relationships

Here’s a question that came to mind on Hogmanay: why do we rarely make New Year resolutions about our relationships?

Typically we opt for an act of self-improvement like eating better, exercising more, quitting smoking or spending more time reading books that will broaden our minds and less time binge-watching Amazon Prime.

All are important in their own way but they are focused on the self and rarely have anything to do with our relationships. Certainly not directly, although eating better/exercising more can be prompted by a desire to at least partially please our significant other.

New Year sign - try a relationship resolution this New Year

Is there such a thing as a relationship resolution?


What about spending more time with your partner and less time at work? Or trying to give your full attention to a conversation instead of trying to finish it quickly so you can get back to checking Instagram? What about making a commitment to be intimate more often or for busy couples/couples with kids, making a determined effort to schedule time for sex?

As a relationship counselling provider we know good relationships are what keep humans happy, content and secure (if you don’t believe us, check out this brilliant TED Talk about the world’s longest study into what makes us happy by Harvard University. Spoiler alert: it’s good relationships!). They do not, however, get the attention they deserve and we are all guilty of neglecting them in much the same way we neglect our waistlines over Christmas.

Why we all need to invest in our relationships


It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that important relationships are just ‘there’. Especially when it comes to the one we have with our spouse or partner.

They happen. We wake up in the morning and they are there.  They function and there’s nothing we really need to do about them. This is especially the case when we have been in a long relationship or other aspects of living where kids, careers and the natural ups and downs of life monopolise our attention.

Unhappy couple image - does you relationship need some TLC?

In reality, our relationships are living entities in their own right. Just like humans, they need to be looked after, cared for and nourished. In much the same way that the beach body you resolved to sculpt this year will require time and effort, so too does your relationship.

Sticking to that healthy eating plan requires sacrifice and dedication. Though we hate to break it to you, those post-Christmas muffin-tops won’t shrink themselves. They need time invested in exercise and a focus on nutrition to disappear. In the same way, our relationships need time and focus to maintain their health.

When life gets in the way of nurturing that most important relationship


Some of the couples that come to The Spark for counselling do, in time, trace the start of their problems back to the moment they stopped tending to their relationship. More often than not it is simply due to circumstance rather than any deliberate action.

Life gets busy and without realising it they started treating their most important relationships as just a part of getting through the day or making it to the weekend. Before long their partner was just the other person they shared a home with and relied on to get the kids to school, pay the bills and feed the family. Like a gym membership card, the relationship just gets buried under everything else and forgotten about.

We want to wish you well in whatever you have resolved to achieve this year. If you are in need of some help take a look at our advice on keeping New Year resolutions beyond mid-January. However, before you do, we would encourage you to consider making a relationship resolution this year.

Consider a relationship resolution this New Year


Instead of settling for the usual get fit/eat less chocolate/stop watching TV options, have a think about the important relationships in your life. In particular, consider the ones involving your partner, kids and close friends/family. And be honest with yourself.

Image of a bowl of Love Heart sweets. Consider making a relationship resolution this year

Did any of them get lip service last year? Has your relationship with your partner survived on the emotional equivalent of junk food? Have you got into the habit of spending more time glued to social media than talking to your kids about their day at school?

What part of your relationship needs some TLC?


Once you have considered which relationship could do with some attention, consider what aspect of it could do with a little TLC. Could you and your partner spend more time together? When was the last time you had a conversation that was not devoted to the daily/weekly checklists of family life? What fun things did you used to do together that you don’t really do now?

Could the TV be switched off at mealtimes to encourage the family to simply talk and listen to each other? Is it worth committing to getting home for bath time and a bedtime story more than once in a blue moon? Is it actually a ‘life-saver’ to ‘plug’ your child into a tablet if it means you rarely talk these days?

Relationships make us tick as humans. When they are good, we feel good. When they are bad, stale or in need of attention we tend to feel the same way.

So before committing to that ‘zero upfront and no fees until March gym membership’ have a think about committing to a relationship resolution instead this year.

Les Gray Mud Christmas songs

It’s the fourth and final part of our Christmas playlist, ‘The Twelve Plays of Christmas’. Christmas is only days away, Santa is readying his sleigh and lists of presents (demands?) are being ticked off.

