There’s no question that being positive and optimistic both cushions the blows of adversity and makes it easier to notice and take advantage of opportunities when they come your way. But staying positive is difficult if you’re forced to deal with negative people, a category that unfortunately includes a large percentage of the workplace population.
Here’s what you can do to ensure that the complainers don’t bring you down with them:
1. Avoid them when possible.
This probably goes without saying, but the absolute best way to deal with negative people is to cut them out of your life.At work, don’t hang out with them at the water cooler or sit next to them at lunch. Uninvite them to any meeting at which their presence is not absolutely required.
If they’re customers who you can’t avoid, stay cordial and friendly but don’t get sucked into a deeper relationship. If you’re online, don’t read the comments sections on political blogs or anywhere else where people vent anonymously. That’s like drinking from a sewer.
2. Don’t go Pollyanna on them.
When you must deal with negative people, the worst thing you can do is get all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Your display of positivity won’t cheer them up. Quite the contrary. They’ll see it as a challenge and amp up their negativity to compensate.
Being optimistic around a pessimist is like painting a target on your forehead–a target at which the pessimist will aim his or her hatred and unhappiness. Don’t believe me? Google “I hate optimists” and read some of the spew. Negative people are invested in their negativity. You’re not going to jolly them out of it.
3. Agree, then weaken by rephrasing.
Negative people express themselves using negative, emotionally charged words (such as hate, sucks, crap, effing, and so forth). Because such words are loaded, they make the negative person more miserable and negative. It’s a classic feedback loop.The only way to help negative people out of that loop is to edge them out of it by putting yourself on their side.
To do this, you immediately agree with every negative statement that they make. Then, as part of that agreement, you rephrase what they said using words that are less loaded.
Debbie: “I absolutely hate it with a passion when…”
You: “Yes, it’s irritating when that happens…”
Debbie: “This totally sucks.”
You: “So true. There are some real challenges here.”
When you do this, you’ll notice that the negative person will actually change her physiology. Her body straightens, her glowering frown lightens up.Do this long enough and you can actually erode a person’s negativity to the point where he can take off the crap-colored glasses. It can take a long time, though.
4. Clear your head afterward.
Dealing with negative people taxes and drains your energy. Therefore, whenever you’re forced to deal with such folk, take time afterward to recharge your emotional batteries.
The best thing to do after dealing with a downer is to call or visit a kindred spirit who shares your basically positive attitude.If that’s not possible, go for a walk, listen to some music, read something inspirational. Do something–anything–that creates a mental break.
Failing to do this is like failing to wash yourself or change your clothes after wading through mud. If you’re not careful, negativity can and will stick to you. In fact, that’s the reason that negative people are negative. It’s a learned behavior. After all, most children are natural optimists.
Literature is full of brutally jilted lovers and cruelly broken hearts, whether Anna Karenina’s or Heathcliff’s in Wuthering Heights. But for my money, the most extreme case is Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. In the classic novel, she never gets over the pain of being abandoned at the altar on her wedding day, decades before. Shut away in her dark house, Miss Havisham is described as a cross between a skeleton and a wax statue, frozen in a state of traumatic rejection.
As cartoonish as these characters are, they can seem achingly realistic to readers in the midst of the terrible heartbreak that can come when a romance ends. Miss Havisham’s fate seems plausible: You will never again see love as anything more than an exercise in futility. Little by little, of course, most people do get over a breakup, move on, and, eventually, love someone else. In those early days and months, however, the pain can feel like it will never end.
There is no magical remedy for a bad breakup, but that doesn’t mean you have to just suffer and read Victorian novels while you wait to feel better. There’s actually a lot you can do to speed the healing process, learn from the experience, and find new love (and, ideally, not make the same mistake again).
Breaking up is part of an ordinary life. Although the data are limited and results vary widely, some U.K. research estimates that people average roughly two serious relationships before settling into one that is considered permanent. In 2013, the average number of times Americans said their heart had been broken was five.
If your breakups have been awful, that’s normal. According to a 2018 poll from YouGov, 58 percent of American adults say breakups tend to be “dramatic/messy.” Only 25 percent said they tend to be “casual/civil.” No wonder people try to avoid them: Scholars who recently surveyed adults ages 18 to 29 found that about half said it was either moderately or exactly true that “I sometimes stay in a relationship longer than I should because I don’t know how to end it.”
