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Emotions, Moods and Reactions

Savoring the Micro-Moments of Human Connection

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Habits and Strategies, Happiness


It’s easy these days to get drawn into a variety of small boxes: computers, televisions, ipads, kindles, smart phones… or occasionally even an actual book. There are a lot of wonderful possibilities within each of these (particularly books, but I’m old fashioned), but they can also deprive us, if we’re not careful, of life’s greatest joys: the treasure of human connection.

Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to counter this tendency, and enjoy the benefits of a richer emotional life, and a healthier physical life, as a result. I’ll show you how shortly.

One of my favorite researchers is Barbara Fredrickson, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One of her books is Love 2.0, in which she looks at “love from the body’s perspective.” She has been studying how the experience of the emotion of love affects your physiology, including your physical health.

Now, when we hear the word “love,” the first form that usually comes to mind is romantic love. But this is only one framework within which we feel the emotion of love. The emotion of love requires safety and trust, and a Long-term, committed love relationship can create the opportunity for feeling the emotion of love often – but it is not the only place. We love our children, we love other family members, we love our friends…

We even feel a kind of love in what Fredrickson calls “micro-moments of connection.” The nice conversation we have with the checkout person at the grocery store; the warm greeting of welcome by a new acquaintance at a meeting; even the moment of eye contact with a stranger who holds open a door. That wonderful warm feeling is something that is much more ubiquitous than we might expect.

It turns out that these micro moments of connection are actually filled with stuff that is good for us, emotionally, psychologically, and in terms of our overall health… like a good meal is filled with nutrients.

The more positive emotions we have, the better our “vagal tone” is. Our vagal tone is the strength and health of our vagus nerve, which connects our heart with our brain and our internal organs. Our vagus nerve, among other things, controls our heart rate variability.

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How to Overcome Our Old, Limiting Beliefs

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


Have you ever felt that in striving toward a goal of some kind, that there’s something holding you back? Something that you can’t see or grasp clearly, but you feel it’s there, slowing you down – like you just can’t get traction?

This is something that most of us have experienced to one degree or another.

Maybe we find we hit a wall with how much income we earn; or we find a pattern in our relationships that limits our sense of closeness; or we feel there’s some obstacle in our work that we can’t seem to overcome.

It can feel like there’s a threshold that we can’t seem to cross, no matter how hard we try. We struggle to improve whatever it is, but it’s as though there’s something working against us, like a gravitational pull that keeps drawing us back within a certain range.

When this happens, what we may be experiencing is the effect of a rotten belief.

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If You Want to be Miserable, Compare Yourself to Others

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


We have a unique capacity to envision an immense variety of possible future states. This allows us have ideals and strive for them, to plan, to learn and grow… and to want things.

In an essential way this orientation toward the future is what makes us human. We can imagine something we want to achieve, something we want to avoid, something we want to have, and then we can plan and aim ourselves toward achieving, avoiding, or gaining possession of whatever it is.

But there’s a downside.

What if I want something that other people have, and I don’t?

What if I want something that I had in the past but no longer have?

What if I expect to have something, but don’t end up getting it?

What if I want something I can’t have?

That gap, between what we have and what we want, can inspire us to strive, to persevere, to lean into our lives more… but it can also make us miserable.

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Mastering Emotions Through Sensing Your Body

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


Learning to feel, understand, and use our emotions is central to mastering the complexity of life. Our emotions become much clearer and easier to use the more we pay attention to the physical sensations that go with them.

For many of us, emotions are something of a mystery. On the one hand, they can be delightful; they give life meaning and depth that would be impossible without them. On the other hand, they can be uncomfortable; they can hinder and disturb us; and anger in particular can sometimes cause a whole lot of very big trouble.

How do you know you feel afraid? Is your breath more shallow, your chest tight, your belly vibrating?

For many of us, the first sense we have of fear is when we’re already overtaken by the emotion, uncomfortable with the need to avoid or endure something that feels threatening.

In the case of panic attacks, the physical process leading to the emotion of panic can start much earlier than the panic itself. A tightening of our chest, a constriction in our breathing, can lead to a change in CO2 levels in our blood as early as 40 minutes before we feel anything! By the time we’re actually panicking we’re already in trouble, with an intensity of emotion that can be genuinely disabling.

Often, panic is not about an external fear at all, it’s a physical response to feeling like we’re suffocating – because the CO2 levels in our blood are telling us that we are.

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A Strategy for Quieting Painful Memories

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


About a hundred years ago, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was sitting in a café in Vienna waiting for her coffee refill. It never came. She noticed that her waiter had an excellent memory for all of his customers’ orders, but somehow had forgotten her coffee.

Bluma set herself to the task of investigating this phenomenon further. What she found in her subsequent studies was this: People tend to remember the details of things exceptionally well when those things are unfinished. She had already paid her waiter, so he had forgotten about her because he was finished with her as a customer.

What is unfinished haunts us. It stays with us, nagging us to bring it to completion. There is something immensely useful to understand here.

