Beat negative thoughts: keep a healthy mind

This article was originally published as the healthy mind series of posts in March – April 2008.

It’s easy – especially when we’re busy – to focus on our physical health and shape, and ignore our mental wellbeing. But there are undeniable psychological aspects to dieting (how many of us eat when bored or stressed at work?) and keeping healthy covers more than just our body.

This article examines some typical feelings and thoughts and examine their effect on our health. If you ever feel fed-up, anxious or unhappy, read on!

(Tip: Click on any feeling to go straight to the relevant “answer”.)

I feel fed-up because …

I feel anxious because …

I feel unhappy because …

Write down your thoughts

This weekend, grab a notebook and sit somewhere quiet for ten minutes. Jot down how you’ve been feeling over the past couple of weeks – happy? Drained? Capable? Worried?

Now figure out why you’re feeling that way. Be completely honest: it doesn’t matter if you’re whiny, unreasonable or unkind, as no-one will read it but you. For instance, are you a bit down because you’ve been so busy with work and home that you’ve not had a chance to do anything fun? I’ve been feeling that way recently, so I’m taking myself off shopping on Saturday morning for some me-time and retail therapy!

If you’ve been feeling perfectly happy, give yourself a big pat on the back! Write down all the things that you love about your life, and make sure you include them over the next couple of days.

I feel fed-up because … I never have any free time to do what I want

We all have busy, hectic lives, and the demands of career, family, friends and interests outside work can sometimes seem too much. How often do you find yourself saying (or thinking, resentfully) “I never have any time for myself” or “I never get to do what I want”?

Just as no-one is forcing food into your mouth and ruining your diet, no-one is standing over you with a stick (I hope!) and forcing you to spend your time doing things you hate. If you feel you have too many commitments and demands on your time, cut some out. These are all methods that have worked for me:

Slash your “to do” list
You probably have a mental or even paper list of all those things you “should” get round to doing. It might be spring cleaning, baking cakes for the kids to take to school, visiting relatives who you don’t especially like but who you feel duty-bound to see …

Go through the list and strike out anything which:

  • You don’t want to do
  • You don’t have to do

Be ruthless! The number one way to find more “free time” is to cut out things which you don’t enjoy and which don’t have to be done.

Get others to help

Perhaps the house really does need cleaning: if the clutter’s built up so much you’ve forgotten what colour the carpets underneath are, it might be time for a tidy up. Enlist the kids, your partner, or housemates to help out: don’t be a martyr and feel that you have to do it all yourself.

(Though, if it’s any consolation, housework burns calories …)

Do a time-audit

Lots of time-management experts recommend this – for a day, or better, several days, keep a record of what you were doing when.

Jot down hourly or half-hourly intervals at the side of a piece of paper, and write a few words describing what you did at each point. Once you’ve done this for a day or more, look back and identify places where you could “save time”.

Block out “free time” for yourself

It’s easy for time to get eaten up by “Stuff” happening – Tim Brownson writes about this in his excellent book “Don’t Ask Stupid Questions – There Are No Stupid Questions”. Schedule time for yourself: block out a couple of hours on a Saturday to relax and do whatever you enjoy; read, have a long bath, go for a peaceful walk or browse round the shops.

Another way to do this is by joining a club or group. Is there a local evening class or regular get-together for a hobby you’re interested in? If you want more time to knit, write, do woodwork, etc, join a group so that you have a set time and place to enjoy yourself.

What do you want?

Take five minutes to jot down a list of things which you enjoy doing and wish you had more time for. Mine looks like:

  • Writing (creative, non-fiction, and my journal)
  • Cross-stitching (I always have a project on the go, but make very slow progress)
  • Reading novels/short stories (there are stacks of books on my “to be read” pile)
  • Shopping for “fun” as opposed to for groceries…

Now find a way to work at least one thing which you love into every day. That might mean having an hour to yourself in the evening with a good book and a big mug of tea (shut the door, bar your kids or partner, and insist on remaining undisturbed). Or it might mean some guilt-free time spent web-surfing or playing video games.

You get twenty-four hours in every day. Make sure you spend at least one of them doing exactly what you want, and you’ll notice how much more cheerful and you feel.