Breakups, at least for the breakee, are literally painful. Modern neuroscience has found repeatedly that social pain—of which abandonment is an especially acute example—can stimulate many of the same brain regions as physical pain, notably the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. When you are in great pain, it can be hard to comprehend that you’ll ever feel better. Indeed, people experiencing depression often say that they forget what “normal” feels like.
But the pain does diminish. Psychologists writing in 2007 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that when a romantic relationship dissolves, the average person rates her stress at a bit more than three on a one-to-seven scale of severity. Each week, that number falls, on average, by about 0.07. Think of it this way: If your grief is a solid 3.5 after a breakup, assuming you follow the average pattern, you can expect to feel better each week and only about half as bad after six months—a longer time than you perhaps want or expect, but not a permanent state of affairs.
Especially after a long relationship, a breakup can make you feel like you’ll never find love again. You most likely will, though, and maybe sooner than you think. One 2013 study published in the science journal PLOS Onefound that the length of the dissolved relationship is positively correlated with the proclivity of the newly single to rebound into a new relationship. Whether your specific rebound relationship is a good thing is something you have to decide, but the data suggest that you will be able to open your heart again.
Knowing your emotional wounds will heal with time doesn’t necessarily make sitting through the pain any easier in the early aftermath of an ugly split. There are a few things you can do to hasten the process of feeling better, however.
1. Think about what a jerk your ex is.
In one of the most novel experiments I have seen in the past few years, researchers at the University of Missouri recruited people upset after a breakup to try different techniques to reduce their feelings of love toward their ex and lighten their unpleasant mood. The researchers measured the effectiveness of each approach by showing the participants photos of their ex-partner while observing their brain activity on an electroencephalogram and asking them how they felt.
When participants were instructed to think about what they truly disliked about the person they loved—for example, by focusing on questions such as “What is an annoying habit of your ex?”—their feelings of love fell by a whopping 18 percent. It didn’t come without a cost, though: It also temporarily lowered the overall pleasantness of mood by 17 percent. You have to decide whether reduced heartbreak outweighs the unpleasant memory of your ex’s bad habit. If it doesn’t, move on to technique No. 2.
2. Go have fun.
Another strategy tested in the paper above was distraction. The participants were instructed to think about positive things in their lives, such as their favorite food. This was also effective, but in a different way: Although love feelings for the ex did not decrease, mood improved by 8 percent on average. So if your principal problem after a breakup is fixating on how much you love your ex, meditate on him picking his nose. But if your problem is that you’re feeling depressed, do something fun and enjoyable to occupy your mind. Read a good book, maybe, or go for a hike (perhaps not where you and your ex liked to go).
3. Put on some sad music.
Psychologists over the years have repeatedly remarked on what seems like counterproductive behavior when people feel sad: listening to sad songs. After a breakup, you should listen to “Happy,” not “I Will Always Love You,” right?
Actually, sad music can benefit a broken heart. Writing in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy in 2016, a psychologist reviewed the available studies and found that people seek out sad music in order to help themselves understand and find meaning in their emotions. Breakup songs can help you feel less alone in your suffering and less unique in your misfortune. And sitting with your bad feelings (rather than pushing them away) is important for your emotional well-being and growth.
In this essay, I have offered you a few ways to shorten your heartbreak. Here is one way to extend it: Keep tabs on your ex on social media. This is strikingly common; in a 2011 study, 54.3 percent of college students confessed to having perused an ex’s social-media posts in search of photos with a new partner.
In the race for fresh ways for tech to hijack our brain chemistry and make us insane, there is a huge, obvious market for an app that surveils exes and sends alerts to your phone when they look happy. You might call it Creepster, or perhaps, Havisham.
As tempting as it might be, such surveillance is a huge mistake for happiness. Research on Facebook stalking shows that it is associated with greater distress, longing, negative feelings, and sexual desire for the ex-partner; it also inhibits personal growth in the wake of the split. It is a near-perfect way to ensure that you don’t feel better.
In order to get over a breakup, you have to let your life move on and let your ex’s life move on as well. Don’t hold on to the source of your suffering. Your pain will decrease, you will be able to love again, and you can leave Miss Havisham to wander her lonely house without you.
