Category: The Emotion Machine

Bibliotherapy: Self-Help Books Can Really Improve Your Mental Health


While people may feel embarrassed getting caught in the “self help” section of a library or book store, the truth is there are a lot of valuable books out there that can make a real difference.

Bibliotherapy is the practice of reading self-help books to change your habits and improve your mental health, including reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

One of the most popular self-help books to date is the classic Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy published by David D. Burns in 1980, which is known for popularizing many early techniques in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

According to one study published in the British Journal of General Practice (which analyzed 11 different experiments), participants who read CBT-based books such as Feeling Good showed a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as an increase in overall quality of life.

Psychologists suggest that assigned readings can be a useful low-cost supplementary treatment in addition to therapy or medication for those diagnosed with depression or anxiety disorders.

The best self-help books often come with worksheets and exercises so people can take what they learn and apply it in a practical way. Following through with these exercises is an important factor when getting the most out of these books.

In the study mentioned above, researchers identified several books that are often recommended by professionals, including:

  • Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns
  • Managing Anxiety and Depression by Nicholas Holdsworth
  • Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger
  • Overcoming Depression and Low Mood: A Five Areas Approach by Chris Williams

Most of these have similar content – cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques designed to treat depression and anxiety – they are just presented in different ways. The only one I’ve read is Feeling Good, which I definitely recommend checking out.

While most effective self-help books seem to focus on CBT, there are definitely other options as well. One pilot study compared a CBT self-help book to the book Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression by Miriam Akhtar and found similar results for both approaches.

Another preliminary study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction workbook significant decreased measures of depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as a pilot study that found positive results with the book Worry Less, Live More: The Mindful Way through Anxiety by Susan M. Orsillo.

There’s still a lot more research to be done when it comes to bibliotherapy, but it definitely has promise.

Of course you can’t do a study on every single self-help book that comes out, but in general ones that are science-based, action-oriented, and recommended by experts are good places to start.

As someone who has been engaged in self-help for over a decade, I’ve easily read over 100 self-help books total. Admittedly, not all of them are that good, but I certainly believe in the power of bibliotherapy in my own life.

Much of the writings on this site are based on education through books. For example, over the past few years I’ve written articles based on the books Flow, The Body Keeps The Score, Crucial Conversations, I’m OK – You’re OK, Games People Play, Attached, Supernormal Stimuli, and The Power of Meaning. With each of these books, I’ve taken away valuable information that I’ve applied to my daily life.

About 50% of everything I know has been through reading – including books, articles, and studies – and the other half is through experience and practice. I consider educational books and scientific studies to be the very foundation of the information pyramid (it’s certainly better than getting all your knowledge through social media and memes).

It’s important to talk to mental health professionals when you really need them, but I’ve always been someone who was more likely to end up in a library than a therapist’s office.

That’s just a part of my independent personality, but it’s also a weakness. In general, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it – sometimes a meaningful conversation with a therapist or coach is worth more than a hundred books.

Bibliotherapy shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for professional help, it’s just one tool of many to help us change and grow.

While people may feel embarrassed getting caught in the “self help” section of a library or book store, the truth is there are a lot of valuable books out there that can make a real difference. The key is finding the right books for you.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that there are some people that seem to become addicted to reading a lot of self-help books – but never applying them or making any real-world changes.

I’ve definitely been an information junkie in the past, jumping from book to book but not taking the time to absorb what I read and find a way to integrate it into my life. It’s important to remind yourself that there’s always a balance between learning and action.

The person that reads one self-help book and applies it is further than the person who reads a hundred self-help books but never changes anything or tries anything new.

One guideline to follow: For every self-help book you read, make sure you apply at least ONE thing from it into your daily life.

Or at least try one thing, even if it ends up not working out. You have to experiment sometimes before you find what really works for you personally.

Different advice works for different people. A self-help book that completely changed one person’s life may not do anything for you.

Ultimately, no matter what type of self-help book you read, take what works and leave what doesn’t work.

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

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My 20 Best Self-Improvement Articles of 2021

best 2021

Here are the top self-improvement articles published in 2021 at The Emotion Machine. Did you miss any of them?

I always say “this year has been the best year yet,” but I guess that’s just the nature of progress.

The Emotion Machine first started in 2009, so it’s wild to think that I’ve been writing about psychology and self-improvement for over 12 years now.

The truth is I don’t see an end to it.