I feel fed-up because … I don’t like my job

Most of us have occasional moments when we’d rather like to go home and curl up under the duvet. Maybe it’s when your boss dumps yet another huge “urgent” task on your desk, or when you get the tenth furious phone call from a customer, in a single afternoon. The occasional bad day is almost inevitable, however much you generally love your work.

But if you’re constantly saying (though perhaps not out loud at work) “I feel fed-up because I don’t like my job”, don’t just put up with it. You’ll find yourself getting more and more miserable, and suffering ill health such as backaches brought on by stress, sleepless nights worrying about work, or mild depression from feeling trapped.

Don’t keep quiet – talk to your line manager about problems at work

If you dislike your job, don’t force a cheerful smile and try to pretend that everything’s fine. Have a quiet word with your line manager or boss – there may be a scheduled way to do this easily (such as an annual performance development review), or you may need to find a moment where you can have a quick chat.

Let them know two or three things about your job which you dislike most, and also suggest a couple of ways they could improve it for you. For example, if you’re finding lots of your work boring, ask if there’s some way to do fewer of the tedious tasks and explain that you’d like more of a challenge.

Avoid colleagues who discourage or irritate you

Hopefully, all your co-workers are lovely, considerate, cheerful people who you’d choose to surround yourself with even if you didn’t just happen to work with them. Sadly, most of us find that there’ll be one or two individuals in the office who we just can’t manage to get along with.

It might be the office moaner, who drags everyone’s spirits down, or the office clown who is amusing at first but then begins to grate on your nerves. Don’t feel guilty that you’re not naturally inclined to be friends with everyone at work – be polite to all your colleagues, but try to avoid the people who make you secretly grit your teeth.

Sometimes, things might be more serious. If you’re being bullied or harassed, talk to your line manager or HR department – there will be company policies against this sort of behaviour (which you probably all signed when joining the company.)

Ask for more challenging work if you’re getting bored

There are some undeniable attractions to a relatively boring job; it’s probably not stressful, you don’t go home feeling mentally wrung out, and you can stick headphones in and ignore the rest of the world, without the distraction impinging on your work.

However, if you’re beginning to feel that your career is going nowhere, or that you’re already on the top rung of a very short ladder, it might be time to find something more challenging. Sitting around twiddling your thumbs all day is also a prime cause of office-cookie-tin delving…

Talk to whoever assigns you work: maybe the head of your team, your line manager or your boss (depending on the size of your organisation). Explain that you’d like a bit more of a challenge, and suggest what aspects of your job you’d like to learn more about.

Consider whether it’s time to move to a new career path

Perhaps you’ve tried, and failed, to improve your job by talking to senior people at work – and the only option is to move on. Don’t start by scouring the “situations vacant” ads in your local paper and applying for anything half-way suitable. Take the opportunity to think about what you really want from your life: you have to make a living somehow, so why not do so in a job that you love?

There are loads of great books and sites which can help you with this.

What Colour Is Your Parachute? is a classic for a reason. It’s breezily written in a very accessible style, and full of concrete, practical advice – but also takes you through the process of considering your values and interests.

10 reasons why you should never get a job (Steve Pavlina) is an article that may completely change the way you think about work, careers and job hunting.

Guerilla Job Hunting is an amusing, slightly different, take on the world of job-hunting. Worth a read if you’re trying to break into a difficult industry.

Dumb Little Man is a blog I read regularly, with a rather eclectic set of tips and advice, lots of which are orientated around career and work. Particularly relevant to this article is their recent post: Dealing With Careers You Simply Hate

Don’t struggle along in a job which you don’t like – find a way to change it.

(Image above by Xdjio)

I feel fed-up because … I have a good life but I’m never content

Do you ever find yourself thinking there must be something more? Perhaps you feel a bit guilty: you’ve got a good job, a nice home, a loving family, and you know that you’re better off than most people in the world.

Yet, despite telling yourself all this, you still feel that you’re not achieving what you wanted in life. Maybe you’re not satisfied with your weight or fitness levels – or maybe your job is getting you down. Perhaps the problem is with your relationship with your partner, or with your friends.

