Wednesday, 19 October 2022

The difference between intentions and goals

For several years now, on and off, I’ve been attending yoga classes. I say “attending yoga classes” rather than “practising yoga” because, to be perfectly honest, I’m an extremely poor student of yoga. I tend to only practice yoga at home if I become aware of some muscular stiffness or aches and pains, and then I’ll do a few stretches of poses, but I certainly don’t practice daily between my weekly classes. For all that, I find yoga beneficial in terms of relaxation and maintaining some kind of suppleness.

I marvel at my two-year-old granddaughter who spontaneously flows from one yoga position to another with great effortlessness, without even knowing what yoga is. It makes me wonder whether yoga wasn’t simply born out of observing how little children naturally move, before the pressures of grown-up living cause us to adopt poor posture, to physically seize up and mentally lose our spontaneity. If yoga were part of the national curriculum would there be fewer adults with back problems or needing hip and knee replacements?

One aspect of yoga I find interesting is the concept of ‘intentions.’ Sometimes, our yoga teacher will invite us to ‘set an intention,’ which seems to mean identifying a quality that you want to carry with you through your yoga practice and into the rest of your life beyond the yoga class. Sometimes, it’s framed in terms of “inviting in an intention.” Some describe this as a kind of “miniature New Year’s Resolution,” others as bringing awareness to a quality or virtue you’d like to cultivate for yourself.

I began to ponder on the differences between setting intentions and setting goals. In my career in mental health I spent many hours helping people to set goals – identifying something the person wanted to do in order to bring about behavioural, cognitive and emotional changes. Of course, goals had to be ‘SMART’ – that is, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-limited. I found the whole detailed process of working with people to set goals very rewarding because, if you did it well, people often noticed significant changes in their everyday lives. Not only did I teach service users and their family members how to set goals, but I also taught mental health professionals how to teach people how to set goals! And, of course, I used it in my own life to solve problems and achieve things.

It seems to me that goal-setting is quite an active, methodical process for helping us to do something whereas setting an intention is a more spiritual approach, focussing not so much on what we want to achieve as how we want to be, or how we want our lives to be. This can almost seem a mystical or magical process – more like making a wish or, as my daughter sometimes says, “putting something out there in the universe.”

This summer I fulfilled what was practically a lifetime ambition, to have a campervan. Reflecting on the process of how this came about, I think it had less to do with goal-setting and more to do with inviting in an intention. Yes, I did my research and followed some smaller steps (looking at different vehicles, finding out the pros and cons,) but it didn’t feel particularly systematic. It was more a case of thinking, “Finally, I think I could get a campervan. Yes, I could see myself having a campervan.” I stopped telling myself it was unrealistic, silly, a fantasy, and started telling myself, “Wouldn’t it be good if I had a campervan?”

My intention became to have a campervan and I now have one. And it’s great having one. I’ve also started another blog (that makes a total of three now, which explains why I don’t write a new post very frequently on any of them!)  My new blog is called ‘Travels With My Dulcimer’ and celebrates my love of playing the dulcimer twinned with my love for travelling around in my campervan. It’s very new (I’ve only had the campervan a few months) but, over time, I’m hoping it will become a kind of travelog. And, in a slightly different way to this blog, it’s also about creativity and wellbeing. I hope you enjoy reading all three of my blogs which I think will complement each other with their overlapping interests in creativity, music, writing, travel and wellbeing. You can visit and follow my other blogs by clicking on these links:

Travels With My Dulcimer

Passengers in Time

Tuesday, 28 June 2022

More Stupid Than Ever – On Psychological Transformation, Grief and Trauma

Speaking from the Rwandan capital, Kigali, last week, the British prime minister Boris Johnson gave his reaction to yet further calls for his resignation: ‘If you’re saying you want me to undergo some sort of psychological transformation,’ he told the BBC reporter, “I think that our listeners would know that is not going to happen.”