Self-improvement is a constant work-in-progress – there are always new opportunities to learn, grow, and improve.

That’s a perspective that I’ve ingrained into myself. So as long as I have new things to learn, I’ll keep adding and building to this website.

Let’s now take a look at the best articles published in 2021. Then I will recap some key habit changes I’ve made this year.


1. Positive Emodiversity: Embracing the Full-Range of Positive Emotions

Emodiversity describes the variety of emotions we experience on a daily basis. Research shows that emodiversity can often be a better predictor of physical and mental health than the raw calculation of “positive” vs. “negative” emotions.

2. 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.”

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

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.

4. Negative Emotions: Create A Plan to Respond to Them in a New Way

The current way you respond to your negative emotions doesn’t have to be the only way. Create a plan and choose a new way to respond to your negative emotions before they happen.

5. Let Bygones Be Bygones: Forgiveness and Letting Go of Emotional Residue

When you have a bad argument with someone, how quickly can you let it go? The answer can make all the difference in your happiness and relationships.


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

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.

7. 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.

8. The PAC Model: The Parent, Adult, and Child That Exists in All of Us

According to the PAC Model, we all have an inner “Parent,” “Adult,” and “Child.” By identifying which one is manifesting itself in any given moment, we can take more control over our thoughts and behaviors.

9. Parasocial Relationships: Feeling a Connection With People We’ve Never Met

“Parasocial relationships” are one-way relationships we develop with celebrities, media personalities, or fictional characters from TV shows, movies, or books. While they are normal and healthy, we have to be careful that they don’t replace our need for real-world connection.

10. Sorry, Your Complain Meter Is Filled For the Day!

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?

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

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.


12. 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.

13. Creating Flow: Finding Activities that Balance Challenge and Skill

Flow is a state of consciousness where action and awareness become one. It’s when a person is so fully immersed in an activity that they lose their sense of time and self. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it an “optimal state of experience.”

14. Micro-Breaks: Keep Your Mind Fresh and Energized Throughout the Day

Micro-breaks play an important role in keeping our minds fresh and energized throughout the day. Are you taking advantage of the power of micro-breaks?

15. How Reading Fiction Improves You and Your Brain

Reading fiction has shown to have a variety of cognitive benefits including boosting empathy, verbal abilities, moral attitudes, motivation, and social skills.

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

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.


17. Give Yourself Credit: The Essential Habit Behind Self-Esteem

Give yourself credit. Are you appreciating your small wins? Here’s why it’s important to find those daily “+1’s” to build confidence and self-esteem.

18. Imagination: Your Ultimate Entertainment System

Your imagination is one of the most important skills you can learn to develop, do you know how to use it?

19. Sherlock Holmes: Lessons on Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving

While a fictional character, Sherlock Holmes is an excellent example of critical thinking and problem-solving that we can all learn from. Here’s a breakdown of his philosophy and approach to thinking.

20. 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?

21. Archaeology: Are You Stuck Digging Up Your Past?

Are you trapped in a game of “archaeology,” where you’re constantly digging into your past searching for answers but unable to move forward?

3 Key Changes I Made This Year

My lifestyle and daily routine have gone through many big changes over the past decade, but they are still always evolving and changing in small ways. Here are the most noteworthy changes I’ve made this year.

1. Reading fiction

One of the most surprising changes for me this year is how much I’ve enjoyed reading fiction.

I’ve always been a consistent reader, but usually they were books focused on science, philosophy, self help, and non-fiction.

In 2020, I mentioned how I shifted to “reading biographies” which was a nice change for me (learning more about history and certain role models of mine), but I probably haven’t read a fiction book since my school years.

I began this year with a lot of sci-fi classics since those appealed to me the most, but I also branched out to some other literary classics.

Here’s a complete list of fiction books I read this year (in chronological order):

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1871)
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1885)
  • Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
  • A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)
  • The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (1897)
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (1905)
  • Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
  • Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (1922)
  • Tales of Horror by H.P. Lovecraft (collection, 1920s-30s)
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
  • The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)
  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (1950)
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
  • Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (1957)
  • Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (1968)
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)
  • The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk (1985)
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)

I bounced around a lot between different decades and authors to try to get as much variety as possible.

If I had to choose 3 favorites from the list above, I’d go with Dune (the movie this year was great too), Brave New World (still very relevant to today’s culture), and Siddhartha (great inspirational story of a Buddha-like figure).

