What Facebook Does (To You)

I had been an active Facebook user for six years since 2008 and honestly, the login was part of my daily routine for the vast majority of my days. A few months ago I deleted my account. Since then, a lot of people asked me what my reasons were and how I feel without FB. So here it goes.

Part I: Facebook and I – True Friends?

weareallfriendsIn the phase of sweet beginnings, Facebook (FB) introduced itself as a great companion which would make life better for free. “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life“. I felt like it was part of an exciting new era, and I myself part of a young generation of people who travel the world and chose a global outlook. FB was the novel, brilliant invention to bring us all together so that we could find people, stay friends and thus maintain a network bigger than any other generation before.

Very well then. I was happy, made loads of friends and shared as much about myself as I was comfortable with.

Slowly then, FB became nosy and started nagging. „To which of your friends‘ schools did you go to?“ —- We figure these people are close to your network. Want to befriend them?“ —- That photo, where was it taken, when and with whom?“ —- You did not log in for a week. Petro uploaded new photos.“

I ignored this as far as I could.

What FB did get to know about me nevertheless, they used to try and make me buy things. The timeline became smaller and the ad space bigger. I accepted this. After all, everyone has to make money somehow.

What often left me upset though was that FB never communicated when the rules of engagement had changed.spying Forgotten to log out? Too bad, because FB now wanted to know what its users do on the rest of the web. Since then, any website that has the FB like button tells FB whenever one of their users makes a visit. FB knows which websites you visit, when you did it and from which computer.

I thought I’d simply refuse to click on FB like buttons and carried on.

I generally tried to take maximum control of my profile, but it seemed FB made an effort to keep it difficult. When Pinterest suddenly wanted to post things in my name on my time line every time I logged in, the button to agree was always blue like the log in button, while disagreeing was white text on a white background, far less visible, intuitive and it didn’t always work. I disconnected Pinterest from FB but somehow FB started to feel creepy.

One of these days I saw photos of people who were not my FB friends, simply because one of my friends was tagged somewhere in their album. When I confirmed for events in my groups or wrote comments there, startingly, they got broadcasted to my whole network. By accident I also realised that I was able to share photos of people with whom I wasn’t even friends. It dawned on me that I had no idea with whom I was sharing my life, thanks to FB’s new policy to control privacy settings on an item-by-item basis. This process puts everyone at risk of sharing something publicly they would rather keep private, simply by forgetting to check or uncheck a box (see here).

This can have devastating consequences: a friend of mine who works for an American corporation in Germany told me how one of her colleagues gossiped about her boss on FB, another colleague pressed the like button and a third, unknown person reported the case to the compliance department. Both Facebookers got fired immediately.

I started to generally distrust and dislike FB, but what held me there was the idea that I would lose touch with my friends who I can not see regularly and I did not feel like I had any alternative.

FacebookThen, one day, all at once, FB seemed to know everyone on every photo I looked at and encouraged me to tag them. This was the result of an upgrade of FB’s facial recognition function: FB now compares profile pictures with photos that anyone uploads. In fact, FB’s facial recognition program DeepFace is already as accurate as the human brain (it can verify your face with 97.25% accuracy). This implies that FB has the ability to track faces across the entirety of the web, and in the future possibly in real life too when we’re on camera somewhere.

Figuring these things out, I realised that FB was not a cozy place to connect with friends and like-minded people any more, or was it ever? In fact, I was a fool to have felt like that. I had to admit that I was addicted to something that was opposed to my personal values and treated me as an expoitable product.

After having read up, I would go so far as to say that FB doesn’t give a shit about their users. Another example: in 2012, FB conducted a massive psychological experiment on 689,003 users removing either all positive or all of the negative posts on their timeline to see how it affected their moods. The experiment ran for a week during which the hundreds of thousands of FB users unknowingly participating may have felt either happier or more depressed than usual. The authors justified, “automated testing was consistent with FB’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on FB, constituting informed consent for this research.” When universities conduct studies, they have to get approval from an ethics board first. But if you have an account (and therefore agreed to FB’s data use policy), you’re in for whatever they want to do. In another 2012 study, researchers at FB collected information on all of the statuses that five million users wrote out but did not post. Did you know that FB keeps track of the status updates you never posted?