Whatever the issues are, these feelings of discontentedness can have a knock-on effect on your health – dragging you further and further down. For example, if being overweight makes you miserable, you may lack the motivation to diet, and thus stack on even more pounds…

Finding moments of joy every day

A good way to start improving how you feel about your life is to look for little everyday things that make you smile. If there don’t seem to be any, find something fun to fit into your day! Some of my favourites are:

  • Take time to walk somewhere green: a park, wood or field nearby, perhaps.
  • Treat yourself to one of a childhood favourite snack. I don’t normally advocate snacks as a cheer-yourself-up method, but kid-sized ones won’t do too much damage. (I suggest a Kinder Egg for a guaranteed grin – only 20g of chocolate, and they have a toy inside!)
  • Enjoy a short story in your favourite magazine, or a chapter of a novel you’ve been wanting to read.
  • Dance around to a bouncy piece of music (probably best when you’re at home, or alone in the office…)

What do you want to change?

Try to pinpoint exactly what factors are making you feel discontent with life. You can’t improve things until you know what’s wrong. Be totally honest with yourself. It’s fine to admit that you’re miserable about your body, relationships, career, and financial situation – even if you put on a brave face about all of these to other people.

Focus on the biggest problem area and find ways to gradually improve. For example, if your weight has crept up over the years, and you’re unhappy but can’t bear the thought of dieting and cutting out all the foods you love … you don’t have to! Find a new way each week to move in the right direction, and”change one thing at a time. That might mean skipping dessert on three nights out of seven the first week, then drinking your six-eight glasses of water a day the second week, and so on.

I strongly recommend keeping a “What’s Better” list at least once a week – write down all the things that were better about this week than the one before, with a particular focus on your problem area. This helps focus on areas of growth, as well as often turning a “meh” week into a good one. You are not allowed to dwell gloomily on anything that went badly – focus on the positives!

Long-lasting happiness

Feelings of discontentment may be frustrating and even depressing to live with. They’re a prompt towards change, and you shouldn’t ignore them: if being content requires radical action, such as moving to a new city, changing your career, taking a sabbatical, finally seeing all those places in the world you want to travel to … then find a way to make it happen.

You may need to work hard, think ingeniously, and be passionately committed to moving forwards – but it is always possible to change things in your life. Don’t stop striving for the best, because you’ll never be content with “just good enough”.

Further reading

There are scores of great articles relating to personal growth and leading a contented life online. These are some of my favourites:

  • How to discover your life purpose in about 20 minutes (Steve Pavlina)It’s hard to live a contented life if you’re not sure what the point is. Don’t know your life purpose? Use Steve’s method to find it.
  • The Perfect Day (Peter, I Will Change Your Life)Here’s how to make each day a perfect one – probably a good way to become more content, especially if you feel that your “average” days aren’t great (perhaps you’re constantly looking forward to your next holiday?)
  • How to get from a 7 to a 10 (Steve Pavlina) When asked to rate their happiness (either in life overall, or one area such as “your job” or “your financial situation”), people who feel it’s “good enough” often plump for a 7. Steve explains how to make that 7 into a 10.
  • Comparison Doesn’t Deliver Contentment (Tim Brownson)If you know (or even just suspect) that your feelings of discontent stem from constantly looking at the success of those around you, or from not being “the best” at work, this article is a must-read.

I feel anxious because … I don’t know what the future holds

Do you ever get that fluttering, looping, feeling in your stomach when you think about the future? Have you ever thought “I feel anxious because I don’t know what the future holds?” There are often times in life when the road ahead is foggy and uncertain, and where we’re not even sure what our destination is, let alone how to get there.

I’m prone to worrying too much about what lies ahead. I don’t like uncertainty, and I tend to panic when faced with it! After I graduated from university, I took the first job that accepted me, despite the fact it wasn’t in either a location or a career I wanted – in retrospect, a mistake, and a difficult one to undo. And at the moment, I’m waiting to hear whether or not I’ve got a place on a part-time creative writing MA next year: I’ve been looking out for a letter every day, wishing I knew what I’ll be doing in September…

[Ali – 26.04.08 – I did get my place, for anyone wondering; what a waste of all that anxiety!]

So, here’s a few ways that I’ve coped with uncertainty about my future before. I’m trying them at the moment to stay calm (rather than following my instincts and curling up on the sofa with a giant box of chocolates):

Think about what you want from the future

Part of my problem after university was that I wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do; all I’d experienced was being a student! Take some time to think through what you really want – perhaps book a session with a personal coach (never cheap, but it’s money well spent if it helps you set your whole life on the right course). If that isn’t practical, how about getting together for a drink or meal with a close friend and talking through your ambitions with them?

