Do you process your emotions in a healthy way? Not me, I’m a bottler…

I’ve downed tools for this post in order to do more processing myself and in order to ensure I practice what I preach – so this post is more personal than previous ones. I hope you’re able to relate to it on a personal level and that it doesn’t come across as egotistical. My aim to encourage openness, conversation and sharing – rather than ego – it’s not meant to be all about me – I hope I manage to achieve that. So I’ve put all of the books away, the kindle, audio books, articles and am writing this based on what I’m actually experiencing at the moment.

I started seeing a therapist last August because I was stuck in a cycle of stress, anxiety, headaches, sadness and withdrawal from my social circles. This had been going on for years. I’m a social person and human connection is really important to me so it was causing me considerable emotional, psychological and physical pain.  I finally acknowledged that this wasn’t going to just resolve itself and that I needed to tackle it head-on. To start with I just read about psychology, neuroscience and spirituality but then realised I needed help – real help – from another person. Since seeing a therapist I’ve been feeling so much better; more supported. And this has enabled me to find the courage to face my shadow self, my demons. The need to feel supported wasn’t necessarily because my family and friends are unable or unwilling to support me but rather – I don’t actually ask for help and I rarely show my real, authentic self to anyone so how can I expect anyone to support me? You could argue those around me could also reach out but if I’m the one who needs support then I have to take responsibility for asking for it be it directly or through showing my real feelings. I now understand how important this is for my well being. I need the kind of relationships where I can truly be myself; warts and all. I can’t pretend to be positive all the time anymore – I need permission to be happy, joyful, content, ecstatic, sad, angry, frustrated, irritable, disappointed, doubtful, anxious, down etc. And all without judgement. Well society isn’t going to hand this to me on a plate so I’m taking it for myself. I’m going to be authentic, genuine, truly myself at home, at work, in my community and with my friends. Tough shit if you don’t like it. And if you can’t handle it – that’s OK – I won’t take it personally. How I respond to how you respond to me is also my responsibility.

I hereby give myself permission to be ME. Wholly and wholeheartedly me.

My therapist has helped me to realise that I’ve been avoiding pretty much all negative emotion and instead of feeling negative emotions I bury them, suppress them, avoid them, deny them. And even when I choose to engage with them I think about them rather than feel them. I intellectualise them, rationalise them, theorise about them. I’m even quite good at talking about them but somehow I still manage to do so without actually feeling them. OMG – how is that possible?!?!

I’ve been doing meditation for about five years and yoga daily for two but still somehow have been managing to hold on to those emotions rather than simply seeing them, feeling them and letting them go. It’s not that I never process them now – I am learning to but I still often get lost in thoughts and feelings that trigger more thoughts and feelings – generating stress that otherwise wouldn’t be there. It doesn’t exist outside me it’s all inside me – all within my control. Before I would have been completely unaware of this going on and would at some point have told myself to get it together; suppressing it all and distracting myself through some activity or other. It’s a journey to be sure but it’s an interesting, challenging and at times incredibly satisfying one. I know that I’m learning an important skill because I can feel it and once mastered I also know it’s one that will help me to stay psychologically, emotionally and even physically well.

The stress I’ve been causing myself began to show itself in my body a few years ago and since having my son – it got so much worse. Yoga and walking alleviated it some but never got rid of it completely. My therapist mentioned the concept of holding emotion in the body and so I looked into it and it made sense so I started using my meditation training and yoga practice to focus on releasing emotion from my hips. The result is at times surprising. I groan, I almost cry, I actually cry: sometimes a little, sometimes a lot and sometimes the flood gates open and it seems it’ll never stop. In the beginning it felt dramatic – that I was allowing myself to indulge in something that was over the top; melodramatic or that my life was just downright awful (I knew this wasn’t actually true) but then I’d feel the release, the relief and I knew it had to be the right thing to be doing simply because it felt right. My intuition – my authentic self is telling me it’s real –  it’s good for me and that there’s no shame in it – there’s no shame in being vulnerable and real.

Some helpful resources on how to process emotion

Here are a few resources that I’ve found really helpful in learning to engage with and process my own emotions. There are many many tools around to help with this so this list is by no means exhaustive but is a good start.

Alain de Botton – founder of the School of Life has created this short and easy to understand video about processing emotions

Viktor Frankl’s stimulus – response model

This model is referred to by many professionals in the psychology and coaching fields. Frankl was a psychiatrist who developed this model whilst in a concentration camp living in appalling conditions having survived torture and the loss of most of his family. Frankl is credited with saying the following:

Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

In case this needs further explanation –  it means that whatever we perceive in our environment – if we manage to stay aware of what’s going on inside us – we can create whatever space we need in order to see what’s happening inside us as it happens and to make a conscious choice about how we respond. Most, if not all, of us develop automatic patterns of behaviour as coping strategies to new and difficult experiences in life and unless we’re in the moment in this way we respond automatically which can feel like a loss of control and can result in unnecessary stress, anxiety, embarrassment, shame, regret, losing face and so on.