How do you go about cultivating more gratitude? (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)
This isn’t to say gratitude is a bad thing – far from it. But when wielded as a weapon, it gets a bad rap.Gratitude, viewed properly, as being thankful for the good things in your life, can be a powerful thing. There’s a wealth of research that points to gratitude – feeling it and expressing it – making us happier and boosting mental well being.
The key is not to ignore issues by sticking gratitude on top as a plaster, but incorporating gratitude more seamlessly into your day-to-day life. It’s about recognizing that things aren’t perfect, but there’s some stuff that’s worth appreciating.
‘Gratitude works to improve our mental health,’ says Counseling Directory member Kirsty Taylor. ‘It’s a really powerful emotion. ‘Gratitude is strongly associated with emotions such as optimism, greater life satisfaction and enjoyment of the moment, an improved ability to handle a crisis situation, increased self esteem, better resilience and increased physical and mental wellbeing.
‘Gratitude, simply, allows us to appreciate situations, people and every day things in a way that increases our happiness and allows us to take grater pleasure in all aspects of life.’Bringing an attitude of gratitude into your life isn’t as easy as just telling yourself to buck up and be grateful, of course.
It’s a conscious practice, a change to your way of thinking. So, how do you bring more thankfulness into your being?
Make a conscious decision to be grateful
Changing the way you think, feel, and behave isn’t going to happen magically, with no effort on your end. Sorry. ‘It can be hard to cultivate gratitude when the daily grind of life makes it hard for us to do so,’ Kirsty tells Metro.co.uk. ‘People can have stressful environments, jobs, families and life situations that make it especially hard to feel grateful for our lives and our circumstances.
‘However, if we don’t make a place for gratitude in our life, it can be a much darker world that we live in. ‘Gratitude is often a chosen state of mind or being and can be increased by making a conscious decision to try and focus on happiness.’
Practice gratitude in the mornings and evenings
Here’s an easy way to start getting into the grateful mindset. Each morning, before you get out of bed (and perhaps instead of doing your usual doomscrolling) challenge yourself to think of three things you’re grateful for – and spend a moment appreciating how great that thing is.
It’s okay if it’s something that seems teeny-tiny or silly, like ‘I’m grateful that I’m going to get myself a nice hot drink on the way to work’. Make sure you don’t just rattle through your list and get on with your day. Take time to really dwell on your gratitude for these things, and feel it.
You can do the same thing right before bed. Dominique Antiglio, a sophrologist at BeSophro, suggests combining this practice with a spot of meditation and physical relaxation. She recommends: ‘First thing in the morning, stand up, gently shake your entire body, letting go of any tension. Exhale fully all negative anticipation and anxieties you may feel.
‘Then sit down, inhale, tense your body, exhale and relax each part of your body from head to toe. Then in a relaxed state with eyes closed, think about one thing that you are grateful for now or that you are going to experience today. ‘It can be a simple as how comfortable your pyjamas feel in that moment (start simple!) and it will become deeper and more meaningful as you repeat this practice.
‘Last thing in the evening, shake the tension of the day away by moving and breathing, and then close your eyes. Think about one quality or resource that got you through your day i.e. perseverance, connection with a friend, hope, calm etc. ‘Then spend a moment gently activating this word in your body and mind through gentle in-breaths and out-breaths.’
Start a gratitude journal
Instead of only thinking or saying those things you’re grateful for, try writing them down. ‘One of my anxiety clients, I asked to keep a gratitude journal, and every time she felt negative or anxious to revert to writing all the things she felt grateful for at that moment,’ says life coach Denise Bosque. ‘It really helped, because it’s training the brain towards noticing and feeling the positive stuff that is all around us in abundance.’
Open your mind to little things
A key part of cultivating gratitude is learning to actually notice the good stuff and savour it. Once you know you’ll have to think of three things to be grateful for at the end of the day, you might find yourself naturally looking out for positive bits in life.
Keep your eyes and mind open to take in the parts of your day that you might normally overlook: how nice it is to walk past the park on the way to work, how tasty your lunch is, how you’re actually really enjoying a new hobby you’ve been trying.
