Choose and be free

April showers. Grey clouds. All a bit blah here this afternoon. So do I dare to be happy despite this?

I’m on a course at the moment with Landmark Education ( I highly recommended their flagship course ‘The Forum’, by the way, I did it some years ago and it completely changed my life –you can see a video about it here). The course I’m currently on is about …. you’ve guessed it, Happiness! One of the things they are drilling into us is that it is not our circumstances that lead to happiness (or lack of it) but our choices. We live our lives as if what we see before us is the rock solid ‘truth’, when, in fact, many truths are available if we choose a different thought about it. Listen to rap music. Some will hear it as noise – that’s their truth – but others will be inspired. Either party can change their reality at any time with a simple flick of thought.

So is today grey, rainy, blah and flat? Perhaps but it could also be all about giving the land a much needed drink. It’s a perfect excuse for sitting inside with a cup of tea, writing my blog. Days like this make the sunnier days feel even sunnier. I look forward to those! It’s all a bit like a radio. We never have to get stuck with rap if our thing is classical. Just turn your dial to another station.

What ‘truth’ are you living inside of today? Can you tune in to something more pleasing?  Choose and be free!


Oh, and by the way, if you’d like to find out more about Landmark and their courses, why not come along with me to Bristol next Wednesday – they’re having an open evening on my Happiness Course. I’d love to host you!

The Nocebo Effect

I thought this was absolutely fascinating in the Observer yesterday. Good to see that Science is looking at this:

The nocebo effect

Penny Sarchet discusses research on the ‘nocebo’ effect in her winning essay for the Wellcome Trust science writing prize:

Can just telling a man he has cancer kill him? In 1992 the Southern Medical Journal reported the case of a man who in 1973 had been diagnosed with cancer and given just months to live. After his death, however, his autopsy showed that the tumour in his liver had not grown. His intern Clifton Meador didn’t believe he’d died of cancer: “I do not know the pathologic cause of his death,” he wrote. Could it be that, instead of the cancer, it was his expectation of death that killed him?

This death could be an extreme example of the “nocebo effect” – the flip-side to the better-known placebo effect. While an inert sugar pill (placebo) can make you feel better, warnings of fictional side-effects (nocebo) can make you feel those too. This is a common problem in pharmaceutical trials and a 1980s study found that heart patients were far more likely to suffer side-effects from their blood-thinning medication if they had first been warned of the medication’s side-effects. This poses an ethical quandary: should doctors warn patients about side-effects if doing so makes them more likely to arise?

The nocebo effect can also be highly infectious. In 1962, 62 workers at a US dressmaking factory were suddenly stricken with headaches, nausea and rashes, and the outbreak was blamed upon an insect arriving from England in a delivery of cloth. No insect was ever found, and “mass psychogenic illnesses” like these occur worldwide, usually affecting close communities and spreading most rapidly to female individuals who have seen someone else suffering from the condition.

Until recently, we knew very little about how the nocebo effect works. Now, however, a number of scientists are beginning to make headway. A study in February led by Oxford’s Professor Irene Tracey showed that when volunteers feel nocebo pain, corresponding brain activity is detectable in an MRI scanner. This shows that, at the neurological level at least, these volunteers really are responding to actual, non-imaginary, pain. Fabrizio Benedetti, of the University of Turin, and his colleagues have managed to determine one of the neurochemicals responsible for converting the expectation of pain into this genuine pain perception. The chemical is called cholecystokinin and carries messages between nerve cells. When drugs are used to block cholecystokinin from functioning, patients feel no nocebo pain, despite being just as anxious.

The findings of Benedetti and Tracey not only offer the first glimpses into the neurology underlying the nocebo effect, but also have very real medical implications. Benedetti’s work on blocking cholecystokinin could pave the way for techniques that remove nocebo outcomes from medical procedures, as well as hinting at more general treatments for both pain and anxiety. The findings of Tracey’s team carry startling implications for the way we practise modern medicine. By monitoring pain levels in volunteers who had been given a strong opioid painkiller, they found that telling a volunteer the drug had now worn off was enough for a person’s pain to return to the levels it was at before they were given the drug. This indicates that a patient’s negative expectations have the power to undermine the effectiveness of a treatment, and suggests that doctors would do well to treat the beliefs of their patients, not just their physical symptoms.

This places a spotlight on doctor-patient relationships. Today’s society is litigious and sceptical, and if doctors overemphasise side-effects to their patients to avoid being sued, or patients mistrust their doctor’s chosen course of action, the nocebo effect can cause a treatment to fail before it has begun. It also introduces a paradox – we must believe in our doctors if we are to gain the full benefits of their prescribed treatments, but if we trust in them too strongly, we can die from their pronouncements.