And where is it all going?

FB app launched in May 2014 now has the ability to turn on people’s smartphone microphone, to recognize music and tv shows playing in a user’s vicinity. This makes your cellphone a surveillance device par excellence. In addition, FB also encourages smart phone users to activate its app Photo Sync, which automatically synchronises photos from their mobile phones to a private FB album. Whether or not users decide to share the photos on their public newsfeed, FB itself will still have access. That means they can mine those files for their metadata, including the location where the photo was taken and use facial recognition to spot those pictured.

Knowing all this (and some more), I decided this would spell the end of my personal story with FB. I felt certain that the costs had now by far outweighed the benefits.

Part II: The Break Up – Life in isolation?

breakupI wanted to leave as little content on FB as possible, seeing that they never really delete profiles but keep it “for you” to hopefully re-activate after you realise your social isolation in the life thereafter. I hope that what I deleted myself will then eventually be deleted from the FB servers too (while I have no proof of this actually being the case). FB anyhow makes cleanup difficult and plodding. In a process that took several hours, I deleted every single “like” and comment I have ever left on FB one by one, exited the groups I was in, unfollowed sites, removed my photos. All the while FB got alarmed and presented me with new friends to add. I was unable to delete my messages though. FB keeps every single message their users send via FB chat. Whatever you write, wherever, to whomever. At last I sent all my friends a message with my contact details and closed my account.

By now I am off FB for a few months and I can honestly say that (to my own surprise) I haven’t missed it at all, and I never even considered returning. So, what has changed?

When it comes to friends, it’s true, I have lost “touch” with quite a few people. But what does that mean?

The friendships to my closest friends are not really affected. These are the relationships that don’t get hurt when we don’t see each other for a longer period of time and FB was never a defining part of our friendship. Those people are the ones I mostly meet and speak to anyway, and then we do stuff and tell each other how we really feel, even though some of them live very far away.

Then there is a wider group of friends who I would like to be in touch with and meet, but due to challenges of time and space, this doesn’t happen so often and easily. To make it happen, I hope those people will bear with me and use other channels of communication. I don’t intend to go back to the middle ages, but I have chosen to use only free and open source software that respect my rights to privacy. My husband and I use Owncloud to manage contacts, birthdays, appointments, files and photos. We also dropped Google. Our emails and messages are hosted by our own mail server and we use private (encrypted) XMPP chat (if you want to add me as a contact, you’ll find instructions below[1]).

The FB friends that weren’t close to me, I still don’t see. With some of those people I wouldn’t really gel so well with any more in real life, I might not actually know what to say to them if I met them on the street. With other people I share great memories and in theory, I would love to meet them again. But I also came to believe that we are sometimes meant to say bye to people even if we had a great time together. Temporary companions, travelers I had amazing conversations with somewhere over the world, people who were in primary school with me, a date of some time. We have learned from each other, benefited each other, fulfilled the roles of the time. Reconnecting years later via FB simply didn’t do it justice, it couldn’t revive those relationships, and we wouldn’t make the effort to meet up again in person either. “Losing” those people may feel sad in a way, like it sometimes is to age and to let go of the birthday-thanks-facebook-wallpast. But as a matter of fact, it is impossible to maintain relationships with hundreds of people. Technology can not do that for us. [2] In these cases, FB only created an illusion of connection that was possibly often also driven by curiosity rather than the intention to build a relationship.