Stephen Covey’s stimulus – response model

Stephen Covey was a personal and professional coach for twenty years and he described the stimulus and response model in the following way:


Covey talks about response-ability by which he means the ability to choose how to respond but also the necessity to recognise that we alone are responsible for our thoughts, feelings and behaviour; that we can not blame our feelings or conditions for our behaviour and actions.

Jason Satterfield’s Appraisals worksheet

Jason Satterfield is a psychologist specialising in cognitive behavioural therapy where he aims to help people like me to recognise and engage with patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviour. In order to do this he developed an appraisals worksheet. The purpose of the worksheet is to help us create the necessary space (as mentioned above in the stimulus – response model) to consciously correct existing patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviour so that the next time automatic patterns are triggered we are better prepared in advance to replace those old patterns or neural pathways with new and improved ones.

A five-step tool for understanding emotions

The image below is from psychologist Phil Meek’s website where he’s published a really nice concise and easy overview of simple and complex emotions including images showing where we feel them in the body as well as a diagram that shows both simple and complex emotions and how they relate to one another. He also goes into detail about each of the five steps. It worth reading.


From psychologist Phil Meek’s website

Meditation and yoga

Meditation and yoga are two more ways of creating the space we need in order to process our emotions. Taking time out of our busy lives and focussing on this work are essential. Personally I think the benefit is felt from doing this regularly – it really needs to become part of our routine to have an impact. I find meditation and yoga most effective if I do it daily and in the morning. I find it much easier to motivate myself and create new habits in the morning – the day is just too busy – and then in the evening my motivation wanes considerably. When I miss a couple of days or more – I really feel it: two weeks and I’m back to stressed out and preoccupied. Once I’ve done my routine in the morning – even if I felt grumpy, stiff and sorry for myself when I woke up – even if I haven’t slept well – I feel good, positive and ready tackle the day head-on.

A few resources for yoga and meditation:


Headspace app (I love this app – it’s an accessible and yet high quality route in to meditation)

Music for healing and meditation

Guided (spoken meditation)

I love guided meditation. Sometimes if I feel totally overwhelmed – I just lie down and let someone else do the work for me and FOR FREE! Then I can just focus on working out what’s going on, getting back to normal, relaxing, healing, getting to sleep etc. The people who lead these guided meditations have such a knack for making their listeners feel loved and supported. They also make me feel more connected to my spiritual side: nature, the world, the universe. It’s really worth giving it a try.


  • Yoga Studio app
  • Gaia app online

Why striving to always be positive is a negative

For a long time I’ve avoided negative feelings and emotions sensing that I should always be positive – that positivity is what people want – as if being positive means it’s more likely I’ll be liked, accepted. In doing this I’ve either denied or dwelled on those emotions with the unconscious belief that they were something that I shouldn’t feel. After all I had no reason to complain, to be worried or stressed, sad or anxious and therefore feeling bad brought with it a added sense of shame.

It’s only recently that I’ve started to realise how damaging this is. And perhaps even more importantly that I’m not alone.

Society has a tendency towards positivity – rejecting negativity with no in between. Whist I appreciate that it’s possible to be too negative and people who are overly negative are annoying and bring everyone down with them but there has to be a middle ground between the two where we can be authentic when we feel both positive and negative. As long as we strive to be positive all the time we unwittingly diminish the value of being authentic: simply being honest with ourselves as well as with those around us about how we’re feeling and being comfortable with not always being positive – it’s exhausting, it’s counterproductive and it’s making us ill.

As Brene Brown says what we seek in others in order to connect with them – is authenticity – being human – warts and all. Seeing others being authentic validates how we feel inside. Failing to be authentic causes others to withdraw from us which results in a sense of rejection, of disconnection from other people and human connection is one of the most important – if not the most important – aspects contributing to our sense of well being.

Brene Brown’s TED talk on The Power of Vulnerabilit

Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly

According to today’s psychologists our emotions are our body’s way of directing our attention toward something – perhaps a threat in our environment – or loss such as losing our home, livelihood or a loved one. Susan David suggests that we interpret our negative emotions as pieces of information that we can learn from and act on, essential pieces of information that help us to improve our situations somehow. And Jason Satterfield says that emotions are neither true nor false but rather helpful or harmful. It’s us who decide whether they’re helpful or harmful – it’s all about how we interpret them – and then how we respond.

Susan David’s book Emotional Agility

Susan David’s TED talk

Jason Satterfield’s Great Courses book on Cognitive Behavioural Psychology

Jason Satterfield talk on cognitive behavioural stress-reduction

The problem is that part of our brain hijacks the rest of the brain, and body, into an automatic fight, flight or freeze response (aka the stress response). According to Melanie Greenberg this involves anxious thoughts, brain chemicals and stress hormones and waves of emotion. And in order to effectively manage stress we need to calm the stress response and process those negative emotions. The challenge is that the purpose of the stress response is to alert us to threat in our environment, a danger that could be life threatening but short-lived. However the threats that we often perceive in modern life are multiple and ongoing such as losing our home or job, struggling financially and so on. This can result in a chronically active stress response that can leave us feeling burnt out at best and suffering from illnesses such as anxiety and depression disorders or heart disease.

