Smart Thinking

Finding five good things in every day was my emotional saving grace

When was the last time you put pen to paper? It could transform your outlook on life, says Dan Rookwood

Words by
Dan Rookwood

As write, my eye is caught by a commotion out the window. Our apartment faces Williamsburg Bridge which is urgently flashing red and blue with emergency response vehicles. A quick scroll through Twitter uncovers: ‘NYPD Harbor & Aviation report an EDP threatening to jump off Williamsburg Bridge’. I Google EDP. Emotionally disturbed person. Poor guy. Then, for several minutes, until I snap out of it, I lose myself in a trance of dark thoughts about what it would be like to throw myself off the bridge. I don’t think about this kind of thing often, but it’s there.

On the surface my life looks rosy. I know because I edit it, deceitfully deleting the bad and digitally enhancing the good through a flattering filter. But what I project, whether via social media or brave face, and what I truthfully feel are often rather different.

I’m very up and down. Typical Gemini, says my even-keeled wife, though I know this trait is more in my blood than the stars. I’ve had bad spells at various times which I now suspect were bouts of undiagnosed depression. But things got unmanageable around five years ago. I’d been feeling really low, for a number of reasons – my mum had suddenly passed away, my wife had suffered a miscarriage and I was stressed out at work. I clearly wasn’t dealing well with any of this. I felt emotionally withdrawn and couldn’t put my finger on what triggered my mood swings. Some days I was high as a kite, other days I felt like utter shite. A rhyme but no reason.

“Reflecting and putting pen to paper is more effective than drifting off in front of the telly”

After a tearful conversation, my wife and I went to see a doctor together – my first GP appointment in several years because: typical bloke. The doc gave me a script for some antidepressants, very few questions asked. I was shocked how easy it was. (The dispensing of antidepressants has more than doubled in the UK in the last decade. Either doctors are handing out the drugs more freely, or more people are getting help. Probably both.) What I actually wanted was to talk, maybe get some counselling.

I never cashed that chit in. But knowing I had the prescription in my drawer as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency measure helped do some of the job the tablets would’ve done if I’d not been too proud to take them. It’s still a massive taboo. I’ve not even talked to my family about this.

What really helped was bookending my days with a ‘Five Good Things’ journal – a mindfulness exercise recommended by a friend at the School of Life. Before bed, I’d jot down five good things from that day. Some days it poured out, other days I had to rack my brains. It could be five bullet points, five paragraphs, five pages.

The process of deliberately reflecting and putting pen to paper turns out to be more effective than drifting off in front of the telly. The next morning I’d re-read what I’d written – a better start than punching my alarm and sighing into my pillow.

Before long, I had momentum. I began to look for and find pleasure in the day-to-day that would previously have gone unnoticed. I created reasons to be cheerful and recognised the good things in real time rather than in retrospect. It was a simple but effective way to alter my mindset.

The darkness is still in me, and I’ve learned what triggers it. I tread a tightrope in an effort to maintain mental balance. I came across the mindapples.org concept of doing five things a day for your wellbeing and devised this list: 1. Exercise, exercise, exercise. 2. Get enough sleep. 3. Meditate once a day. 4. Read something other than my phone. 5. Walk the dog somewhere green.

However, as a father of two adorable but energy-sapping, sleep-stealing toddlers, I’ve found I rarely have time or battery power to get my ‘five a day’. Lately I feel the fog rolling in again. Time to crack the spine on a new journal.

Dan Rookwood is US editor of Mr Porter