Meanwhile, in the i-weekend newspaper earlier this month, Patrick Cockburn published an opinion piece called Today’s World Leaders Seem To Be More Stupid Than Ever. Cockburn suggests that Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping all demonstrate, in various ways, “plain and simple stupidity” – a factor that is often underestimated in the role it plays in determining the course of history.

Perhaps what makes leaders stupid – if they aren’t already – is the tendency to surround themselves with people who agree with them and who won’t (or can’t) give them sensible advice. In this situation, it would be easy to believe that one is always right about everything and that, therefore, there is no need for change or personal transformation. But believing that psychological transformation is neither necessary nor even desirable is the height of stupidity.

It could be said that psychological transformation is the aim of all psychological therapy. Whether this is achieved through changing how we feel about things, what we think about things, how we behave, or a combination of these, a key assumption is that psychological transformation is a positive, adaptive goal. I’ve recently been reading Louise Harms’ Understanding Trauma and Resilience. Louise is Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Her book is a clearly written overview of various approaches to trauma. She explores how psychodynamic approaches to trauma seek to reintegrate the Self, how a symptoms-based approach aims to reduce the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), how person-centred approaches seek to recreate congruence in the person while narrative approaches consider ‘re-authoring’ the narrative of trauma to provide meaning and coherence.

I read the book in the context of what could be called my own personal trauma – bereavement. Louise writes: “Grief also has an important place in trauma understandings. Many traumatic events evoke both trauma and grief reactions. The losses inherent in many traumatic events – of life, world views and beliefs, a sense of safety, places, roles and routines – can lead to profound experiences of sadness and yearning and processes of mourning and remembrance. Despite this, trauma and grief research and theories have tended to remain separate.”  

This is absolutely true and is perhaps because, while traumatic events tend to be viewed as extraordinary occurrences, bereavement and grief are experienced by all of us as part of the natural life-cycle. Louise provides an inexhaustive but sobering list of traumatic events: “natural and human-made disasters, war, forced migration and displacement, forced separations of children from their parents, abuse and neglect, torture, accidents and injuries, health crises and private assaults to emotional, physical, social and spiritual well-being.”  

In this context, my own personal loss could fall into this last category as being a “private assault to my emotional, physical, social and spiritual well-being.” But, as for those people who have experienced “natural and human-made disasters, war, forced migration and displacement, forced separations of children from their parents...” there is no shortage of examples in our daily news bulletins, from the victims of Putin’s war in Ukraine to the refugees that Johnson wants to forcibly displace to Rwanda. It is, indeed, “plain and simple stupidity” to add to the trauma of already-traumatised people.

The good news, according to the evidence cited in Louise’s book, is that most people are able to recover from trauma, whether in the sense that they experience a remission in symptoms of PTSD, or in the sense that they return to their normal, pre-traumatic functioning. And some will even experience post-traumatic growth. I discuss post-traumatic growth in my book Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice, as a process wherein people exposed to life-threatening situations experience, somewhat unexpectedly, improved psychological wellbeing.

The underlying message of Understanding Trauma and Resilience is a hopeful one. As Louise writes, “returning to functioning is the most common response to potential trauma, and therefore the processes that activate this return to living, and potentially living and functioning well, need to be understood better.” In the meantime, whether they know it or not, to undergo some sort of psychological transformation is exactly what some of our far-from transformational leaders need.

Monday, 11 April 2022

Living on the ceiling

Avid followers of this blog may have been dismayed to find I haven’t published a new post here for a few months. (Well, I can hope that someone cares that much!) This sounds like a “my-dog-ate-my-homework” kind of excuse but here goes... At the end of last October, part of the ceiling of my attic collapsed. And so began a lengthy process of finding a builder and then waiting a few months for a succession of builders, plasterers, electricians, painters and carpet-fitters to come along, make repairs and renovations and leave me with a newly-restored attic/guest bedroom.