This brings me to the second point of what I experience as having changed in my life without FB. Whatever we do, watch or consume has an effect on our psyche, our consciousness. Which effect did FB have? I was aware since a long time that I normally didn’t log onto FB when I felt happy and busy, but rather when I was either bored or slightly dissatisfied, and I felt worse after logging out.

checked-facebook-framed-photo-holiday-gift-funny-ecard-uM6Why are we on FB after all? A study showed that FB use is motivated by two primary needs: the need to belong and the need for self-presentation. There is also a correlation between narcissism and the extent to which people use FB (link here). The reasons why we share photos is explained in another study by our need to improve our self worth through our appearance, the approval of others, and the idea of outdoing them. In another study, participants admitted that they disclosed more information about themselves on FB than they would like to, considering that information control and privacy were important to them. However, their need for popularity drove them to disclose. In sum, the review of the literature on FB use suggests that a high level of extroversion, neuroticism, narcissism and low levels of self-esteem and self-worth are associated with high FB use.

glad-paranoia-over-facebook-birthday-ecard-someecardsSo, a big part of what keeps us on FB is our ego. We are in love with the life we would like to have and present to others. The sunshine, the holidays, the fun, the beauty. We seek praise, compliments, don’t want to lose the crowd applauding. This can however create an environment of group pressure and competition, of jeaulosy, gossip and dissatisfaction.

Quitting FB therefore didn’t only stop the abuse of my personal data by a private corporation, it also opened up more productive ways of using my time and it completely removed me from negative emotions that come with social comparison in a fake reality.


The Internet has an amazing potential to connect us as humankind, to let us help and understand one another. A portal like FB with now over 1.3 billion users could have been the tool for this, had they not decided to commodify, manipulate and spy on us instead.

If you don’t pay for a service, then you are the product. I would have been willing to pay a monthly fee to FB for the luxury of privacy and control over my personal content. But FB is not the least interested in empowering their users product.

In the immortal words of Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook: “They trust me — dumb fucks.”



[1] How to add me as a XMPP chat contact 

  1. Go to https://conversejs.org
  2. Click on the “register” tab in the chat box in the bottom right of the page
  3. In the box labelled “your XMPP provider’s domain name“, type “conversejs.org”
  4. Click the button “fetch registration form
  5. Choose a username and password and click the “register” button.
  6. Then, click on “add a contact” and add me: manuela@opkode.com.

You will have to wait until I see and accept your contact request before we can start chatting. To use this chat on your cellphone, I recommend “Conversations“, for use on the laptop, I recommend “Pidgin“.

[2] I have a good friend who gets many birthday wishes every year from his FB friends, none of them being aware that he has set the wrong day and month for his birthday.

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Inspiring Metathoughts – Part II

This gallery contains 16 photos.

This Monday simply didn’t flow as smoothly as I always wish my Mondays to be like, so I decided to stop struggling and instead send out some Metathoughts I collected. This time the quotes and thoughts are focused around the … Continue reading

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Why Travelling is Real Life Condensed: 9 Lessons

The RoadThe last months were marked by transition. Decisions and changes appeared ahead, as I redefined the road I’m choosing to travel.

At the end stands the decision to leave South Africa for Europe, to do clinical psychology training in Munich, Germany, and a masters degree in behaviour therapy at the University of Bern in Switzerland. My goal is to register as a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist in both Germany and South Africa. Expanding on my skills in coaching and facilitation, this will allow me to choose and combine the methods that promise the greatest benefit for my clients, whether they seek personal growth or deeper healing.

I will continue to work as a coach under Metathoughts and will stay part of the facilitator team of CIELARKO, supporting them in building bridges between South Africa and Germany.

I also expanded the range of topics I write about on Metathoughts.net (see “About”). In this blog, I will soon explore with you the realms and depths of human consciousness and the interplay between psychology and spirituality.

WeddingChange also happened in my private life. In December I married JC, my personal hero and partner of 6 years. We celebrated the greatest power, love, with a beautiful, fantasy-themed wedding, and I am honoured and proud to carry JC’s surname Brand from now on.

After that, we went on honeymoon. Don’t however imagine a holiday where we sip cocktails on reclining chairs of a fancy hotel. The pillars of this trip were the ambition to explore South-East-Asia, a rough time frame of 3 months, two backpacks, and an open itinerary only limited by our budget.

This kind of travelling is sometimes uncomfortable, and not always relaxing. So why not opt for a comfortable place where we could feel like “home away from home”?

