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Page last updated at 11:29 GMT, Monday, 5 January 2009

Five ways to slay the beast of 2009

St George slays the dragon

As if the start of January wasn't depressing enough, this year is predicted to be tougher than most because of the looming recession. To help lift the gloom, we asked five commentators to each contribute an original, simple idea to boost the feelgood factor.

With post-Christmas blues and three months of dark evenings looming, January is never the happiest of months.

But this year there is the added anxiety that we keep being told what a difficult year it is going to be.

So how to combat the depression enveloping the nation? We asked five experts to offer their advice.


"There are plenty of ways to explore the non-material aspects of life," says philosopher Mark Vernon, author of Wellbeing.

"There are plenty of concerts that people can go to for free, and many churches have them. At a [choral] Evensong in a cathedral you will get real quality music and it will open you up to a new dimension in life.

Mark Vernon
No-one really understands how music works. It seems to have this direct line to the soul
Mark Vernon

"Music takes you beyond words and it speaks straight to your heart and your emotions, something powerfully human, and religious music particularly points you to the transcendental. Whether or not you believe in God it is taking you beyond your material concerns and can even be a relief from them."

Music has transcendental possibilities because it takes you out of yourself, says Mr Vernon, and takes you out of the minutiae of your own life, out of the preoccupation with your own successes and failures.

"It's not a matter of turning your back on the material but realising that the material is not enough and even if all the material concerns were met, you would realise there's more.

"No-one really understands how music works. It seems to have this direct line to the soul. That's why it's popular. What's good about church music is that it's free and it's directed at human wellbeing.

"There are very few words said at an Evensong, therefore you are not forced to hear things you don't believe and you can just sit back and enjoy it, in a beautiful building."


Growing your own food will be the perfect tonic in the new year, says gardener Diarmuid Gavin.

"In January you can go through the seed catalogues and get ready to grow fruit and vegetable seeds.

Diarmuid Gavin
Life gets a bit slower and the rewards are huge
Diarmuid Gavin

"Or you can plant a few things inside, like early lettuce or cabbage. Start planting potatoes in March.

"And you can prepare the soil by digging it very fine and bringing in new soil and farmyard manure. Or create raised beds if the soil isn't good."

There has been a huge resurgence in growing fruit and vegetables, he says, and last year was the first time in living memory that they overtook flower seeds.

"It's about bringing down your ambitions and doing the simple things, so you nurture and create it yourself rather than going to the garden centre. Life gets a bit slower and the rewards are huge.

The Good Life
Digging does the soul good, says Gavin

"If you're growing tomatoes, cabbage or potatoes, you see them develop over a period of time. You know what's in them and you're not going to the shops where they are vacuum-packed in lots of plastic."

Excess produce can be shared around and you don't need a garden, just a window-box, grow bag or a recycled tyre. And being self-sufficient can be fun.

"When you get out and start to dig, it's like going for a run, you forget everything else and there's nothing better than working the soil and it's a great time to escape everything. It's very simple. You can do it on your own terms and in your own time."


Exercise makes you happy, says celebrity personal trainer Paul Connolly. And boxing connects to our primeval survival instincts, releasing anxiety and improving fitness.

"My clients come in from the City stressed and angry and down in the dumps but then you get them on the pads and bashing the bags and they are transformed.

Paul Connolly
Step out of the ring and there's a sense of achievement
Paul Connolly

"Whatever makes you happy releases serotonin in the brain. Eating chocolate is a short-lived high whereas boxing is long-lasting.

"It goes back to when we lived in caves. We are too civilised now, sitting in chairs in offices, but boxing is how we survived. The adrenalin is pumping. There's a massive high and it takes longer to come down than eating a bar of chocolate.

"Step out of the ring and there's a sense of achievement. You know your fitness levels have improved. That hormone is released through sex, laughter or the love of your children or your partner, but also through exercise."

Those who don't fancy punching another person - or being punched themselves - can use a punch-bag.

You can buy focus pads, boxing gloves and straps for between 50 and 60, says Mr Connolly. Then get yourself to a boxing club for some coaching. It takes minutes to teach someone how to hit something, what part of the hand to connect with and how to position the body. So a simple "one-two" combination can be taught quite quickly.

