning is one of the Five Ways to Wellbeing, evidence-based ways of improving your life. (I’ve already covered Connect, Be Active and Take Notice in this series.)

What if I don’t like learning?

Some people have a negative experience of learning at school. Typically, they’re people who like to move around and do things with their hands, and sitting in one place for an hour while someone talks at them is a form of torture.

I had a client once, an actress, who had learning difficulties as a child. New Zealand’s education system is about 10-15 years behind the curve on learning disabilities, and she had been told she was stupid, lazy and so forth because she couldn’t pay attention in class or remember what the teacher had presented. She was still noticeably upset about it years later.

She’d found ways to memorise her lines, but she still had to work harder than her colleagues. (And that’s the thing – kids with learning issues who are genuinely trying are like Alice Through the Looking Glass, running as hard as they can to stay in one place. And then they get called lazy. No wonder they don’t enjoy school.)

School and learning are not the same thing

What I’m leading up to is that there’s a difference between school and learning. We think of schools as places where learning happens, but they’re often not. I know I probably would have learned more, and enjoyed school more, if I’d been able to sit in the library all day and read what interested me with some minimal guidance, rather than sitting in chaotic classrooms plodding through some idealogue’s curriculum. And a lot of what I did learn during my school years was learned outside those classrooms.

To be honest, most of what has been most useful and valuable to me I didn’t learn at school, or if I did it was incidental to being in a classroom. Which is why I bang on about the Missing Curriculum.

All right, with that out of the way let’s talk about what learning is, rather than what it isn’t, and why it adds to your happiness.

Broaden and build

Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory goes well beyond classroom learning to include play, exploration, contentment and love. But at heart, it’s about taking what you already know and can already do, that you enjoy and find fulfilling, and using those as a base for exploring into the surrounding territory.

The thing about broaden-and-build (which is very well researched as an approach to happiness, by the way) is that dwelling on these positives puts you into a resourceful and creative state of mind. Focussing on your fears and worries, on the other hand, puts you into an unresourceful state where you’re naturally inclined to play it “safe” and not try anything new – to fight or run away.

But in a modern, complex, rapidly changing society, the people who thrive are exactly the ones who can meet new challenges creatively and resourcefully, who have more options available to them because their mental resources are not just consumed with looking for the exit. A primitive instinct to be safe will actually cause you more problems than it solves.

I Can't See You...
Creative Commons License photo credit: tropical.pete

The joy of mastery

Our brains are wired to enjoy mastering new things. That’s what’s made us so successful as a species.

And surfing at the edge of our capabilities – where what we are doing is difficult enough to be fully engaging, but not so difficult that we can’t achieve it – produces the experience called “flow”.

One of the things I love to do in my day job in IT is design solutions to problems. I get really psyched about creating a design that will solve the problem reliably with a minimum of setup. I get into flow when I’m doing that, or when I’m writing fiction and the characters are pretty much carrying the scene forward for themselves, or when I’m blogging and the topic is close to my heart and something I know well.

I’d love to be that good at something that I use my body for. That might be next year’s goal.

Point is, learning and being at the edge of your abilities can be incredibly fun and motivational. School doesn’t achieve that very often, but you can do it for yourself.

Education vs Alzheimer’s

My mother is in her early 80s, and still as mentally sharp as ever. I had a conversation with her a couple of years ago in which she talked about two near-contemporaries of hers who had been mentally stifled by their husbands (this would be probably 40 years ago), and had developed dementia very young. Her theory was that the two things were connected.

I later found out that she was probably right. Apparently each year of education after high school reduces your chance of developing Alzheimer’s (so there you go, school is good for something).

The thing is, my mother was the only woman in her university science classes in the late 1940s, and there weren’t even that many women studying arts. It was another several decades before educating women to university level became routine, and those women are not yet in the Alzheimer’s age range. (My grandfather was asked why he was wasting his money to educate his daughter. “She’ll only get married,” they said. His answer was that he’d never found that education was very heavy to carry around.)

Keep learning

So there are three reasons to keep learning. Firstly, by building on your existing knowledge and experience, you put yourself into a positive, resourceful frame of mind. Secondly, mastery and “flow” is enjoyable and motivating in and of itself. And thirdly, keeping your brain active is good for it, just like keeping your body active is good for it (and for your brain, for that matter).

Action Now

We’re heading rapidly to the end of the year. What are you going to learn next year?

Start making a plan now. Locate courses, books, materials, resources. Identify where it’s going to fit into your life. Save some money, if you need to.

Keep learning. And enjoy.

How to be Happy

Do you want to be amazing? Become an Amazing Member and get immediate access to member-only resources like the How to be Happy ebook.

