being happy often feels like pushing a boulder up a hill

Why does being happy – at times – feel like such hard work? Instead of an easy path to a relaxed and consistent glow of contentment, it often feels like pushing a boulder up a hill; a brief moment of satisfaction at the peak before it rolls back down the other side and we start all over again.

Parts 1, 2 and 3 of The Spark’s ‘How to Be Happy’ series considered some scientific, psychological and philosophical perspectives on happiness. In the final part of the series, our focus turns to the metaphorical boulder referred to earlier.

being happy often feels like pushing a boulder up a hill

The ‘boulder’ is the common myths that either block our view of the path to happiness or make achieving it a constant, arduous uphill struggle. By dispelling them we hope to offer you a clearer view of the path to lasting happiness.

Myth 1: Finding ‘true’ love will make me happy


A cursory glance at any of the music charts from the last 50 years would give the impression that the way to happiness is to find your ‘true’ love.  The myth is that in finding ‘the one’ we will be blissfully happy. Not just happiness for a temporary, passionate romance but one that will last the rest of our lives.

In his book, ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’, Jonathan Haidt dispels this myth.  The passion characteristic of the early stages of a romance is very real.  Indeed, Haidt points out that the euphoria can be as addictive as heroin or cocaine.

What happens when the passion fades?


However, like a drug, its effects are temporary and eventually wear off.  So, what about those relationships that are long-lasting and seem to the external observer to be mutually satisfying?

Older couple happy together

Haidt argues that these lucky couples experience something quite different from ‘true’ love. In the early days of their relationship, they may well have experienced the seemingly magical effects of romantic love. As this fades, those that become long-lasting are based on what Haidt calls ‘companionate love’: caring for each other and building a life-long, trusting relationship.

It may not be the basis for a catchy pop song but it is a more reliable basis for happiness than the romanticised concept of ‘true’ love.

Myth 2: I will only be really happy when I am free


Ever wondered what it would be like to leave your troubled life behind and move to the other side of the world?  Surely, away from the stresses and strains of debt, conflict and obligations, you would be truly happy.  You would be truly free to satisfy your every whim and live in perpetual happiness. Lottery tickets are sold in their millions based on this belief.

Over 100 years ago, sociologist, Emile Durkheim, actually found the opposite to be true.

He researched the factors that affect the suicide rate in any given country and made an important discovery. Durkheim found that the stronger social relationships are, the lower the suicide rate.

Relationships make us happy


Ties to family, work and home keep us ‘grounded’ and give structure to our lives.  A life without strong ties becomes meaningless. Here at The Spark, we find in our daily counselling of adults, children and couples that Durkheim’s insight is as true today as it was a century ago; relationships make us happy.

spend time with people to be happy

There are often stories in the media about the stresses of isolation.  You may have seen for yourself the tendency for older people to become unhappy as their contemporaries die around them. For them, it is not only the challenge of spending so much time alone but the feeling of loneliness.

It is possible to feel desperate and lonely even in a busy city when you have no long-term friendships.  A feeling of belonging helps us to feel happy.

Myth 3: The pursuit of fame and fortune will make me happy


In the past, only the most brazen would admit to life goals consisting of money and fame. The ‘Instagram generation’ brought up on Big Brother and Love Island, is the first to openly admit that the pursuit of fame and fortune – a drive that exists in most of us – is their chosen path to ‘happiness’.

How many times have we all whispered, internally at least, ‘if only I was world famous then everything would be very different’?  We persist in doing the lottery despite never winning, dreaming that the jackpot will change everything.  (Of course, it rarely does. Studies dating back as far as the 1970s indicate that lottery winners may experience a temporary increase in happiness levels but this tends to return to previous levels after a short time).

The Hollywood sign: does fame and fortune make you happy?

Ask yourself the ‘deathbed question’ and you are less likely to be attracted to money and fame.  How many of us are likely to say on our dying day: ‘Oh, I wish I’d worked harder to get that promotion,’ or ‘I should have spent more time in the office and made a name for myself?’  If we are more honest we are more likely to say ‘I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.’ Or ‘I should have spent more time with my parents before they passed away.’

Stay connected to be happy


In one of the longest studies of happiness ever conducted it is relationships that seem to have the greatest effect on human happiness.  The Harvard Study of Human Happiness has been running for over 80 years and has tracked happiness levels of over 1,500 people.