Don’t build “castles in the air”

I am terribly prone to doing this. I don’t even need to have applied for a job or course before I start imagining myself on it, picturing a new life, telling myself how great it will be … Visualisation can be a very powerful motivational tool, but it can also leave you rather disappointed when your dreams don’t come about quite so quickly as you’d hoped.

Focus on the near future

Instead of gazing into the mists of several years ahead, try to focus on the next couple of months. Can you plan a weekend away, a theatre trip, or your summer holiday so that you have something concrete to look forward to? It might also help to think about what you want to achieve in the short term – whether that’s losing a stone before a trip abroad, or joining in a race for charity, or gaining a new qualification … or anything else you like!

Take practical action towards your goals

Maybe your lifelong dream is to write a bestselling novel, but the most creative writing you do is the “avoiding-all-blame” emails to your boss. Or perhaps you’ve always wanted to travel round the world, but haven’t quite got round to renewing your passport … Is it any surprise that you don’t feel very confident about your future?

Find one small action which you can take today.

I feel anxious because … I never have enough money

Money worries often cause sleepless nights – leading to over-eating, being too tired to exercise, and a vicious circle of feeling unable to cope. Most of us would like a bit more cash, but if you’ve realised that you “constantly feel anxious because I never have enough money”, make a firm decision now to do something about it.

Work out the figures: incomings and outgoings
If, like many people, you end the month broke and “can’t work out where the money goes”, it’s time to sit down with a calculator or spreadsheet and add up your incomings and outgoings. The more precise you can be, the better, but even getting a rough idea will help.

Record your income on a monthly basis (and your partner’s, if appropriate), then list all your regular outgoings, again, per month – rent or mortgage, bills, travel, groceries, magazine subscriptions and so on. Are the bills are higher than you thought (especially if you’ve been throwing away envelopes unopened)? Are you surprised what’s costing you the most?

Obviously, your income needs to match or exceed your spending. If your regular monthly outgoings don’t seem too bad, take a closer look at what you’re spending on a day-to-day basis…

Keep a spending diary

If you’ve been recording your food intake in a diary, you’ll probably have noticed how the simple act of writing down everything you eat makes you consider whether you really needed that mid-afternoon slab of chocolate cake.

A similar principle applies to money. Write down everything you buy, every day, for at least a week, and record how much it cost. That daily latte on the way to work could easily be costing you £10-£15 a week. A sandwich and packet of crisps every lunchtime might be another £15-£20. Perhaps that weekly night out with mates is clocking up well over £50 in drinks, food, transport and entrance fees to clubs.

(If, like me, you find it hard to keep track of your spending in the pub, count how much money’s in your wallet at the start of the evening, pay for everything in cash, then see what’s left at the end of the night.)

Identify areas where you could save money

Examine any expenditure which made you think “I spend how much on that?!” If you shop several times a week for fresh food, your total grocery bill could be higher than you realised: try having some meat-free meals, and buy anything with a long shelf life (rice, pasta, tinned foods) in bulk.

Having some money in a savings account will make you feel much more secure. Identify at least £100 that you can cut back on spending each month (taking a packed lunch to work every day could save a large chunk of that), and put that money into a separate bank account as soon as you receive your salary.

Get advice or help if you need it

If you’re in debt – maxed out on your credit card, unable to face opening envelopes, feeling sick when you think about your finances – then get some advice. For those in the UK, your Citizen’s Advice Bureau or local churches are good sources of help. Sometimes just admitting and accepting the situation you’re in, and talking to someone about it, can help you cope.

Websites with money-saving tips

There is a wealth of great advice online to help you spend less and save more, or to give you a better understanding of finance. You might like some of these:

  • Dumb Little Man has lots of great advice, including career tips and money-saving ideas.
  • Free Money Finance contains thousands of articles, covering everything from saving pennies on your groceries to becoming a millionaire.
  • There are loads of sites for discount codes (which often appear in magazines or special promotions) — check before shopping to see if there’s any you can use for free. Try Discount Codes and Voucher Heaven if you’re in the UK.

I feel anxious because … I worry constantly about lots of little things

Do you have lots of little worries on your mind? They might be keeping you from getting to sleep at night – or waking you up in the small hours. And feeling a nagging sense of anxiety all the time can sap your motivation to exercise or diet. It can even interfere with your digestion.