Of course, you can’t repair an attic while it’s full so it also necessitated me moving furniture, clothes, books, bric-a-brac and all the kinds of things you might expect to find in an attic ( - just about anything that you don’t want to keep in any other room and can’t bear to throw away - ) into various other parts of the house, including my office. If you want to stop a writer (or any other type of creative) from working I can recommend arranging for their attic ceiling to collapse as a perfect way to scupper all creative output for several months.

I have managed to write no more than one song and a handful of album reviews since the ceiling first began to fall down. Work on my novel, several short stories, ideas for articles, recordings for my next album and even blog posts has been suspended while, week after week, tradesmen have been running up and down my stairs at unexpected times of the day, turning my electricity on and off as the whim takes them, playing Fleetwood Mac and the Bee Gees at high volume and generating a cloud of dust that covered every surface of the house, only to be renewed the next day after Sisyphean efforts at hoovering and dusting.     

Now that the renovations are complete and I can gradually start moving things back to their rightful places (which, in some cases, is the charity shop or the recycling centre) I feel able to concentrate once more. So you can expect more regular blog posts while I play catch-up on the things I’ve been meaning to share with you. But, first, would you mind giving me a hand with some of these boxes?...

Monday, 29 November 2021

Nursing literary ambitions

My short story Weekend On Call has just been published. I’m delighted for two reasons. First, this is the second of my short stories to be published this year – my story Eastgate Clock was published in the March issue of Firewords magazine. Second, Weekend On Call was shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize last year but didn’t make it through to the final selection. However, I then discovered it had been longlisted for the 2021 Bournemouth Writing Prize and was subsequently selected to be included in The Waves of Change, an anthology of short stories and poetry published by Fresher Publishing. I’m looking forward to reading all the other contributions in the collection.

Weekend On Call is an entirely fictional account of a weekend in the life of a mental health nurse manager. The combination of an alcohol problem, work-related stress and difficulties in his marriage lead to a crisis, as he struggles with his own mental health while being expected to oversee the management of mental health services over the weekend period. In the story, the on-call manager recalls something he was told back when he first trained as a mental health nurse:

                Back inside the house, you put the bleep and the on-call mobile on the coffee table and sit in an armchair, in the dark. You notice you can’t stop crying. When you did your nurse training all those years ago, you remember someone saying that to work in mental health you had to be ‘okay in yourself’. What did that mean? That you had to have good mental health in your own right? That you had to have a stable home life, a secure relationship, a happy marriage?

‘The Waves of Change’ is a remarkably apt title from my point of view. By a strange quirk its publication coincides with my decision not to renew my registration as a mental health nurse. I retired from the NHS in 2016 but maintained my professional registration as I then began a second career as a senior lecturer in mental health nursing. When my late wife became terminally ill I decided to retire from nurse education, ultimately becoming her full-time carer. Waves of Change indeed – retirement followed by widowerhood. But it is only now, as my professional registration comes up for renewal, that I am finally, officially un-becoming a registered nurse. I began my nurse training in 1983 so there hasn’t been a time in the past 38 years when I haven’t considered myself involved in mental health nursing. Relinquishing my nurse registration could be seen as another major life event and another loss. In one way, I do feel like I’m surrendering a major part of who I am but I’m considering it an opportunity to become something else. Now, having retired twice, I feel it’s time to let go of nursing and to focus more on my other lifelong interests – writing and music. That’s why it’s so good to have some of my fiction published instead. And so I begin my third career – this time as a writer and musician. It sounds, somehow, so much more interesting than ‘retired mental health nurse’.   

The Waves of Change is published by Fresher Publishing.
This blog post is published simultaneously on my other blog: Passengers in Time

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

King and country – a creative approach to public health in Bhutan

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck
The Kingdom of Bhutan has an impressive record when it comes to creative approaches to health and wellbeing. In 1972, Bhutan’s then king – King Jigme Singye Wangchuck – famously made a half-joking remark suggesting Gross National Happiness (GNH) was as important as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The idea was subsequently taken up by the Centre for Bhutan Studies who developed policy screening tools which measure the impact of different policies on the populations wellbeing level. Last month, the i-newspaper (26 June) reported that the current ruler of Bhutan – 41-year-old King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck – is walking the nation warning his people about COVID: “Wearing a baseball cap and knee-length traditional gho robe, carrying a backpack, Bhutan's king has walked through jungles infested with leeches and snakes, trekked mountains and quarantined several times...”