According to Buddhist philosophy we seek or hold onto positive feelings and experiences in the hope that they’ll never end. In doing this we cause ourselves to suffer unnecessarily because when we avoid negative emotions such as sadness and pain we are denying the impact of natural and inevitable parts of life such aging, illness and death. This results in a double whammy of suffering because not only are we suffering from the life event itself but then we inflict further suffering on ourselves because instead of accepting this inevitable pain we try to avoid it and resist it. Buddha describes this self-inflicted suffering as being shot with two arrows. The first arrow we’re shot with is the illness or stressful situation we’re facing and the second is the arrow we shoot into our own foot because we hold on to emotion or avoid it completely rather than processing it. Melanie Greenberg says when we directly face and accept negative experiences, they move through us rather than getting stuck.

A few days ago I realised that negative emotions have always felt dramatic to me. I’ve been stuck in a cycle of ‘stress’ that builds up over time until I have a mini burn-out with migraines, as well as feelings of being overwhelmed and unable to cope, and sadness. This normally lasts a few days. I think this happens because my brain and body have to force me to stop, rest and take notice of what I’m feeling both physically and mentally because I ignore it for so long. As the popular philosopher and co-founder of the School of Life, Alan de Botton says in the following video – failing to acknowledge emotion causes us to feel depressed about everything when we should be feeling sad about a something.  In her book Emotional Agility – Susan David says denying and avoiding emotion causes its amplification rather than disappearance. I think I can relate to that.

I am now firmly focussed on looking inside and on seeing and feeling the emotions that arise (I’ve been keeping an emotions diary for the last two weeks) and it doesn’t feel so dramatic.  I’m crying more often and feeling that it’s OK, in fact that it’s a good thing because I’m processing emotions and I although I sometimes feel drained I always feel better for it.

Mindfulness, meditation and yoga help me no end with all of this. There is now a lot of research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience that shows the benefits as well as an ever growing database of empirical research. Personally, I’ve discovered the value of sitting and doing nothing (or lying down if that’s how I feel) for as short a time as a minute (the Headspace app does a 1 minute SOS guided meditation) to a couple of hours. I no longer rush from one thing to the next, my pace has slowed, nor do I feel that I have to be out and about all the time or have the TV on in order to distract from the mass of accumulating thoughts and feelings. Instead I enjoy quiet time with myself and my feelings or thoughts or guided meditation or relaxation if I feel like it. I don’t get caught up in my thoughts, daydreams or ruminations anymore. I feel happier and more present and in control of my thoughts, feelings and behaviour which is very empowering. Rather than the niggling self doubt I felt a few years ago – I genuinely believe anything is possible – with a bit of work and some true introspection.


Why we should find the courage to lean into vulnerability – and shame

Research shows that we – people, human beings – need to feel we have purpose in life, that life must have meaning for us in order to feel truly happy and satisfied. For psychologist Martin Seligman this is what he calls a meaningful life. A meaningful life is a deep sense of fulfilment reached by employing our unique strengths for a purpose greater than ourselves. Brené Brown calls this being wholehearted or living a wholehearted life. What’s clear for both of these researchers is that at the core of a meaningful or wholehearted life is connection whether directly to other people or in a way that goes beyond. For Seligman human connection exists on both a pleasurable, hedonistic and individual level as well as a level beyond ourselves. Likewise for Brown she talks about the importance of connection for well being but also the transcendence even of ourselves on a spiritual level – the belief that we are connected to one another by a force greater than ourselves – that is grounded in love and compassion.  For some this is God for others nature, art, even human soulfulness or simply love.

We all need and crave human connection – it’s part of our hardwired survival mechanism – and disconnection from other people causes us emotional, psychological and physical pain. The worrying thing is that we are getting worse at human connection. In the UK certainly our focus is on the individual rather than the collective. We talk about success as an individual pursuit, whether it’s success at school or at work the focus is on the individual. We pursue financial independence and we aspire to individual financial wealth as opposed to spiritual wealth which is a form of connection that goes beyond the individual. Even in our emotional lives we’re encouraged to deal with things alone, to be stoic, to put on a brave face, to be grown up. And if we do share how we feel we’re seen as emotional, as over sharing, ‘OMG TMI!’

We medicate people for feeling down, for grieving the death of a loved one (an entirely necessary process) or for depression that’s caused by problems in our environment (i.e. situations we are able to influence or change) rather than simply holding space for people while they overcome life’s challenges through the support of and connection with family, friends, colleagues, our communities and society.

