Before I lost my job, I was flying high. I was working as a Keeper of Art in a museum negotiating with the Tate Britain and the Arts Council Collection, exhibiting the work of high-calibre artists like Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley, and overseeing a 15-million-pound refurbishment. I was enjoying seeing new audiences flock to see our new exhibits. I was on a trajectory, applying for a place on the Clore Leadership Programme, and aiming to go abroad to work, maybe even as far as Asia or the U.S. I was in my forties, and after years of planning, studying and keeping up with my continuing professional development, I was where I thought I really wanted to be. So, when I was made redundant, I fell pretty hard.
Does your brain ever stop?
During the good times (which I have to say also caused me to suffer from burnout), I was being mentored by the Chief Executive; one question that she asked me has stayed with me: "does your brain ever stop?" I thought it a strange question at the time, but it turns out that it was a very good question because it doesn't – and I am not the only person with this affliction; I call it an affliction because one has no choice. And one can't say, "hey, brain, be quiet for an hour and sit in the corner. You have nothing to do at the moment; I don't need you; take a break."
One day I was driving down the motorway in a finely tuned car with a good engine, exceeding the speed limit with a full tank of petrol, and suddenly my car was taken away, and my brain was very unhappy and started to complain.
Does your body know best?
I was, though, very lucky in one major regard at this point in my life; I was (miraculously) able to relocate to Austria, but when I arrived, I had no purpose in life, no milestones, no income, nothing. My brain continued to be overactive, but now all it had to feed on was worry.
Luckily instinct took over, and my body seemed to know what to do – it urged me to do something active. "Walk," it said. So, in late December, I began to walk. My brain responded, and even after just one 13-mile walk - which I found very hard and physically demanding - my brain felt better, and my brain decided that I should complete the same 13-mile walk every week for a year.
Can you just let go?
I soon realised that all my brain really wanted was to be let loose it wanted to be untethered from all the ideas that I had for it and my life, to be unshackled from ambition, planning and striving. I let my poor, fragile, delicate brain off the leash. The more I walked, the more freedom I let it have. I let it be curious and let it discover all kinds of things.
I realised that my walks would be different every time, and sometimes my brain wanted to look at the big, macroscopic things like clouds, trees, and mountains. These observations fed my imagination, and because I had spent more than half my life doing research of one kind or another, I would return home and start researching. I began to have quite a bit to think about, and the obvious answer was to write a book; my brain loved this idea and turned from a black dog, as Samuel Johnson famously referred to his bouts of depression, into a happy puppy.
Can you feed your brain and let it follow what interests it most?
My over-active brain, allowed to roam free, became very curious in an almost childlike way. Looking at clouds led me to discover the wonderful and fascinating work of Luke Howard (Chapter 27). Looking at mountains in the distance led me to Lord Rayleigh (Chapter 20), and more importantly, walking up a mountain led me to experience Edmund Burke's idea of the Sublime (Chapter 53). And when I saw a real-life snowy scene come to life in front of my eyes, my brain clicked and whirred through its catalogue of images and made a connection with Bruegel's seminal work The Hunters in the Snow (Chapter 19). If you have spent so much time in the two-dimensional world, reading, looking at paintings instead of real scenes, and being at one remove from nature, only seeing it from the car or a screensaver, it's very exciting to be living in the moment suddenly and seeing the world afresh in all the glory of its three dimensions.
Can taking a walk help you to calm your brain?
After weeks of walking, I found that, especially whilst walking in deep snow, my mind was less active, calm even. Which led me to be more patient; stopping to photograph something that in the past I thought was ordinary and dull – grass seed heads in winter – which I began to see as beautiful in their golden wintery beauty – made me stop. When I stopped, I appreciated the silence. I could hear raindrops falling from trees and would stand and listen to ice melting. These tiny, tiny sounds had an incredible impact on my brain. Focusing on the sounds of raindrops falling is very calming; my brain felt peaceful, cooled and still.
I learnt to find joy, stillness and, yes, happiness in doing simple things. Looking at the small, microscopic things led me to one of the walks that I enjoyed the most, the one when I felt compelled to touch everything, stroke moss, feel a scratchy juniper bush, enjoy the sensation of the surface of a cold, smooth stone, finding that a blackbird's feather is soft and warm, and that lichen turns to powder under pressure. (Chapter 57). Photographing a blade of grass encased in ice led me to discover a lost word – ammil. (Chapter 48). In Devon, ammil is the word used to describe the thin film of ice that lacquers leaves, twigs and blades of grass when a freeze follows a partial thaw. The word is derived from the old English word 'ammel', which is the old version of the word enamel. I have always loved words and reading Robert Macfarlane's book "Landmarks" led me to discover so many almost-lost words that kept my mind busy for many weeks.
When I grew more confident, I walked off the beaten track, which led to many more wonders, perhaps a beautiful log encrusted with moss resembling a lizard, a giant grasshopper, or a very friendly snake. I bought a second-hand camera and began to look for things to snap – especially on bad days – concentrating on taking photographs would afford me ten or twenty seconds of time free from worry and if you're not feeling good, ten or twenty seconds free from worry is a real gift.
I began to look for other treasures (or found objects), which I occasionally collected; a gnawed pinecone would make me think about the squirrel which had feasted on it, and during such moments, one is thinking about something other than oneself. One of the problems with having depression is that it is very hard to escape your own thoughts and problems; this is part of the condition.
