Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Happiness and success


Reaching happiness and success

Articles about achieving happiness, success and sustaining relationships.

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.

At peace on the beach

The effects of water and nature on our brain and emotions

The health benefits of being near water are legendary. Remember the Ancient Romans and their baths? In the days before beachside was the most common summer holiday destination – the forests of the mountains were popular. One would 'take the air' or 'take the waters' – walking in it, bathing in it, and drinking it (in the case of mineral water). Here in Victoria, the mineral springs at Hepburn or here on the Mornington Peninsula have seen a recent revival.

We might have to deal with the stress of a thoroughly modern world, but our brain and emotions were not designed for it. We evolved to be close to nature, our psyches are soothed by it and this goes back millions of years.

In his TED talk 'A Darwinian Theory of Beauty', the art philosopher, the late Denis Dutton combined evolutionary psychology and a survey into contemporary preferences in art to point out that a 'beautiful' landscape was the same across all cultures (even polar peoples). The ideal landscape consisted of open spaces covered with low grass interspersed with trees – water – and surprisingly, a path. The theory is that all these elements are needed for human survival. Grass for animals to eat (and for humans to hunt), trees to escape predators, and water to drink. In our unconscious, this idyllic scene represents plenty (although where the path fits in is unclear).

Marine Biologist Wallace J. Nichols theorizes that we have a 'Blue mind' (the title of a recently published book) that is activated when we are in or near water. He says this is a 'mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment'.

Girl breathing deeply

How best to use the #1 essential coping tool

People have asked me, if I could only give one coping tool, what would it be? This is an easy one to answer.

When you're in a tricky situation and you're starting to react (your stress bucket is rising and you're about to get stressed, anxious, angry or fearful) – my 'go to' coping tool is the 'Deep breath and step back'.

We've always known that taking a deep breath can help, but we now know that the things that enhance that deep breath and take it to a new level.

Breathing in and out slowly sends a message to our limbic/survival brain that there is no need to fight or run away, because if we can breathe like that there mustn't be any threat. This slow in and out breathing can help you calm down, relax or even get to sleep.

Breathing deeply into our chest can also help stabilise the Vagus nerve which is involved in the 'freeze' part of the stress reaction (fight, flight or freeze).

But what is the optimal deep breath and how can we best use it in a stressful moment?

Aggressive young female boxerWhether we have a 'big' personality (extrovert) or a quiet personality (introvert), there might be times when we would like to stand out more, or blend in more, depending on the situation and the company we're in.

It might also depend on how much we’ve had to drink. Alcohol can make us say or do things we regret later, or help us avoid social anxiety by ‘numbing’ us to the point where we end up doing embarrassing things anyway. It might be a challenge to adapt to people or circumstances but people do it all the time, and so can you. It takes skill and tact, so here are a few ways you can work on moderating your personality – without alcohol.