The findings are conclusive showing that close relationships rather than money or fame are what provides long-term happiness. Once again this chimes perfectly with our own experience providing counselling and support for over 50 years. Difficult and broken relationships are often the root of unhappiness and pain in our lives.

So what do we do now?


Across a variety of studies and a number of experts, there is a consensus that close and long-lasting relationships are the surest route to happiness.  So, what do we do if we are unhappy with our lives or despair that we will never find long-term contentment?

On his website, Jonathan Haidt suggests that you do ‘A Relatedness Check-up’.  The questions are simple:

  • Who are the people in your life you care about?
  • Who cares about you?
  • Are there at least a few people?
  • How often do you see them?

Humans are social beings and valuing relationships is a well-evidenced route to happiness.  As Haidt himself says, ‘We were made for love, friendship, and family, and when we spend a lot of time alone or free ourselves from the “constraints” of relationships, it is generally bad for us.’

Catch up on part 1, part 2 and part 3 of The Spark’s ‘How to Be Happy’ series.


Counselling and support services

Relationships are the key to happiness in our lives but they can be challenging, tough and painful at times. The Spark has been providing relationship counselling to individuals, couples, families and children for over 50 years. Helping our clients understand what can be done to improve their relationships.

Find out more information about The Spark and our counselling services for individuals, couples and families.

Contact us via our contact form or freephone 0808 802 0050 to talk about how counselling could help you.

the pursuit of happiness - is it wealth and gold bars?

According to American pundit William Bennett, the pursuit of happiness can be thought of this way:

‘Happiness is like a cat, if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come.  But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping onto your lap.’

Many of us will be able to relate to this message about the challenges posed in the pursuit of happiness.  At times it can seem that the more you understand what makes you happy, the more elusive it becomes.

In pursuit of happiness


This is no more apparent than in our collective pursuit of wealth and possessions.

As a society, we have greater wealth and more material possessions than we know what to do with. Cars, gadgets, jewellery – if you can think of it, the developed world sells it and we can buy it.

So why aren’t we happier?

the pursuit of happiness - is it wealth and gold bars?

Psychologists came up with the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’ theory to explain why the pursuit of happiness via material things tends to be futile.

The more money and possessions we accumulate, the greater our expectations are of the happiness they will bring. Soon we find ourselves running faster and faster ‘on the treadmill’ only for our happiness to stay in the same place.

Money = happiness


Often the pursuit of happiness, by way of ‘things’ and ‘stuff’, is a never-ending marathon of unfulfilled expectations. That is not to say it is always that way. For example, purchasing a holiday is something that can create joy and happiness in our lives.

However, when we link our happiness with the ability to accumulate wealth, trinkets or gadgets we are likely to be disappointed.

Consider for a moment the many stories of individuals who after winning huge sums of money via lottery tickets, ended up wishing they never had. For them, the accumulation of wealth and possessions created the exact opposite of the desired effect.

It seems that the ability to manage expectations deserts us when it comes to money and material possessions.

Managing expectations in pursuit of happiness


Professor Dan Gilbert has an interesting slant on managing expectations that offers cause for optimism.  In his TED talk, The Surprising Science of Happiness, he relates a number of examples of seemingly unfortunate people who claim they are happier having suffered their misfortune than if it had never happened.

One example is from the most famous drummer you have never heard of: Pete Best.

Best was the drummer for The Beatles until 1962. He left the band, was replaced by Ringo Starr and the rest is pop-cultural shaping history.

I could have been Ringo Starr…


Far from being resentful of the situation, Best was quite content with his lot. Despite the global stardom, Best considered himself happier out of The Beatles than if he had been in.

The Beatles (not featuring Pete Best).

Gilbert’s interpretation of this surprising outcome is that we have a ‘psychological immune system’ that, if we allow it, can protect us from difficult events and help us to find a way of being happy with what we have.

Now that we have come to the end of our whistle-stop tour of psychology’s work in the field of happiness, what have learned?

Is this really going to make me happy?


In the pursuit of happiness, it is worthwhile focusing on what we have, as opposed to what we might get from wealth or possessions. Ask yourself: is this really going to make me happy or do I just think it will?