I also mixed in some non-fiction as well:

  • Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith (2016)
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2003)
  • Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity by Francis Fukuyami (1995)
  • Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990)
  • Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller (2010)
  • I’m OK, You’re OK by Thomas A. Harris (1967)
  • 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss (2007)
  • The Mission of Art by Alex Grey (1998)
  • On the Genealogy of Morality by Friedrich Nietszche (1887)
  • Silence: Writings and Lectures by John Cage (1961)

Reading is a natural part of my daily routine and I don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.

2. Playing Chess

Chess is a completely new hobby for me this year.

I’m still not very good at it, but I bought a chessboard to play with friends when we meet up, and I’ve been an active user on, which has been an awesome resource to improve your chess skills (including weekly lessons, tournaments, and keeping track of stats).

One interesting thing about the chess hobby is that it has completely supplanted my video game habit. That’s not necessarily good or bad, just a shift in my interests.

Similar to video games, I’ve been using Chess as a form of microbreak throughout the day. I often play short 5-10 minute games to temporarily take my mind off of work.

In general, I always encourage people to try new hobbies. It doesn’t matter what it is – stamp collecting, photography, or knitting – learning new things always makes you a more balanced and well-rounded person.

When’s the last time you really tried something new?

3. Minimizing Social Media and Dating Apps

Our relationship with technology plays a big role in our overall mental health and well-being. It’s an aspect of life I try to be really mindful of.

A couple years ago, I turned off all notifications on my phone except for calls and texts (which are always from family and friends). I realized there just wasn’t any need to be notified constantly of emails and social media throughout my day (and these notifications were often more of a distraction than anything else). It was a big step forward.

I started off this year by deactivating my personal Facebook, which was another life-changer. That was the one place I’d always get sucked into political arguments and heated debates that wouldn’t go anywhere productive.

Depending on how you use the internet, it can bring out your “best self” or “worst self.”

I still use Twitter and social media to talk about psychology and share positive content, but that’s all I use it for anymore. I also have a new rule where I will reply to people once (if I have something to add), but I try to never get caught up in a constant back-and-forth argument. They are always a waste of time and energy.

Secondly, I stopped using dating apps like OKCupid, Tinder, and Bumble, which was another big energy-saver and confidence-booster.

There are a lot of problems with dating apps. I’m not against them completely, but many users on there are just looking for easy attention or compliments. It’s difficult to find people who are serious about a long-term relationship on there.

I can’t count how many times I’ve had an awesome conversation with someone and then they just randomly disappeared or “ghosted” me. It’s hard to commit to anything when you always feel you’re one swipe away from something “better.” The paradox of choice.

There are also a lot of spam accounts on dating apps these days (people looking for followers on their “modeling” account or whatever). Dating apps can often give a false sense of “dating” or “searching for love,” when in truth you could probably do a lot better in person.

The internet is just a tool and it’s important that we use it wisely.

Make 2022 The Year of Self-Improvement

The best time to change yourself was 10 years ago, the second best time is right now.

Join The Emotion Machine and let’s make 2022 the best year possible.

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Positive Emodiversity: Embracing the Full-Range of Positive Emotions


Emodiversity describes the variety of emotions we experience on a daily basis. Research shows that emodiversity can often be a better predictor of physical and mental health than the raw calculation of “positive” vs. “negative” emotions.

A big part of emotional intelligence is embracing the full-range of the human experience.

Many times people get stuck within a limited emotional range. We tend to feel the same 3-5 emotions on a daily basis and forget that life has a lot more to offer.

Psychology research is beginning to find that emodiversity – the variety of emotions we experience on a daily basis – can be a powerful predictor of both physical and mental health.

For example, let’s look at two hypothetical people: Joe and Matt. Joe experiences 3 moments of joy and 1 moment of anxiety in a given day, while Matt experiences 2 moments of joy, 1 moment of anxiety, and 1 moment of gratitude.

If happiness could be calculated with basic arithmetic, we would conclude that Joe and Matt are equally happy because they both experience 3 positive emotions (joy, gratitude) for every 1 negative emotion (anxiety).

However, Matt experiences higher “emodiversity” – a greater abundance and variety of emotions throughout the day – which indicates an overall richer life.

Of course this is a simplified example, but it shows that there is more to happiness and well-being than just a raw calculation of emotion.

In one fascinating study (PDF) published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers analyzed 37,000 participants and found that “emodiversity” was an independent predictor of physical and mental health, including decreased depression and fewer doctor visits.