Of course, it’s normal to be occasionally worried or apprehensive about things (and you can probably think of friends or colleagues who could do with being a bit more worried and a bit less blasé on some occasions!) However, it’s very easy for this to tip over into crippling anxiety.

Why do you constantly worry? Is it something you consider a normal part of adult life, perhaps because you had a parent who was always anxious? This great article about How to Stop Worrying suggests that worrying is a habit which we can unlearn.

Make a list of things you’re worrying about:

Sometimes I know exactly what’s on my mind (“Will that new project at work go okay next week?”) but sometimes I find myself moody, stressed or lying awake in the middle of the night for no immediately obvious reason.

It often helps me to work through things on paper, and writing down worries is particularly helpful as I’m often anxious about forgetting things…. You’ll find that your worries divide into two categories:

  • Things you have (at least some) control over
    • “That presentation I’m doing next week for the big meeting”
    • “My overdraft and credit card bills”
  • Things which you can’t influence at all
    • “The exams which I did last month and am awaiting results for”
    • “It might rain at the weekend and we’ve planned a big picnic.”

Are your worries related to things you can’t control at all? If so, write them all on a big sheet of paper (draw some sad faces if you like – no-one said you can’t be childish), then rip it up! Any moment spent worrying about something outside your influence is a moment wasted.

Stop worrying: take some positive action

Sometimes, just getting on top of things can help you stop worrying. Whether it’s checking exactly what your bank balance is, when you’re worried you’ve been overspending, or getting the exact details about the journey to the conference you’re dreading next week, you’ll feel much better just for having things clear.

If you can, take a step towards improving the situation that’s making you worried. For instance, if you’re worried that you’ll end up eating junk again because you keep coming home late, plan ahead and have something quick but healthy ready to cook – ideally something you can just zap in the microwave.

Or if you’re worried about a friend or family member who’s been distant lately, why not have that chat you’ve been putting off? It might be difficult at the time, but once it’s over, you’ll have fewer things to think about.

Questions to ask yourself when you’re worrying

Whenever you catch yourself worrying, ask yourself:

  • Can I put off worrying until another time?
    (This is one of my favourite tips; the only time I can truly use procrastination positively! I first came across it in the article Stop Worrying: 7 Effective Strategies for Dealing With Anxiety on Pick The Brain.)
  • Will the things I’m worrying about matter in five years? In a year? … In a week?
    (If not, are they worth wasting your mental energy on?)
  • What action can I take right now to stop or reduce my worrying about this?
    (The action might only be to write it down, or to talk to someone you trust about it.)

I feel unhappy because … I don’t have the partner I want

Do you blame lacking the partner that you want for making you feel unhappy? It might be that you’re single and becoming increasingly convinced that “the one” for you just doesn’t exist, or that you’re in a relationship which seems unsatisfying. Below for some ideas on either changing things, or simply appreciating what you’ve got!
If you’re single and looking for a partner

I remember how I hated being single; all my friends were coupled-up, and I felt that I would never find that special someone. The world seemed geared up for people in couples: food comes in two-person sized packs, tables for one at restaurants are rare, and going to the cinema alone just feels odd.

Rather than spending every spare moment desperately scouring the Personal column of your local paper, decoding the GSOHs and the WLTMs, get out and enjoy yourself! There are some undeniable advantages to being single:

  • You can eat whatever you like for dinner, which means that being single is a great time to sort out your diet.
  • You have plenty of time to explore your interests: join a new club, or pick up an old hobby.
  • You probably have more freedom than most people: if you want to quit your job, move to another country, or book a holiday at the last minute, you won’t be dragging a partner and family with you.

Finding a good friend who’s also single to have a drink or meal with can be a real help – you can commiserate together about over-hyped couple-events (such as Valentine’s day).

When your partner isn’t supportive

Maybe you do have a partner, but things aren’t working out how you’d have hoped. It’s very discouraging when you don’t feel appreciated or supported by your partner. Perhaps they belittle you, mock of your ambitions or constantly make little digs about your failed attempts to diet, your weight, your fitness…

If you feel criticised and underappreciated, don’t stew away in silence. When your partner says something that hurts, let them know. All too often, I nag my longsuffering boyfriend without realising that it’s getting to him – and if he stays quiet, I don’t realise what I’m doing. When your partner laughs at your “This time, I’m really going to stick to my diet”, don’t just grit your teeth. Let them know (calmly, but seriously) that you’d really appreciate their help and support.