What it Really Means to Hold Space for Someone

Personally I understand a wholehearted or meaningful life to mean a number of things. Firstly I need to be connected to myself in order to understand what I truly feel and what I really need and through doing this I realise that I feel connected to things bigger than myself in a number of ways. I need to feel connected i.e. have healthy and meaningful relationships with my family. This is – in the main – my parents, my siblings (two brothers), my husband and my son although good relationships with other family members are also important. I also need to have meaningful relationships with my close friends and to a lesser extent acquaintances and neighbours. I also feel the need to be part of a community as well as of society as a whole. I need a sense of purpose in each of these relationships too. To feel that I’m contributing in a positive and meaningful way to each. And even beyond this I need to feel connected to something greater than society and even the world – a more spiritual connection. I need to feel connected to humanity, to nature and even to the universe. I’m not religious and I don’t believe in a transcendental being but I do feel a connection to something bigger even than humanity and feeling this allows me to flourish and to overcome challenges in other relationships.

For Brené Brown meaning comes from living a wholehearted life and the main component of a wholehearted life is human connection. In her research on human connection two main themes emerged: vulnerability and shame. According to Brown a wholehearted and meaningful life is only possible if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and that it’s only through vulnerability that we connect with other people in a meaningful way.  In order to truly open up and connect with someone else we need to feel that they are authentic, genuine, sincere and trustworthy. If someone appears inauthentic we close up in order to protect ourselves.

Now here’s the catch. Ironically, we often hide who we really are. In our desire to connect to other people we often hide the authentic self that others seek believing that our true self is not worthy of connection. Instead we show up with a persona that, in fact, causes people to want to recoil from us rather than embrace us. This feeling of inadequacy is shame. Brené Brown describes shame as the fear of disconnectionIt’s the fear that if I show my true self there is something about me that makes me unworthy of connection should other people know it or see it. She calls this the culture of scarcity: of not being enough. I’m not good enough, I’m not thin enough, I’m not attractive enough, I’m not wealthy enough, I’m not smart enough to be worthy of connection with others.

Brené Brown on shame

It’s universal; we all have it. The only people who don’t experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it. What underpinned this shame, this “I’m not good enough,” — which, we all know that feeling: “I’m not blank enough. I’m not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough.” The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability. This idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.

Brown’s advice is to work towards being enough, towards believing I am enough. In order to do this and in order to show up authentically and connect with others in a meaningful way we it’s not enough to just experience vulnerability because vulnerability is just a fact of life. Our jobs and therefore livelihoods are vulnerable, we are rejected at work, socially and in romance. We fall ill, we age and eventually we die. Life is in itself precarious, uncertain and therefore vulnerable which means that feeling vulnerable is inevitable.

When we believe “I’m enough” we stop screaming and start listening. We’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.

The key is what Brown calls leaning into vulnerability, leaning into the discomfort that vulnerability brings. Being vulnerable is uncomfortable and in Brown’s research it is often described as excruciating, as if physical pain. So uncomfortable that we have a tendency to avoid vulnerability and negative emotions altogether and to engage in behaviours that Brown calls numbing. We turn to shadow comforts such as food, alcohol, drugs, TV, keeping ourselves busy and we avoid spending time alone. However in numbing negative emotion we also numb positive emotion.  Psychologist Susan David points out that having the goal of zero negative emotion is the goal of dead people. She encourages us instead to see negative emotion as data or information about ourselves that we can learn from and act on rather than something that controls how we feel and behave.

The wholehearted accept vulnerability as part of life and they lean into it – they don’t necessarily enjoy it but they accept that it’s something they must do to experience a full life. In order to do this we must show courage. By leaning into vulnerability, really feeling it and living with it as our true selves and not hiding it from others we are showing up authentically to life and to our relationships.

Brené Brown’s chosen definition of courage is from the Latin word “cor” meaning “heart”. She says the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.

According to Brown vulnerability, courage and human connection are all part of a wholehearted life. In addition vulnerability is the birthplace of many things such as: creativity, innovation, joy, belonging, love, connection and without vulnerability these things simply don’t exist. So avoid vulnerability at your own peril.

We don’t allow ourselves to feel let alone share how we feel and it’s harming us

For as long as I can remember I’ve struggled with ‘stress’ or at least that’s what I’ve always called it. I’ve definitely experienced stress possibly some anxiety and probably some depression. It was never diagnosed but then I never told anyone about it. Perhaps there was nothing to diagnose. Nevertheless I was hurting and I couldn’t tell my doctor or those I was closest to – my family or my friends. I didn’t feel I could tell anyone perhaps because I hadn’t heard anyone else talking about it. I think I felt like a failure, ashamed, inadequate because I felt like this when no one else seemed to. I remember asking myself why I was lacking confidence, self-worth when those around me were all confident and able to get involved. I felt I had little of value to offer my family, friends, community – the world. I was the only one who felt like this which meant it wasn’t normal. That I wasn’t normal.