‘Even when it feel tricky to find something to be grateful for, the simple fact that you are starting to look for it is like opening a door to a new world and perspective,’ Dominique explains. ‘When we feel grateful, we are naturally opening up our minds and body, calming our nervous system and shifting our perspective to something more constructive. We are learning to contemplate ourselves, our lives or people around us from a positive place.’
Okay, this is where it gets a little trickier. When you come up against bad times, it’s fine to feel sad, angry, or scared. But can you also take a moment to reframe some small part of what’s happened with gratitude?
‘It can be useful to think of a positive way of reframing each complaint that we might want to make,’ says Kirsty. ‘If someone is rude to you at work, you might want to complain to a friend about them. Instead, you could remind yourself of all the other great colleagues you are fortunate to work with and be grateful that perhaps you aren’t having the same stressful day as a rude colleague.
‘When difficult things happen in life, such as loss and bereavement and relationship breakups, we all can have a tendency to feel very down and depressed and low in mood about such painful life events.
‘It can be very hard to reach for a positive when things feel very difficult, but those who can practise daily gratitude might be able to find a positive in even the darkest situations.
‘Loss reminds us to love those around us, relationship breakups show us that love feels wonderful when it’s going well, and that we can learn something so our next relationship will be different. Bereavement can make us stronger in the long term, can remind us of the precious nature of life and allow us to breathe in our surroundings each and feel grateful for the life we get to live.’
Express gratitude out loud
Don’t just think grateful thoughts – speak them. Comment on how lovely the weather is today, say out loud that you appreciate your body for getting you where you need to go, talk about positive things in your life to balance out any venting.
Tell people you appreciate them
Why keep all that gratitude to yourself? If you’re thankful for someone’s support, their actions, their presence, tell them. This can be as small as giving someone a genuine thank you for making you a tea, it can be telling your partner how much you appreciate them, it could be writing your parents a letter to say how grateful you are for all they’ve done.
Stick some visual reminders around your house
Again, it’s all about retraining your brain to notice the good. If you find the adjustment difficult, it can help to add some visual reminders around your living space.
Dominique suggests: ‘Stick post-its around the house, for example in a room or cupboard you open often throughout the day, put a smiley on it and let that be a trigger to find something, at that moment, to be grateful for.’
Do a random act of kindness
Gratitude begets gratitude. Once you’re feeling it, you can spread it around like wildfire. Try doing a random act of kindness. Pay for the coffee of the person behind you in the queue, get some flowers for your neighbour, give your friend a call. You’ll inspire gratitude in them, and also feel that glow of doing something good.
Even if you’ve never heard the term “executive function,” you may be painfully aware of how important it is for everyday life. Executive functioning is often described as the management system of the brain: This is the portion responsible for planning, prioritizing and executing tasks.
“Executive function is the CEO of the brain,” said Jessica McCabe, host of the YouTube channel How To ADHD. “Executive function is a set of cognitive processes that help us self-regulate so that we can effectively plan, prioritize, and sustain effort for our long-term goals.”
What does executive functioning control?
Carrying out tasks to completion requires a significant number of mental skills, including the ability to accurately predict what is needed, the ability to problem-solve when issues arise, and the emotional self-control to follow through, even if the task turns out to be harder than anticipated. It is the bedrock of many different skills, including the ability to focus, make and execute plans, identify priorities, follow tasks to completion, understand multiple points of view, regulate emotions, and keep track of what you are doing.
“We’re talking about converting intentions into action,” said Ari Tuckman, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating ADHD. Going from intending to do something to actually finishing it requires a combination of working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control.
In real life, issues with executive function can look like losing your keys on a daily basis, missing appointments because you keep forgetting about them, struggling to finish projects at work, getting slammed with late fees because you forgot to pay your credit card bill on time, or being unable to stay organized. “That affects every aspect of our lives,” McCabe said.
Strategies for dealing with executive function issues
The biggest challenge when it comes to dealing with executive functioning issues is that all of the solutions also require executive function to carry out. “As lovely as it is to suggest making lists to someone with ADHD, they’ve probably made lists. They’ve lost them. Or they weren’t sure how to prioritize them,” said McCabe, who was diagnosed with ADHD when she was younger.
It’s for this reason that dealing with executive function issues is so challenging—it’s needed for pretty much everything you do, and impacts just about every facet of your life. For conditions like ADHD, the most effective way to improve executive functioning is to seek treatment—the main strategy is often medication. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition, which is thought to be due to a shortage in the neurotransmitter dopamine. However, as McCabe points out, although medication can help improve the underlying cause, “pills don’t teach skills.”