It seems, for the past 14 months, the king has been travelling “by foot, car and horse to remote hamlets to oversee measures to warn his tiny kingdom of 700,000 about the coronavirus outbreak that has flared up in neighbouring India.”

Alfred the Great
It’s hard to imagine a member of the British royal family taking such a concerned, constructive and direct approach to public health although, of course, last December the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge did embark on a controversial three-day whistle-stop tour of England, Scotland and Wales to thank Covid frontline workers, despite it being an offence at the time for anyone to cross the borders for non-essential purposes.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s nationwide, 14-month mission seems somehow much more benevolent and committed – the sort of thing you can imagine Alfred the Great might have done for his people, had he not been so preoccupied with repelling Viking raids.

Be that as it may, Bhutan’s ruler’s creative approach to health and wellbeing seems to be paying off for king and country – at the time of writing, the COVID death toll in Bhutan is reported to be just one person, compared with the UK’s more than 128,000.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

‘Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice’ celebrates a milestone in a time of pandemic

I can’t quite believe that it’s now three years since my book Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice was first published. Since the spring of 2018 so much has happened in my own life and, of course, in everybody’s lives. I’ve experienced three major life events – retirement, bereavement and grandparenthood – whilst, like everyone else, living through successive lockdowns and months of restrictions on travel, recreation and social contact. 

Through these times people have found creativity a solace but also, occasionally, something hard to harness or sustain. It might almost be said our wellbeing has been sacrificed for the sake of our health although, of course, in reality this is a contradiction. In our efforts to avoid contracting and transmitting a physical illness those things that make for physical, psychosocial and spiritual wellbeing have been side-lined. We’ve been denied normal weddings and funerals, trips to the pub and the cinema, companionship, hugs, celebrations. And there is a growing acknowledgment that mental health has been forced to play second fiddle to physical health and that this is surely storing up trouble for us as a society.  

When I first hit upon the idea of writing a book about these three elements – creativity, wellbeing, mental health practice – I thought I was being quite original. While all three topics were well-researched in themselves, not many writers or researchers had considered the connections between these three aspects of human life. Even my publishers (and the peer reviewers and series editors) seemed to agree that it was a novel enough idea to merit publication. So, it gives me great satisfaction – though, of course, I can’t take any credit for this trend – to notice a little flurry of international publications in the past six months which deal with some of the same connections.

The creativity and wellbeing special issue
Firstly, at the end of 2020, the International Journal of Wellbeing devoted a whole issue to the theme of researching creativity and wellbeing. Writing without the awareness that 2021 would continue in a similar vein, the editorial reflected on the impact of pandemic on creativity and wellbeing in the preceding year:

“Insofar as creativity involves adaptive behaviour that emerges in response to interruptions to previously successful routines and habits (…) 2020 has been the year of creativity par excellence. But the disruptive impact of COVID-19 has also destroyed or damaged many creative social products generated by those old routines and habits, meaning that routines and habits, and not just interruptions or impasses, can also be pathways to creativity (…). The events of 2020 should therefore give us pause to consider the meaning of the term ‘creativity’ and to reflect on the potential role of creativity in cultivating and supporting wellbeing” (Kiernan, Davidson, & Oades, 2020).

I’m honoured to get a name check in this editorial, alongside others including the great Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in the discussion about how creativity research has been brought into domains such as business, education and manufacturing and how, in turn, this has helped “to position creativity as an increasingly important concept in the burgeoning field of wellbeing research” (Kiernan, Davidson, & Oades, 2020).