One theory researchers suggest is that emodiversity can build greater mental resilience by not allowing any single emotion to dominate a person’s emotional ecosystem:

    “[Just as] biodiversity increases resilience to negative events because a single predator cannot wipe out an entire ecosystem, emodiversity may prevent specific emotions – in particular detrimental ones such as acute stress, anger or sadness – from dominating the emotional ecosystem. For instance, the experience of prolonged sadness might lead to depression but the joint experience of sadness and anger – although unpleasant – might prevent individuals from completely withdrawing from their environment. The same biodiversity analogy could be applied to positive emotion. Humans are notoriously quick to adapt to repeated exposure to a given positive emotional experience; positive experiences that are diverse may be more resistant to such extinction.”

Emodiversity prevents any single positive or negative emotion from becoming too dominant – which can be a healthy thing since it provides more variety, resilience, and flexibility – leading to a richer and more fulfilling life overall.

If a person only experiences a limited range of positive emotions, those positive experiences can grow stale and lose their appeal. By seeking out entirely new positive experiences and embracing new positive emotions, we reset our hedonic treadmill and keep life interesting and fresh.

“Variety is the spice of life” seems to hold true for our emotions – and we have a lot of positive emotions to choose from on a daily basis.

In another study published in the scientific journal Emotion, researchers measured emodiversity by analyzing diary entries from 175 adults (aged between 40-65) for over 30 days.

The researchers found that emodiversity within positive emotions (but not negative ones) was a significant predictor of better health outcomes, including lower inflammation. This finding held true even after controlling for mean levels of positive and negative emotions, body mass index, anti-inflammatory medications, medical conditions, personality, and demographics.

Positive emodiversity has also been associated with better student engagement and academic achievement, as was found in one study published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology which studied 400 high school students.

While there is still more research to be done on emodiversity, it seems to have a wide-range of benefits on our physical and mental health.

How does one achieve more emodiversity in their daily life? A big part of it is actively seeking new activities, hobbies, and experiences.

According to one study published in The Journals of Gerontology, there was a strong association found between “emodiversity” and “activity diversity” in older adults.

The researchers looked at how long participants spent on 7 different types of activities: paid work, spending time with children, chores, leisure, physical activities, formal volunteering, and helping someone outside of their household (such as a neighbor).

Individuals who reported a more balanced daily routine – based on the seven activities measured in the study – also reported greater emodiversity overall.

Let’s now look at the many different positive emotions that we can learn to embrace more of.

Positive Emodiversity: The Full-Range of Positive Emotions

Here’s a comprehensive list of the many different types of positive emotions we have to choose from. Which ones could you focus on more in your daily life?