If you have executive function issues, it helps to support it in any way you can, which includes lifestyle. Stress and sleep deprivation can lead to short-term impairments of your executive function, while diet and exercise can help it perform at its best.
“It doesn’t make you Superman, it doesn’t make you better than you are, but it at least enables you to bring the best of what you got,” Tuckman said. Of course, as with so many of these strategies, the double whammy is that when you are overwhelmed, prioritizing sleep, diet, and exercise requires significant executive function. “This kind of makes a bad situation worse,” Tuckman said.
Introduce strategies one at a time
There are going to be a hundred different strategies and tricks that can potentially help with your executive function issues. However, as McCabe notes, “a lot of the support we need is in implementing these strategies. Every time we add something new to our plate, to support our executive function, that throws things off for us.”
Instead, McCabe suggests being selective about introducing new strategies, and allow a period of time to get used to it. She also strongly recommends thinking about what has worked in the past and using that as a guide for what can help now. “Don’t start from scratch,” she said. “That’s hard on executive function.”
One of the most important things you can do to support your executive function is to make sure that you are spending your time on what matters, rather than trying to do everything. “Staying on top of everything isn’t realistic for most people, let alone those with executive function challenges,” McCabe said.
Potential strategies can include minimalism, automating things, or picking your battles wisely. “If you want to do more, do less, because the more we’re trying to do, the more we have to keep track of, the harder it is for executive function to stay on top of all that,” McCabe said.
Understand this is a work in progress
Improving and supporting your executive function is a lifelong process. What helps today may not work a year from now when circumstances may have changed—and there are going to be good days and bad days.
“Focus on the long game,” Tuckman said. “Focus on finding better systems and strategies, and then just keep showing up and applying them. If today was a bad day, show up again tomorrow and start over.”
What is work-life balance, and why is it important?
In short, work-life balance is the state of equilibrium where a person equally prioritizes the demands of one’s career and the demands of one’s personal life. Some of the common reasons that lead to a poor work-life balance include:
Increased responsibilities at work
Working longer hours
Increased responsibilities at home
A good work-life balance, said Chris Chancey, career expert and CEO of Amplio Recruiting, has numerous positive effects, including less stress, a lower risk of burnout and a greater sense of well-being. This not only benefits employees but employers, too.
“Employers who are committed to providing environments that support work-life balance for their employees can save on costs, experience fewer cases of absenteeism, and enjoy a more loyal and productive workforce,” said Chancey. Employers that offer options as telecommuting or flexible work schedules can help employees have a better work-life balance.
When creating a schedule that works for you, think about the best way to achieve balance at work and in your personal life. Chancey said that work-life balance is less about dividing the hours in your day evenly between work and personal life and, instead, is more about having the flexibility to get things done in your professional life while still having time and energy to enjoy your personal life. There may be some days where you work longer hours so you have time later in the week to enjoy other activities.
Here are eight ways to create a better work-life balance, as well as how to be a supportive manager.
1. Accept that there is no ‘perfect’ work-life balance.
When you hear “work-life balance,” you probably imagine having an extremely productive day at work, and leaving early to spend the other half of the day with friends and family. While this may seem ideal, it is not always possible.
Don’t strive for the perfect schedule; strive for a realistic one. Some days, you might focus more on work, while other days you might have more time and energy to pursue your hobbies or spend time with your loved ones. Balance is achieved over time, not each day.
“It is important to remain fluid and constantly assess where you are [versus] your goals and priorities,” said Heather Monahan, founder of the career mentoring group, #BossinHeels. “At times, your children may need you, and other times, you may need to travel for work, but allowing yourself to remain open to redirecting and assessing your needs on any day is key in finding balance.”
2. Find a job that you love.
Although work is an expected societal norm, your career shouldn’t be restraining. If you hate what you do, you aren’t going to be happy, plain and simple. You don’t need to love every aspect of your job, but it needs to be exciting enough that you don’t dread getting out of bed every morning.
