Christmas songs FairyTale of new york by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl

Welcome to the 3rd part of our series exploring the lessons that can be learned from well-known (and some not-so-well-known) Christmas tracks.  Today we are looking at relationships during the festive period and ways to keep them in good shape. 

Shane McGowan and Kirsty McCall, ‘Fairytale of New York’


Our first track is the well-worn soundtrack to many Christmas parties.  Although released back in 1987it is still the most played Christmas track with a BBC poll naming it the UK’s favourite Christmas track of all time.

The popularity of this track, which appeared on The Pogues album,‘If I Should Fall from Grace with God,’ may strike you as strange given the subject matter.  The Pogues’ lead singer, Shane McGowan, spends most of the time lyrically sparring with guest vocalist, Kirsty MacColl, reaching a crescendo of insults half way though the song.

Christmas is often heralded as the season of ‘Peace and Goodwill’ but sometimes these expectations can be unrealistic.  If you have had a challenging year in your relationship marked by rows and splits then spending long days with your partner can seem like one challenge too many.

Some friction is natural even in the best of relationships and disagreements can be positive if they lead to constructive problem solving.  However, if your relationship has been tough going for a while, it might be a good idea to sit down before Christmas and agree some ground rules so that you both make it through the holiday period.  For example, decide that if you feel tensions rising you will take some time out and come back to any point-of-conflict when you’re both feeling calmer. 

Aim to keep things as amicable as possible while you navigate the visits to the in-laws, the long lost friends and seldom-seen relations.  Try to avoid falling into the trap of expecting Christmas to provide a band-aid for your troubles. 

If things have been difficult for some time then a Christmas break is unlikely to make things better and spending more time together may make things worse.  More effective would be to put a date in your diary for the New Year so that you can plan constructive ways to deal with your relationship difficulties.

Joni Mitchell, ‘River’


‘River’ is a less well-known Christmas track although it is set during the holiday period and the strains of ‘Jingle Bells’ can be heard in the piano accompaniment to the song.  Joni Mitchell sings of the end of a relationship, associated regrets and the desire to move on:

‘Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had

Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.’

Joni Mitchell is one of the giants of rock music’s golden age with a creative output covering folk, pop and jazz. She has broken many barriers for women in the music industry as an archetypical 70s singer/songwriter with much of her output from that decade earning critical acclaim.  She is the highest ranking female guitarist of all time according to Rolling’s Stone magazine and is also an accomplished poet and artist.

‘River’ is the second most widely covered Joni Mitchell record(after ‘Both Sides Now’) having been recorded a staggering 432 times by artists as diverse as Barry Manilow and Sarah McLachlan. It documents the break-up of Mitchell’s relationship with Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fame.  In turn, Nash wrote ‘Our House’ about happier times together. 

Like Joni Mitchell you may be facing Christmas ‘singing songs of joy and peace’ but may be filled with thoughts of what might have been. Perhaps even blaming yourself for your relationship break-up.  You may find yourself thinking like Mitchel who sings ‘I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad, Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.’ 

Regardless of your current view it takes two to break a relationship just as it takes two to make a relationship. Don’t lose faith in yourself or your ability to form a happy relationship.  Above all, look after yourself over the holidays, eat as well as you can, exercise and make sure you get plenty of rest.  Sometimes we forget to look after ourselves during tough times and end up making ourselves feel even worse.

Ron Sexsmith, ‘Maybe This Christmas’


The festive season has a bad habit of turning us into a bah-humbug Grinch. The high street crowds, the TV ads, the endless Christmas songs on the radio (how ironic) and Christmas parties. Add in endless trips to see relatives, a touch of credit card debt and we have the recipe for a bad-mood-inducing festive season.

Thankfully we can turn to this wonderful, little known Christmas tune by Ron Sexsmith. It unashamedly asks us to consider the real reason for the season; peace, love and forgiveness.

As the lyrics suggest, maybe this Christmas we might all step out of long-held grudges and offer the olive branch of peace. Or maybe we might allow Christmas to challenge us to find a deeper meaning than the consumption of gifts, food and drink.

Counselling and support services


The Christmas period can be a difficult time for many of us. Whether it is due to a difficult relationship or memories of a lost loved one, we understand that not everyone is going to have a ‘happy’ Christmas this year.

At The Spark, we have been providing counselling and support to individuals, couples, families and children for over 50 years. Our aim is to help clients to better understand their emotions and experiences, and to find ways to deal with them.