Today, many of the fastest-growing illnesses are relatively new and characterised solely by a collection of complaints. Allergies, food intolerances and back pain could easily be real physiological illnesses in some people and nocebo-induced conditions in others. More than a century ago, doctors found they could induce a hay fever sufferer’s wheezing by exposure to an artificial rose. Observations like these suggest we should think twice before overmedicalising the human experience. Our day-to-day worrying should be regarded as such, not built up into psychological syndromes with suites of symptoms, and the health warnings that accompany new products should be narrow and accurate, not vague and general in order to waive the manufacturer’s liability.

As scientists begin to determine how the nocebo effect works, we would do well to use their findings to manage that most 21st-century of all diseases – anxiety.




Delayed Gratification

This is a familiar one for me. Sitting in bed contemplating my commitment to something and thinking “I’m frankly not sure I can be bothered”!

This morning at 9am – still holed up comfortably under my duvet and reading a great book written by a friend of mine – the thought of going for a jog, as I’d promised myself, didn’t feel so great.

I did go in the end and it all came down to me asking myself: “How will I feel tonight if I did my run today?”

Joachim de Posada, in this six minute TED talk, explains how delayed gratification was a good predictor of future success. Curious that it’s centred around marshmallows (we’re all at it!)

See his talk here – it’s quite funny in places!

Spicing up the Routine

The children went back to school today and I’m back to my term-time routine. I like routine – it is the walls to my castle. (Which admittedy feels like a bouncy castle at times!) It’s nice to have a structure to work inside of – it feels safe – but it’s also nice to have plenty of room to manoevre inside of that structure.

For some reason even exercise and the regular internal work I do – journalling and chatting to my Future Self – seem to fall by the wayside during the holidays – I’m not sure why. But today – bang – there I was like Pavlov’s favourite dog, falling out of bed, packing my swimming things and a notepad, ready for a trip to the pool and a cappucino-and-journalling moment afterwards.

The exercise was the routine but the pool was the flex inside of it. I haven’t swum for exercise for years (I got into a real rut with the gym before the summer) and yet I love it. How nice to find something fresh to do inside of the everyday – no matter how small! So this was today’s uplifter and today’s lesson. It’s great to have routine but be careful not to become a slave to it. Find ways to mix and match and spice it up a little.

I’m afraid of neutrality

I’ve just posted a new emotion in my library – Neutral. In there I mention that this is the one emotion I would like to transform. I realise that there is a big part of me that craves neutrality – I like the peace and balance it implies but there’s another part of me that’s afraid of it’s blandness and potential for ‘numbing out’,

Every summer at school I would shuffle home with end of year reports that declared that I was ‘Average’, ‘Could do better’, ‘Pleasant’, ‘Easy’. Oh my god! I quickly came to cringe at the inevitablity of these reports. Why couldn’t they say I showed great promise, that I was entertaining, delightful, a joy to teach?
What was I supposed to do with being told I was average? No-one got inspired by being middle-of-the-road. Even now I shudder.

So a lot of me still sees myself as a shade of grey – safe and soft. As I say, I revert to it easily but as today has shown – a day of seemingly average-ness – I really, really want to see what it takes to spice things up a bit. I’m not talking about being dangerous I’m just talking about feeling things a bit more. If I’m feeling peaceful then I want to be conciously aware of the joy of peacefulness.

So Neutrality – you need some working upon. I think perhaps we’re talking about doing something a little rebellious when I find myself in this state? Or maybe its a matter of just sensing more deeply – appreciating more – the peace that I’m in.

Friday on my mind

Today I’ve woken up full of thoughts about this blog and the direction I should take my Future Self Now site in. (I’ve been pondering the latter for a long time).

Ahead of us today is a trip into Bath to get some things for the new school year and Guy comes back from a week away.

So in summary, feeling full of thoughts and at the same time looking forward to a trip out with the kids. Both combined leave me feeling fairly neutral so how to bump me up the  emotional scale? In those terms I’m probably at ‘Hopefulness’ but would love to move up 3 notches to Enthusiasm/Eagerness/Happiness.

So what do I do?

Well one thing that’s really working right now is thinking about relishing my last few days with the kids before they go back to school. They are growing before my eyes! We’ve had a great summer but a busy one. This is, in fact, one of the last days I get to hang out with them – just them and me so, yes, I want to make this day a special one for us. How about Wagamama for lunch in Bath? Yay! That feels good.

Another thing that’s great is thinking about our holidays in Italy. All that sun, basking by the pool! That glorious food. That amazing countryside. The lovely people. The beauty of the places we visited!

I’ll report back later on how today’s happiness quest goes!