What was wrong with me? I’d had a good upbringing. We weren’t rich but we weren’t poor. We’d always had the space and freedom to play. I have fond memories at the swimming pool with my dad and of building dens in the woods with my mum. My parents were educated and I had help with school work when necessary. Meals were cooked from scratch and with love. Every bite of bread we ate was kneaded and baked by my mum’s hands.

The only thing we didn’t have was emotional honesty and openness; and this was through no real fault of our own. Our society doesn’t allow it. And it’s hurting us.

And so I went on alone struggling on and off with stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, whatever it was until I eventually figured out that my problem was all about confidence and that I needed to start facing my fears in order to become more confident. This worked on the whole but of course I still hadn’t talked about any of these experiences and still wasn’t really talking about my feelings. I thought on and off about therapy for years but always told myself that it was too expensive and used that as an excuse to continue avoiding rather than facing my emotions.

Over the last few years I realised I was stuck in a perceptual cycle of accumulating ‘stress’ until I’d get to a point where I felt I couldn’t cope and would collapse in exhaustion and sadness and often with headaches and migraines when I’d be forced to stop and rest but then the cycle would begin again. In 2017 I was also waking up repeatedly at night due to pain in my hips and sides with no clue as to what was causing it.

“So we grow depressed about everything because we can’t feel sad about something. We can no longer sleep, insomnia being the revenge of all the many thoughts we’ve omitted to process in the day.”

In September I decided enough was enough and it was time to face this thing and so I’ve been going to weekly therapy sessions since then. It’s integrative therapy (a mixture of psychoanalysis, relational therapy and CBT) and it has helped me no end. All I’ve done so far is talk. We haven’t peeled back layer upon layer of my life nor have we done any CBT. I’ve just talked… and talked… and talked… I’ve also cried. In fact I cried so much when I was off work over Christmas and New Year that I got headaches and I thought it’d never stop. I’ve talked about things that I’ve never talked to anyone about before and have finally been able to really feel them and to let them go.

In the beginning I went with lists of things i wanted to talk about until my therapist mentioned just ‘sitting with how it feels’ as an alternative to the lists and organisation (ie need to control) and so I started to do just that. So now I’m trying to focus on how I’m feeling during therapy but also in my daily meditation and anytime I notice I am or have been feeling something.  It’s helped me to open up to family, to friends as well as to colleagues at work. I think it’s enabled me to start writing this blog – I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. In engaging with therapy (talking) I’ve created a space for myself to explore my emotions properly and to take the time I need to do that. I’ve started to recognise different emotions rather than labelling everything as stress so I’m starting to see sadness, disappointment, anger, frustration, guilt, shame and so on whereas before it was all one amorphous and inaccessible mass I called ‘stress’. I’m already seeing how this is affecting my awareness of how I think, feel and behave. I’m gaining emotional intelligence but I’ve got a long way to go yet.

I’m going to continue the focus on my emotions as well as talking to my therapist and being more emotionally open with family and friends so that I can grow and flourish. In return I am also learning how I can hold space for others because whilst they are supporting me on my journey and listening to me as I talk I also need to be able to do the same for them. I also need to give out the right signals to others so that they know I’m someone they can talk to, and rely on.

Is positivity how we should judge strength of character?

Society tells us that positive emotions are OK (as long as you don’t go too over the top or show off too much, of course) but negative emotions are not to be shown let alone shared. To be ‘normal’ is to be happy and smiling at all times and so we tell each other to “keep a stiff upper lip” and when someone manages to appear contained or positive when their situation means that they must be suffering inside we admire them for being stoical

“If you say that someone is a stoic, you approve of them because they do not complain or show they are upset in bad situations.” (Collins dictionary)

When people do show their true emotions we say they’re being over emotional or that they lack self control. Of course crying’s not allowed and if you do you’re a cry baby. And perish the thought that a boy or a man should ever show emotion because they’re likely to be told to man up because big boys don’t cry and if you do you’re crying like a girl.

What kind of messages are we giving each other? What kind of messages are we giving our children? What kind of messages are we giving ourselvesWe need to change the message.

In her compelling TED talk psychologist Susan David says that a third of people judge themselves for having negative emotions and therefore push those emotions to the side (she calls this bottling). Another tendency is to brood obsessively on our feelings where we get stuck inside our own heads and feel victimised by events that happen around us even if they really have nothing to do with us. She calls these responses emotionally rigid and encourages us instead to practice emotional agility. She’s written an entire book on the subject. It’s a surprisingly easy and very informative read. She very carefully avoids scientific language and explains everything in lay terms.

“Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive. Women, to stop being so angry. And the list goes on. It’s a tyranny. It’s a tyranny of positivity. And it’s cruel. Unkind. And ineffective. And we do it to ourselves, and we do it to others.”

“I found that a third of us — a third — either judge ourselves for having so-called “bad emotions,” like sadness, anger or even grief. Or actively try to push aside these feelings. We do this not only to ourselves, but also to people we love, like our children — we may inadvertently shame them out of emotions seen as negative, jump to a solution, and fail to help them to see these emotions as inherently valuable.”