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.

12 plays of Christmas - Band Aid

What is the real meaning of Christmas?  In the second of our #12PlaysofChristmas series we are highlighting a couple of tracks that remind us that Christmas can be about more than consumerism and overindulgence.

Band Aid, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’


For those of a certain age, the Band Aid single of Christmas 1984 and Live Aid concert the following summer were era-defining moments. The recently released film, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ ends (spoiler alert!) with a rousing finale as Freddy Mercury and Queen reunite to perform at Live Aid; an event that sees their reputation resurrected.

There is no doubt that fading pop stars and their careers were reinvigorated by Band Aid. However, putting cynicism to one side the efforts of Bob Geldof, Midge Ure and others did highlight the problems suffered by the Ethiopian people as well as galvanise support to do something about it.

A ‘turkey’ of a Christmas hit

The song is fairly standard fare with NME famously labelling it – rather mischievously – a ‘turkey’. Despite a poor critical reception people were encouraged to donate to the cause and the impact has been long lasting with cover versions, further concerts and additional charitable efforts like Comic Relief resulting in a significant charitable legacy.

We are often reminded that Christmas is about giving as much as receiving and rightly so. Not only does the concept of helping our fellow humans underpin every major religion, but giving is also a feel-good experience.  We are social creatures and doing something charitable, however modest, can be very satisfying and contribute to positive mental health.

Why not consider a way to benefit others this Christmas and help out those less fortunate than yourself with these gift ideas? (https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/deals/charity-gifts/.)

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, ‘Happy Christmas (War is Over)’


By listening to our second track we are hoping to encourage some quiet self-reflection during the holiday period.

John and Yoko spent several years on peace campaigns and protesting against US involvement in the Vietnam War.  This included highly publicised ‘bed-ins,’ a large-scale poster campaign and full-page adverts in major newspapers in the USA and UK.

Protest songs were a characteristic of John and Yoko’s earlier work together including such tracks as ‘Power to the People’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance’.  It is difficult to estimate the long-term impact of this work but, as an ex-Beatle, anything Lennon said or did was bound to be listened to by a large number of people.

Time to reflect on the year passed and the one yet to come

The opening lines of the song were always intended to challenge us to consider the impact of our own activities:

So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun.

Many of us have a few days off work at this time of year and while we can be busy preparing food, visiting relations and catching up with friends, there is usually some downtime. This can be a great time to take stock of the previous year’s ups and downs.

It is worthwhile to ask ourselves: what did I do that I’m pleased with?  What were my disappointments? What would I like to do differently next year?

If New Year is the time for making resolutions, Christmas is the opportunity to consider our contribution to family, friends, work and community. This may be a new approach for you and so you may find it challenging. Like many things, however, practice makes perfect, and the tougher tasks are usually the most rewarding.

Alicia Keys, ‘Blended Family (What You Do For Love)’


You are unlikely to hear our final track on any Christmas Greatest Hits selection.  There is only a passing mention of Christmas and the track wasn’t even a big hit (although it did reach the lofty heights of 79 in Scotland’s official charts!).  Nevertheless, we believe this Alicia Keys track from 2016 contains some useful messages for a happy and positive festive season.

The song was based upon Keys’ relationships with her rapper husband Swizz Beatz (real name Kasseem Dean) and his previous marriage to singer Mashonda Tifrere.  Keys and Dean have two sons and the rapper also has 3 other children including a son with Tifrere.  Keys and Dean contributed to Tifrere’s book, ‘Blend: The Secret to Co-Parenting and Creating a Balanced Family’ and Keys’ subsequent track follows the book’s recommendation for creating a positive environment for children within blended families.

Families come in all shapes and sizes

You may find yourself in a similar situation to Keys, Dean and Tifrere this Christmas.  Blended families are common and it is entirely possible you may be welcoming stepsons and stepdaughters along with your own children over the holiday period.  Perhaps this is your first Christmas as a stepfamily and you are approaching it with some trepidation.

As our free parenting guide ‘Families Come in all Shapes and Sizes’ suggests, be prepared for everyone to feel a little unsettled. In particular, if this is your first Christmas together as a new, extended family.

It takes time for people to get to know each other, to start feeling comfortable and find a new family identity.  Everyone should have their own space, however small. Try to set aside time to get to know new arrivals and be patient with challenging emotions.