Monahan recommended finding a job that you are so passionate about you would do it for free. “If your job is draining you, and you are finding it difficult to do the things you love outside of work, something is wrong,” said Monahan. “You may be working in a toxic environment, for a toxic person, or doing a job that you truly don’t love. If this is the case, it is time to find a new job.”
3. Prioritize your health.
Your overall physical, emotional and mental health should be your main concern. If you struggle with anxiety or depression and think therapy would benefit you, fit those sessions into your schedule, even if you have to leave work early or ditch your evening spin class. If you are battling a chronic illness, don’t be afraid to call in sick on rough days. Overworking yourself prevents you from getting better, possibly causing you to take more days off in the future.
“Prioritizing your health first and foremost will make you a better employee and person,” said Monahan. “You will miss less work, and when you are there, you will be happier and more productive.”
Prioritizing your health doesn’t have to consist of radical or extreme activities. It can be as simple as daily meditation or exercise.
4. Don’t be afraid to unplug.
Cutting ties with the outside world from time to time allows us to recover from weekly stress and gives us space for other thoughts and ideas to emerge. Unplugging can mean something simple like practicing transit meditation on your daily commute, instead of checking work emails.
Monahan said when she used to travel with her boss for work, she’d look over to find him reading a novel while she would be doing something work-related.
“I didn’t understand at the time that he was giving himself a break and decompressing while I was leading myself to a potential burnout,” said Monahan.
Now, Monahan practices the same tactics. She reiterated that taking that time to unwind is critical to success and will help you feel more energized when you’re on the clock.
5. Take a vacation.
Sometimes, truly unplugging means taking vacation time and shutting work completely off for a while. Whether your vacation consists of a one-day staycation or a two-week trip to Bali, it’s important to take time off to physically and mentally recharge.
According to the State of American Vacation 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Travel Association, 52% of employees reported having unused vacation days left over at the end of the year. Employees are often worried that taking time off will disrupt the workflow, and they will be met with a backlog of work when they return. This fear should not restrict you from taking a much-needed break.
“The truth is, there is no nobility in not taking well-deserved time away from work; the benefits of taking a day off far outweigh the downsides,” said Chancey. “With proper planning, you can take time away without worrying about burdening your colleagues or contending with a huge workload when you return.”
6. Make time for yourself and your loved ones.
While your job is important, it shouldn’t be your entire life. You were an individual before taking this position, and you should prioritize the activities or hobbies that make you happy. Chancey said that achieving work-life balance requires deliberate action.
“If you do not firmly plan for personal time, you will never have time to do other things outside of work,” said Chancey. “No matter how hectic your schedule might be, you ultimately have control of your time and life.”
When planning time with your loved ones, create a calendar for romantic and family dates. It may seem weird to plan one-on-one time with someone you live with, but it will ensure that you spend quality time with them without work-life conflict. Just because work keeps you busy doesn’t mean you should neglect personal relationships.
“Realize that no one at your company is going to love you or appreciate you the way your loved ones do,” said Monahan. “Also [remember] that everyone is replaceable at work, and no matter how important you think your job is, the company will not miss a beat tomorrow if you are gone.”
7. Set boundaries and work hours.
Set boundaries for yourself and your colleagues, to avoid burnout. When you leave the office, avoid thinking about upcoming projects or answering company emails. Consider having a separate computer or phone for work, so you can shut it off when you clock out. If that isn’t possible, use separate browsers, emails or filters for your work and personal platforms.
Additionally, Chancey recommended setting specific work hours. “Whether you work away from home or at home, it is important to determine when you will work and when you will stop working; otherwise, you might find yourself answering work-related emails late at night, during vacations or on weekends off,” said Chancey.
Chancey advised notifying team members and your manager about boundaries beyond which you cannot be accessible because you are engaged in personal activities. This will help to ensure that they understand and respect your workplace limits and expectations.
8. Set goals and priorities (and stick to them).
Set achievable goals by implementing time-management strategies, analyzing your to-do list, and cutting out tasks that have little to no value.
Pay attention to when you are most productive at work and block that time off for your most important work-related activities. Avoid checking your emails and phone every few minutes, as those are major time-wasting tasks that derail your attention and productivity. Structuring your day can increase productivity at work, which can result in more free time to relax outside of work.