For example, many of us dream of being wealthy enough to stop working and enjoy our hobbies and passions full-time. But it can be a lonely existence when there is no one to travel with or play golf with because our friends are still tied to working 9 to 5.

Buy this to be happy


This is a big challenge for all of us as we live in a consumption-driven society. Being bombarded daily with hundreds of ‘buy this to be happy’ messages makes it tough to find the satisfaction in what we have.

In our experience, however – that’s 50 plus years of counselling – it is the relationships, friendships and shared experiences that tend to help us find the finishing line in the pursuit of happiness. Not the money or stuff that we accumulate along the way.

Counselling and support services


Catch up with part 1 and part 2 of our ‘How to Be Happy’ series.

Find out more information on The Spark and our counselling services for individual, couples, married couples and families.

Alternatively contact us directly via our enquiry form or on freephone 0808 802 0050 to talk about how counselling could benefit you.

planet earth needs more people to look at the man in the mirror

Songs for Sound Minds #29 – ‘Man in the Mirror’ by Michael Jackson


The latest choice for the #SongsForSoundMinds playlist encourages us to have a good look at ourselves and our motivations.

Are we the nice, thoughtful person we imagine ourselves to be or do we spend most of our time looking after number one?  As we’ll see, this is not just a philosophical rumination for – quite paradoxically – being kind to others can have acknowledged benefits for our own mental health.

Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson


At the peak of his ‘King of Pop’ powers, Michael Jackson continued a very long string of hit records with his early 1988 release, Man in the Mirror. This was one of a remarkable nine singles on his multi-million selling album, ‘Bad.’

The track starts with Jackson in a philosophical mood: ‘wind is blowing my mind’ (as Bob Dylan might have said) and this is opening his eyes to ‘kids in the street, with nothing to eat’ and ‘some with no home, not a nickel to loan.’  He realises there is a need for things to change and, because he’s been selfish, he needs to start with himself.

In the chorus, Jackson encourages us to look into the mirror ourselves: ‘If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.’  This sentiment paraphrases Mahatma Gandhi’s well-known maxim: ‘be the change that you want to see in the world.’

We, too, are encouraged to start with ourselves and, indeed, the official video for the song includes clips of Gandhi as well as Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela. All of these people put their own needs to one side in order to support the advancement of others.

The benefits of altruism


So, what is the benefit of this altruistic attitude encouraged by Man in the Mirror?  According to an article in The Independent committing an act of kindness releases certain ‘feel good’ chemicals into the body. Dopamine, which is associated with positive thinking, and Oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’ are released as a result of a selfless act.

As it turns out being good to others can have a positive impact on our blood pressure and general mental health.

For those of you old enough to be in the Friends generation, it means Joey was right: there are technically no selfless good deeds.

Start with the man in the mirror…


Next time you look in the mirror and realise it has been all about you recently, consider the words of Man in the Mirror.

Try looking instead for opportunities to help others less fortunate. Do some fundraising, support your local food bank or pop in to visit an elderly neighbour. Whatever it is, big or small, an act of kindness will make a difference to someone in need and you’ll also be contributing to your own wellbeing.

As Michael Jackson wrote; ‘It’s gonna feel real good, gonna make it right.’


Songs For Sound Minds – music tracks written as anthems for overcoming the storms of life. The songs that give hope in those times when we are struggling.

Find more Songs for Sound Minds or suggest a track on Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag #SongsForSoundMinds

Taking the Long Way Around - the Grammy award-winning Dixie Chicks

Songs for Sound Minds #28 – ‘The Long Way Around’ by The Dixie Chicks


Our latest Songs for Sound Minds playlist pick could have been entitled ‘the hard way around’. The Long Way Around is a soulful, honest piece of country-pop that lays bare what it means to have the world crash down around you and still come out the other side.

The Long Way Around (aka the hard way around)


The inspiration for this Dixie Chicks track might be familiar. In London, during the band’s 2003 world tour, military action by the USA and its allies against Iraq seemed inevitable. Unhappy at the path being taken, lead singer Natalie Maines made a comment on stage that drew praise and approval from the audience:

“Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” 

A ferocious backlash


The comment, however, caused a ferocious backlash against the band at home. Their albums were destroyed in public, protests ensued, radio stations in their country-music heartlands pulled them from their playlists and death threats were made. The fallout brought what promised to be a very successful jump from country music to mainstream pop stardom to a grinding halt.