Christmas is a great time for doing things together – going for a long walk in the park or watching an old Christmas film– and this can help to forge new bonds and new traditions.  Above all, parents should try to work together like Alicia Keys has through her own blended family and hold true to the positive affirmation that ‘love could bring us closer than blood.’

Counselling and support services


The Christmas period can be a difficult time for many of us. Whether it is due to a difficult relationship or memories of a lost loved one, we understand that not everyone is going to have a ‘happy’ Christmas this year.

At The Spark, we have been providing counselling and support to individuals, couples, families and children for over 50 years. Our aim is to help clients to better understand their emotions and experiences, and to find ways to deal with them.

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.

Christmas music

It’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas (to paraphrase the song). To help get you in the mood we’re doing a playlist of well-known festive hits. Plus one or two Christmas-related tracks that may have passed you by.

If you have checked out our #SongsForSoundMinds playlist you will know that we like to mix a bit of music trivia with some suggestions for good mental health.  Our new playlist #The12PlaysOfChristmas is no different.

Alongside some slightly nerdy music facts, there will be tips for staying positive through what might be a difficult holiday period. We start with 3 Christmas hits from the early 1980s.

Wham, ‘Last Christmas’


Pop superstar George Michael penned this perennial festive hit, ‘Last Christmas’ in 1984 and it was released by Wham, the band George played in alongside Andrew Ridgely. To this day it is the biggest selling UK single never to reach number 1.

In the year of its original release it was held off the number 1 spot by Band Aid’s all-conquering, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’  Wham mirrored the stars of Band Aid and donated the royalties from ‘Last Christmas’ to the charity efforts in Ethiopia.

Coping with a broken heart at Christmas

The song itself is a poignant tale of frustrated love; a man ditched by his sweetheart after expressing his love. If you are recovering from a relationship breakdown yourself you may be wondering how you are going to cope with the hustle and bustle of Christmas. Especially when everyone else seems happily coupled.

However, as the song’s story relates, a failed romance can be a step to finding ‘someone special.’  It is possible to put regret in the past and to move on.  Indeed the end of a relationship can be a liberating experience.

Rather than fighting for something that was hurtful and time-limited it is possible to look forward with hope and make plans for the future.

Paul McCartney, ‘Pipes of Peace’


Christmas isn’t mentioned in the lyrics of this Paul McCartney track from 1983.  The main reason ‘Pipes of Peace’ takes its place in every self-respecting Christmas Greatest Hits compilation is the accompanying music video.

In it, we are transported to Christmas Day in 1914 when an impromptu football match took place between the British and German armies during the First World War. The news has been full of stories of the end of the First World War and that Christmas truce was a rare moment of humanity in a brutal campaign.

Macca is one of the most successful pop artists ever.  One of his many claims to fame is that he is the only person to have number one singles as a solo artist, a duo (with Michael Jackson among others), a trio (Wings), a quartet (The Beatles) and a quintet (‘Let it Be’ was credited to The Beatles and Billy Preston).

Tell stories, play games and be together at Christmas

 Family get-togethers over the Christmas period can be a good time to tell family stories, tragic as well as funny.  Storytelling can help everyone feel part of something bigger which is an important part of giving life meaning.

We enjoy being part of ‘the gang’ whether it’s with family, friends or work colleagues.  Feelings of togetherness and connectedness are good for even the most introverted of us.  Playing board games together, laughing at a well-worn Christmas DVD or going for Christmas Day walks all add to the fun.

The Pretenders, ‘2000 Miles’


The lyrics of this Pretenders’ track would lead you to think it’s an ode to long-distance love at Christmas.  Although this is not an uncommon theme for songs released at this time of year (‘Blue Christmas’ by Elvis Presley is only one example) it is not the motivation behind this hit from the Pretenders’ peak period.

The subject of this track, written by lead singer, Chrissie Hynde, is James Honeymann-Scott, the band’s original guitarist. Honeymann-Scott had died the previous year from drug-related heart failure at the age of just 25.  The track’s melancholic strains, together with the chiming lead guitar line, remind us that Christmas can bring sadness as well as joy.

It’s ok not to be ok at Christmas

Sometimes, the festive celebrations lead us only to thoughts of those who are no longer with us.  If someone close to you has died the prospect of Christmas may seem unbearable.  Grief takes its toll and it’s a process we all have to come to terms with.

Remember, it’s okay to feel sad, angry or upset. Even though you might experience great pressure to put on a happy face at Christmas time.  These feelings are natural particularly if the bereavement was recent.  Be aware that you may need to put time aside to look after yourself.