Sometimes, talking over problems with a close friend can help. All relationships go through ups and downs, but someone outside your immediate family may be able to help you gain perspective. Is it just a momentary blip, or have things been going steadily downhill?

When your partner doesn’t share your interests

I’m lucky that my boyfriend and I have quite a few hobbies in common. However, we both have our own particular interests that aren’t always quite so fascinating to the other person … The finer details of being a law student are lost on me, and my encyclopaedic knowledge of calories makes him yawn.

If you have a particular passion for something which your partner is completely uninterested in, try finding a group of fellow devotees who you can share it with instead. I chat to lots of health and fitness writers via email and forums, for instance, and my boyfriend talks about Latin terms to his heart’s content with fellow students.

When you feel as though you and your partner have no shared interests, though, it might be time to find some common ground. Try out a new activity together – an evening class, an art gallery, a walking holiday – anything you’ve not done before and which you both think might be fun.

I feel unhappy because … I don’t have any friends

Does your life revolve around work and family commitments, with little or no chance to laugh with friends? Is your closest pal a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream? If you’ve admitted to yourself “I feel unhappy because I don’t have any friends”, you need to examine why you feel that way – and what you can do about it.

Have you cut yourself off from friends because of your weight?

Those of you with a large amount of weight to lose may feel deeply unhappy about going out and socialising. Shauna Reid writes very movingly and honestly about this on The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl – saying how she worried about friends wanting to go for a walk. It’s incredibly common for people to feel ostracised by their weight; if all your friends are slim, you may hate being the one who stands out in the crowd.

Unfortunately, cutting yourself off from friends can be very damaging to your health. Being bored and alone often leads to unhealthy snacking – I know that I, and many other successful dieters, had to ditch the mindset of solitary binge-eating: there’s something guiltily exciting about crisps and chocolates scoffed in secret, and we may fool ourselves that if nobody sees us, the calories don’t count…

Living as a social recluse is also bad for your mental wellbeing, especially if you’re prone to mild depression, or if you’re naturally shy.

Do you have friends, but lack time to see them?

When you look back to your school or university days, you were probably surrounded by friends. At school, you saw them every day in class or on the playground; at university, they lived in the same house or halls as you. The world of work can come as a shock after this: when I graduated and moved to London, I felt very lonely at first. If your friends have spread themselves around the country, it’s difficult to find time to meet up.

Or perhaps you do have friends nearby, but you’re too tired in the evenings to invite them over, and family commitments seem to eat up your weekends.

Often the biggest challenge is simply getting round to setting a time and place to meet up. When you’re used to the spontaneous socialising of student life, the need for foreplanning as a working adult may pass you by. Grab your diary – have you got a free Saturday or Sunday? Why not call or email a friend today to invite them round for lunch, or to suggest going out for a drink?

Finding old friends

If you still feel that you don’t have any friends, it’s time to find some! That could mean getting back in touch with people you’ve lost contact with.

Old friends are easy to re-establish a connection with: just ring or email; don’t feel shy about it, as they’ll likely be delighted to hear from you and they’ll want to get you caught up on all their news. If you don’t have any details for them in your address book, try searching for them on popular social networking sites such as www.myspace.com, www.bebo.com or www.facebook.com – or just type their full name into your favourite search engine and see what comes up!

Once you’ve made contact, stay in touch. I find Facebook very useful for keeping track of all my friends – almost everyone I knew at university uses it, and it’s an easy way to see what everyone’s been up to. Email is also great, since it’s instantaneous and free, but why not write a proper letter once in a while? I know how much it brightens up my day to have a handwritten card or note in the mail, amongst the usual junk and bills.

Where to make new friends

There are lots of reasons why you might want to be brave and forge some new relationships. Perhaps you’ve moved abroad and away from all your friends. Perhaps you’re deliberately seeking to put the past behind you.

One of the easiest ways to meet new people is online. Join a web forum related to one of your interests or hobbies: you may want to “lurk” before joining to get a feel for the community there. I strongly recommend the friendly people at the Steve Pavlina forums — the forums are orientated around the idea of “growth” in your life, but these are subdivided into topics such as Health & Fitness, Business & Career, Technology, and so on. The users of Weight Loss Resources are also a very friendly and supportive bunch (you do have to pay to subscribe, but the site has a lot of valuable tools and information to help you meet your weight loss goals.)