Shunned by their traditional audiences, the future of the band was in serious doubt. Maines had gone from hero to zero simply by standing up for what she believed. The band – together since 1995 – were, to a great extent, right back where they started.

The long way back to the top (aka The Long Way Around)


In spite of it all, the Dixie Chicks remained committed to each other and to Maines’ statement (a hastily released PR statement apologising to the President was later recanted). They dusted themselves off and started to rebuild by recording this song.

The Long Way Around focuses on what the band went through in the time after the ill-fated comment:

It’s been two long years now
Since the top of the world came crashing down
And I’m getting’ it back on the road now

But I’m taking the long way
Taking the long way around

Since the top of the world came crashing down is a clever dual reference to how their world fell in and the root cause: the infamous comment was made during their ‘Top of the World’ tour. Despite reflecting on the trials and tribulations they faced, the song still retains both positivity and a greater sense of wisdom and perspective.

Stand up for what you believe in


The Long Way Around is a brilliant track that offers great encouragement. First off, it asserts that it is still worth standing up for what you believe in.

I opened my mouth, and I heard myself
It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself
Guess I could have made it easier on myself

But I, I could never follow
No, I, I could never follow

Well, I never seem to do it like anybody else
Maybe someday, someday I’m gonna settle down
If you ever want to find me, I can still be found

Taking the long way

As Winston Churchill said: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Keep going


The second piece of inspiration is this: when it seems like the world is crashing down around you and the future seems bleak, keep going. As the Dixie Chicks discovered, despite the ‘haters’ life went on and the people that cared about them most stood by them. And they did so in droves.

Fans remained loyal to the band and the US leg of the tour was a huge success, despite initial fears fans would stay away in protest. The Long Way Around album went straight to number 1 in the USA upon its release and it won the Dixie Chicks five Grammys (every one they were nominated for).

Taking the Long Way Around - the Grammy award-winning Dixie Chicks

To quote Winston Churchill again: “If you are going through hell, keep going.” As the Chicks found out, a road back is possible, it might just take a little bit longer.


Songs For Sound Minds – music tracks written as anthems for overcoming the storms of life. The songs that give hope in those times when we are struggling.

Find more Songs for Sound Minds or suggest a track on Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag #SongsForSoundMinds

fomo fear of missing out

FOMO – fear of missing out – is a concept that could have been created for the social media age. Essentially, it captures that internal sense that other people are having a better time right now than you are. Partnered with its sibling FoBO – fear of a better option – their impact on our lives today is startling.

FOMO made me do it…


FoBO and FOMO drive us to check Instagram, Twitter and every other social media app every few minutes. Collectively they create a burning desire to buy the gadgets, clothes and trinkets we never knew we needed. In our spare time, they push us to read the book, listen to the album or binge on the boxset that everyone else is talking about. FoBO could be the official sponsor of every online dating website in existence.

fomo Social media and the fear of missing out

The principle of ‘fear of missing out’ was first considered in 1996 by Dr Dan Herman, a marketing strategist and later popularised by Patrick J. McGinnis in a 2004 article for the Harvard Business School. FOMO’s ‘birth’ within the field of marketing is no coincidence. It is a widely used tool to sell us stuff we may or may not need. From the countdown timer on that furniture sale to the celebrity endorsement, it’s all designed to trigger your fear of missing out.

There is a tragic irony associated with the fear of missing out of course: when we become slaves to FOMO, we miss out on living the lives we have been given.

This is what we are really missing out on


In the rush to see what everyone else is doing or to stay “connected” to their experience via social media, we end up doing very little ourselves. While we may or may not be missing out on some fabulous experience, one thing is certain: we are missing out on what we could be doing right now.

fomo fear of missing out

When you stop and think about it, this collective phenomenon has crept into every facet of our lives: fear of missing out on other jobs or professions, fear of missing out on social engagements, fear of missing out on the latest gadget/car/trend.

Combined with – dare I say it – more genuine concerns like paying the rent or caring for elderly relatives that is a lot of fear to carry with us every day.