Read the 9 insights I had on this trip and understand why.


Why Travelling is Real Life Condensed: 9 Lessons

(1) Travelling Means Learning

How do I get from A to B? Is the offered price a rip off or fair? Can I walk around safely here? And is friendly Mr. Z trying to take advantage or truly offering help?

Being settled somewhere often means following a routine. At home, I know my way to the usual places, how things work and the people I meet. So for the majority of time, I tend to stay in that comfort zone. IMG_2844Travelling comes down to the opposite. Moving across cities, countries and cultures means continuously seeking and meeting novel challenges. Managing pushy salesmen, eating dodgy food, getting lost in the heat or being surrounded by people whose language you don’t speak can feel intimidating, especially when you don’t know your surroundings. Over time however, you learn to deal with novel challenges and eventually master them. The result is what we call life experience.

Travelling is life in its condensed form as it accelerates this process of learning and gaining experience.

(2) Carry Your Desires

At every destination I see beautiful things in shops and markets and usually I fall in love with one or two items. A piece of hand-made jewellery or clothing, a handicraft, whatever is on offer. I get excited and anticipate using those things back at home. I think it will remind me of the trip and make me happy, somehow I will be more complete, more beautiful or interesting if I possess this item.

BackpackFor this trip, my luggage consisted of 11 kg of all that I needed, even including some things I in the end didn’t use. Having to carry it for an extended period of time meant that whatever I desired to buy, I had to carry until the end and could often use only much later. This brought up some interesting thoughts which made me question my shopping habits. I began to resist the desire to buy. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes difficult, and again, it reminded me of life. I know very well, every time I moved house, I found my new place spacious in the beginning. When it was time to move out, I realised it was filled up with stuff. Things which I thought I needed at the time of the purchase had disappeared from my mind and sight into closets. Some items stayed nice reminders of special times, but nothing of what I own ever made me happy in such a way that it removed the need to buy more. For most of us Westerners, this means moving to bigger and bigger places throughout our lifetime.

What travelling taught me about life is that the same stuff that we once so desired can wear us down. More stuff can be nice to have and provide more comfort, but ultimately, it makes us heavy and hinders us in moving on.

(3) Once In A Lifetime Is Now

While travelling, I am completely aware that time is limited and I might never come back to the particular place I am currently at. Knowing that we will leave in a few days, I am aware that I need to do what I can; and what I do not do today, might never happen.

At home, I think of many things as ordinary and repeatable. I can eat at my favourite restaurants any time, gym today or tomorrow, and visit friends and colleagues “when we find time”. This creates the illusion that there is plenty of time to do anything, and I do not particularly appreciate many of the single actions that make up my days. I cancel on opportunities or invitations regularly as there is always time “next week/month” etc. This idea that we can do things any time not only makes us lazy, it also speeds up time in hindsight: a month or even a year filled with routine activities that were not appreciated or celebrated seems like a short blur of time when I look back.

Travelling is life condensed, because the constant and sharp change in daily experiences made me realize that ultimately, there is no dichotomy of a “once-in-a-life-time” as opposed to “everyday experiences”. Wherever we are, every single moment is a once-in-a-life-time-moment that will never come back. We can never know whether we will be able to repeat it, nor will it be the same when we do.

(4) Meet Yourself Alone

beachA beautiful island. Sunshine. Palm trees. Cheap and delicious food. No problems. But there I sit and simply feel unhappy. Although my surroundings are paradise, when I am honest to myself, I don’t quite feel it.

When we feel dissatisfied or unhappy, we often blame the situation we are in. Work, money, traffic, politics, there are many things that can spoil one’s mood. Like most people, when I take a holiday, I try to ensure my happiness by eliminating those things and by spoiling myself: a nice place, dinner, wine, books and fun activities. Ideally, when I’m back home, I feel recharged as I enter my routine again.