  • Joy – Joy is the most commonly recognized positive emotion. It is defined as any feeling of gladness, delight, or pleasure. We can derive joy anytime something good happens to us, whether it’s getting a job promotion, receiving a surprise gift from someone, or eating a delicious slice of cake. Joy is one of the core emotions that we associate with “feeling good” (which is also why it’s the main protagonist in the Pixar movie Inside Out). What brings you joy? How can you savor it and maximize the happiness you get out of those positive experiences?
  • Peace/Calm – Peace is one of the most sought out emotions in our current world of busyness, stress, and overstimulation. What activities put you into a state of ease and relaxation? Exercises such as the 100 breaths meditation and progressive muscle relaxation are two effective tools for teaching your body and mind how to be more relaxed.
  • Gratitude – Taking a step back to find things we are thankful for is one of the easiest ways to shift your mindset. One of my everyday mental habits is to identify at least one thing I am grateful for. It could be something small (like a nice meal) or something big (like my health and family). I also created a “15 Day Gratitude Workbook” awhile back that can be found on our downloads page.
  • Nostalgia – Nostalgia is a powerful feeling that arises when we are reminded of a past experience or memory. Often it can be an under-appreciated positive emotion. You can easily evoke nostalgia by watching movies from your childhood, visiting places you haven’t been to in a long time, or doing activities you used to enjoy as a kid. Recently I was re-watching old Disney movies and was surprised by how strong the feelings of nostalgia kicked in during certain scenes and songs.
  • Awe – Awe is an overwhelming feeling of amazement for something that is grand, unique, or special. It can often be triggered by both natural phenomenon (stars at night, sunsets, bird watching) and man-made phenomenon (a beautiful piece of art or music). Many researchers are studying the psychology of awe and how it can contribute to a more meaningful life.
  • Curiosity/Wonder – Curiosity is a very underrated emotion, because there is so much in the world to be inquisitive and interested in. Curiosity is also a fantastic way to reverse any negative emotion, because even when you feel negative you can always question your feelings and look at them with the same sense of wonder as a scientist or philosopher. This is why I often describe curiosity as a “negativity disinfectant.” No matter how you feel about something, you can always turn an inquisitive eye toward it.
  • Playfulness – Much of life is play. We often forget that as we get older, but being able to see the light side of things, joke around with others, and not taking life too seriously is an important aspect of happiness and mental health. Playfulness often means participating in life without always needing to achieve something, but just enjoying life for the sake of enjoying it. Spend time playing with kids, pets, or just having fun with family or friends. Be willing to be silly and stupid sometimes.
  • Belonging – A sense of belonging is a fundamental need in all human beings. Feeling connected with people and supported by loved ones is important for finding meaning in life. The most introverted person still has a need to be social and connect. Where do you get your sense of belonging? Do you have family and friends that make you feel that you are a part of a larger group?
  • Confidence – Confidence is the feeling of self-assurance in one’s skills and abilities. While people’s confidence levels will vary depending on the situation, it’s healthy for everyone to at least identify one area in their lives that brings confidence and self-esteem. What activities are you good at? What are your natural strengths or super powers? What do people like about you? Recognize the many ways you bring value to this world.
  • Pride – Similar to confidence, it’s important we learn to take pride in our past success and accomplishments. Make sure to give yourself credit when you do something positive, even if it’s just a small act of kindness toward a stranger, or not indulging in a bad habit, or getting through another difficult day. Give yourself a mental pat on the back. We often focus more on our failures than our successes (because we want to learn from them or fix them), which is why it’s that much more important to shift our focus toward the positive when we can. Consider creating a jar of awesome – a collection of your “small wins” – that you can draw from when you need an extra boost in motivation.
  • Optimism – We can’t predict the future, but it’s important that we feel optimistic that things will work out for the best. Optimism can often become a type of self-fulfilling prophecy – when we have faith and hope that things will move in a positive direction, we start acting in ways that make it more likely to become true. How do you feel about the future? Are you leaving the door open for good things to happen?
  • Inspiration – What inspires you in life? What type of role models do you look up to and admire? It’s important we surround ourselves with people, places, and things that provide inspiration and motivation to us. The more that inspires you and uplifts you, the more you have to draw from to fuel your own goals and ambitions in life. Often a lack of zest for life begins from not being around enough things that energize and invigorate you.
  • Anticipation – We all need something to look forward to in life. In fact, a healthy sense of anticipation can energize us and help us get through tough times. For example, it’s easier to get through a bad day at work if you know there is a new episode of your favorite TV show to check out when you get home. Or it’s easier to get through a difficult month at work when you know you have a summer cruise to look forward to. Make plans (big or small) to do fun and exciting things in the future, so you always have something positive in your life that you’re moving toward.
  • Beauty – Learning to enjoy aesthetics and beauty is one easy source of happiness and pleasure. The power of a nice view teaches you to appreciate what is right in front of you, whether it’s a beautiful sunset, or a magnificent work of art, or a well-designed building. In today’s world, we often don’t appreciate beauty as much as we should – instead, we seem to highlight the ugly and wretched – but beauty still exists if you know where to look, and we should celebrate that whenever possible.
  • Excitement – We all have a need for a degree of adventure, novelty, and excitement in our lives. While sometimes these needs can manifest themselves into bad habits (alcohol/drug use, gambling, or promiscuity), there are also plenty of ways we can engage in positive thrill-seeking. Depending on your personality, you can get your “fix” for excitement through action movies, video games, friendly competition, extreme sports, rollercoasters, or adventurous activities like sky-diving and mountain climbing.
  • Empathy – Empathy is technically a neutral emotion because to empathize is just to feel what someone else is feeling (which could be positive or negative). However, cultivating empathy can also open you to feelings of interconnectedness or one-ness, which is one of the most powerful feelings to experience. One fun and interesting way to develop more empathy is to read fiction, which allows you to connect with characters on a deep level by showing you the world from an entirely new perspective.
  • Love – Love is one of the most cherished positive emotions. It’s a deep feeling of enduring affection toward someone, including the desire to see them happy. This includes not only romantic forms of love, but also platonic and universal feelings of love. One of the most powerful exercises you can do is a loving-kindness meditation, which teaches you how to send love and good intentions toward everyone in life, including people you don’t necessarily get along with.