Wood and plastic do not belong in our mouths. Period. Metal utensils – whether spoon, fork, or chopstick – are the only objects I’m happy to eat with. For this reason, I was never the one bringing pasta salads to picnics. And let’s not get started on disposable plates. They too have no place in our world. Apart from the toll they take on the environment, they also simply make the world uglier. But despite these self-imposed restrictions, I still very much love picnics.
And at the heart of any good picnic is the perfect picnic food: the sandwich. The sandwich is the most democratic food on earth; it is the universal equaliser. I once read a recipe for “rose petal sandwiches” in a book titled The Gentle Art of Cookery by Mrs CF Leyel and Olga Hartley from 1921. The recipe is made using “bright-pink Damask or old-fashioned roses” layered in bread with unsalted butter. Although I’ve never made a rose sandwich, the idea of it sounds very romantic.
What I have eaten a lot of are stewed bean sandwiches. Known as “ful” sandwiches in Egypt, where I come from, they are served in pitta bread with a thick, stewed broad-bean filling. Ful sandwiches are most common for breakfast, but also eaten throughout the day. The idea of carbs-on-carbs may sound odd to some, but I will always reach for a bean sandwich or a potato sandwich when presented with the luxury.
Possibly even more important than what goes in the sandwich is the bread. Which brings me to the first (and arguably) most important principle of sandwich making. Good bread makes a good sandwich. Bad bread… should be used for something other than sandwiches. The bread is a vehicle for the filling, and if your vehicle is old and unpleasant, the ride won’t be as good. And the simpler the sandwich, the more important the bread.
Use any kind of bread that you see suitable, as long as it is good. The same is to be said about most cooking. Instead of being dead set on cooking a particular food before going to the market, make the trip, and then decide what actually looks good. The uncertainty may sound stressful to some, but the more you do this the more you’ll get comfortable, and ultimately the better cook you will become.
Five fresh sandwiches :
Shave courgette into ribbons using a mandolin or a vegetable peeler. Salt the courgette. Slice open focaccia and layer the ribbons of courgette with a slice of mozzarella. Add olive oil and a little more salt.
Tuna and tomato were made for each other. Combine a tablespoon of mayo (preferably homemade, but store-bought will also do) with a few fillets of good-quality canned tuna in olive oil. Flake with a fork. Slice the tomato thin, add salt and layer tomato, then tuna, on top. Slice on the bias and you have a Venetian tramezzino.
A classic, and likely my favourite sandwich of all time. Good-quality butter, flaky salt, a few slices of jambon de Paris and that’s it.
I love mortadella flecked with little bits of pistachio. Slice the focaccia, add a few slices of mortadella, and finish with olive oil and salt.
Wild Card Sandwich: beans/pitta
Take yesterday’s leftover beans and cook further until soft and thick. Add cumin to the beans then spoon into a pitta and, you guessed it, add salt and olive oil.
Once you’ve decided on what bread to use, either butter or add olive oil and then add the filling. I often find sandwiches to be overstuffed. Too much filling jammed in between two pieces of bread that can hardly hold it together. Keep things light and don’t overfill. Rule number four of sandwich making is to salt the sandwich. A little coarse salt before closing up the sandwich goes a long way.
To me, a sandwich that is not salted feels incomplete. Finally, avoid sogginess by adding any wet ingredients, and the salt, at the very last minute. I also like to bring boiled eggs as they’re the perfect portable snack. I wrap them in Gohar World egg lace dresses.
Once my picnic food is sorted, I spend time thinking about the setting and ambience. This may sound obvious, but pick a spot in your local park with a view. I live half a block from Central Park in New York and have a favourite area that overlooks a lake. As far as picnic blankets go, I use any piece of fabric large enough to accommodate the guests. This can be a tablecloth, a canvas drop cloth from the art supply shop, or even just a large piece of fabric from the fabric shop. I also like to pack linen napkins.
Recommended How To Host It Laila Gohar shells out on a fava party Yes, you’ll have to do a little washing at the end, but I think it adds a nice touch. In keeping with the plastic-free picnic theme, I pack drinks served in glass bottles. I also like to pick up a bunch of flowers. Why bring flowers when you’re sitting in a park, you ask? Well, because it feels a little fabulous to have flowers not only surrounding you, but also as a part of the picnic itself. Don’t call me over the top. At least I’m not suggesting that you pick Damask roses for a sandwich.