While travelling, you might however find yourself somehow unhappy or dissatisfied, even though all the external factors are perfect. This may come as a surprise, and great lesson: While there are many things we can do to make ourselves feel good instantly, especially on a holiday, this trip showed me that their effects are superficial and limited in time. True happiness can only come from within, even in paradise.

(5) Feel The Danger

One hour after arrival in Vietnam, I find myself on the back of a scooter, driven by a Vietnamese man in his fifties. Suddenly I realize that I am separated from my husband, that I do not have a cellphone, nor any money on me. I don’t speak a word of Vietnamese, nor does the driver speak English. In fact, I do not even know the guy at all. All I have is the agreement that he will take me to a bus which will take us to another bus that will take us to Saigon. We don’t even have a ticket as proof, but it was our only option at the last minute. As we speed over a bridge the driver almost loses his helmet. I push it back on his head and think I must be crazy to find myself in such a risky situation. But at the same time, somehow I am thrilled. I feel alive.

I see myself as a person who is committed to making choices which will assure me a long, healthy and prosperous life. I make informed decisions, don’t smoke, save money, use seat belts, have insurance and so on. As a result, I believe my chances are pretty good. Most of the time, I almost forget that life is dangerous and that I am mortal after all. TarantulaTravelling on a budget outside of beaten routes however changes the game, especially in developing countries. You can not help but be aware of your vulnerability when you’re on a heavily overloaded boat without life vests, or when a tarantula appears while you’re washing yourself in the jungle. Simply put, if you travel long enough, you will be in danger sooner or later.

This means life condensed for me because it makes it more real. The true nature of being alive is to face risks and to have to deal with them. Even when we believe we are sheltered, dangers exist in any case, and the price of trying to eliminate them is that we don’t experience life fully.

 (6) Know Your Partner

While travelling, you can not hide anything from your travel partner. Bad habits, fears or dirty clothes. You have to agree on everything: the places you go to, the money you spend, the things you do. You need to make things work, in any place and setting, any weather, not only now and tomorrow, but every day without a break. Your travel companion is your friend and family abroad, while also your adversary and mirror.

Modern life, between work, commute, children, hobbies and its general management, hardly leaves any time for the development of relationships. Travelling on the other hand exposes their core: most normal tasks and routines removed, we have to constantly deal with each other. An extended journey poses such a multitude and variety of challenges to a relationship that if there are any issues, it is guaranteed that they will come out and require attention in order for the trip to become a success. This is life condensed because it cuts right through the masks we wear in daily life and forces us to deal with what defines ourselves and our relationships. Thus I believe if two people can travel together, they can do almost anything else together too. If a relationship can handle the strains of a long trip, it will arise deeply strengthened in a way that would otherwise require years of daily life. If a trip weakens or questions the bond of travel companions, then travelling might have sped up a process that needed to be dealt with in any case, and that is ultimately for the better.

Seeing life as the ultimate journey on which we embark only once: what is more important than the people we choose to travel with?

(7) Know Where You Go

Whats nextShould we stay a bit longer or move on? The next place can offer all that we could wish for, or it could be disappointing.

Finding places that stand out for their beautiful scenery, food, people or arts is the main mission of most travellers. On this trip, we usually booked two nights at a time, and made a decision every few days. When we didn’t like a place, we moved on. When we liked it, we prolonged our stay. Sometimes several times. Sometimes we moved within a town. We always asked ourselves what we were looking for, and tried to get as close as possible to that. It happened that we left a great place behind only to end up some place worse, and sometimes we left a great place because we simply wanted something else.

The lesson lies in this ongoing process, applied to life: Always know what you seek, so that you realize when it is time for you to go ahead and search for it, but also recognize when you found it.

(8) Stop the Rush

We’re sitting in an old Cambodian bus furnished with dirty, pink curtains. Although our destination is only a little more than 100 km away, the ride is predicted to take about 4 hours, due to horrific traffic and road conditions. After having forged our way through the congested roads of Phnom Penh for about one hour, we suddenly stop at the side of the road. After 20 minutes, we gather that the engine is broken. I start to feel annoyed. It is hot, and after all, we want to arrive at our destination!