"Boxers are the fittest fighters in the world. It works everything from the core and functioning muscles and shoulders and back, to a complete body workout and cardiovascular too."


The key to injecting some excitement into a gloomy new year, says personality coach Jeremy Milnes, is to break up the old routines and meet some new people. And a "potluck" dinner combines both ingredients, without hitting you in the pocket.

Jeremy Milnes
We forget how mundane our existence is, unless we throw into the mix what's risk-taking and challenging
Jeremy Milnes

"Decide on a theme, like Indian or Thai, get a group of people together, and everyone brings along a dish, so you're responsible for one. So you might do the mains or someone brings a starter, or a dessert. So in terms of the credit crunch, it's a good way of holding a dinner party.

"Each person can invite someone new or a new couple. Not only are you spreading the cost of having a dinner party when times are hard after Christmas, but also meeting new people and widening your social circle of friends.

"And you get to do something different rather than sitting in on a Friday or Saturday."

It's not a new idea. But who's ever heard of an "American supper" - a more traditional term for the same idea? An alternative is known as the "safari supper" where neighbours move house for each course.


Maitreyaraja, manager of the London Buddhist Centre, recommended learning metta bhadvana meditation as the best way to feel happier in 2009.

Woman meditating
Feel the love spreading from your heart to your friends and enemies

"It is about helping individuals to cultivate positive emotion. In order to be happy, one needs to acknowledge the mental experiences one is experiencing but also to be able to cultivate mental states that are positive."

Metta bhavana means "the cultivation of loving kindness" in Pali and there are five stages, each of which lasts about five minutes for a beginner.

The first stage is to focus on yourself and feel "metta" or love for yourself. Imagine golden light flooding your body or repeat a phrase like "may I be well and happy" to yourself.

In the next stage, you try to transmit "metta" or love to a good friend, then a "neutral" acquaintance, then a person you dislike and then finally throughout your neighbourhood and the world.

"Have a sense of waves of loving-kindness spreading from your heart to everyone, to all beings everywhere. Then gradually relax out of meditation, and bring the practice to an end."

Below is a selection of your comments.

In recent years, the media has been obsessed with portraying January as a depressing month. I feel fine, I have a job I like and I'm looking forward to getting back into a normal routine after the Christmas and New Year excesses. I didn't spend a ridiculous amount of money that I didn't have at Christmas either. Oh, and also, in January a few years ago I went out and met a rather lovely young lady rather than sit at home being determined to be miserable...
currymusodave, Epsom, Surrey

How to stay happy - avoid the news! Don't set your internet home page to BBC News, avoid Newsnight (although Paxman is a comedy genius), C4 News and especially ITV's News which is the Daily Mail of telly news. Don't read the papers, only the grimmest stuff gets covered and if it's not grim enough they'll surely have ratcheted it up. Think, the bigger the headline the less there is to say about the story. Ignorance can be bliss. Don't look at the ground when you're walking down the street, look up, the more daylight your eyes absorb the less depressed you'll be. Also, by looking up more the less chance you have of reading the headlines from newspaper stands. Personal injury might happen but that's OK, create your own bad news! Although it would be a tad ironic - "I fell into an open manhole and broke my leg whilst trying to avoid bad news"

Simon, London

Learn to dance. For example, Modern Jive is easy to learn, uses the latest music, you get fit, lose weight, make new friends and it gives you a buzz to help you rise above the gloom.
P Shaw, St Neots, Cambs

And in the real world... what's probably best is to have a laugh on a fairly regular basis, by putting your feet up and watching something funny on tv or dvd (with the addition of a glass or two of cheap wine or beer on a Friday). Reading funny books or comics, and playing board games are also a winner!
Marie, Glasgow, UK

Write or draw - venting the old creative juices does make you happier - find one of the online places that allow you to write articles and write something. It does not have to be great, you don't need to be JK Rowling, just do your own thing.
Danny Staple, London, Uk

All good ideas - I find that creating stuff helps me feel good - why not try a new craft or hobby? There's realms of info on the web and many hobbies can be done with little or no initial outlay. Plus, hobbies such as knitting or jewellery making can result in unique gifts at a fraction of the cost of buying similar.
Louisa, West Yorkshire

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