These are many of the core positive emotions, but of course there are countless others.

Can you name any positive emotions I missed?

It’s also important to keep in mind that many times we experience multiple emotions at once, so any combination of the positive emotions above can elicit a new type of positive feeling. Learn to accept and embrace emotional complexity to add another layer to emodiversity.

A single positive emotion can also become a trigger for other positive emotions.

According to the broaden and build theory, positive emotions can often open our mind to resources that we otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

In this way, every positive emotion can become a pathway to other positive emotions – all it takes is one positive emotion to start an avalanche of positivity.

What’s one positive emotion you can embrace more of? How can you create more positive emodiversity in your life?

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

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Parasocial Relationships: Feeling a Connection With People We’ve Never Met


“Parasocial relationships” are one-way relationships we develop with celebrities, media personalities, or fictional characters from TV shows, movies, or books. While they are normal and healthy, we have to be careful that they don’t replace our need for real-world connection.

Have you ever felt a strong connection with someone you’ve never met before?

Perhaps it was a media personality on the news, or a celebrity on social media, or even a fictional character from a TV show, movie, or book?

Sometimes these connections can feel so real that when you finally finish a book or TV show, you actually feel like you’ve lost an important friend or family member in your life. You start thinking, “I can’t believe I’ll never see Jim from The Office again, I’m going to miss him!” as if he was a real person you used to hang out with all the time.

In psychology, these illusory relationships are known as parasocial interactions. They refer to our ability to develop real feelings of friendship and affection toward people who don’t exist (or people who don’t know we exist).

These are always one-way relationships. We become emotionally invested in these characters and people that have never had a conversation with us or paid attention to us.

The term “parasocial interaction” was first coined by psychologists Richard Wohl and Donald Horton in the 1950s. They studied how mass media audiences developed relationships with news anchors and commentators whom they would watch every single night and begin to feel a bond with. “It’s 6 o’clock, time to put Walter Cronkite on!”

Since then the term has evolved to include a wide range of “fictional relationships,” including with celebrities, politicians, social media influencers, podcast hosts, and characters from TV shows, movies, video games, and books.

A lot of factors can influence us to seek these parasocial relationships.

To start, these relationships are likely more common in today’s world where everyone is plugged into technology, media, and the internet.

Our modern social world is filled with supernormal stimuli that is designed to take our natural instincts – such as building relationships and developing a sense of belonging – and hijack them in unhealthy ways. Instead of going out on the weekend and hanging out with friends, we’d rather just stay home and binge watch our favorite TV show on Netflix.

I’m sure everyone can think of at least one example where they felt a “parasocial relationship” with someone; even celebrity deaths seem to hit us much harder because we feel more connected to these people through social media and tabloids.

One recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found evidence that people’s parasocial bonds increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. This makes perfect sense, as people went through lockdowns and quarantining we were naturally motivated to seek our “social fix” through other means.

Everyone has a deep need to feel connected with others, no matter how introverted they are. When this need isn’t met in our real world relationships, we will often seek them through media, television, movies, or books.

Having parasocial relationships isn’t necessarily bad, but when these relationships seem to replace real world relationships then it can become a cause for concern.

If a person doesn’t have many friends – or they suffer from social anxiety, loneliness, or depression – they may look toward these parasocial relationships to get their “social fix.” But at the same time, they may be cutting themselves off from developing real world relationships that are far more fulfilling and meaningful in the long-term.

The Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam has done a lot of research over the years looking into the effects of media and technology on our relationships and sense of community.

His famous book Bowling Alone documents how our feelings of “community,” “belonging,” and “trust” have declined over the past half century. One example of this, as the title suggests, is the decline of participation in things like bowling leagues, books clubs, and other local groups over the decades.

When you ask most people, they don’t feel like they have a sense of belonging in their everyday lives, and one key contributor Putnam identifies is the isolating effects of mass media and television.

Instead of having neighbors over for dinner, or going out on the weekends, or having children play outside with friends, we are more likely to just sit in our living rooms and watch TV, play video games, or surf the web. Again, these can provide us a cheap “social fix,” but they can also hurt our real-world relationships.