Whether brooding or bottling it’s damaging. We’re failing to use the information our emotions are showing us to our advantage and respond in an agile and intelligent way. Instead we’re burying them or obsessing over them and holding on to them when we should be processing them and letting them go – releasing ourselves from them. In holding onto them we cause our minds and our bodies unnecessary stress and also give the message to those around us that this is the appropriate and expected behaviour.  As with my own example this messy mass of buried emotions becomes indiscernible and an increasingly heavy load to carry around with us. And it impacts every aspect of our life and the people around us.

It’s time to show up to ourselves and each other and to do so authentically. Only then will we fulfill our potential and achieve great things both individually and together.

Three key ingredients for life satisfaction (a happy life): pleasure, engagement and meaning

The pursuit of pleasure, engagement and meaning in life is likely to increase happiness or life satisfaction, productivity as well as physical health

The field of psychology is changing. A discipline known as positive psychology has emerged and it argues that until about 10 years ago we were solely focussed on making sick people better and failed to realise that we could also be helping people who are relatively untroubled to improve their lives.  I can’t help but wonder if this focus could also help to prevent, at least some, people from slipping down that slippery slope to developing disorders where psychological and/or medical/pharmacological intervention is needed and where the need could become long-term.

Martin Seligman (said to be the founder of positive psychology) et al are determined to change this. In Seligman’s TED talk he covers three lives or three elements that contribute to a happy or satisfied life: the pleasant life, the life of engagement and the meaningful life.

The pleasant life

This is a life where we have as much pleasure and as much positive emotion as possible. It’s pursuing hobbies that you enjoy and activities that you’re good at. It’s having fun. It’s hedonism. It’s having a good social life and surrounding yourself with people. Laughing and smiling a lot. It’s full of liveliness and enthusiasm. This experience can be further improved through learning skills such as mindfulness in order to savour each experience and make the most of it.

There is a downside however to the pursuit of a pleasant life. Firstly, we quickly get used to the things that make us feel positive emotion. The first time we have positive emotion in relation to a particular experience has the greatest impact then each time we have the same experience after that it is slightly diminished until the experience produces little or no positive emotion at all. Another downside to the pursuit of pleasure is that our experience of positive emotion is largely genetic and inherited and although there are things we can do to increase our sense of happiness we can only increase it by 15 to 20 percent the rest is just how we’re made.

The life of engagement

This is different from the pleasant life in a very obvious way. When experiencing pleasure or positive emotion we know we’re experiencing it, we can feel it, we like it and that’s why we want more. However during ‘flow’, engagement, immersion, you are in a state of deep concentration and you don’t feel anything. You forget your woes, you forget yourself, you forget everything, you’re no longer aware of the passage of time and it seems to stop. This is a very satisfying experience. Positive psychologists such as Seligman think there’s a recipe for flow, for a life of engagement. It’s essentially knowing what your highest strengths are and then finding a way to use them as much as possible in life be it in work, love, play, friendship, parenting – in everything and as much as you can.

See Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk on the theory of Flow for more on the life of engagement.

The meaningful life

Like engagement or flow the meaningful life involves knowing what your highest strengths are and then using them to participate in and belong to something larger than you are. This is altruism, philanthropy, giving to others in some way. In research studies of different interventions it’s been found that if someone writes a testimonial about their gratitude to someone who they never properly thanked for changing their lives in an impactful way – the feeling of happiness far outweighs those of depression and can last for months after the message is delivered (in-person or over the phone) (Martin Seligman TED talk).

So which has the most/least impact?

Research has shown that impact of the three elements on life satisfaction is the opposite of what we might expect. Meaning has the biggest impact, engagement also has a significant impact and pleasure, perhaps surprisingly, has little impact on life satisfaction in itself. Where pleasure has most impact is once we already have engagement and meaning in our lives and then pleasure is the icing and the cherry on the cake.

Potential reach of the three key ingredients

Those working in the field of positive psychology are now looking into whether these three elements might be the key to productivity e.g. in the workplace as well as physical health i.e. does good health come from a combination of pleasure, positive engagement and meaning in life? The belief is that the answer is likely to be yes.

The potential cost to human happiness

Historically the study of psychology has focussed on sickness rather than wellness (e.g. happiness, life satisfaction). Whilst there’s no doubt this focus that has lasted 60 years has made some extremely important progress it has also come at a cost in three main ways according to Martin Seligman (Martin Seligman – TED Talk).

The first cost

We focussed on the condition of being a victim; of being someone who has something done to you and on the medically and psychologically abnormal; of being a person who lacks control over their thoughts, feelings and behaviour. We failed to acknowledge that we have autonomy; we have choices and thus make decisions and therefore that we are responsible for the choices we make and the decisions we take.