(I naturally won't pass your email address on to anyone else.)

5 Ways to Wellbeing, Part 3: Take Notice

Take notice. Pay attention. Be aware.

That’s the third of the 5 Ways to Wellbeing, and it’s one I write about constantly.

So far in this series we’ve looked at connecting and being active. Still to come: Keep Learning and Give.

But today we have naming of parts taking notice.

(That was a poetry joke. There’s another one later – see if you spot it. And did you notice what I just did there?)

Why taking notice is important

What you pay attention to shapes your brain, and your brain shapes your experience.

I say “brain” and I mean “brain”. It shapes your mind as well, of course, but your brain physically changes when you consistently pay attention. Whether it’s a practice of meditation (which is a deliberate way of paying attention in order to shape your experience), or whether it’s a daily habit of complaining, what you take notice of is what constructs your world.

And what you don’t take notice of is what controls you.

You have several brains (despite what your friends may occasionally say), and one of them is kind of like a crocodile’s. It can identify, by a primitive kind of pattern-matching, which of the three “Fs” a situation calls for: fighting, fleeing or mating. Beyond this level it gets a bit lost. Just as trolls count “one, two, three, many”, the crocodile brain goes “fight, run, mate, too complicated”.

If you don’t pay attention to it, the crocodile will control you.

Another of your brains is a bit like a rabbit’s. It lives in a kind of eternal now, in a mist of ever-changing emotions, each of which is total reality for as long as it lasts.

It has a bit more range than the croc: it can do sadness as well as fear and anger, but it still relies on primitive pattern-matching to decide whether this person I see before me is someone to nurture or to be nurtured by, to run from or to attack, to eat or to have sex with.

If you don’t pay attention to it, the rabbit will control you.

You have a brain in your gut, as well, because digestion is a complex matter and needs its own brain. It’s linked in with the brain in your head, to the crocodile and the rabbit, and signals them using both nerves and body chemistry. The crocodile and the rabbit experience these signals about the state of the digestion as moods and desires, some of which have no obvious connection with food.

If you don’t pay attention to it, the gut will control you.

There’s another brain outside your head, too. It’s called your culture. It remembers lots of things (not always very accurately), but it’s not that great at conscious thought. Despite this, it constantly helps you to decide what to do, because it’s not only outside your head, it’s also inside your head, speaking in the voices of the people who raised you. (More and more these days that includes people who you only saw or heard on the television.)

If you don’t pay attention to it, the crowd will control you.

Storm Crowd
Creative Commons License photo credit: JD Hancock

Taking notice changes your life

The only brain you have that thinks consciously is the heavily-grooved, small-melon-sized, grey squishy thing wrapped round the rabbit, which is wrapped round the crocodile. Even then, it’s mainly the front part that is really conscious and makes decisions, and only some of the (usually) left side that does rationality and words. Relative to the rest of the brains, your rational, conscious part is heavily outweighed.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be big when you’re smart.

The rabbit and the crocodile can only pattern-match, and then act based on the match that comes up. But the conscious mind can reflect on causes, consequences, alternative explanations. It can question whether that match really was a match. It can insert a small, but growing pause for thought between the pattern-match and the reaction, between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, between the emotion and the response.

That means that the croc, the bunny, the gut and the crowd aren’t in control any more. They have a voice, they even have a vote, but they can be overruled by the Speaker.

How to take notice

The New Economics Foundation has some good advice on taking notice.

Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experience will help you appreciate what matters to you.

Here are seven specific suggestions.

  • When you see something beautiful, interesting, unusual or odd, say something about it (to yourself, if necessary).
  • Keep a journal and record things you notice.
  • Take photographs. Start a daily photographic log. It can transform your seeing.
  • Keep a mood diary. Record anything that might affect your mood – exercise, food, weather, medication, circumstances – and your mood rating on a 1-10 scale. Read over it once a month or so and draw conclusions.
  • Blog about personal development! (It works for me. I’m always thinking about the significance of things I see, do and experience, because I know I’ll need something to write about.)
  • Take up a meditation practice which involves paying attention. At its simplest, spend 10 minutes a day noticing your breathing.
  • Each day, choose a routine thing, a part of your day that’s become “background”, and foreground it. Ask why you do that, who put that there, what that’s all about. Do observational comedy on it!

How are you going to cultivate a habit of taking notice, paying attention, reflecting and being aware?

How to be Happy

Do you want to be amazing? Become an Amazing Member and get immediate access to member-only resources like the How to be Happy ebook.

(I naturally won't pass your email address on to anyone else.)