While travelling, one constantly needs to investigate the road ahead, book transportation, accommodation, pack, unpack, wash clothes etc. There is a danger to mistake the constant moving and organizing for the trip itself, simply because there is always something to do in order to get on with the trip.

TravellingWhen I sat at the side of the road next to the old bus, I suddenly realized that the delay didn’t really matter at all. Wasn’t this city the place we curiously came to only two days before, to see how people live here? Why then was it great two days ago and not in this moment? And what would I do after arrival? Maybe read a book? – the same book I had with me right now, and I could enjoy reading, instead of being upset. Travelling taught me that we tend to overestimate the importance of our destinations. It is so important for us to to get things done in order to reach the next step that we enjoy the journey too little and miss its gifts, especially when it turns out differently from what we imagined. In travelling as in life, when we arrive, after all we usually face the same challenges again. And ultimately, we all move towards the last destination, which is death.

The lesson? Don’t fall for the trap of always preparing for the next moment. It can only but detract from the current one.

(9) Don’t Judge Too Early

We’re looking for a market in Bangkok which is famous for seafood. When we arrive, we are told that we’re too early. What a pity. – Maybe. We meet a guy who recommends us a boat ride, sunset being a great time for it. We follow his advice and end up enjoying ourselves. Aren’t we lucky to have met him? – Maybe. Later on we hear from someone else that we paid way too much for that boat ride. So it was bad luck after all? – Maybe.

The constant decision making and exploring while travelling brings about many immediate results and it is tempting to judge them all. Missed the train – bad thing. Meet someone nice – good thing. Losing your way – bad thing. Find a waterfall – good thing.

Follow your RoadIn fact however, we can never know whether something is ultimately good or bad. Every event is connected with the past and future in ways we can not see. Every decision opens and closes so many possible consequences that we can only fail if we try to judge based on imagination. Travelling taught me that we can only experience one route in life, and never know how it would have been to walk another. A disappointing experience can save us from a mistake years after still, or something everyone envies us for can be a problem later.

The lesson is that it does not matter. In hindsight and in the bigger picture, all is an essential and valuable part of what the journey teaches us so that we may grow and find meaning on our way.


In this sense, enjoy your life travels and let me know in the comments what lessons travelling has taught you. Here a short video with scenes from the trip.

P.S. Before we went home, we did stay at a resort for some days. It was lovely 🙂

Posted in Metathoughts, Travel Thoughts | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

The path to happiness – Part III: Why you should make an effort to feel good

Read Part I and Part II of this series


I recently spoke to a friend of mine about how we sometimes seem to gain something from being negative, sad or angry. Although we might be aware that our negativity doesn’t serve us, we feel as if it was easier to stay there than to make the effort to get out of this state and enjoy the good life. Furthermore, the thought of feeling light, happy and successful can also scare us. In a state of prolonged frustration and negativity we might feel that we at least have a map for this terrain, at least we know how to steer ourselves through it. The thought of living up to our potential, in comparison, can feel daunting. We become comfortable being uncomfortable.

Being there, one can pose the question of why we should make the effort to try and change? What is there to be gained in feeling good? Recent research findings reveal amazing answers to this question, illuminating the role of emotions and how they affect us. Read on and be inspired.

Why do we feel negative emotions?

Negative Emotion -smiley from tonygines.comNegative emotions usually go alongside with a physiological response and a desire to take some sort of action. When we are scared for example, we might start sweating and feel an urge to escape. When we feel angry, our heart beats faster and we feel an urge to attack. When we feel disgust, we get goose bumps and feel the urge to expel whatever is the source of this feeling. In this way, negative emotions show us that something is wrong. They make us aware that we need to take action so that we can restore or maintain our well-being.

Throughout human evolution, these reactions to negative emotions enabled us to survive. If prehistoric people were scared and didn’t run away, they might have been killed. If they didn’t activate the resources to fight, they might have been eaten by another predator. If they didn’t spit out disgusting food, they might have died through poisoning.