But this time of year can also be a positive opportunity. A chance to remember happy times you had with those who have passed away. Tell funny stories, share favourite memories and reflect on their importance in your life.

Christmas can be an opportunity to cherish and keep alive the memories you have of them.

Counselling and support services


The Christmas period can be a difficult time for many of us. Whether it is due to a difficult relationship or memories of a lost loved one, we understand that not everyone is going to have a ‘happy’ Christmas this year.

At The Spark, we have been providing counselling and support to individuals, couples, families and children for over 50 years. Our aim is to help clients to better understand their emotions and experiences, and to find ways to deal with them.

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.

beating the winter blues - image of woman watching a film with popcorn

In the final part of The Spark’s ‘How to cope with the winter blues’ series, we’re offering a few more tips on keeping your mood up when the sun is going down.

You can catch up with part 1 and part 2 where we looked at how a ‘sexy raincoat’, not being Gordon Gekko and embracing the opportunities of the winter season are essential to beating the winter blues.

Beating the winter blues – tip 7: Stay hydrated


Staying hydrated is crucial to maintaining the healthy function of every system in our bodies. From the brain, to the heart and muscles, hydration is vitally important. Water helps carry nutrients to your cells and flushes bacteria from your bladder. Not only that, dehydration is linked to anger, fatigue and mood swings.

To stay hydrated we are advised to consume around 1.2 – 2 litres of water each day depending on our local climate. In the winter the prospect of drinking 6-8 glasses of cold water is rather unappealing. Especially when you are already feeling cold!

Beating the winter blues - stay hydrated with fruit teas in winter

Try these tips on sneaky and easy ways to stay hydrated without having to actually drink 2 litres of water. Soon you will be beating the winter blues and feeling better.

Beating the winter blues – tip 8: Give yourself things to look forward to


In the darkest months, it can feel like there is not much to look forward to. Summer is a distant hope and January seems like a waste of a month. Beating the winter blues can often feel like a battle you cannot win. Fight back by giving yourself things to look forward to instead.

Making plans for the summer is an obvious one but also consider what you can look forward to during winter.

beating the winter blues - image of woman watching a film with popcorn

Make a list of favourite movies or albums and watch/listen to them, one per week, through the winter months. Plan nights out with friends (definitely including some funny ones as recommended in part 2) or spruce up your home with décor to make it a warm and inviting place to spend your evenings.

Counselling and support services


The winter months can be a difficult time for many of us. Practical tools and tips can often help but sometimes we need to dig a little deeper to understand the source of our unhappiness.

At The Spark, we have been providing counselling and support to individuals, couples, families and children for over 50 years. Our aim is to help clients to better understand their emotions and experiences, and to find ways to deal with them.

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.

beat the winter blues by laughing with friends - image of group of friends laughing together

Welcome to part 2 of The Spark’s ‘How to cope with the winter blues’ series offering our tips on ways to defeat the winter blues.

Catch up on part 1 of ‘How to cope with the winter blues’ where we looked at how embracing the winter season, taking up a new indoor pastime and ignoring your inner Eeyore is a great foundation for a happier you. In part 2 we will be looking at the importance of taking a lunch break, changing your coat and having a laugh.

Winter blues – tip 4: Laugh


Serotonin is the natural, feel-good hormone released by our brains when we are exposed to sunlight. This chemical makes us feel happy, calm and focused. But in northern hemisphere countries, our daily dose of serotonin takes a serious hit during winter.

Laughter, however, releases serotonin and a whole load of endorphins too. So when the sun is stuck behind grey winter clouds or you’ve not had the chance to get outside all day, get laughing.

Watch funny programmes and films on TV or online. Download comedy podcasts or pick up a funny book from the library. Pop along to your local comedy club or think of the funniest people you know and spend time with them.

How you do it doesn’t matter as long as you laugh long and hard. To get you started here’s a gem from the nation’s favourite, Michael McIntyre.

Winter blues – tip 5: Use the daylight we do get


Gordon Gekko has a lot to answer for. Michael Douglas’ character in the film ‘Wall Street’ preached that “lunch is for wimps” something we all seem to have taken to heart.