No Wi-Fi and my FOMO is off the charts


Recently I went on holiday with friends, camping in an area that had limited mobile reception and zero Wi-Fi. We are talking one or two bars of good, old-fashioned 1G signal. End result: no data, no streaming, no Instagram.

At first, my FOMO was bristling: what was going on? what was happening in the world? who was doing what? It was almost unbearable.

But after a few days passed, it lessened. Soon I found myself more focused on what was right in front of me: beautiful landscapes, meaningful conversations with friends, crystal clear (but cold) Scottish waters. By the end of the week what I feared missing out on had completely changed.

fomo missing out on the beauty of the world

Now I was more concerned about missing the full splendour of the sunset late in the evening: eager to enjoy every minute of the (unexpectedly) fine weather and the opportunity to properly catch up with friends.

Escapism into the lives of the famous or the fictional is fun and healthy at times. There are periods in our own lives – the daily humdrum – that are not that exciting or interesting. The chance to escape via social media, for example, can offer a valuable release. But the scales have tipped heavily in the wrong direction – towards consuming every image and video of someone else’s life.

A final thought on FOMO


In the UK we spend on average two hours per day glued to our smartphone or tablet. A proportion of that will, of course, be productive. Yet even if 50% of it isn’t, that’s seven hours per week we could be using to live our own lives.

Seven hours to invest in your relationship with your partner or your kids. Seven hours to enjoy your favourite pastime. Seven hours to read the books you really want to read. Seven hours to craft your own Instagram story.

Isn’t it time you focused on enjoying your own life?

Counselling and relationship support services


Find out more information on The Spark and our counselling services for individuals, couples, married couples and families.

Alternatively contact us directly via our enquiry form or on freephone 0808 802 0050 to talk about how counselling could benefit you.

Follow The Spark on Twitter and Facebook.

special relationship Trump smug

The term ‘special relationship’ has been bandied about more often than usual recently. Whether it is in the context of UK – USA relations, UK – EU relations or to describe some of the insta-coupling occurring on ITV’s ‘Love Island’ we are all pretty familiar with it.

Traditionally it has been used to describe a deep bond of trust and mutual respect. Most famously in the context of the wartime relationship between the UK and the USA. But recently its practical application has been somewhat stretched.

special relationship UK USA

It seems that in the 21st century, maintaining a special relationship means ‘looking the other way’ when it comes to the indiscretions of the other half.

A special relationship that remains special


For example, the special relationship saw the British establishment roll out the red carpet for President Donald Trump. Despite the uproar caused by the comments and actions of the President. Similarly, we hear mention of a special relationship when celebrities take back their wandering exes.

All of which raises the question: is it acceptable to gloss over the unpalatable/unacceptable actions of a partner in order to maintain that ‘special relationship’?

Stand by your man


Supporting your partner is, of course, a critical foundation of any solid relationship. The knowledge that a partner is there for us in difficult times both emotionally and physically supports a healthy relationship. After all, Tammy Wynette did encourage us to ‘stand by your man’ despite their indiscretions and limitations.

Though commitment vows for couples are evolving, they still remain relatively true to the original marriage tenets. Principles of supporting and loving our better half no matter what. This, of course, implies that steadfast support – irrespective of the situation – is essential. Furthermore that we should perhaps bite our tongue when they do or say something we do not agree with.

special relationship Trump smug

What makes a special relationship, special?


A relationship is an organic thing: it changes and develops. Part of that process is the opportunity to help each other become better versions of our selves. Mutually beneficial personal growth comes from the differences of opinion, experiences and background inherent to most relationships. As they say, opposites attract and for good reason.

Therefore the ability to help each other grow and develop is just as critical to the happiness and longevity of our relationships as steadfastly supporting each other. In order to maintain what is special about a relationship we need to, at times, offer an honest but loving suggestion that what they are doing/saying might not be appropriate or acceptable.

special relationship couple happy

I love you but this is not OK


This is not to be confused with petty nit-picking or deliberately hurtful comments. We are not offering carte blanche to present your partner with a “20 things you do that annoy me that need to change” list.

We do our relationships a disservice, however, if we are not willing to step up and say “I love you and support you but this is not OK”.

Otherwise, a special relationship becomes one of two things: either shallow and meaningless, or worse still, based on bullying and intimidation. Neither of which are acceptable, no matter who you are or what position you hold.