When negative emotions signal a threat, the rational part of the brain (Neocortex) shuts down, while the instinctual reptilian complex of the brain takes over. This leads to only a few fast, automatic reactions. We simply do not have the time to explore and think for too long when things are not right. If you remember having tried to solve a problem under high pressure, like in a job interviews for example, you will know how that feels. You can not think clearly, only to get the answers right after the interview (in other words, when the danger is over).

In modern society where life and death situations are rare, undealt negative emotions usually have long-term consequences. If we do not act, fear and anxiety can lead to phobias, anxiety disorders or stress-related illnesses. Anger which is not dealt with is a factor leading to heart disease and even some cancers.1,2 Sadness and grief can develop into a depression with all its negative effects, the worst one being suicide. In one way or another, the price to pay is high.

Why do we feel positive emotions?

Positive Emotion - smiley from tonygines.comTo date, the role of positive emotions has been studied far less than that of negative ones. The consequences of psychological suffering seemed much more of a pressing problem than the potential benefits of happiness. In the 1990’s, Barbara Fredrickson was one of the pioneers of exploring this field.

In one of her experiments, she placed medical doctors randomly in one of three groups. Group 1 received candy as a gift from her, group 2 read an article about medicine and group 3 was simply a control group. Then she presented all of them with a case of liver disease which was very hard to diagnose. She asked them to think out load as they were making their diagnosis. Looking at the results, she realized that the group which had received the candy did best: they named the liver disease earliest and got to their conclusion through the most efficient thinking process. She proposed that this effect was due to the fact that the candy brought those doctors in a good mood, which, in return, improved their thinking abilities.

Across countless studies, she was able to show that feeling positive makes people think differently in comparison to those who felt negative. She proposed that positive emotions improve our thinking since they are not linked to threats requiring quick action.

If we want to understand how this makes evolutionary sense, we can start by looking at children and the offspring of other mammals. A positive emotion, like joy for example, makes children want to play and to be playful. Although it might look aimless sometimes, play drives brain development and promotes the learning of skills. Physical skills are developed and practised in rough-and-tumble play, cognitive skills are developed when they play with objects, and social skills are developed in their interactions with each other. Over time, play builds children’s physical, intellectual and social resources.

Whether we are aware or not, as adults we are actually not far off. When we are in a good mood, we often get creative and do things we enjoy, such as drawing, reading, learning a language, gardening, making music or doing sports. These are forms of intellectual, social and artistic play through which we too learn new skills and strengthen bonds.

Modern Neuroscience proves this today and declares that a playful, relaxed environment is most ideal for the brain to learn2 (a realisation which is unfortunately still ignored in most traditional training and education).

Now, how did feeling positively lead to a reproductive advantage in evolution? Because the resources we acquire through play are durable, and can be used long after the experience of joy is gone. Think of the ability to outmaneuver a predator, having a mental map for way finding, or the option to turn to someone for help when in distress. Those of our ancestors who played and learned most, were the ones most likely to survive and to couple with the best suitable mates.

The Broaden and Build Theory

Based on these observations, Fredrickson formulated the Broaden and Build Model4. In summary, this theory proposes that positive emotions lead to flexibility in thinking and creativity, which helps us to see more options for action in our current situation (broadening). The purpose of positive feelings is to build a person’s intellectual, physical and social skills and resources in successful times when there are no imminent threats. Simply put, positive emotions open us up to new thoughts and behaviours which we can use later, in other contexts and emotional states. In this sense, feeling positive emotions does not only feel good, but also causes better interaction with the world. We simply function better.

This is an overview of the effects of positive and negative emotions:

Table-Ifor Blog This is a summary of the scientific studies which have been conducted so far, showing that positive emotions lead to improvements in all of the following areas:

Table-IIfor BlogLooking at the table, it becomes clear that positive emotions do not only let us feel better in a passing moment. The feeling of happiness has the potential to improve who we are in each area of life. Everything we do to experience joy, perhaps through play or socialising, can yield psychological benefits that help us to builds resources for life’s challenges. Most recent studies even indicate that positive emotions undo the effects that past negative emotions had on us5. In this way, they protect us against psychological disorders and promote mental health.