Being chained to your desk is bad for your health even in the summertime when you can enjoy some late evening sun. In the winter months, it’s downright dangerous. There is nothing worse than watching the sunrise and then set again, from behind an office window.

the winter blues - don't be Gordon Gekko. Images of Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.
Don’t be Gordon Gekko…

Take advantage of what daylight there is and get outside for a walk, jog or even a run at lunchtime. Meet a friend or colleague for a bit of company and make a point of using the daylight we do get during the winter.

Winter blues – tip 6: Get a sexy raincoat


When the winter weather is trying its best to make us feel like Noah watching the water rise, going outside is the last thing we’d like to do. But as Billy Connolly said: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing. So get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little!”

Catch up with part 1 of The Spark’s ‘How to cope with the winter blues’ series and find out why embracing the winter season and taking up a new indoor hobby can make for a happier you.

Counselling and support services


The winter months can be a difficult time for many of us. Practical tools and tips can often help but sometimes we need to dig a little deeper to understand the source of our unhappiness.

At The Spark, we have been providing counselling and support to individuals, couples, families and children for over 50 years. Our aim is to help clients to better understand their emotions and experiences, and to find ways to deal with them.

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.

how to be heat the winter blues - take a walk in the winter sunshine

When the days start getting shorter and the nights longer, many people start to feel their mood drop. Unlike Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a form of clinical depression – the ‘winter blues’ is a general term for the feelings of sadness and lethargy we can all experience as the temperature drops and the memories of summer fade.

In this new series from The Spark, we are going to offer our advice on some great ways to cope with the winter blues and make the best of the season.


Winter blues – tip 1: Embrace the winter

Going into the darker months resigned to developing the winter blues rarely helps us get much out of the season. Surprisingly there are plenty of reasons to enjoy and embrace shorter days and longer nights and fight those winter blues.

Plummeting temperatures are perfect for winter sports. Dust off your ice skates, dig the sledge out of the garage or take a look at skiing/snowboarding lessons. Why not try out Scotland’s ‘other national sport’ curling and follow in the footsteps of world-beaters Rhona Martin, Eve Muirhead and David Murdoch.

beat the winter blues by taking up a winter sport like curling - image of curling stones on ice

Remember all those books you planned to read during the lazy summer months but never got around to? In Japan they are called ‘tsundoku’ and winter is the ideal time to knock a few off. While the snow is piling up outside, cosy up with a good read and be whisked away to sunnier climes.

Winter blues – tip 2: Take up an indoor hobby


Just because it’s unappealing to continue outdoor hobbies during the winter doesn’t mean the end of enjoyable pastimes. Pick up an old indoor hobby or find a new one to occupy your time on dark evenings.

Drawing, crafts, knitting, painting, cooking, board games, calligraphy, learn a new language or polish up on an old one.  The list of potential winter distractions is almost endless.

beat the winter blues - take up an indoor hobby like drawing or painting image of paints and paintbrushes

Sporting endeavours don’t need to take a winter break. Channel your inner Darcy Bussell or Bruno Tonioli and take up ballroom dancing lessons. Try yoga, pilates or indoor exercise classes. Hit your local pool or dust off the old badminton racquet.

Winter blues – tip 3: You don’t have to feel miserable


Much of the population turns into Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh around late October and stays that way until April. Committed to being miserable seemingly for no other reason than it being winter and that’s what you do.

When we believe we have to suffer through winter it is natural to look negatively upon opportunities to actually have fun. For example, instead of saying ‘I could go out and meet my friends’ we feel too miserable to go to the effort of leaving the house. Instead of going out for a walk in the bright (albeit chilly) winter sunshine, we stay at home and grumble about how short the days are.

how to be heat the winter blues - take a walk in the winter sunshine

Bottom line? Just because its winter doesn’t mean we have to feel miserable.

Coming soon: More tips to beat the winter blues coming up in parts 2 and 3. Stay tuned on Twitter and Facebook.

Counselling and support services


The winter months can be a difficult time for many of us. Practical tools and tips can often help but sometimes we need to dig a little deeper to understand the source of our unhappiness.

At The Spark, we have been providing counselling and support to individuals, couples, families and children for over 50 years. Our aim is to help clients to better understand their emotions and experiences, and to find ways to deal with them.

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.

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.

happy teenagers talking together

Recently The Spark was delighted to attend NHS Health Scotland’s conference on improving the mental wellbeing of children and young people. The event covered a wide range of key topics on the subject of youth mental health.