Relationship counselling services in Scotland

The Spark is one of the leading providers of relationship counselling and support for couples in Scotland. Through our network of 14 counselling centres, we have been providing relationship counselling services for over 50 years.

Find out more about our work with couples, individuals and marriage counselling. Alternatively freephone our team on 0808 802 0050 for more information or complete an enquiry form.

Follow The Spark on Twitter and Facebook.

Stand by Me Ben E. King

Songs for Sound Minds #27 – ‘Stand by Me’ by Ben E. King


Today’s #SongsforSoundMinds entry – ‘Stand by Me’ – is a companion piece to one of our earlier picks.

In contrast to Chrissie Hynde’s assurance that, ‘I’ll Stand by You’, Ben E. King’s plea is ‘Stand by Me’.  Where The Pretenders are providing encouragement, Ben E. King is seeking the support of someone close, something we all need when times are tough.

Stand by Me: a song fit for a Royal wedding


‘Stand by Me’ was in the news recently as it received a soulful performance by Karen Gibson and the Gospel Choir during the Royal wedding.  Whatever your perspective on the Royals, the love between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was obvious for all to see and the Ben E King track provided a moving backdrop to the proceedings at Windsor Castle.

Stand by Me Ben E. King

Written in 1961 Ben E. King collaborated with the famous songwriting duo of Leiber and Stoller who have been responsible for over 70 chart hits including many for Elvis Presley (‘Hound Dog,’ ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and others).  ‘Stand by Me’ was the 4th most recorded song of the 20th century (according to BMI) and has appeared in films, TV commercials (Levi’s) and computer games (Final Fantasy XV sang by Florence and the Machine).

Remarkably it has been recorded by over 400 artists.

A rallying cry for the US black civil rights movement


It is a song that echoes through black culture and owes its routes to an early 20th-century gospel hymn which contained the words ‘will not we fear, though the Earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.’  It was a rallying cry of the black civil rights movement in America during the 1960s and the US Library of Congress acknowledged it as ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’ in 2015.

The New York Times in its write up of the Royal wedding acknowledged the value of the song as a herald of a more inclusive Royal family with the biracial Meghan becoming Duchess of Sussex.

Will you stand by me forever?


For Harry and Meghan, is it too much of a stretch to see ‘Stand By Me’ as a musical equivalent of their wedding vows to ‘love, comfort, honour and protect, and, forsaking all others, be faithful as long as you both shall live’?  The song certainly worked its magic for Ben E. King who was married for over 50 years to his wife, Betty Nelson.

For us, the simple verses can symbolise the loyal and steadfast companionship that enables us to be strong even when times are troubled and turbulent.  See Verse 2 for a revision of the words of that early hymn.

‘If the sky we look upon

Should tumble and fall

And the mountains should crumble to the sea.

I won’t cry, I won’t cry, no I won’t shed a tear

Just as long, as long as you stand by me.’


Songs For Sound Minds – music tracks written as an anthem for overcoming the storms of life. The songs that give hope in those times when we are struggling.

Find more Songs for Sound Minds or suggest a track on Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag #SongsForSoundMinds

Believe it or not, there are two words in every language that should be considered the most dangerous in the world. With just over 700,000 words in the English dictionary, there are plenty of potential suspects.

In the era of Trump and global warming you would be forgiven for thinking they might be ‘launch missiles’ or ‘climate change’. The reality is, however, that the two words in question are far simpler and seemingly insignificant.

Simple words with great power


Despite their simplicity, they possess profound power. They have the ability to inspire, to challenge and to catalyse positive change.

They are the essence of Martin Luther King Jnr’s earth-shaking ‘I have a dream’ speech. Every piece of great (and not so great) fictional writing, song-writing and movie-making started with them. They were the driving force behind the likes of Mother Theresa, Winston Churchill and Maya Angelou.

what if we were positive in life

However, as every superhero/comic book fan knows well, the power to do great things comes with a risk of them being used for something darker. That is the problem with these two words. And in case you have not worked it out yet, the two words are ‘what if’.

The darker side of ‘what if’


Imagine for a moment a ‘what if’ thought in the mind of a ‘born worrier’ or someone dealing with anxiety. For them, it will often turn towards something depressing.