Other ways that have worked for me in finding some great friends online are:

  • Starting up my own blog (here!) and emailing fellow bloggers. (If you’ve got a blog, do email me – ali@theofficediet.com – to let me know about it.)
  • Playing online games. As a shy teenager – and then as a university student with too much time on my hands – I used to spend hours playing a textual fantasy roleplaying game online (yes, it was just as geeky as it sounds.) The friendships I formed through that have lasted over the years.

If you want to meet people in your local area, try joining a community group or a church. When I first moved to London, the only people I knew were colleagues and the members of my new church: I’ve always met with a warm welcome at the various churches I’ve been a member of during my life.

Joining a club or hobby-based group is also a brilliant way to get out and meet people who share your interests. I’ve been to some of the mid-week meetings of the East Dulwich Writers’ Group, and it’s been good to meet some fellow creative writers.

Find those friends now

Decide on some concrete actions that you’ll take to get in touch with old schoolmates, to make time to see the pals who do live nearby, or to find some new friends. I tend to be a little introverted by nature, so I know this is one of the areas I need to make an effort in to. My actions for the next couple of weeks are:

  • Send a message to my group of friends from university who correspond by email.
  • Start the ball rolling to organise a big “meet up” in the summer with friends I’ve not seen for a while.

What are you going to do to ensure that, in a month or two, you can say “I feel happy because I’m surrounded by friends”?

I feel unhappy because … I never enjoy anything

Is this something that you’ve said – or thought – recently? Leading a busy life can sometimes make us feel we’re not “allowed” to enjoy ourselves. And when things are stressful or difficult, even activities that were favourites in the past can somehow lose their appeal.

Perhaps you feel that, once, you could at least enjoy your food – a big stodgy meal after a hard day at work, a bar of chocolate when you were a bit low, a bag of crisps if you were bored. Now, carrot sticks and crispbreads just don’t quite cut it …

What do you really enjoy?

If you’re like me, there are activities which you think you should enjoy – and perhaps you even feel a bit guilty when you don’t. Going out to the pub is one of mine: if I’m with my boyfriend or a few good friends, I love it … but if I’m with people I don’t know very well, I tend to feel shy, awkward, and regret wasting both my time and my money.

I’m also ambivalent about most music, find nightclubs loud and intimidating, get quickly bored in art galleries…

Just because your friends enjoy something, or because it’s deemed “fun” by society, doesn’t mean you have to take part. Be honest with yourself about what you really enjoy: there’s nothing wrong with wanting to curl up with a good book, play a video game, organise your stamp collection … Forcing yourself into doing things because you think you “should find them fun” will only make you miserable.

Make time to do the things you enjoy

Sometimes, we get so busy with work, chores, studying and time-consuming hobbies that it can be hard to stop and do something purely for fun. Block out some time at the weekend to enjoy yourself: getting out of the house really helps – I know that when I’m in, I find it hard to relax and not check my email every half-hour. Try some of my favourite weekend activities:

  • Go to the cinema: somehow, I always enjoy this more than just watching a film on TV. There’s something special about a planned outing!
  • Walk somewhere. The Boyfriend and I walked the first section of London’s Capital Ring yesterday (8 miles, by the time we’d walked to the start of it…)
  • Eat dinner out: if mealtimes at home are rushed, or if your family never sits down to eat together, going out for a meal is a great chance to spend some quality time chatting.
  • Take your favourite novel to a coffee shop, curl up in one of their big squashy armchairs, and forget about the rest of the world for a while…

Look into getting help if you’re still feeling down

In closing, I should mention that an inability to enjoy activities which were once fun can sometimes be a sign of depression. If you’ve been feeling that there’s nothing exciting left in life, or that you never laugh any more, take a few minutes to read through the symptoms of depression. Make an appointment with your doctor if you are suffering from several of these, and get some professional help and advice.

Intro photo by Jill Greenseth
Busy drawing by xandroid
Head on keyboard photo by Xdjio
Discontent girl photo by
by Meredith Farmer
Worried eyes photo by pavelm
Coins photo by Jeff Belmonte
Partners photo by Natmandu
Man and fence photo by decadentyou
Sad dawn photo by Jim Blob Blann)

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