Led by Shirley Windsor, the head of Public Mental Health at NHS Scotland, it was one in a series aimed at contributing to the Scottish Government’s ambitious 10-year Mental Health Strategy. Senior Health Improvement Officer Carly Grant provided an overview of the strategy.

Making better use of cross-sector mental health support services


Though still in development, a number of important themes emerged. In particular, the importance of involving young people in the design and delivery of mental health services for their own age group.

partnership working in action

An integral part of those discussions  can better work together. Representatives from each discussed how barriers between delivery organisations can be overcome at a community level. A critical issue as we seek to make better use of the wide range of support services in those sectors.

The value of ‘trusted adults’ in the lives of children and young people


Dr Ross Whitehead presented early findings from his review of the value of the presence of ‘trusted adults’ in the lives of adolescents. Indications are that such relationships can be very positive, particularly where the quality of the relationship is high.

Ross pointed to the UK Home Office’s ‘Trusted Relationships Fund’ which is exploring the protective effect of trusted relationships on vulnerable young people.

Josh Shipp has an interesting take on the power of one caring adult in an adult/young person relationship. Josh himself is an illustration of the early findings of Dr Whitehead’s research.

A life turned around by a ‘trusted adult’


Josh was abandoned by his parents and spent his early life in and out of different care settings. In trouble with the police, there was one particular foster parent who became the caring adult that made a difference to Josh’s life.

The turning point came when the foster parent said: “We don’t see you as the problem, we see you as an opportunity.” Prompted by this intervention to turn his life around, Josh now spends his time encouraging adults to be a positive influence on the teens in their lives.

Playing a leading role in working for children and young people


At The Spark we will continue to play a leading role in the development and delivery of mental health provision for children and young people. Both at a strategic level as contributors to policy and at a practical level as a provider of counselling for children and young people.

As the biggest supplier of school-based counselling nationally we look forward to making a continuing contribution to this vital agenda.

Counselling and support services for children & young people


The Spark is the largest provider of professional, school-based counselling services in Scotland. In addition, we provide mental health training for teachers, school support staff and further education institutions.

We also play a key role in offering counselling to students and young people.

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

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

student counselling graduation ceremony

As universities and colleges prepare for the start of the new term, one major talking point continues to dominate the headlines: mental health support for students.

Prior to the summer break, research laid bare the extent of the challenges facing further education institutions in their attempts to provide adequate student counselling services.

A ‘perfect storm’ of issues drive high demand for student counselling


Universities and colleges face a perfect storm of factors which have contributed to an overwhelming demand for on-campus student counselling and support services.

In our experience, substance issues, addiction, depression and financial worries are the problems students typically have to deal with at university or college. Relationships are also a significant concern. University or college is often when individuals establish their first significant and emotionally important relationships.

student counselling

The complex challenges facing students


Now, however, additional pressures on students are creating overwhelming demand. Which in turn is putting the resources of education establishments under serious strain.

Difficult labour market conditions mean students are increasingly competing for a limited number of graduate placements. This is further compounded by budget squeezes across the board for universities, colleges and students themselves.

The net result: student counselling and support services are struggling to cope.

Short-term solutions needed for student counselling


A particularly troubling statistic has been the increase in student suicides. Between 2007 and 2016 student suicides increased by a staggering 56%. Students are now more likely to take their own lives than young people in the general population.

Combined with the challenges NHS trusts are facing in coping with rising demand across the board for mental health support, alternative short-term solutions for student counselling are needed.

Making better use of the third sector


A number of universities, however, are recognising the importance of providing students with secondary sources of support. Institutions including Strathclyde University and Aberdeen University are signposting students to external services such as The Spark for student counselling and mental health support.

Third sector providers like The Spark are well-placed to support universities and colleges in the provision of mental health services. With extensive geographical reach – The Spark has locations in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeenshire, Ayrshire and Stirling – these organisations can complement existing on-campus student counselling services.

student counselling graduation ceremony

Collaboration between the third sector and further education is now essential


In many instances, the expertise of third sector providers is an ideal match for the challenges students face. Beyond the typical stress of exams and deadlines, students now need to handle a more diverse range of issues than ever before.

Longer term more must be done by universities and colleges to expand on-campus student counselling services. However in the short-term, external providers such as The Spark offer effective, complementary mental health services.

Counselling and support services for students


The Spark has counselling centres across Scotland and many are located close to the country’s leading universities and colleges. Offering counselling to individuals and couples, our counsellors are experienced in supporting students and young people.

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

Contact us via our enquiry 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.