Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Happiness and success


Reaching happiness and success

Articles about achieving happiness, success and sustaining relationships.

Drag racer spinning its wheels

My use of cars as a metaphor for our mental health began when some years ago a client had a series of dreams about a red car. In the first dream, her red car had broken down in the middle of nowhere and she couldn't get anyone to fix it. In the second dream, it was the same scenario but her battery had gone flat and again, she couldn't get anyone to fix it. We talked about these dreams and I made a few observations.

The car is often symbolic of us in dreams. Red is symbolic of the colour of blood and therefore of life. Her battery was flat. This indicated to me that her life was broken down and drained of energy. She was also very emotional and weepy, feeling overwhelmed and without direction. I made the point that her masculine side was absent and her feminine side was dominant and that perhaps she needed to plan to take some action in her life.

In the third dream, she was again driving the red car and it had once again broken down by the side of the road with a flat battery, but this time, her father arrived with a replacement battery, fixed the car and she was on her way.

This seemed to me a very elegant way for the unconscious to try to communicate to her that her masculine was back. She became more energetic and decisive, and took action to resolve her difficulties.

As time passed, I saw more and more similarities between us and the vehicles we drive. Here are some of them.

Whether we want to:

  • Get that project done
  • Do that homework
  • Change that behavior
  • Do our daily exercise/meditation/ daily mental health practice
  • Overcome that fear/anxiety
  • Get though a day of depression
  • Not smoke/emotionally eat/gamble for a day

It can be hard to:

  • Get started
  • Keep started and
  • Reach our goal

Rewards work very well for humans because we are goal and achievement oriented. Each time we reach a milestone, even a small one – we get a little burst of dopamine in our brain – the neurotransmitter that is involved in our reward and pleasure centres, but we do tend to put things off, so that burst can be a long time coming.

Clients often say to me 'I feel so good when I use the techniques you give me – I can't understand why I'm not doing them'. In other words – you're getting a dopamine burst so why isn't it enough to keep you on track?

ProcrastinationDealing with the bad feelings around procrastination

Procrastinating makes us feel awful so why do we do it? Because as bad as the feelings are when we've put something off, they're often not as bad as the feelings we have when we're trying to start something. 

If you learn how to deal with the bad feelings of starting a task, often you can overcome your propensity to put things off.

If you're a procrastinator, I don't have to tell you how annoying, frustrating and stressful it is. You may know that procrastination is caused by factors like fear of disappointment from oneself or others, in fact you can make the task so scary that your survival brain will make you avoid it because it senses that it is threatening.  Also the task could be stressful to do - hence avoidance of the stress of doing (and so you create the stress of not doing) - isn't it ironic? Then there's perfectionism ("I'll never get it just right"), lack of organisation and so on.

Many procrastinators justify their stalling tactics by convincing themselves that they "work better under pressure" (this may be true, but is it just that they always put themselves under pressure and so don't know any other way?). The result is almost always stressful.

Solutions offered often focus on your thoughts as a procrastinator and ask you to challenge distorted thinking – like: "I work best under pressure", "I can only do this if I get it perfect", "it's too late to try now" (no it isn't), or "I'm stupid to even bother trying".

Challenging these dysfunctional thoughts is always a good idea, but it doesn't address the emotional component of procrastination – the stress, anxiety and depression; feelings of worthlessness, fear – even boredom!

Sophie Jack at 96

My mother passed away recently at the age of 98. Her name was Sophia Charlotte Waring Jack. She was bright and feisty right to the end and this was, I believe, largely due to her 'Rules for Living'. She did not call them that; I have collected them and put them into a list to pass on to you. They're good for any age.

  1. Use your brain. Sophie quoted her father often, who used to constantly say 'God gave you a brain, use it!' She firmly believed in the 'use it or lose it' principle. For example, while she was waiting to go to sleep, she would:
    • Do her times tables
    • Count backwards from 100 by 3, 4, 6, 7 etc.
    • Go through the alphabet and put a girl's name to every letter, then a boy's name. She would try to pick different names each time.
  2. Go for a walk every day. "You've got to move", she would say. In her later years she had a walker she called her 'chariot'. As long as she had that she could walk anywhere. She could walk without it but had limited eyesight. She especially enjoyed nature and would sit outside whenever she could.
  3. Give yourself an encouraging talk in the mirror every day. Every morning she would look in the mirror “How're you going Sophie?" she would ask herself “Come on old thing – smile! You're beautiful!".
  4. Say yes to invitations "even if you don't feel like it". Sophie understood the value of human company.
  5. Eat right. Even if she had no appetite, she would make sure she ate. She also took multivitamins and fish oil.
  6. Be interested in what's going on. She could not read because she developed macular degeneration – but she listened to talk radio and watched documentaries. She was very opinionated. She did not want a letter from the Queen if she turned 100, because she was a republican!
  7. Listen. She would often say “You can learn more by listening than talking". She remained interested in others.
  8. Be positive. Sophie hardly ever complained. "I'm fine!" was her response to "How are you?" She was assertive in asking for help when she needed it.
  9. Have a sense of humour. "You're got to laugh" she'd say. She made others laugh as often as she could and was cheeky and charming.
  10. Remember, even if your memory isn't that great you've still got your marbles. Sophie's memory could be quite dodgy and often the same question would be asked a couple of times in a row. But if you followed her advice and listened, the conversation would sparkle.

People loved being around Sophie and she was quite content. She went into care only months before she died. 'Sophie's Rules for Living' contributed a great deal to this. She would be 'chuffed' to think these principles could be of help to others.