‘What if’ accelerates the mind through multiple scenarios, decisions and outcomes; a single thought leading, almost endlessly, to successive bleak results. In their mind, a single thought can hurtle them hours, days, months and even years into an increasingly bleak future.

Consider this example of what happens in the mind of someone that struggles with anxious thoughts. Imagine for a moment that you are struggling with your workload in your job and have missed a deadline:

What if the boss thinks I’m rubbish at my job? What if they decide I can’t hack it? There were rumours recently about cutbacks – what if they use this to get rid of me? We can’t afford our mortgage payments if I lose my job. What if I can’t get a new job? What do I do when our savings are gone? What if my partner can’t handle it all? What if they leave me?

The unpleasant side of ‘what if’


This thought process can happen within a matter of minutes or even a few seconds and with it comes all the attendant emotions of what it would be like to be in each of those situations.

what if

A thought creates a feeling – good or bad – and that feeling is experienced even if it is a thought about something yet to happen. Though the body does not physically pass through these imagined scenarios in real time, both body and mind experience a sort of compressed reality. In this example, the emotions of several weeks/months are experienced in a matter of a few minutes.

Why ‘what if’ can be so exhausting


For mind and body that is an absolutely exhausting experience. We are not built to live through several hours – let alone days or weeks – of emotions in a matter of minutes. This is why anxiety has the potential to drain and, if left unchecked, debilitate an individual.

If you are experiencing anxiety and constant worry that is negatively impacting upon your health and wellbeing, it is important that you speak to your doctor. In the interim, there are some things you can do to reduce the impact of ‘what if’.

Focus on facts


The power of ‘what if’ comes partly from assuming thoughts to be true. This is often based on very little in the way of actual evidence. One way of reducing its impact is to focus your mind – and therefore your thoughts – on facts.

Using the example from earlier, the facts of the situation might be as follows:

  • Prior to this moment, you have been a model employee
  • Your boss has never raised any issues at appraisals in the past
  • There is nothing concrete to indicate job losses are going to happen
  • Right now you have a job, an income and savings in the bank.

Reviewing these truths compared to the assumptions of ‘what if’, the situation looks far more positive.  It can be helpful to write these truths down so you can refer back to them if/when ‘what if’ thoughts re-emerge.

Stay grounded in the present


Grounding, staying in the present and mindfulness are different ways to describe a simple concept: basically considering and thinking only of the things of the moment. Instead of beating yourself up over the past or worrying about the ‘what if’s of the future, focus on what is happening right now.

By staying focused on the present, another part of the power of ‘what if’ can be reduced. Returning to our earlier example, we cannot undo the missed deadline. Similarly, we cannot predict what tomorrow will bring or what our boss might decide.

We can, however, focus on today which might mean learning what we can about why we missed the deadline. Taking that and applying it to our work today, in order to do the best job you can.

what if

Mindfulness classes, meditation and guided meditation – audio tracks by the likes of Jon Kabat-Zinn – can be helpful in building your ability to stay grounded in the present.

Control what you can control


What gives anxiety its ‘punch’ so to speak are the associated feelings of helplessness and lack of control. When our focus is drawn to that – instead of what we can actually control – the feelings of worry intensify.

By focusing on what you can control, you take back control. Again using our earlier example, the individual can control what they learn from the situation. They can focus on the present, staying grounded in the facts of the present. Similarly, they can choose to be proactive and speak to their boss, rather than waiting for something that may never happen.

Start living for today instead of worrying about tomorrow


We spend a lot of time these days worrying about tomorrow, and when tomorrow comes, we are already worrying about the next day. Put simply, yesterday cannot be revisited or changed. Tomorrow does not exist beyond plans and intentions, therefore it is a waste of time, energy and creativity to try and second-guess it.

As Martin Luther King Jnr and Mother Theresa demonstrated, that time and energy could be much better spent looking at life positively and inspiring others.


Follow The Spark on Twitter and Facebook or find out more about The Spark Counselling.

The increasing pressures of modern life are resulting in a growing demand for counselling services in Scotland. The Spark – a leading provider of counselling for over 50 years – is expanding in Glasgow and Lanarkshire to help support those in need.

Since the start of this year, The Spark has seen a 27% increase in demand for counselling.

This has been reflected across the organisation’s range of counselling services which include couple and marriage counselling, but particularly in terms of individual counselling.