Are your parasocial relationships becoming a substitute for real world relationships?

If your answer is “Yes,” it may be time to shift your focus to having more real world social interactions.

Here are ideas to get your real-world social muscles moving again:

  • Start with 10 second relationships, even if it’s just idle chit chat with someone at the bus stop or grocery store, or saying “Hi” to your neighbors (it’s surprising how many people don’t even do this anymore).
  • Reach out to old friends and family to check up on them and see how they are doing. One easy way to preserve social connections is to simply take the extra time to reach out through a phone call, text, or email (most people will appreciate you making the effort to reconnect).
  • Make it a goal to do one social activity per week, such as going out on the weekend with friends, checking out a new restaurant with family, or having people over for a “movie night” or “game night.”

Often times loneliness and social anxiety can become self-fulfilling. The more we isolate ourselves, the easier it becomes to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world.

It can be difficult to reverse that pattern, but as you begin having positive social interactions again, you’ll notice the social buzz of real-world relationships is often much more satisfying than just consuming media by yourself.

We can’t deny our social nature. To find happiness and meaning in life, we need to embrace our social lives more, even if it isn’t always comfortable or pleasant. In the long-term, it’s worth it.

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Sherlock Holmes: Lessons on Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving

sherlock holmes

While a fictional character, Sherlock Holmes is an excellent example of critical thinking and problem-solving that we can all learn from. Here’s a breakdown of his philosophy and approach to thinking.

As many of you know, I’ve been reading fiction a lot more this year, so I’ve been going through a lot of classics I’ve never had the chance to before.

Recently I finished reading A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887). It’s the first novel to feature the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. The book is a short, fun, and clever read – which I recommend to anyone – and Holmes is a great example of rationality and critical thinking.

As a private detective and consultant, Holmes sets himself apart from other detectives in the book through his unique ability to observe and analyze a situation and draw conclusions that seem to elude the average mind. This is why folks in the book are constantly visiting him and asking him for his input and advice.

Sherlock Holmes knows how to see things others don’t through his keen sense of observation, he knows what facts to focus on and which to ignore, and he knows how to deduce those facts to their logical, inevitable conclusions.

While of course Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, he can still serve as a great role model when it comes to critical thinking and problem-solving.

Here are the big highlights and takeaways when it comes to his thinking philosophy.

Don’t fill your “brain attic” with useless knowledge

Sherlock Holmes sees his brain as an “empty attic” that can only be filled with so many facts and knowledge. Thus, he makes it an important point to never fill it with useless junk.

    “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing the useful ones.”

Dr. Watson, who narrates the book and begins as a roommate of Sherlock Holmes, is always intrigued by Holmes odd ways and philosophies.

When trying to figure out what makes Sherlock tick, Watson discovers that he has excellent knowledge in certain areas in life (such as chemistry, botany, anatomy, and geology), but is also terribly ignorant on other matters (such as politics, contemporary literature, and astronomy).

In fact, when pressed, Sherlock Holmes admits he didn’t know that the earth revolved around the sun. Dr. Watson is shocked by this basic ignorance, but Holmes responds…

    “What the deuce is it to me? You say we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work.”

This type of ruthless pragmatism is very characteristic of Sherlock Holmes philosophy. He doesn’t bother with a fact unless it has a direct impact on himself and his work.

To Holmes, a trivial or useless fact is just as good as a lie or a distraction from what really matters – something that only serves to crowd his brain attic.

The science of observation and deduction

Sherlock Holmes is best known for his power of deduction. Deduction is when you begin with a set of facts and then work your way backwards to their logical conclusion.

Throughout the book, Holmes makes many remarkable conclusions by observing simple facts and then reasoning backwards. One early example in the book describes how Holmes recognized Dr. Watson had just come back from Afghanistan.

    “From long habit the train of thought ran so swiftly through my mind that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second, I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.”

By noticing physical features such as how the man walks, his mannerisms, his tanned skin, the features of his face, and how he moves his arms, Holmes was able to reason that this man was an English army doctor who had just come back from a hot region, therefore he must be coming back from Afghanistan (the British were fighting in Afghanistan at the time in the late 19th century).

Holmes makes many similar observations throughout the book, such as being able to estimate a person’s height based on his walking gait (as revealed by footprints in the ground), and noticing a cab must have stopped at the location of a crime (because the tire tracks are thinner than normal cabs).