Next, in the January issue of Frontiers in Psychology, Elizabeth Wilson (of the Creative Arts and Music Therapy Research Unit at the University of Melbourne) writes about using art therapy with creative arts students (Wilson, 2021).  Her research study explores ways of meeting the mental health and wellbeing needs of students through a brief creative arts therapies approach. She found that single session art therapy was able to afford students a novel means to externalise problems, leading them to form a less internalised view of the self. One of Wilson’s research themes is single session art therapy as a ‘novel experience’, and she also cites my book – and the work of Steenbarger (2006) – on the subject of novelty:

“Novelty is described in the literature on creative thinking as encompassing any idea, process or product deemed by a perceiver as offering a feeling of ‘departure from the familiar’ (Gillam, 2018). Within the field of brief psychotherapy, novelty is considered to help ‘disorient clients in positive ways’ through the therapist’s strategic use of techniques that help stimulate a sense of play, humour and imagination in the therapy space (Steenbarger, 2006).”

Finally, also in January, a group of Norwegian researchers published a paper in Medicine Health Care and Philosophy exploring the use of creative writing among young adults in treatment for psychosis (Synnes, Romm and Bondevik, 2021). Again, the authors cite my book, along with the contemporary work of Costa and Abreu (2018):

“Although expressive writing is a clearly defined method that has been researched extensively, creative writing is a much less defined practice, covering various forms of literary writing such as poetry, fiction and storytelling, both in groups and on an individual basis (Costa and Abreu 2018; Gillam 2018). Costa and Abreu (2018) call for greater clarity with a consistent conceptualisation for the application of creative writing in clinical settings; they conclude that at the moment, there are no ‘established ways of assessing qualitatively or quantitatively the therapeutic benefits of creative writing’ (2018, p. 83).”

Although they acknowledge that research on creative writing in mental illness and psychosis is still in its infancy, Synnes, Romm and Bondevik conclude that creative writing groups can be valuable for young adults who have experienced psychosis adding that their findings correspond with previous research highlighting creative writing as part of a recovery process (Synnes, Romm and Bondevik, 2021).

So, three years post-publication, I’m delighted that other researchers continue to explore the links between creativity and wellbeing as well as the links between creativity and mental health practice, whether this involves art therapy with creative arts students or creative writing with young people with psychosis. And, of course, this time of pandemic and social isolation – and its aftermath – will continue to yield new insights into the value of creativity and how best to sustain our wellbeing. 


Costa, A.C. and Abreu, M.V. (2018.) Expressive and creative writing in the therapeutic context: from the different concepts to the development of writing therapy programs. Psychologica 61 (1): 69–86.

Gillam, T. (2018). Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kiernan, F., Davidson, J. W., & Oades, L. G. (2020). Researching creativity and wellbeing: Interdisciplinary perspectives. International Journal of Wellbeing, 10(5), 1-5.

Steenbarger, B. (2006). “The importance of novelty in psychotherapy,” in Clinical Strategies for Becoming a Master Psychotherapist, eds W. O’Donohue, N. A. Cummings, and J. L. Cummings (Cambridge, MA: Academic Press), 277–290. doi: 10.1016/B978-012088416-2/50017-7

Synnes, O., Romm, K.L. and Bondevik, H. (2021). The poetics of vulnerability: creative writing among young adults in treatment for psychosis in light of Ricoeur’s and Kristeva’s philosophy of language and subjectivity. Jan 2021 · Medicine Health Care and Philosophy.

Wilson, E. (2021). Novel Solutions to Student Problems: A Phenomenological Exploration of a Single Session Approach to Art Therapy with Creative Arts University Students. Frontiers in Psychology. 18 January 2021 |

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

'Hygge', mood and wellbeing – hugging, embracing and relaxed thoughtfulness in pandemic times

Back in March 2018 I wrote a blog post called ‘Wellbeing lessons from living Danishly’. I only mentioned it in passing back then but central to Denmark’s success in achieving consistently high levels of wellbeing is the concept of hygge. If you’re not familiar with this term a good place to start is Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well.  Wiking is the founder of Copenhagen’s Happiness Research Institute. His best-selling Little Book of Hygge offers a few descriptions of this hard-to-define concept: hygge means “cosy togetherness” and “taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things.” Wiking argues that the relatively high level of wellbeing enjoyed consistently by Danes (compared with other nations) is due to their valuing – and putting into practice – the concept of hygge.