Which means it is a good time to remember that Christmas can be about more than accumulating more ‘stuff’.

Greg Lake, ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’


‘And I believe in Father Christmas
And I looked to the sky with excited eyes
Till I woke with a yawn
In the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise’

What age were you when you stopped believing in Santa?  Was it a shock or the conclusion of a long-held suspicion? For ‘grown-up’ kids a more pressing question might be: how do I comfort my child when they find out the truth about Santa?

Some people suggest that finding out the truth about Santa can be turned into a positive experience for a child.  Instead of being distraught at the loss of a much-loved fantasy, your child could be encouraged to view the experience as an important part of growing up.

They are no longer just a receiver of presents from Santa. Now they are part of a centuries-old quest to keep the magic alive for younger siblings, cousins and friends. Furthermore, it represents a perfect opportunity to encourage older kids to consider being less self-centered and a little more interested in the needs and happiness of others. This is especially important in the lead up to a season that has become – in the western world at least – synonymous with selfish excess.

The singer of ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’, Greg Lake, was part of a 70s prog-rock ban Emerson, Lake and Palmer that were noted for their excess.

Keith Emerson stood behind an array of keyboard instruments while Carl Palmer was known for his lengthy drum solos and the size of his drum kit.  You might think that Greg Lake as bass player had little opportunity to be grandiose but he made up for it by purchasing expensive Persian carpets to stand on when he was on stage.

If you are breaking the truth about Santa to your child this Christmas, be gentle but also consider using it as a way to explain why no one really needs an expensive Persian rug or this year’s ‘must-have’ toy.

Mud, ‘Lonely this Christmas’


Christmas is all about friends and family, right?  When you think about Christmas you probably picture an endless whirl of social gatherings, office parties and family get-togethers that start in early December and end on January 2nd.  This is the reality for many of us but loneliness at Christmas is sadly also a fact-of-life for many people.

Loneliness has reached epidemic proportions in the UK, particularly amongst older people.  According to Age UK, two-fifths of all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company. For those of us lucky enough to have companionship at home, in work, in study or with friends it is hard to comprehend.

Little changes can, however, make a huge difference. For example, instead of stuffing a Christmas card through your neighbour’s letterbox and trying to slip away unnoticed, ring the doorbell and have a chat. Visit your elderly neighbour or aunt/uncle instead of staying in the house and watching yet another Christmas movie on Netflix.

Even when it might feel like you don’t have the time or inclination, you can be sure that your efforts will be appreciated.

A little bit of trivia for ‘Lonely this Christmas’ is that Les Gray’s vocals are so reminiscent of Elvis Presley that there is a version of the record on YouTube, attributed to Presley, that has received 11.5m views.  Believe us, despite releasing a whole album full of Christmas songs, Elvis never sang ‘Lonely this Christmas’ (apologies if that news, combined with confirmation that there is no Santa, has come as a terrible shock!).

Celine Dion, ‘Don’t Save It All for Christmas Day’


Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a power ballad.  While Maria Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas’ is said to be the best-selling modern Christmas song of all time, we prefer ‘Don’t Save It All for Christmas Day’ by fellow diva, Celine Dion.

This song has a very simple message: if you can spread good feelings at Christmas then why not try doing it all year round.

We are often encouraged or taught to believe that Christmas is about ‘peace and goodwill to all’ and to focus on giving as much as receiving. Despite the best efforts of retailers, this is supposed to be a time for putting aside selfish interests and spending time considering the needs of others.

Allegedly, one year Carey was asked to turn on the Christmas lights at Westfield Mall in Los Angeles.  Apparently, she agreed to do it but only if 20 white kittens and 100 white doves were released as part of the event!

While such behaviour might be synonymous with Ms Carey, it is the polar opposite of the true meaning of Christmas. Spreading peace and goodwill is what we should try to get back to this Christmas and for that matter, every day of the year.

As Dion sings:
‘Don’t save it all for Christmas Day
Find a way
To give a little love every day’.

#12PlaysofChristmas

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.

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.

Starting secondary school - back to school image

Starting secondary school can be daunting for children and their parents. To help smooth the transition our team of Children and Young People Counsellors have put together their top tips on helping your child prepare for starting secondary school.