Bluma theorized that incomplete tasks create psychic tension within a person, which motivates them to complete those tasks. Painful memories of the past often have a quality of regret. Regret for having had to endure some sort of trauma; for having missed out on a relationship we might have had; for having done something that went against our values… or having not done something that mattered to us.

What is fascinating is that these painful memories seem to lose their energy as soon as we do something in the present, so that we are no longer perpetuating what was painful in the past. If we are lonely, and have been lonely for a long time, the emotional energy of our loneliness dissolves as soon as we begin having the kind of social interactions we have been longing for.

The reality of our past loneliness doesn’t disappear, but the sadness and the draw to ruminate on the memory of it does.

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The Healing Power of Playfulness

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


A relationship can have complex and unique needs at any given time, so there isn’t really a one size fits all panacea for troubles. But of all the specific actions we can take to improve our relationships, I have found none that apply as often or as effectively as this:

Be playful.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But it’s more challenging than meets the eye, and there are clear guidelines for it to work:

We have to approach play as allies, as a member of the same team; we have to be for our spouse, our child, our friend, our co-worker; and the play must have a spirit of love, kindness and optimism, as opposed to cynicism or sarcasm. There cannot be bitterness or resentment clouding the play; it’s the combination of creative, interactive flow and positive emotions that elevates us.

If you’re up for the challenge, you’re in for some pleasant surprises.

In over four decades of working with couples, families, individuals, and teams, I’ve found that playfulness is one of the clearest indicators of how things are going. When I meet a couple who are playful with each other in this way, even if their troubles are big ones, I know that the chances that they’ll prevail through whatever they’re struggling with are extremely good.

On the other hand, without playfulness, even small troubles can be overwhelming.

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The Quiet Power of Kindness

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


For some, happiness is a word that conjures up visions of selfish people concerned only with their own pleasure; but this sort of hedonistic approach to happiness is a recipe for serial bursts of pleasure at the expense of long-term happiness.

When I speak of happiness, I am describing a much richer concept; more akin to what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia or “success at being human.”

One of the central elements for living well is how we relate to other people. In this regard, happiness is literally the opposite of self-centeredness or self-absorption. In fact, contrary to many Las Vegas advertisements or Hollywood-lifestyle fantasies, self-absorption is a key ingredient for depression, and single-minded focus on personal pleasure is a recipe for long-term misery.

So here’s the single most effective thing we can do to get an immediate and significant boost to our genuine happiness – and to set the stage for a deeper, long-term happiness as well. It’s simple. It’s not mysterious. But it is substantial:

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Distinguishing Wanting from Liking

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness

What we want, and what we end up liking when we get it are two different things. They each involve different parts of our brain, and different states of mind.

Understanding this difference and bringing more consciousness to what you think you want can save you a huge amount of time, effort, and money.

This last bit is important, the amount of money we spend on things that we want, but then end up not liking, can be huge. It can make the difference between financial ease or financial stress; a sense of abundance or a sense of desperation. It can make it possible – or impossible – to save and invest.

I’ve had clients who, though they make plenty of money to live very well, end up feeling desperate and on edge financially – because they spend more than they make, buying things they want.

This doesn’t need to happen. It’s a simple enough math problem, easy to solve on paper – just don’t spend more than you make, right? But desire is a powerful motivator, and our emotions can mislead us hard with this one.

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If You Want to Change Something, Measure It

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.
― H. James Harrington

It is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind the nature of the particular subject admits. – Aristotle

Our ability to learn is based on feedback.

If I bump my head on a cabinet, the pain lets me know to duck next time… or to change the layout of my cabinets! If a conversation sparks my interest, that spark lets me know to pay closer attention. If I feel awful whenever I spend time with a particular acquaintance, that awful feeling tells me to reconsider spending more time with him.

There is a whole field of study of psychophysiology and biofeedback that is dedicated to helping people learn to control aspects of their physiology, including certain brainwaves, in order to achieve greater relaxation, lowered blood pressure, and other psychological and health benefits.

But we don’t need that level of sophistication in order to make use of biofeedback. Our own bodies, and many common devices, give us plenty to go on… if we pay attention. This holds the key to taking charge of much more of our psychological and physiological existence than many of us know.

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Using Hope Effectively

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

When we think of emotions that can be dangerous, particularly for managing money and investing, we usually think of things like greed and fear. But there are other emotions that can get us into big trouble. Including hope.

But there’s a way to manage hope so that we’re able to have our dreams for the future, and then make them happen in the real world – if that’s possible.

Greed is a kind of hunger for things in themselves, disconnected from any genuine well-being, and regardless of the consequences. Fear speaks to the need for security – including that deep primal need for survival we talked about an earlier column.

Hope speaks to wishes for potential future flourishing.

A significant portion of our psyche leans toward the future. Our self-concept holds an evolving image of the person we want to be – always a bit better than we are now. Hope is the emotion that draws us toward that image, and the vision of the life we want to lead.

Hope lies at the heart of our aspirations and ambitions; our dreams and wishes. It fuels us to strive for goals and achievements.

It can also lead us to wish for things we cannot have, aspire to achievements we cannot reach, and fantasize dreams that we cannot fulfill.

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