A big part of Holmes’ genius is the ability to observe a tiny fact and recognize all the other facts that must logically be associated with it.

He goes on to tell Dr. Watson how his reasoning abilities are different than most people…

    “Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backwards.”

While most people observe “causes” and infer the “results” that will follow, Holmes prides himself in being able to start with the “results” and reason his way backwards to their original “causes.”

The value of strange facts

The stranger a fact is, the more revealing it can be.

According to Sherlock Holmes’ philosophy, ordinary facts aren’t very helpful because they can fit into a wide-range of scenarios. But a strange fact – a fact that stands out – can help you to narrow your options and point you in the right direction.

If a person is wearing a blue shirt, that doesn’t tell you much about them because a lot of people wear blue shirts. It’s too common to tell you anything important. But if a person is wearing a multi-colored armor vest, that raises all types of questions that could potentially lead you to an interesting truth.

Typically, the more bizarre a situation is, the more difficult you would think it is to explain. But for Holmes, using his power of deduction, he can take a mysterious fact and see how it illuminates the truth rather than hides it.

After solving a case, he explains to Watson…

    “All this seems strange to you, because you failed at the beginning of the inquiry to grasp the importance of the single real clue which was presented to you. I had the good fortune to seize upon that, and everything has occurred since then has served to confirm my original supposition, and indeed, was the logical consequence of it. Hence things which have perplexed you and made the case more obscure have served to enlighten me and to strengthen my conclusions. It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery, because it presents no new or special features from which deductions may be drawn. This murder would have been infinitely more difficult to unravel had the body of the victim been simply found lying in the roadway without anyone of those outré and sensational accompaniments which have rendered it remarkable. These strange details, far from making the case more difficult, have really had the effect of making it less so.”

If you know a strange truth, then you have to factor it into your understanding – that’s going to lead you down certain pathways, while blocking other ones.

This reminds me of a great quote by Isaac Asimov, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny…’”

As a scientist, detective, or truth-seeker, strangeness often points you in a direction you need to pursue further.

The need for deep contemplation

While Sherlock Holmes is generally depicted as energized and pro-active throughout the book, it’s also noted how he has intense periods of contemplation.

Early on, his roommate Dr. Watson makes an alarming observation when Holmes gets into his solitary moods…

    “Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now an again a reaction would seize him, and for days he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night. On these occasions I have notice such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.”

There’s not much else said about these behaviors, so we have to speculate a bit. Since Holmes had a consistent schedule when it came to sleep, diet, and work, it’s safe to say these odd behaviors aren’t due to over-exertion or working too hard.

Most great minds need moments of healthy reflection to process all the information they’ve absorbed throughout the day. A hyper-active and hyper-observant mind such as Sherlock’s probably needs more time to digest and think than others.

The “dreamy, vacant expression” seems to refer to a person looking inward, tuning out the outside world, and thinking deeply.

There are other eccentricities to Sherlock Holmes that relate to his thinking and problem-solving abilities. The biggest one is probably his habit of playing the violin.

    “[His powers of the violin] were very remarkable, but as eccentric as all his other accomplishments. There he could play pieces, and difficult pieces, I knew well, because at my request he has played me some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder, and other favorites. When left to himself, however, he would seldom produce any music or attempt any recognized air. Leaning back in his arm-chair of an evening, he would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle thrown across his knee. Sometimes the chords were sonorous and melancholy. Occasionally they were fantastic and cheerful. Clearly they reflected the thoughts which possessed him, but whether the music aided those thoughts, or whether the playing was simply the result of a whim or fancy, was more than I could determine.”

When left to his own devices and not playing a popular piece of classical music for Watson, Holmes seems to use the violin as an improvisational tool to get more in touch with his inner thoughts and feelings.

As a musician myself who likes to improvise, I often see music as a way to “think without words” – it’s another way for me to reflect on and digest my experiences that doesn’t require language or conversation.

It’s possible Sherlock uses the violin as a way to take a break from his busy mind (a form of leisure or self-care), or that he uses it as an extension of his mind to help think more clearly and get in touch with his gut and intuition.

Whatever the case may be, Sherlock’s violin playing is an important part of his daily routine and what makes him who he is.


Sherlock Holmes is a great example of an intelligent and inquisitive mind. A Study in Scarlet is a fun introduction to his strange ways and what makes him tick. I’m looking forward to reading more stories about him in the future to dive deeper into what makes him such a unique and memorable character.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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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