Ask: how are you feeling about starting secondary school?


Every child is different when it comes to starting secondary school. Some will be champing at the bit, others will be anxious about the transition. This is why it is important to ask them – gently and non-judgementally – how they are feeling.

Where there are anxieties comfort them that such feelings are completely natural. Work with them to come up with coping techniques to deal with their specific concerns.

Starting secondary school - image of child with backpack

Remind them that they are not alone in feeling anxious about starting secondary school. Reassure them that many of their peers will be feeling exactly the same way.

Sharing your own experiences can be helpful, especially if you can demonstrate how you overcame your secondary school anxieties. Alternatively, enlist the help of an older cousin or family friend that has successfully managed the transition to high school.

Ask yourself: are these my fears or their fears?


Having a child is a bit like a long journey towards redundancy. In those early years, you are indispensable but as time progresses your child grows in their independence and detachment from you. This is, of course, a wonderful journey but starting secondary school can be a difficult milestone for some parents.

Starting secondary school - anxiety

Take time to consider how your emotions might be influencing their preparations. Often disagreements about clothing and how they travel to school are really a parental reaction to realising their child is accelerating towards adulthood.

Be sure that you are focused on the real concerns and fears of your child.

Buddy up


Many kids will start secondary school with a group of friends from primary school. The close bonds of friendship will help reduce anxieties about getting to and from school or the fear of not knowing anyone.

If your child is going to a different secondary school from their friends, find out which children nearby are starting in their school. Most secondary schools have social media pages where parents can communicate or do it the old-fashioned way and speak to your neighbours.

Having someone else to walk into secondary school with on day 1 can make a huge difference.

Don’t organise them, help them organise


Starting secondary school brings with it changes in how your child will need to approach their education. They will have to become more responsible as they attend their timetable of classes, manage homework and (hopefully) remember to bring the correct books.

Starting secondary school - image of school back and school pencils

It can be tempting to do this for them. However, the transition to secondary school is about increasing their independence and self-reliance. Therefore help them to get organised by planning a night before routine or make up a checklist of what they need each day based on their timetable.

Then step back and let them back their bag and prepare their kit for the school day.

Practice their route before starting secondary school


Starting secondary school often means travelling further from home. Now public transport or walking with friends to school will be their preference or a necessity.

Help calm any new term jitters by travelling the route with them in advance. Show them the route via car or take the public transport they will need to use to get to school.

After they are familiar with the route, encourage them to take responsibility for having the right money or travel card for a final couple of practice runs.

Expect a messy first few weeks


For even the most confident child, starting secondary school is a lot to handle. Managing a timetable of classes, completing more and varied homework, getting to know new people are just a few examples of the challenges they face.

Thus it is important to cut them some slack in the early days and weeks. Be prepared for tired, hungry and potentially grumpy children coming home each day. Expect some “I forgot my gym kit” incidents too.

starting secondary school - image of messy child's bedroom

At home help smooth their transition by giving them some leeway on the usual household chores. Try as best you can to be patient if you get a lot of moody-teenager replies.

Parents also need to stay calm during this time. A seemingly unhappy child might be cause for concern. However be mindful of the fact it will take time for them to adjust to this new way of life.

Talk to them at the weekend about how they are settling in. Ask if they want to talk about anything or need a bit of help. Ultimately, be there for them.

Encourage them to join groups/clubs at secondary school


We all know how tricky it can be to make new friends. Striking up a conversation is challenging enough without the added pressure of trying to ‘fit in’.

Starting a conversation with a like-minded individual, however, can be much less challenging, and more successful.

For that reason suggest your child looks into any school clubs or groups that fit their own interests. It can be a great way to meet new people and is especially helpful if your child is not graduating to secondary school with a group of friends.


For more advice on parenting and managing the tricky teenage years, The Spark website is packed with a wide range of free resources.

If you or your child is struggling at the prospect of starting secondary school, counselling can be a helpful way of pinpointing the issues and learning how to deal with them.

Talk – in confidence – to one of our team about counselling on freephone 0808 802 0050 or complete an online enquiry.

Follow The Spark on Twitter or Facebook for tips, resources and advice.

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.