The second cost

We forgot about ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’ people. People who may not be suffering from any of the mental health conditions mentioned above but who nevertheless would benefit from some improvement in their lives. These people may not be particularly troubled but could still be happier, more fulfilled and more productive. And if we take this up another level we have completely neglected genius – apparently nobody is concerned with the experience of genius.

The third cost

Again because we were focussing on disease, sickness and abnormality we were trying to make unhappy people better or at least less unhappy, we were trying to repair damage. We never thought about designing and testing interventions with the aim of making people happier. This is of course happening now but we’re about 50 years behind.

My personal experience of the three key ingredients

Pleasure: When I was much younger i.e teens and early twenties I was interested only in the pursuit of pleasure. It was mostly socialising and partying with friends. Like many I was deluded and assumed that was the only route to happiness and it after a while or by a certain age it was no longer satisfying nor happy-making. I don’t remember having many hobbies sadly although I enjoyed sport and played several sports at school. I did love dance but there wasn’t much opportunity to pursue it which was a shame. I also started learning guitar and saxophone but didn’t stick with either, sadly.

Engagement: I’m not entirely sure when I first experienced flow but I know I’ve experienced it and I know both consciously and subconsciously how I can get it. For me music (singing, percussion) and dance both provide an immersive experience where I forget myself. I enjoy it and am good enough to completely lose myself in the experience where I have little awareness of the environment around me or the passage of time. I’m also aware that there’s plenty of room for improvement and so challenge myself to work on it and to get better which contributes to the flow experience. I also know that if my level of skill is not being challenged the flow experience breaks and at best I’m back in the room again, at worst I’m frustrated.

Meaning: According to Seligman and colleagues the meaningful life provides the highest degree of life satisfaction and this is exactly the one that is most lacking in my life. In my job I have a small sense of helping others and contributing to society but it’s pretty insignificant and hands-off. I have for a long time felt that I want to contribute more but have not known how I could do this. I have not been able to envisage a route that felt comfortable, right – until now. I have only recently started to realise what an appalling mental state we’re in collectively as individuals, as families, as friends, as communities and as societies and have only just begun to understand that the (somewhat lacking) life experience I’ve had to date is probably not as isolated as I’ve always thought. I am beginning to see how I might be able to contribute in a more meaningful, involved and I hope impactful way but it’s taken entering my fifth decade on earth to get here and this is just the beginning… Perhaps I just wasn’t ready until now.

5 things you can do today to increase your sense of happiness

Happiness is not as slippery a fish as you might imagine – you just need to know (some of) the right facts. For example the pursuit of pleasure alone may not result in a lasting sense of happiness whereas giving time to the service of others is a pretty reliable way of experiencing happiness. The truth is that a large proportion of our ability to experience positive emotion is hereditary. If everything was known about our external world only 10% of our long-term happiness could be predicted. This is because 90% of our long-term happiness is predicted not by the outside environment but by the way our brain processes the world. So you’ll be pleased to hear however that we can train our brains to become happier. In the same way that we train our bodies we can rewire our brains through the creation of new neural pathways so that we experience an increase in positive emotion. We do this by performing certain tasks on a regular basis for a fairly short period of time.

Ready for a new routine? Here are some tried and tested activities to try out…

1. Three gratitudes: take just two minutes a day for 21 days to write down three new things that you are grateful for. This activity will rewire your brain to look for the positive rather than the negative first and you will feel better for it (Shawn Achor TED talk) (Read about the meaningful life).

2. Journaling: take a few minutes each day to write about a positive experience you’ve had. Your brain will relive that (positive) experience and increase your sense of happiness (Shawn Achor TED talk) (Read about the pleasant life).

3. Exercise:
exercise increases positive emotion in a number of ways. It causes the release of endorphins, serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Endorphins relieve stress as well as pain. Serotonin boosts your mood and overall sense of well-being. It can also help improve your appetite and sleep cycles. Dopamine not only makes you feel happier but turns on all the learning centres in your brain so you perform better (Shawn Achor TED talk). Dopamine is also related to addiction however including to exercise so if you have an addictive personality or a history of addiction it’s something to be aware of.

4. Meditation:
meditation not only calms us and helps us to feel less stressed and more grounded but also helps us to overcome the multitasking tendencies of today and to focus on the task at hand which generally means we feel less stressed and perform the task better (Shawn Achor TED talk). It can also allow us to increase our positive experience of the pleasures in life through savouring as much of an enjoyable experience as possible (Martin Seligman TED talk). Mindfulness and savouring can be applied to walking, listening to music, eating and well just about anything really (Read about the pleasant life).

5. Random acts of kindness: think of someone who did something that significantly changed your life for the better and who you never properly thanked. Write about 300 words showing your gratitude and then either visit them, call on the phone or send an email to them in order to share your gratitude (Shawn Achor TED talkMartin Seligman TED talk). Research has shown that acts of kindness like this can result in an increase in happiness lasting months after the act itself(Read about the meaningful life) as opposed to the pursuit of pleasure which is short-lived (Read about the pleasant life).


P.S. Did you know..

that (job) success depends not on your IQ but on your level of optimism?

Only 25% of job successes are predicted by IQ and 75% of job successes are predicted by our level of optimism. Personally I’m quite sure that this will translate to most aspects of life. If you want to be successful [insert your personal definition of success here] take steps to increase your optimism and positive emotion because your life satisfaction will improve as will your performance which in turn will further increase your life satisfaction.

Martin Seligman TED talk
Shawn Achor TED talk
Exercise and Its Effects on Serotonin & Dopamine Levels on Livestrong
Exercise, Depression, and the Brain on

So why are we so stressed out?

We have a nervous system that has not evolved alongside modern life and it’s causing us all to suffer but worry not – there is plenty we can do to lessen the impact of stress

The ‘stress response’ is why also known as the fight or flight response. A physiological response that enables us to quickly assess a situation in order to decide whether to stay and fight or to flee imminent physical danger and seek safety. The system is designed to be active for short bursts of time and should be followed by a return to a relaxed state. Back in the days when we were hunters and gatherers this system served us well however for modern life – it’s flawed.

The stress response kicks in not only when we’re faced with a threat but a perceived threat, that is, when we face situations where we feel we are not equipped to cope (NB. The word ‘perceive’ is key here!). All situations that trigger the stress response are called stressors. Previously stressors would have been short lived and and as a result of life or death situations however modern life stressors whilst not usually a threat to life they are numerous and often prolonged.

Some stressors are life changing events such as losing a loved one, the end of a long term relationship or losing our home and others are smaller but more frequent or ongoing daily stressors such as difficult relationships at work or at home, jobs we don’t like, bills we need to pay, complex family lives we have to manage and so on. Many of these stressors last not just minutes or hours but days, weeks or even years.

The complexity of modern day life means that the brain may be telling the nervous system to flood the body with stress hormones not just on a regular basis but long term. This can have a detrimental effect not only on our mental health but also on our physical health. We need to regulate the nervous system and maintain a relaxed state most of the time in order to have good physical and mental health.

Stress and mental health

When triggered frequently or long term the stress response leaves us feeling stressed and burnt out. It can also interfere with our sleep patterns and lead to a cycle of lack of sleep and feeling increasingly stressed out and miserable. Long term it can even lead to depression as well as obsessive-compulsive or anxiety disorders.

Stress and physical health

A chronically active stress response can impact our physical health as well as our mental health. It suppresses the immune system which can lead to an increase in minor illnesses such as colds and headaches but is also believed to lead to more serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, sexual dysfunction, ulcers and more.

And what can we do about it?

The following is a list (not exhaustive) of techniques that are effective tools for reducing stress and anxiety that can result from an overactive stress response. Breathing techniques are probably the most accessible form of stress relief because breathing is natural to us and focussing on breathing immediately calms the nervous system. In addition you can focus on breathing anytime and anywhere and those around you wouldn’t even know you’re doing it. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness also calm the nervous system and research has shown that brain function during meditation is similar to that of sleep.


There are numerous simple breathing techniques that focus on the in breath and/or the out breath. Some techniques simply focus on the breath itself and others on counting on the in and/or out breath and others use visualisations for the in and/or out breath.

Breathing techniques/exercises

Pranayama breathing

Pranayama is from the yoga tradition and some are similar to the techniques above.


This technique involves focusing on specific areas of the body one by one in order to relax all of the muscles in the body. This can be done when sitting, standing or lying down to reduce stress as well as to induce sleep when lying down.

Guided meditation/relaxation

Here are some videos/tracks on Youtube that are either guided by speech or sound. These are just three examples of a huge variety of tracks available online and for free. Youtube is a fantastic resource for this – a bit like Mary Poppins’ bag – it’s pretty much bottomless!


Music for meditation/relaxation

Meditation and mindfulness


To my mind there’s a fine line between meditation and relaxation and I see the main difference in mediation being a more active exercise for example where we observe thoughts and feelings as a way of understanding what we are thinking and feeling and perhaps as a means of then letting go and done in a seated position whereas relaxation is often more passive and is more often done lying down and even as a means of getting off to sleep.


Yoga is great for flexibility and strength as well as for calming the mind and body. It’s also a great way of stretching out and relaxing the muscles before sitting still for a while to meditate as it reduces the likelihood of the mind being distracted by aches and pains. It’s probably safer to learn yoga in a class from a professional teacher before practising alone to ensure we don’t injure ourselves through doing it wrong. Another advantage of going to a class is that social interaction is another effective way of combating stress, anxiety, low mood etc and increasing well being.

There are plenty of websites/apps such as Gaia as well as apps for smartphone and tablet such as Yoga Studio.


In fact any kind of exercise is good for relieving stress from walking to cycling to the gym to workout videos at home. There are even smartphone apps for that such as 7 Minute Workout which is good for both cardio and strength.