“In 2018 there are clearly many issues impacting upon individuals, couples and families. From financial worries caused by poor wage growth and austerity to mental health issues, people are seeking additional support to deal with these challenges”, explained The Spark’s CEO Stella Gibson.

The Spark expands in Glasgow and Lanarkshire


In response to this increased need, The Spark is expanding its counselling capacity in Glasgow. This comes shortly after the charity opened its 14th counselling location in Lanarkshire earlier in the year.

Stella Gibson said: “Expanding our services is a natural continuation of our ethos of providing support for all; irrespective of background or means.”

“We all face challenges in life at some point. Sometimes those issues can be too overwhelming to cope with on our own or with the help of family and friends. Organisations like The Spark are here to provide that support through counselling.”

More counselling appointments available


The Spark has already increased the number of available appointments for individual counselling in Glasgow. Additional capacity for couples and marriage counselling will be available from June 25th.

Bookings for individual, relationship and couples counselling at the Lanarkshire centre in Harthill, are now being taken.

Find out more about individual, couples and marriage counselling services from The Spark.

Alternatively, freephone 0808 802 0050 to discuss if counselling might be right for you or complete an online enquiry.


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Nina Simone I Got Life

Songs for Sound Minds #26 – ‘I Got Life’ by Nina Simone


‘I ain’t got no home, ain’t got no shoes
Ain’t got no money, ain’t got no class
Ain’t got no skirts, ain’t got no sweater
Ain’t got no perfume, ain’t got no bed’

Why is it that we often focus on the negative side of things? Glass half empty, not half full. Counting our tribulations, not our blessings. Sometimes we seem stuck in a rut imagining all the things that might go wrong and all the things that we believe are ‘wrong’ with our life.

This melancholy outlook on life is exhibited perfectly in the opening lines of this Nina Simone classic. Focused on the negatives and downsides of life, she sounds like a women concentrating on the things to be upset, scared or worried about.

I got life… for now, says the caveman


One explanation for this behaviour offered by psychologists and sociologists is that it is a primitive instinct.

The caveman that was vigilant to danger was more likely to survive than his ever-optimistic friend. While the former considered rustling in the bushes a reason to be on guard, the latter headed towards them in wide-eyed anticipation. In that situation, expecting the worst – a sabre-tooth tiger perhaps – was a necessary element of survival.

Thankfully these days we only need to avoid overly-pushy double-glazing salespeople or high-street ‘chuggers’. But the mind-set remains for many of us.

In maintaining such an outlook on life, we risk falling into a life of constant pessimism and, potentially, isolation and depression. There is a reason Eeyore – from AA Milne’s much-loved Winnie the Pooh stories – was always alone.

Forget the bad things, I got life


Simone’s song takes a sudden positive turn however and we realise that it is not about darkness after all but rather it is about the opposite:

‘I got my arms, got my hands

Got my fingers, got my legs

Got my feet, got my toes

Got my liver, got my blood’

The song is encouraging us to acknowledge the simple things in life, to appreciate what we already have and to stop worrying about what we don’t have or might never have.

Nina Simone I Got Life

Nina Simone was a prominent activist in the US civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. She experienced first-hand the segregation and discrimination of the time. Despite her natural musicality and training as a classical pianist, she failed to gain entry to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia due to the colour of her skin.

Simone’s personal experiences and that of African-Americans throughout history give added meaning to another of the song’s verses:

‘Ain’t got no mother, ain’t got no culture

Ain’t got no friends, ain’t got no schooling

Ain’t got no love, ain’t got no name

Ain’t got no ticket, ain’t got no token

Ain’t got no God’

But in spite of all of this, she still proclaims the virtues of maintaining that positive attitude to what life throws at you.

Celebrate life today


‘I Got Life’ is a real celebration.  There are always reasons to choose the positive side of life, no matter how bad things seem or how difficult the way ahead looks.

Nina Simone’s exuberant response to adversity brings to mind the words of poet Maya Angelou, another civil rights activist:

‘My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style.’


Songs For Sound Minds – music tracks written as an anthem to overcoming the storms of life. The songs that give hope in those times when we are struggling.

Find more Songs for Sound Minds or suggest a track on Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag #SongsForSoundMinds