Published in 2016, Wiking’s book could not have anticipated the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and its resulting lockdowns on our wellbeing. If “cosy togetherness” is so important to wellbeing it’s no wonder that social distancing and isolation is having a detrimental effect. “Cosy togetherness” is in very short supply at the moment – especially for those who live alone.

Wiking gives an interesting insight into the origins of the term hygge and its connection with close physical contact. It seems the word appeared in written Danish for the first time in the early nineteenth century but is actually Norwegian in origin. According to Wiking the original word in Norwegian means ‘well-being’, but there’s a connection with our English word ‘hug’ - which comes from hugge meaning ‘to embrace’. There’s also an Old Norse word hygga which means ‘to comfort’ and this derives from hugr meaning ‘mood’. And then there’s an Old English word hycgan which means ‘to think, or to consider’. Wiking uses the phrase “relaxed thoughtfulness” in connection with hygge, (which somehow reminds me of Wordsworth’s definition of poetry:  “emotion recollected in tranquility.”) But what does all this delving into Scandinavian etymology tell us? Well, quite a lot. Namely, that it seems there is a centuries-old acknowledgment that hugging, embracing and relaxed thoughtfulness are inextricably linked to our mood and our wellbeing.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible to experience hygge alone and one of Wiking’s descriptions of hygge is that it’s “like a hug without touching.” You can snuggle up by yourself with a blanket, a good book or a favourite TV programme, have a warm drink in a favourite mug and light a few candles – and that can be perfectly hygge.  But there's no doubt many people must be finding it harder to maintain positive mood and a high level of wellbeing without hugs or the comfort of others.

It sometimes seems that, in the pandemic, people are being asked to safeguard their health (and the health of others) at the expense of their own (and others’) wellbeing. If we socially isolate we are certainly less likely to contract the virus and less likely to transmit it but we are also less likely to give and receive the physical and psychological contact that supports our wellbeing. Of course, you can argue that a good level of wellbeing won’t do you much good if you contract a serious or potentially fatal disease but, to paraphrase the World Health Organisation’s classic 1948 definition of health, the absence of coronavirus without physical, mental and social wellbeing cannot truly be said to be a state of health (WHO, 2021). Public wellbeing is understandably losing out to public health at the moment just as, in wartime, children were evacuated from their family homes and, though this may have been traumatic for many children and their parents, at least they avoided being killed by bombs. 

So, is it possible to enjoy the wellbeing benefits of hygge while locked-down and isolated? Well, helpfully, Wiking provides a ‘Hygge Manifesto’, much of which can be adapted to the pandemic situation. There are ten simple points in his manifesto, most of which can be practiced without others entering your household - though not all of them are completely compatible with other public health messages!

  1. Atmosphere – Turn down the lights
  2. Presence – Be here now. Turn off the phone
  3. Pleasure – Coffee, chocolates, cookies and cakes
  4. Equality – ‘We’ over ‘me’. Share
  5. Gratitude – Take it in. Appreciate what you have
  6. Harmony – There’s no need to brag or practice one-upmanship
  7. Comfort – Take a break, get comfy and relax
  8. Truce – Try to avoid heated discussions or differences of opinion
  9. Togetherness – Build relationships and shared narratives
  10. Shelter – Enjoy being in your place of peace and security. 

I'm sure you'll agree that, whilst not contradicting government guidance, these injunctions sound a lot more palatable - and a lot more fun - than plain old 'Stay home, stay safe, save lives'. 

Further reading

Wiking, M. (2016) The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well. London: Penguin Random House.

Wordsworth, W. (2006) Preface to The Lyrical Ballads. London: Penguin Books.

World Health Organisation (2021)  Constitution of the World Health Organisation. Available at: