Category: The Emotion Machine

Why a Daily Self-Care Routine Is More Important Than a Vacation


Every day is a “mental health day” if you make self-care a part of your daily routine.

A healthy self-care routine is going to save you more stress in the long-term than any amount of vacation time.

Of course this doesn’t mean that vacations are bad or pointless – we all need a break every now and then from our work and obligations.

A refreshing 1-2 week break can help us recharge, spend more quality time with family, explore new places, and put life into perspective. There’s more to life than work and we shouldn’t forget that.

If you’re going to spend money on yourself, studies show buying experiences (such as traveling the world, or going to a new restaurant, or going skydiving) is often better for long-term happiness than buying stuff (like a new TV or car).

When you buy an experience such as a vacation, that’s a memory that’s going to last forever. When you spend money on nice material things, the novelty often wears off quickly.

Indeed, even planning a vacation can give us a healthy sense of anticipation – something to look forward to during those long and tedious days at home or in the office. You think, “That was a tough day at work…but at least I’m going to the Bahamas next month!” Having something to look forward to can help push us through hard times.

From a mental health perspective, vacations are valuable but not a cure-all. Too many people work themselves to the bone with the assumption that it will all be worth it once they finally earn some vacation time (or even retire).

We shouldn’t put our mental health on hold for some hypothetical future.

While research confirms that vacations can significantly lower levels of stress and burnout, these benefits can also be short-lived. According to a Work and Well-Being survey published a couple years ago by The Harris Poll:

    “Taking time off helps the majority of U.S. workers recover from stress and experience positive effects that improve their well-being and job performance, but for nearly two-thirds of working adults, the benefits of time away dissipate within a few days…”

In fact, nearly a quarter (24%) of working adults say the positive effects of vacation time – such as more energy and feeling less stress – disappear immediately upon returning to work.

Vacations are only a temporary fix when it comes to managing stress and mental health.

From an organizational standpoint, businesses must be willing to build a work environment that not only encourages taking time off, but also gives employees opportunities to relax and recharge on a daily basis.

That includes a healthy work environment with supportive relationships (among bosses, managers, and employees), effective work-life policies and practices, permitting small breaks throughout the day, and fostering cultural values such as fairness, autonomy, trust, and a sense of belonging or purpose. Vacations are just one piece of a much larger puzzle.

From an individual standpoint, you also have to take responsibility for your daily habits and routine, including both physical health (exercise, diet, and sleep) and mental health (managing stress, leisure time, relationships, etc.)

At the end of the day, self-care is our responsibility. A smart company can help teach and promote greater self-care by providing seminars, having coaches or counselors available, or by sending informational emails/handouts, but at the end of the day you’re either taking proper care of yourself – or you’re not.

The truth is: if you’re not sleeping, exercising, eating healthy, and relaxing on a daily basis – then you take a one month vacation and go back to your old routine – you have fixed exactly zero problems.

Daily self-care triumphs everything, no vacation is going to be able to reverse an unhealthy routine.

This is why I think of my life in terms of long-term systems rather than short-term goals. I’m not working to earn a “mental health day,” every day is a mental health day. This is how you build sustainability into your life.

I’m reminded of the popular Seth Godin quote, “Instead of wondering where your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.” While that may sound a bit extreme, that’s my general philosophy and approach to life.

For example, there are several tiny mental habits I practice every single day to make sure I’m moving in the right direction and taking care of myself.

Every morning I…

  • Reflect on one thing I’m grateful for.
  • Identify one strength of mine.
  • Reframe one negative thought.

The whole process takes less than 5 minutes, but those minutes are precious. I even added these simple habits to my daily habit tracker to make sure I never forget to do them.

Other small habits I have in my daily routine include: 1) Appreciate one thing in nature, 2) Consume one positive news story, 3) Listen to music, 4) One symbolic ritual, and 5) Reading books.

I also practice my multi-stage meditation twice per week (although I may eventually try turning it into a daily habit). Meditation in particular has been shown to have many mental health benefits. One interesting study even found that a 15 minute meditation can have a similar effect as a day of vacation.

Brick by brick, I’m laying a strong foundation of mental health; but it doesn’t happen overnight, you have to dedicate time to self-care every day.

Keep in mind, I’ve been improving and tweaking my daily routine for over a decade now. If it sounds like I do a lot, it’s only because I’ve added these small habits slowly and gradually over-time.

You have to start small and keep building. Just adding ONE of the habits mentioned above would be a significant step in the right direction. Which one would be easiest for you to start with?

Every day is a “mental health day” if you make self-care a part of your daily routine.

Stay updated on new articles and resources in psychology and self improvement:

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Synchronicity: Finding and Embracing the Little Meanings in Life


Synchronicity is when two events occur in life that seem special and meaningful, even when there is no apparent causal connection between them. Have you ever experienced it?

Synchronicity is when two events occur in life that seem special and meaningful, even when there is no apparent causal connection between them.

One common example of synchronicity is when you are thinking about a specific person, then they happen to call you or message you at the exact same time.

While many only see this event as pure coincidence, others may find meaning in this occurrence. Perhaps it is a sign from the universe that it’s time to connect or catchup with that person?

“Synchronicity” is a concept popularized by psychologist Carl Jung. He believed that one function of a healthy mind was being able to appreciate these illogical connections in daily life to find extra meaning and purpose.

Jung identified 3 main components behind synchronicity:

  • Meaningful coincidence – The two events have to be interpreted by the observer as some type of meaningful connection.
  • Acausal connection – The two events can’t be explained in a logical or causal way.
  • Numinosity – The two events must spur some feeling of spirituality, mystery, or awe.

While synchronicity is often associated with being a religious or spiritual experience, it can also be appreciated on a secular level.

Perhaps synchronicity is the universe or God conspiring to work for you (which is a beautiful thought), or perhaps it is a connection that only exists in your mind. Regardless of the interpretation, it can be motivating and inspiring to experience.

The ability to find odd or bizarre connections in our daily life can be an exciting and uplifting experience that immediately jolts our consciousness.

For example, last week it was my birthday. I’ve been reflecting a lot about all the time that has passed by and if I’m taking advantage of life in the best way possible. I had Chinese food for dinner and opened up a fortune cookie (always a fun experience even if I don’t take them too seriously).

The fortune cookie read, “The good thing about growing old is that it takes a long time.” It resonated with me because 1) It was a funny tautology, and 2) It felt especially meaningful that I received a fortune about age on the exact day of my birthday. Thus, I hung it up on my fridge as a reminder to take my time, be patient, and enjoy life as it unfolds.

Pure coincidence? Maybe, but my mind chose to interpret it as something bigger and I rolled with it.

If I was a very cynical or pessimistic person, I could’ve just as easily thrown out the fortune and brushed it off as random happenstance – but then I would’ve robbed myself of a little extra meaning and happiness.

I often interpret dreams in a similar way. If I wake up and a dream feels meaningful to me, then it’s meaningful to me. I don’t need to question it or rationalize it, I take the meaning at face value (even if it’s a pure act of mind).

Discovering synchronicities in life is all about having the right mindset and being more aware of the many potential connections that exist in our daily lives.

It requires an openness to psychomagic or the “hyper-subjective.” It’s not about trying to confirm something through science or logic (that’s missing the point), but being aware of your unique way of experiencing the world and how your mind interprets it.

I always have the underlying feeling that my life is a complex web of interconnectedness. Synchronicities are always present, the key is just identifying them when they happen.

At least once per week, I experience some type of small synchronicity and I embrace it. Ultimately, it adds another layer to my reality and gives me a richer and more rewarding experience of life.

Earlier this year I was reading more fiction, including the sci-fi book The Foundation by Isaac Asimov. I had just finished it and I was chatting with an old best friend who I only speak to a couple times per year. I asked him what he was currently reading…and he had just started The Foundation.

What are the chances we both happened to be reading the same exact book that was published in 1950, over 70 years ago? Not impossible, but slim. I found the coincidence to be oddly meaningful.

Statistically, rare things happen all the time. The world is such a complex web of factors that something strange or bizarre is bound to happen, even if we can’t predict exactly what it will be.

Again, the key is being open to finding these connections and embracing these little meanings in life.

Synchronicity can take many forms. Common examples include:

  • Connecting with the right person at the right time.
  • Hearing advice or wisdom exactly when you need it most.
  • Reoccurring symbols, words, numbers, or images that resonate with you.
  • Dreams that provide clarity or perspective on something currently going on in your life.
  • Identifying common themes in books, movies, or TV shows you recently watched.
  • Finding someone who went through a similar experience as you did recently.
  • Getting a sign that points you in the right direction when trying to make a difficult decision in life.

These events aren’t by themselves an example of synchronicity – the main factor is whether you find the events meaningful to you in a bizarre or strange way.

Of course, our brains are pattern-finding machines. It’s common to find connections and patterns in things even when they don’t necessarily reflect anything in objective reality – like looking up at the clouds and finding shapes or seeing faces on inanimate objects.

While one could chalk up synchronicity as random pattern-finding, we can’t forget that how an experience makes us feel matters too.

Perhaps looking up at the sky and seeing a cloud shaped like a lion isn’t a supernatural experience, but it can still be a rewarding one that we can step back and appreciate. I view synchronicity in a similar way – it doesn’t need to be magic, it’s just an experience we can learn to accept and embrace.

One fun thing to do is create a list of your “synchronicity” experiences and collect them. As your list builds, you may even find synchronicities among the synchronicities.

Again, this isn’t about trying to crack the code of the universe or anything – it’s just about experiencing life in a deeper and richer way – one which will ultimately make you happier and provide a greater feeling of oneness.

Overall, if you observe the universe more closely, you’ll find synchronicities everywhere. When’s the last time you experienced one?

Stay updated on new articles and resources in psychology and self improvement:

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The Physical Sensations Behind Emotions: Improving Awareness of the Mind-Body Connection

physical sensations

When you experience an emotion, how does it feel in your body? Learn how to identify the physical sensations behind your emotions to become more self-aware and emotionally intelligent.

Our emotions are a complex experience that involve physical, mental, and behavioral processes.

The “physical” component includes the raw sensations and feelings in our body. The “mental” component includes our underlying thoughts and interpretations. The “behavioral” component is how we act in response to the emotion.

In the case of anger, the physical component may include increased heart rate, body temperature, and clenched fists. The mental component includes a thought such as “I can’t believe that guy cut me off on the highway!” and the behavioral component may include honking at the other car, flipping them off, or whizzing past them.

In general, poor emotional intelligence is often focused on the behavioral component. “I feel a certain way, so I react to it.” There’s very little buffer between feeling the emotion and responding to it.

As one improves their emotional intelligence, that buffer between feeling and response gets bigger – and that’s ultimately what leads to more freedom and choice in how you react to your feelings.

One way to create more space between your emotions and your responses is to pay more attention to the physical sensations behind your emotions. This helps cultivate the “self-awareness” aspect of emotional intelligence.

Step back and observe how your emotions feel in your body without needing to respond to them right away.

Instead, observe these raw sensations in the same way a scientist observes a specimen under a microscope – not trying to judge it or react to it, but simply observing the emotion as is.

This article covers the different physical sensations behind our core emotions and how we can identify them more clearly in the moment.

The Body Map of Emotions

One interesting feature of our emotions is that they often occupy different areas in our bodies.

In one popular study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers asked participants to map out the physical sensation behind various emotions using a topographical self-report tool.

    “In five experiments, participants (n = 701) were shown two silhouettes of bodies alongside emotional words, stories, movies, or facial expressions. They were asked to color the bodily regions whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing while viewing each stimulus.”

Their results found a consistent pattern between how each emotion was mapped onto the body. They also discovered that these maps seemed to be universal across different cultures (meaning they are likely rooted in our biology, not learned responses).

Here are the body maps for each emotion they tested:

body map emotions

Take a moment to analyze each emotion above and how it relates to your own experience of that emotion.

These body maps are an illustration of where emotions are “activated” in the body. They can be consider a visual depiction of emotional arousal, the degree to which an emotion activates our nervous system (especially the “fight, flight, or freeze” response).

One thing to note is the different intensity of emotions. For example, emotions like “happiness” and “anger” both rank as high activation emotions (a lot of red and yellow in the body maps), while emotions like “depression,” “sadness,” and “neutral” rank as much lower activation (a lot of black and blue).

The shape of the body maps also reveals some interesting insights. “Pride” tends to be more concentrated in the head (“Don’t let it get to your head”), “disgust” has a distinct shape in the stomach/gut (“His lying makes me feel sick”), and “happiness” seems to light up the whole body (“I’m filled with joy.”).

A lot of the language we use to describe our emotions may not just be metaphors, but literal descriptions of how we feel in our bodies.

Psychologists often refer to this as “embodied cognition.” The idea is that we don’t just think with our minds, we think with our entire bodies as well. Emotions are a great example of the intimate connection between mind and body.

Now let’s learn more about the physical sensations behind our emotions and how we can use this knowledge to become more emotionally intelligent.

Identify the Physical Sensations of Your Emotions

One of the most important aspects of being more self-aware is to identify the physical sensations behind your emotions while they are happening.

The more you understand the physical component of your emotions, the quicker you can recognize when an emotion arises before it builds and intensifies.

Here is a simple breakdown of the common sensations behind our core emotions:

  • Anger – Faster heart rate, increased body temperature, sweating, fast and short breathing, muscles tighten, clenched fists and/or jaw, pressure in head and/or chest.
  • Sadness – Fatigue, numbness, heaviness, low energy, muscle aches and pains, crying/watery eyes, tightness in chest, stinging in throat, decreased vision (things seem more blurry/less detailed), looking down, hunched posture, feeling empty.
  • Disgust – Nausea, stomach pains, gag reflex, moving head away, covering nose/mouth, physical repulsion (vomiting).
  • Joy – Feeling light/uplifted, energetic, buzzing/tingling, warm, balanced, open and upright posture, smiling, laughing.
  • Fear – Feeling cold, shortness of breath, chest pounding, sweating, shaking/trembling, sharpening of focus/vision, faster heart rate, tightening of muscles in arms or legs, running/freezing (“fight, flight, or freeze” response)
  • Surprise – Heightened attention/alertness, boost in energy, jump in heart rate, moving head, stepping backwards, shielding face, mouth open/jaw dropping.
  • Shame – Blushing/flushed face, head lowered, eyes closed or hidden, heaviness in chest, pressure in head, closed posture (trying to shrink/become invisible), nausea/”pit in stomach,” low energy levels.

There can be individual differences in how emotions are felt – especially depending on the person and the situation – but in general this is a good description of how most of these emotions are experienced on a raw physical level.

Often positive emotions tend to have an “expansive” feeling, while negative emotions have a “contracted” or “restricted” feeling. This aligns well with the broaden and build theory of emotions by Barabara Fredrickson.

Think of an emotion you want to learn how to manage more effectively. Picture yourself in a situation where you experience it then ask yourself, “What are the physical sensations I usually feel?”

Remember that your experience may be slightly different than the descriptions above, so it’s important you recognize how you experience that emotion.

Then it’s helpful to create a plan to manage your emotions – so when you become aware of the early physical signs, you can change course before letting that emotion build and take over your automatic reactions.

For example, you notice your heart rate increase and your fists clench – and you realize you’re starting to experience anger – so you decide to step back and take 10 deep breaths, ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this way?” and then decide how you want to respond to it.

This is often a better strategy than just feeling anger and reacting to it impulsively and unconsciously, but it requires you to first be more attuned to your body and physical sensations.

Of course, being more emotionally intelligent is always easier said than done. Be patient with yourself. The next time you feel a strong emotion, consider the physical component of that emotion and use it as an opportunity to reflect, learn, and improve.

Stay updated on new articles and resources in psychology and self improvement from The Emotion Machine:

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Protest Behaviors: Unhealthy Ways We Try to Win Back Love and Attention

protest behaviors

Protest behaviors are actions we take when something is going wrong in a relationship and we’re trying to “fix” it. While they can often come with good intentions, they are ultimately an unhealthy and potentially toxic way of expressing ourselves.

Every relationship has problems. The big difference between healthy and unhealthy ones is how we respond to them.

When your needs aren’t being met in a relationship, how do you react? Do you calmly express your thoughts and feelings to your partner, or do you kick and scream until they give in?

“Protest behaviors” are actions we take to try to reestablish a connection with someone and get their attention. They are often done in response to something going wrong in a relationship.

While protest behaviors are an attempt to “fix” something going wrong, they are usually misguided. Often instead of getting a person to change, or see things from your perspective, they just add further conflict and tension.

At best, a “protest behavior” may get someone to begrudgingly give into your demands. At worst, they can escalate into a toxic and abusive relationship.

When left unchecked, protest behaviors become just a normal way people communicate in their relationships. Instead of voicing themselves honestly and openly, they end up playing games and following old patterns that always turn out the same way.

Keep in mind, protest behaviors don’t necessarily mean someone doesn’t love you anymore – or that the relationship can’t work out in the long-term – they are just a sign that you need to work on your communication skills more.

Common Protest Behaviors in Unhealthy Relationships

Here are the most common protest behaviors. Do you recognize any of them?

  • Badgering: Badgering is excessive attempts to get someone’s attention, including excessive texting, calling, messaging, etc. Badgering is often pressuring someone to connect with you or respond back to you when they aren’t available or simply don’t want to at the moment. In many healthy relationships, it is important we learn how to give people space and not need their undivided attention 24/7. One follow-up call/message can be appropriate, but if a person still hasn’t gotten back to you by that point it usually means they aren’t going to.
  • Stonewalling: Stonewalling is purposely withdrawing your attention and ignoring someone. Sometimes it can be a way to punish or manipulate a person, including not answering calls, texts, or messages – or purposely not spending time with them. One common example of this is the silent treatment. In unhealthy relationships, a person can become very “hot” or “cold,” where one day they are showing a lot of love, attention, and affection, then the next day they turn it all off when they don’t get exactly what they want.
  • Keeping Score: Keeping score is a “tit for tat” approach to relationships. It can take many forms, but often the idea is to “give back” what someone else did to you. So if someone takes two days to answer a call or text, then you wait two days to respond back. Or if someone forgets to give you a gift on your birthday, then you don’t celebrate their birthday. It can also take more extreme forms such as if someone cheats on you, then you have to cheat back to “even the score.” Ultimately, keeping score is a game people play that only escalates toxic behaviors and increases tension and conflict.
  • The Jealousy Game: A person may try to create feelings of jealousy to prove their worth or make their partner feel inferior or insecure. This can include flirting with others (especially in front of their partner), sharing stories about people hitting on them or giving them positive attention (both online or in the real world), still spending time with ex’s and staying in close contact with them (keeping past relationships on the “back-burner”), or always comparing their partner to their ex (“My ex always laughed at my jokes” or “My ex and I always had the same movie tastes.”) The jealousy game is toxic because it’s a way for the person to try to boost their ego and convince themselves, “I can do better than you” or “I have other options too.”
  • Threatening to Leave: Threatening to leave or end a relationship is another unhealthy way people try to rekindle love and attention, even if they aren’t serious about leaving. These empty threats are often designed to try to jolt the other person to change their ways or shape up. Like the jealousy game, it’s an attempt to diminish a person’s value by saying things like “I’d be happier without you,” or “I can leave you whenever I want,” or “You need me more than I need you!” While there are certainly situations where leaving a relationship is the most appropriate response (especially if the relationship is truly toxic, abusive, or unfixable), threatening to leave (but not being serious or following through) is ultimately a tactic used to manipulate people and maintain a sense of dominance or superiority in the relationship. It’s essentially a way of saying, “Give me what I want or I’m going to take the whole ship down with me.”
  • Acting Hostile: Most actions that spring from anger or hostility aren’t going to help a relationship. This can start off with “harmless” passive aggressive behaviors, including nonverbal communication such as rolling your eyes, looking away, distracting yourself while someone is talking (with phone/TV/video games), leaving in the middle of a conversation, or a sarcastic and condescending tone of voice. It can also escalate into active aggression including yelling, getting into someone’s personal space, and outright physical violence and abuse.

  • Manipulations: All of the protest behaviors mentioned above are types of manipulation (whether direct or indirect) – their purpose is to try to change someone’s behavior – but keep in mind that manipulation can take many different forms. Any type of lying or dishonesty has its roots in manipulation, such as saying you have plans when you don’t, or not being truthful about where you were last night, or refusing to admit when you’ve made a mistake, or changing the facts of a story to better serve you (gaslighting), or any other type of psychological game. This article highlights some of the most common protest behaviors, but it’s by no means a complete guide.

Have you seen any of these protest behaviors in action? Perhaps you’ve committed some of these in the past – or maybe you’ve had other people do them to you?

The first step is to recognize when you fall into these behavioral patterns. The next step is to learn how to voice your needs and communicate your feelings openly and honestly, in a non-threatening and non-manipulative way.

Of course this is easier said than done, especially if you have a history with these unhealthy patterns. Becoming a better communicator is a never-ending process. It requires that we are always listening, observing, learning, and adapting to others in the moment.

Try your best to recognize the next time you want to do a protest behavior, and instead turn it into an opportunity to have a real conversation about what you value in a relationship and what you need from your partner to feel safe, loved, and secure.

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Scattered Workout: Why You Should Spread Out Your Exercise Throughout the Day

scattered exercise

Do you have trouble getting enough exercise? A “scattered workout” – where you spread out different exercises throughout your day – may be an easy and convenient approach to becoming a healthier and fitter person.

Do I have to get my daily exercise in all at once?

When most people think of exercise, they imagine going to the gym (or working out at home) 4-6 times per week for 1-2 hours at a time.

Committing yourself to a whole hour of exercise each day can seem challenging at first. Where will I find the time? How will I fit it into my schedule? I’m already low on energy and motivation, how will I be able to do an entire hour before giving up?

What if you could spread out your exercise into smaller chunks throughout the day?

Breaking up your exercise into “smaller chunks” can make things a lot easier. What if instead of exercising for 60 minutes once a day, you broke it down into 20 minutes three times per day or even 10 minutes six times per day?

Health professionals recommend about 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week (or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week). That can be spread out to about 20 minutes of exercise per day, which sounds a lot more realistic and manageable for the average person.

There are many ways you can spread out mini-exercises throughout your day.

As someone who has tried many different exercise routines that ultimately failed to stick, I’ve found that having a “scattered workout” has been the best way for me to commit to physical fitness on a daily basis (it may have something to do with how personality shapes exercise preferences – open-mindedness and a need for variety – but either way I’ve developed a system that works best for me).

I started with adding super small exercises into my day (stretching every morning, doing push-ups after lunch) and then slowly built more and more small habits into my daily routine.

Now I easily get between 45-60 minutes of exercise every single day, but often in chunks of only 5-10 minutes at a time. I’ll show you my “scattered workout” in a bit, but first let’s explore the potential benefits of this approach.

Potential Benefits of Scattered Workout

Aside from the motivational benefits of breaking down your workout into smaller and easier chunks, there may be some health and fitness benefits to this approach as well…

  • Minimize Prolonged Sitting – To start, the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle and sitting for extended periods of time have been well-documented. One recent study published in the Sport Sciences for Health found that even if you get the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week, prolonged sitting can still have a negative impact on your mental health. By practicing a more scattered workout, you can avoid these prolonged periods of sitting – even if it’s just getting up to walk around the office, or doing some push-ups in-between emails, or going outside for a nature walk during lunch.
  • Physical Activity Cocktail – New research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine tracked the physical activity of 130,000 adults throughout the United States, United Kingdom, and Sweden. They found that a physical activity “cocktail” that includes both moderate activity and light activity can be just as beneficial as exercising all at once. There is no “one size fits all” approach – if individuals find enough light activity throughout their day (walking, stretching, yoga, gardening, household chores, etc.) they can receive the same health benefits as those who get more intense exercise for a shorter period of time. Another study published in BMC Psychiatry suggests that more varied activity was associated with increased well-being.

Overall we probably shouldn’t think of exercise as something we do once per day and then we get to check it off our “to-do” list. It’s often better to integrate it and spread it out throughout our day.

Our evolutionary ancestors likely spent most of their days on their feet, walking around, gathering food, or hunting. They didn’t sit for 10+ hours at a time on their computers or in front of a TV and then get their one hour of workout in after dinner. Physical activity was an ongoing thing.

In my own approach to fitness and exercise, I try to do at least some light activity every hour just to keep my body moving and staying awake. Since most of my work is sitting at the computer, many of the microbreaks I spread out throughout my day include some type of physical activity.

My Scattered Workout Routine

Here’s a breakdown of what a typical day of exercise looks like for me.

This is a routine I’ve been building on for a couple years now – there’s nothing groundbreaking about it, but it’s helped me a lot. One thing I always remind myself is the “everything counts” mindset which has given me permission to do smaller bits of physical activity throughout the day.

Habits I count as “physical activity” throughout the day:

  • Walk dog – A good way for me to start the day is by going outside, getting some sun, and walking a bit. I only walk about a mile or less – I mostly do it for the dog – but I still give myself credit for it. I also have the coffee brewing so by the time I get back home it’s ready for me.
  • Pull up bar – Throughout the mornings I’ll typically start by hanging on my pull-up bar, stretching out my back, rolling my shoulders, and lifting my legs. I don’t do any actual pull-ups until later in the day, for now I just use it to warm myself up a bit.
  • Household chores – Chores can be a great source of light physical activity. Every morning I try to do at least one quick chore whether it be washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, collecting trash, or wiping down the kitchen counters. Not only does it get you on your feet, but you’re keeping your home clean and organized. In fact one new study shows that doing household chores is associated with greater brain health.
  • Hand grips – Hand grips are something I spread out throughout most of my day. I leave them by the computer so if I’m reading articles or answering emails I can still reach over and do a quick round of handgrip exercises. They function as a type of stress ball (I guess), but I also just think of them as a way to keep the blood and energy flowing. (Somehow I’ve broken 2 of these over the past year or so – not bragging, maybe I’m just channeling a lot of stress!)

  • Stretching – Stretching is essential. I’ve written before about my mindful stretching routine which I do before my daily shower every morning (a great way to build new habits is to link them with a habit you already do every day).
  • Jumping Jacks/Pushups/Crunches – One of the best things about exercise is you really don’t need anything except your body to be able to do it. Jumping jacks, push ups, crunches, and sit ups are all exercises you can sprinkle throughout your day – and you can do them virtually anywhere since they don’t require any equipment. I often do a round of push-ups after lunch and dinner and I frequently do a round of jumping jacks or crunches between work tasks.
  • Mace exercise – As the day progresses I’ll often increase the intensity of my exercises. The first real weight-based exercise I’ll do is with a mace bar. I decided to get one last year because I can do a lot of free movement type exercises with it (it was between this or kettle bells). I’ll often walk around holding it (it makes you focus a lot on your center of gravity), and then I’ll do a few sets of swinging it 360 behind my back in both directions (working out shoulders, arms, etc.) I still need to experiment more with different exercises, but you can find some good workouts if you search “mace exercises” on YouTube.

  • Pull-ups – The pull-up bars that you can install on your door are very easy to use and versatile. I have one setup on my way to the bathroom, so whenever I pass it I do at least a few pull-ups. You can workout a lot of different muscles in your arms, back, and shoulders depending on how you hold the bar (hands closer together or further apart, palms facing inwards or outwards, etc.) You can also work out your abs by lifting your legs (and twisting in different directions, but be careful). Overall, I get a lot out of it – it’s one of my single favorite pieces of fitness equipment.

  • Dumbbells – The only other equipment I have is a single dumbbell which I use to do various curls, lifts, and squats. You can get a lot out of these if you are willing to experiment and try different types of exercises. Again, you can search “dumbbell exercises” on YouTube for a lot of free demonstrations. I often do my dumbbell exercises after dinner, although I may also sprinkle in a little “in front of the TV” exercise if I’m watching sports in the evening.

This is my current workout, but it’s always evolving.

I won’t pretend this is a professional body builder’s workout or anything, but as someone who has always struggled with fitness, these exercises have been a life-changer for me. I’m definitely in better shape than I’ve ever been, and my energy levels are higher than ever.

It’s a very minimal workout: the only physical equipment I own is 1 dumbbell, 1 mace bar, 1 pull-up bar, and handgrips.

I also got a barbell recently, but I still need to get some free weights for it so I haven’t yet integrated it into my daily routine.

Hopefully reading through my “scattered workout” gave you some ideas to work with.

The most important thing is to find daily exercises that you can conveniently add to your daily routine. Then just keep building from there.

Before you know it, you start to think of yourself as a more fitness-oriented person.

Other options that come to mind:

  • Physically active video games such as Wii Fit, Dance Dance Revolution, etc.
  • Get a treadmill/peloton/bike or some equipment you enjoy that you can use on your free time.
  • Play with kids/pets outside. They often have more energy than us, so just trying to keep up is a workout.
  • Go for a walk around your block. Enjoy some nature. Say hi to the neighbors.
  • Any type of physical activity you enjoy doing that you can easily integrate into your routine.

If you’re someone that struggles with getting enough exercise, the scattered workout may be a great place to start improving this area of your life. Try it for yourself!

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Everyone Is a Complex Web of Factors – Don’t Take Anything Too Personally

Once you recognize that everyone – and every action – is the result of a complex web of factors, it’s easier to not taking anything people say or do too personally.

One important factor for developing thick skin is recognizing that how people treat you often says a lot more about them than it does you.

It’s hard to take things too personally when you understand that everyone is a very complex web of factors.

If someone gives you bad attitude one morning, it could be for all sorts of different reasons: maybe they didn’t get enough sleep, maybe they are hungry, maybe they got caught in traffic on the way to work, maybe they didn’t drink their first cup of coffee yet, or maybe they just received some bad news. It might even be “all of the above.”

Does that excuse their actions? No. But it’s important to understand that people have a tendency to lash out against random people when they are in a bad mood even when they know none of it is that specific person’s fault. Our brains are not that smart sometimes. (This is also why I sometimes recommend we let people know when we are having a bad day, so they don’t poke the bear).

If you understand this complex web exists, then when someone treats you poorly your first instinct isn’t “Screw you!” but rather “Damn, that person must be going through some tough stuff right now, I hope they find happiness.”

This perspective creates feelings of sympathy and forgiveness, rather than feeling attacked and going into fight mode.

If a person attacks you directly for something you’ve said or done, you have no idea where that is really coming from. It could be a byproduct of their upbringing or past that is coming out – their “inner child” or “inner adult” speaking – not a rational calculation in their mind about you (there’s an inner parent, adult, and child that exists in all of us).

Deep down everyone suffers in life and they are just trying to find happiness, even if they are really misguided about it.

Perhaps they haven’t yet resolved a painful or traumatic event from their past. Perhaps they grew up in a broken home or harsh environment that makes them distrusting or cynical of others. If you could understand a person’s full life history – and the full context behind their lives – it would hard to be too angry or too upset with them and their actions. You’d be more likely to empathize with them instead.

Keep in mind: People say really mean and cruel things all the time that they don’t really believe.

When someone is caught up in the heat of the moment, they can be willing to say anything in an attempt to “defend” or “protect” themselves, which is often how people see any type of heated argument. They will even try to strike you at your core, because they are in “survival mode” and anything goes when you feel like you’re fighting for your life.

Many believe that the things people say in a moment of passion are what they really believe – but that’s not necessarily true. That’s just what they believed in that moment. People often regret the things they say afterwards, even when they don’t tell you they do (again the ego is always trying to protect itself).

Have you ever thought something that you don’t really believe? Our minds are constant brainstormers, playing with ideas and thinking new thoughts to find solutions. Just because you have a fleeting thought of “I want to punch this person” doesn’t mean you actually want to do it. One important aspect to mental health in general is learning how to detach from your thoughts and recognize they aren’t inherently you.

In the same way, when a passionate person says something devastating to you – that doesn’t mean they really believe it – that just means they didn’t have the impulse control in that moment to let the thought go.

Certainly you too have said things you don’t really mean from time to time?

We are all a web of factors, including yourself. It’s often difficult to predict how you will act in a situation until you are actually in it, especially if it’s a highly emotional and volatile situation (the hot/cold empathy gap). Sometimes we even look back at how we acted and think, “That wasn’t the real me – I don’t know what came over me!”

Recognizing that we all live in this complex web of factors can help us to be kinder and gentler toward both ourselves and others.

One analogy I often remind myself of is “people are like the weather” because they are hard to predict and largely outside of my control. That helps me become more accepting of human behavior and the many shapes it can take.

If someone gives me an unnecessary negative attitude, I playfully think to myself “Thanks for the beautiful storm,” I don’t yell at the sky and clouds from where it came from.

Of course this “web of factors” isn’t an excuse to behave any way you want or treat people however you feel in the moment. We are all responsible for navigating our webs as best we can.

Ultimately, emotional intelligence begins by recognizing these “push and pulls” from our surroundings but learning how to not act on them impulsively. We always have the power to say “No!” to any given thought, desire, craving, or impulse. It’s not “free will,” but “free won’t.”

No one is perfect, but we can all be a tiny bit better.

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The Power of Checking In On People: How to Preserve Your Social Connections

checking in

Who is someone you haven’t connected with in awhile? Reaching out and checking in on them likely means a lot more to them than you realize.

Over the course of a lifetime, many people come in and out of our lives.

I know I’ve been a part of many different social circles over the years: childhood friends, people from my hometown, high school, college, different jobs, and different places I’ve lived.

As we get older, we may look back on some of these past relationships and past connections and feel nostalgic. A random person from our past pops up in our minds and we think, “Hm, I wonder how John is doing these days? I miss him.”

For many, these are fleeting thoughts – but they are also thoughts we can potentially act on.

In today’s world it’s easier to stay connected with people through phone, text, and social media but we rarely take the time to reconnect and preserve these social connections.

The more time that passes, the more we may feel it’s “awkward” or “weird” to reach out to people and check in on them. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

We may find ourselves thinking, “It’s been years since I’ve spoken to John. He is busy with a family and kids now. He lives halfway around the world. What’s the point of reconnecting with him at this point? It’s not like we’ll ever be as good of friends as we used to be!”

And while it’s true that people grow apart and they may never be as close as they once were, that doesn’t mean that we have to forget about these relationships entirely.

Most people appreciate it when you reach out to reconnect. It shows them, “Hey Steven still thinks about me and cares about me – that’s nice of him!” It’s a tiny thing, but it matters; don’t underestimate the power of good intentions even among the smallest of acts.

Simply knowing that someone still thinks about you and considers you a friend or important person in their lives feels good. It reminds you that you still have a lot of people who care about you in this world even if you haven’t seen them in years.

Often when we reconnect with a good friend, we are surprised by how much the connection is still alive. How often do you see someone you haven’t seen in years and it feels like things picked up exactly where they left off?

When you have a rich history with someone and lots of good memories with them, that doesn’t just all go away or mean nothing. They likely appreciate those memories just as much as you do – and it’s easy to get right back into that old friendship mentality.

There are many different reasons (or “excuses”) to reconnect with someone you haven’t seen in awhile:

  • Birthdays – A simple post on their social media wishing them a happy birthday and hoping everything is going well in their lives.
  • Holidays – Wishing someone a quick “Happy New Year!” is one common way to reconnect. Holiday cards and Christmas cards are a big thing among a lot of old friends, family, and relatives.

  • Big Life Events – When you find out someone just got married, or had a kid, or moved somewhere new, or landed a big job, that’s a great reason to reach out and catch up on their lives.
  • “It’s Been Awhile!” – There’s nothing wrong with reaching out to people out of the blue and just saying, “Hey, it’s been a long time since we’ve last seen spoke to each other, I’m just wondering how everything is going with you?”
  • “Remember When…” – Sometimes a positive memory comes to mind that reminds you of someone. You can use that as a springboard to reconnect with people and start reminiscing about the “good old days in college,” or “that one time we went on that adventurous road trip.”
  • “I’ll Be In Town!” – If you happen to be revisiting your hometown or traveling somewhere you know an old friend lives, that could be the perfect time to reconnect. Simply saying, “Hey, I’m going to be back in town for a couple days, we should catch up and get something to eat” is a great opportunity to rekindle an old relationship.

How you reconnect isn’t as important as making the effort to reconnect. Don’t over-think it with, “Should I text? Email? Message on social media?” just reach out and wait for them to get back to you.

Usually I start off with a text message, then once we exchange a couple messages I say, “Hey we should catch up on the phone or video chat sometime.” Moving the discussion to voice chat or video chat has been shown to create a stronger bond than just using text-based communication. Those non-verbal signals often play a big role in connecting with people at a deeper level – even just hearing the sound of someone’s voice you haven’t heard in awhile can instantly remind you of how much you’ve missed them.

Over the past year I’ve had the chance to catch up with a few old friends from my distant past. It’s amazing how once we are on the phone chatting, things go back to the way they were between us. Before I know it, a full hour has passed with us just talking, reminiscing, and catching up on where our lives are at.

Another interesting thing I’ve done is have “watch parties” with old friends who live far away. Someone will live stream a movie or TV show, and we all get to watch it together, banter, and chat about it. Just like the good old days sitting in our living rooms watching TV together!

In general, talking to friends boosts our “tend and befriend” response (the opposite of the “fight or flight” response) – it has been shown to reduce stress and cortisol levels – and it’s an easy way to instantly boost some of your happiness chemicals.

Who is someone you haven’t talked to in awhile that you could reach out to today? It may mean a lot more to them than you realize.

Staying connected with others and checking in on them periodically is a great way to preserve your social connections and remind yourself that you still have a healthy social circle that cares about you. It also keeps the door open to continuing building on these relationships in the future.

It’s often better to maintain your social bridges than to burn them or neglect them.

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Do One Symbolic Activity Per Day to Take Your Mind to the Next Level

symbolic activity

Symbolic activities can be a great method for changing your mindset and attitude in an unconventional way. How often do you actively practice and embrace symbolism in your daily life?

A big part of self-improvement is learning how to play with your mind in a more positive and constructive way.

As someone who has always been a rational and skeptical person, it took me awhile to finally understand the power of using our imagination for self-change.

For many years, I’ve focused on learning tools from psychology to improve myself. I studied cognitive psychology to become a more healthy and practical thinker. I studied behavioral psychology to build new and better habits. I studied social psychology to become a better communicator and improve my daily relationships.

While everything I’ve learned from these disciplines has improved my overall happiness and well-being – and I strongly urge everything to learn about them as well – for a long time, I still felt as though something was fundamentally missing in my life.

It’s important to be a balanced person – this includes paying attention to all the different aspects of ourselves: physical, mental, emotional, social, financial, and spiritual.

One of my weakest areas in life has always been finding that spiritual element. I grew up Roman Catholic, but I never took it too seriously. By the time I received my Confirmation, I had already considered myself an out-spoken atheist. I had the attitude that “If I can’t measure it empirically or explain it logically, then it isn’t real.”

While this attitude is shared among a lot of intelligent people today, it can also become limiting. It often hurts our ability to find and create meaning in life.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that symbolic activities – even small rituals like wearing a lucky shirt during a big exam or kissing your necklace before shooting a free-throw – can play a powerful role in bringing out our best selves in certain situations.*

(*Observing the symbolic and superstitious behaviors of professional athletes was one of the first things that got me thinking, “Hm, maybe there is something to this.”)

To a rational mind, symbolic activities can often seem silly and superstitious – like performing a rain dance to try to change the weather or praying to God to try and win the lottery.

The truth is this is a misunderstanding of the real purpose behind symbolic activities.

The goal isn’t to try to change something external through sheer force of will, but to change something internal so that you are more mentally equipped to face whatever obstacles you may come across in your life.

Do One Symbolic Activity Per Day

Your daily routine often defines where you are going in life. When I want to make a change in something about myself, my first question is usually, “What’s one small habit I can start doing every day?”

If you want to change something about yourself but you can’t translate it into one concrete action, then you’re wishing for change – not creating it.

The same holds true for practicing symbolism. In fact, I recommend everyone practices at least one symbolic activity each day to exercise that part of their mind. I even have “Symbolic Activity” added to my daily habit tracker so that it becomes a consistent habit – I’m currently at a 400+ daily streak.

What type of symbolic activities could you do?

First, a symbol is any word, image, or object that represents something outside of its ordinary meaning. When a superstitious person finds a four leaf clover, it’s not just a four leaf clover – it’s a symbol of good luck and fortune.

If you’re a religious person, you already have a lot of symbols available to you. Christians have the Latin Cross, Judaism has the Star of David, Islam has the Crescent and Star, Buddhism has the Wheel of Dharma, Taoism has the Yin-Yang symbol.

All of these symbols can be used as objects for daily prayer, meditation, or reflection. Once you understand a symbol’s meaning (or the meaning you give it), you can use it to elevate your mind and change your mental state.

If you’re not a religious person, there are still plenty of symbols for you to draw from. It could be a favorite object, an animal, a piece of art, or you can create your own symbols.

When I read about psychomagic a couple years ago, I realized that almost anything can become a powerful symbol if it makes sense to that individual person.

I often create my own symbols and rituals to change my mindset. For example, in the Blue Energy Hypnosis, I use the visualization of a “blue aura” to represent calm, relaxation, and comfort. In my Flying Boulder Ritual, I visualize a “huge boulder” that represents obstacles or hardship, and then I imagine myself picking it up and throwing it off my path.

For awhile, I was practicing my “Flying Boulder Ritual” every morning before jumping in the shower. It only takes about one minute, but it allowed me to tap into that unexplainable energy in myself that I couldn’t access without the help of symbolism.

Currently, I’m practicing a new ritual I designed for myself which I call “I Am Energy.” Here’s how it works.

“I Am Energy” Ritual

Every morning after my mindful stretching I jump right into my “I Am Energy” ritual.

Here’s the basics of what I do:

  • Stand up straight in front of a full length mirror with my hands by my sides, making eye contact with myself.
  • Slowly crouch down and “punch” the ground with both my hands in front of me, maintaining eye contact through the mirror.
  • With each punch I say to myself, “I am energy” as I visualize a red aura leaving my fists and surrounding my body.
  • Slowly stand back up and repeat the process 20 times, as the red aura grows and grows around me.
  • With each punch, the red aura grows bigger until it starts filling up the entire room.
  • With some punches, I’ll imagine a huge red firework springing from my body, exploding above me, and then the red energy sprinkling down onto me.
  • At times I’ll also imagine the red energy filling up my entire home, then I’ll visualize a bird’s eye view (like Google Maps) of the red energy growing around my local area, my entire state, my entire country, and enveloping the entire world.

In this exercise, the “red aura” symbolizes energy, motivation, and focus.

The more I practice it, the stronger the symbol becomes. Now whenever I practice this short 1-2 minute exercise, I can physically feel my energy levels begin to rise and elevate.

You can try it for yourself if you want, but it would be even better if you created a symbolic activity of your own. Often these types of exercises can be very personalized and subjective, so it’s important you experiment with symbols that work for you.

You can start with something super small, like holding a sentimental object or piece of jewelry while reciting your favorite affirmations. Or if you’re religious, you can hold a religious object in your hands while praying (such as a Bible, cross, or rosary beads if you’re a Christian).

Try to find a symbolic activity that you can easily do every morning (or night). It doesn’t have to be anything too fancy, just something to engage your mind in a new and different way.

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Sorry, Your Complain Meter Is Filled For the Day!

complain meter

What if you can only complain about 3 things each day and then you lose speaking privileges – how would that change the way you go about life?

What if you could only complain about 3 things per day?

How long would you last? Would your “complain meter” be completely filled before your first cup of coffee, or before lunch, or could you hypothetically last the entire day?

This is an interesting question to ask yourself because some of us tend to complain a lot even about the littlest of things.

You get caught at a long red light while driving. You come across an opinion on social media you disagree with. A celebrity is doing something stupid somewhere. What a torturous world we live in!

When you start a conversation with certain people, it sometimes feels like their first instinct is always “What can I complain about today?”

These are the types of people who actively search for problems everywhere and never answers. They also never miss an opportunity to ask for customer service.

You have to sometimes admire their creativity in how easily they find infinite things to nitpick and complain about – it takes brain power!

Even while talking about a positive experience, certain people always find a way to add a “Yeah, but…” to it. “That was a fun movie, but I really don’t like that one actor!” or “That was a good meal, but I’ve had better!”

The complainer is the ultimate comparer. When you always compare everything to everything – instead of enjoying what is offered to you in the moment – you’ll always find ways to be dissatisfied with your experiences.

Of course, nothing is perfect. There is always something you can potentially complain about – the question is what is actually worth complaining about. The bigger problem is when this negativity becomes addictive and it becomes a person’s default mode.

Perhaps being able to point at problems gives some people a sense of meaning, purpose, and being alive. “I must be alive, because look at all this crap I have to deal with! The world sucks!”

What if after you filled your complain meter for the day, you lost all speaking privileges? How would that change the way you go about life?

Perhaps in some sci-fi dystopian universe they would plant a chip into people’s brains that shuts off their speaking functions once they’ve filled their complain meter. (I don’t actually think this would be a good idea, but it is an interesting thought experiment).

That would incentive you to be way more mindful of how you speak throughout the day – you wouldn’t want to just waste your 3 complaints on silly and frivolous things. Perhaps you could save your complaints for the very end of the day, so you know you’ll be griping about the very worst ones.

Maybe by the end of the day you’ll even think, “You know what? I really don’t have much to complain about at all.”

Nothing is as important as it is when it’s happening to you in the moment. By the end of a long day, that coffee you spilled on your shirt in the morning isn’t really that noteworthy in the grand scheme of things. By tomorrow morning, you’ll have completely forgotten about it; never underestimate the power of sleeping it off to put things back into perspective.

Life is hard for everyone. I’m not going to pretend that everything in life is perfect and jolly, or that all problems are the equivalent of “spilling a drink on yourself.” People go through real shit and it’s important they have at least one person in their lives they can be radically honest with.

However, we have to choose our battles wisely and recognize when to talk about our problems vs. when it’s best to just “let it go” and not give it any extra attention it doesn’t deserve.

One rule of thumb I try to keep in mind when it comes to all social interaction is the “positivity ratio.” The positivity ratio is a theory put forward by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson that suggests a good balance between positive and negative emotions is 3:1.

In general for every negative thought you express, you should try to balance it out with several positive ones.

For example:

  • In conversation, start off with some compliments, good news, or positive information before diving into something negative or critical.
  • On social media, try to share a few pieces of uplifting, fun, or humorous posts for every one piece of critical thinking or negative news.
  • When providing feedback to someone, always start with a bit of praise, then give your constructive feedback, then finish with more praise (this is often known as the “compliment sandwich”).
  • In your mind, try to cultivate mental habits such as reflecting on a strength, past accomplishment, or something you’re grateful for, for every negative thought or self-criticism.

The key idea is not that we should avoid or suppress negative emotions (which serve a useful purpose in our lives), but that we should generally try to lean more toward the positive in everything we do.

This is true for all types of social interactions but it’s something we should especially consider when using the internet and social media, since the online disinhibition effect tends to bring out the worst in us when it comes to online behavior. No one is their “best self” on Facebook or Twitter.

So let’s play a game: how long can you go today before you fill up your complain meter?

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Emotional Valence vs. Arousal: Two-Dimensional Model for Emotions


The two-dimensional model of emotions is a simple but helpful way to classify your emotions and better understand them. It categorizes emotions based on their degree of “valence” and “arousal.”

There are many different dimensions to our emotional world.

While there are countless ways to breakdown and classify emotions, one helpful model that is well-known in psychology is the two-dimensional model of emotions.

It’s a simple model but it provides a useful framework for analyzing your emotions and the potential function they serve in your life.

In the two-dimensional model of emotions, emotions are seen in terms of two factors:

  • Valence: the intrinsic attractiveness of an emotion (“feeling good” vs. “feeling bad,” or “positive” vs. negative”).
  • Arousal: the level of activation in the nervous system (“feeling energetic” vs. “feeling lethargic,” or “wakefulness” vs. “sleepiness”)

Every emotion can be classified based on its degree of valence and arousal.

On the valence dimension, emotions are typically described as “positive” or “negative” – this refers to the overall tone behind an emotion. For example, we typically want to experience “positive emotions” such as joy, excitement, or contentment; while we typically don’t want to experience “negative emotions” such as fear, sadness, or guilt.

Keep in mind, “valence” describes the subjective experience of that emotion, but it’s not a judgment of that emotion in-itself.

While negative emotions generally “feel bad,” that doesn’t mean they are always bad – and while positive emotions generally “feel good,” that doesn’t mean they are always good. This is an essential insight behind learning emotional intelligence.

On the arousal dimension, emotions are typically viewed as “energizing” or “lethargic.” For example, fear and anger can be seen as negative emotions, but they are also energizing emotions because they activate your nervous system and motivate you to take action. In the opposite way, relaxation and contentment are seen as positive emotions, but they also tend to be lethargic emotions that cause you to sit back and not take action.

Just as with the “valence” dimension, the “arousal” dimension describes the subjective experience of an emotion – it’s in no way a judgment of that emotion.

Let’s now take a closer look at how other emotions fit into this two-dimensional model.

Emotional Valence vs. Arousal: Two-Dimensional Model

Here’s how different emotions fit into this model. Each of the 4 sections represents a certain type of emotional experience (although each emotion has its unique flavor to it).

As you can see, emotions that are both high in valence and arousal include “astonishment,” “excitement,” “happy” and “delighted.” These are all emotions that not only feel good, but also energize us and make us feel alive.

Emotions that are both low in valence and arousal include “sad,” “miserable,” “gloomy,” and “depressed.” These are all emotions that not only feel bad, but also make us not want to do anything (which can probably make them that much more self-fulfilling).

In truth, no specific emotional experience is “good” or “bad,” what matters is the context behind that emotion, how you interpret it, and how you choose to respond to it.

I believe that knowledge of the two-dimensional model can help you respond to your emotions in a smarter and healthier way, because they often reveal the underlying function or purpose behind that emotion.

Helpful Guidelines Based on the Two-Dimensional Model

Here’s a simple guideline for how to respond to each of the 4 categories of emotions.

While every emotion is unique and requires its own response, this breakdown can give you some direction and insight into how to respond to certain types of emotions.

Here they are:

  • Fear, Anxiety, Anger (Low Valence, High Arousal): This is often a sign that you should channel that emotion in a constructive way through some type of action (exercising, conversation, writing, creative hobbies, going for a walk, etc.) When these highly energized negative emotions aren’t channeled in a healthy way, they are susceptible to build up and eventually spillover into some type of destructive action (such as lashing out at someone when we are angry, or running away from a situation when we are afraid, or engaging in self-sabotage behaviors when we are anxious). A good “rule of thumb” is that if an emotion is both negative AND energizing, it’s usually trying to motivate you toward some positive and productive action. One of my favorite examples of this is reframing anxiety as motivation.
  • Sad, Gloomy, Miserable, Depressed (Low Valence, Low Arousal): This is often a sign that you need to be patient with yourself and start with a super small change to help reverse the flow of the emotion. This is due to the fact that these low-energized negative emotions can easily become self-fulfilling – they demotivate you and make you want to do nothing but lie down, which only leads to them continuing to fester and linger (I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say, “I’m depressed because I don’t exercise, and I don’t exercise because I’m depressed.”) Identify one super easy change you can make TODAY to gain positive momentum (such as taking a minute to reflect on what you’re grateful for, doing a 5 minute workout or mindful stretching, or writing down your thoughts). The opposite action technique can be helpful for these types of emotions, because your goal is often to do something counter-intuitive to reverse the self-fulfilling cycle. Don’t want to go outside? Maybe some sun and nature is exactly what you need. Don’t want to see anyone? Maybe you should reach out to someone to talk to. Don’t want to exercise? Get down and give me 20 right now! (I know these things are easier said than done, but the more inertia there is the smaller you need to think to get the energy moving in the right direction).
  • Content, Relaxed, Calm (High Valence, Low Arousal): Generally we don’t feel the need to change these positive emotions since they both feel good and calm our nervous system. The only caveat is if these emotions are in excess, they may demotivate us or cause us to slack on our responsibilities and goals in life (“I’m not going to go to work, I just want to chill!”) Trying to be completely calm and content 24/7 is often an unrealistic goal, and even if we could achieve it we wouldn’t necessary want to because it would often end up interfering with our larger goals and values in life. If you find yourself struggling with these lethargic emotions, consider getting an accountability partner or using an app to measure your progress to help kick your butt into gear when it comes to habits you’re procrastinating on.
  • Excitement, Happiness, Aroused (High Valence, High Arousal): Again, we don’t generally feel the need to change positive emotions, but the high arousal ones definitely come with a caveat as well. Since these positive emotions are more energizing and motivating, they can also occasionally lead to risky decisions that can end up hurting us more in the long-term; even too much optimism can blind us – if we ignore the realities of a situation, we may end up doing some stupid or foolish things. “Excitement” and “aroused” (while positive emotions) can sometimes fuel destructive habits or unhealthy thrill-seeking through sex, drugs, gambling, or alcohol. If you have trouble managing excessively high positive emotions, it’s probably a good idea to teach yourself some relaxation techniques such as a 100 Breaths Meditation or Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This will give you more control over your nervous system overall, and help to calm down those “high arousal” states.

These are rough guidelines, but hopefully they give you some idea of the different ways you can respond to different emotional states.

The first step is to identify which category of emotions you tend to struggle with the most. Then devise a better plan for how you can respond to those emotions in the moment, without letting them takeover.

Overall the two dimensional model of emotions is a very simple but helpful framework for analyzing our emotional world and learning how to better navigate it.

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