Walking above the tree line to become level with the tops of the trees will probably see great tits and blue tits, which are generally in abundance everywhere you walk, and if you walk uphill for long enough, you can reach a point where you are looking down on them. You can see their markings and watch them twitching and eating, complaining, or having a natter. I even spent several minutes admiring a common old jay – what a beautiful and exotic bird that is when you take the time to study it.
Once or twice, I looked up into the sky and saw buzzards circling; this always made me feel more bird-like and free. On one occasion, I was standing on the edge of a commanding view, and I imagined myself flying free, and, for perhaps the first time in my life, I felt truly unfettered.
Can walking give you a leaner body and a more peaceful brain?
I think that there is no doubt that walking can and possibly will give you a leaner, fitter, more toned body, I definitely felt fitter after my year of walking, but I didn't also expect to get a calmer, quieter, more peaceful brain. A long solitary walk is an assault course for the brain, a way to allow your mind to find a way to clear out old painful memories and thoughts and to come back with fresh perspectives. Letting the brain off the leash and running free exploring in a way that you most likely did when you were a child can bring you back home with a feeling of contentment which hopefully will last, if not the whole day, at least for a few hours, and then after some time, these hours might become days or even weeks.
I called my book Walking into Alchemy, but I could have called it Walking into Happiness. Walking has given me something long-lasting, and it seems that I accidentally made a manual for the walker, providing a toolkit of ideas and inspirations. I get messages, emails, letters, and cards from people who take my book with them when they walk or read a chapter a day if they don't feel well enough to walk.
Walking into Alchemy is currently in the top 800 books in the U.K. in the category Fitness through Walking, which gladdens me greatly, but I would prefer it if my book were in the top 800 in the Yes, Walking can help your Brain and the Yes, you Can Walk into Happiness Categories.
The book is also available as an immediate PDF download.
The book has recently been translated into German as Alchemie des Gehens: Selsbstfindung in der Natur. To find out more, please visit www.ameliamarriette.com/alchemiedesgehens or you can get a copy here:
Perhaps you would prefer to get a copy from an independent bookshop? I now live in Austria, but the local independent bookshop in my hometown, Malvern, is the exclusive stockist of the full-colour edition in the U.K. If you would like to support them and me, you can order here:
Further Reading and Inspirations:
Let's look at some facts about walking and the brain:
Walking improves your mood and reduces stress: walking can help to release endorphins, which are chemicals in your brain that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators. This can help to improve your overall sense of well-being and reduce feelings of stress.
Boost your creativity: Walking has been shown to boost creativity and problem-solving skills. This may be because walking allows you to engage in what is known as "incubation" - a period of unconscious thought that occurs when you are engaged in a physical activity that does not require much conscious effort.
Increase blood flow to the brain: walking can increase blood flow to the brain, which can help to nourish and oxygenate the brain cells. This can help to improve brain function and possibly even slow the progression of age-related cognitive decline.
Walking helps you learn and retain new information. This may be because walking can improve your concentration and focus and enhance the formation of new brain cells and connections.
Walking is a simple, free and effective way to help keep your brain healthy and sharp.
What Charities actively promote ways to improve happiness?
Action for Happiness is a UK-based charity that promotes positive mental health and well-being through a range of activities and initiatives. The organisation was founded in 2011 by Lord Richard Layard, Professor Anthony Seldon, and Dr. Geoff Mulgan and is supported by a number of high-profile individuals and organisations. The current director is Dr. Mark Williamson.
One of the main goals of Action for Happiness is to help people develop skills and strategies for leading happier, healthier lives. To achieve this, the charity runs a variety of programs and events, including talks, workshops, and training courses. It also produces a range of resources, including books, guides, and online courses designed to help people learn more about happiness and well-being.
In addition to its work with individuals, Action for Happiness also works with organisations and communities to promote happiness and well-being. This includes working with schools, workplaces, and local authorities to create supportive environments and encourage positive mental health.
Overall, Action for Happiness aims to create a happier, more compassionate society and encourages people to take action to help others to help promote positive change in their communities.
Five things to try if you want to feed your brain and let it follow what interests YOU most, with some links to follow.
1. If you live in an urban area, look up above the shop fronts and admire the architecture; you will often see some wonderful details. If you find that you are inspired to learn more about these buildings, your local library or websites hosted by experts in local history are a great resource.
2. Being able to name all those little wildflowers that you have probably admired for years but aren't sure what they are can be very rewarding – it's nice to be able to tell a dandelion flower from a hawkweed – try using an App like PlantNet.
3. Birds are a constant companion on many walks wherever you live, but they are often hard to see. You can use an App called Merlin – you only have to record a few seconds to get an immediate answer. Blackcaps are hard to spot but listen carefully; it's worth it. The blackcap is known as the "northern nightingale", with a flute-like melodious song.
4. As you walk, you will find that your brain is also taking a walk. You may find that it wants to write a poem, a short story, or solve a tricky mathematical problem, so I would advise carrying a notebook and pencil (pencils seem better than pens because pens never work, do they?)
5. You will see many animal tracks if you are lucky enough to live somewhere that occasionally has even a few centimetres of snow. Our world is wilder than we think. This is something that you can do alone or with family and friends.
You can also identify animal tracks in mud or sand:
Before I go, perhaps you would like to become a Guest Blogger on my site? If so, please visit: Guest Bloggers Welcome | Amelia Marriette
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Thank you, and happy walking!
I would like to give thanks to the Charity Action for Happiness who have kindly agreed to
share my Walking into Happiness blog. Thank you.