In western culture, historically, hard work and self-discipline have been seen as values, while leisure and pleasure were seen as sinful. This might be a reason why we know quite little yet about this potential for personal growth that lies in positive emotions.

What is crucial to recognize though, is that positive and negative emotions are fundamentally incompatible because we can not feel both at the same time. We have a choice in every moment. Seeing that we are meant to build resources in safe times, by playing, exploring and socialising: Do you life in safe times currently? Then ask yourself what can you do to uplift your mood and schedule it into your diary or start right away. Shift towards feeling joyful by seeing life more as a game. There is much less to fear than we think, and much more to gain than we can imagine. We need to overcome our fears and laziness. And please share your experiences in the comment’s section.


394356_339150039508430_236698872_nThis is a write up of the Positive Psychology Meeting I held in Cape Town in April. If you are interested in these topics, click here to become a member of the group and join our meetings.

Read Part I and Part II of this series


1 Eysenck, H. J. (1994). Cancer, personality and stress: Predictions and prevention. Advances in Behavioral Research and Therapy, 16, 167–215.

2 Greer, S., & Morris, T. (1975). Psychological attributes of women who develop breast cancer: A controlled study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 19, 147–153.

3 Davachi, L., Kiefer, T., Rock, D. & Rock, L. (2010). Learning that lasts through AGES. Neuroleadership Journal, 3, 1-11.

4 Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300–319.

5 Fredrickson, B. L., Mancuso, R. A., Branigan, C., & Tugade, M. M. (2000). The undoing effects of positive emotions. Motivation and Emotion, 24, 237-258. Read here.

Fredrickson, B. Cultivating Positive Emotions to Optimize Health and Well-Being. Prevention and Treatment, Volume 3, Article 0001a. Read here.

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Inspiring Metathoughts – Part I

These are the quotes and thoughts which inspired me most over the last few months. Chose one which particularly speaks to you and leave me a comment on what it means for you, and how you are going to act on it. Be inspired.

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Turning Stress and Trauma into Positive Change

Cheetah and Springbok A herd of springbok grazes peacefully in the Bushveld. Suddenly, the wind shifts, carrying with it a new, but familiar scent. The springboks sense danger in the air and become instantly tensed to a hair trigger of alertness. They sniff, look, and listen carefully for a few moments, but when no threat appears, the animals return to their grazing, relaxed yet vigilant. Seizing the moment, a stalking cheetah leaps from its cover of dense shrubbery. As if it were one organism, the herd springs quickly toward a protective thicket. One young springbok trips for a split second, and then recovers. But it is too late. In a blur, the cheetah lunges towards its intended victim, and the chase is on at a blazing 100 km per hour. At the moment of contact, the springbok falls to the ground, surrendering to its impending death1.

The springbok has instinctively entered an altered state of consciousness shared by all mammals when death appears imminent. Physiologists call it the “immobility” or “freezing” response which is one of the three primary responses available to reptiles and mammals when facing a threat. The other two, fight or flight, are usually more familiar to us as human beings.

The immobility response serves two functions. When the cheetah tears the springbok apart with its claws and teeth, it won’t experience pain while being in this “frozen” state. And secondly, the immobility response is also a survival strategy. The cheetah might drag its prey to a safer place before eating it. During this time, the springbok could awaken from its frozen state and use an unguarded moment to make a hasty escape.

What is trauma?

Trauma is a shocking or stressful experience that occurs in a state of helplessness or absence of control. This can include events like natural disasters, exposure to violence, accidents, falls, serious illnesses, sudden loss, surgical procedures or birth. Newer definitions of trauma however also emphasize the cumulative effects of life’s “little traumas”. Continuous daily stress for example can reach a tipping point where we might feel overwhelmed and helpless, almost “frozen” in the situation. These conditions can lead to the same symptoms which are often displayed in post traumatic stress disorder, such as anxiety, insomnia, depression and even suicidal thoughts.

Thinking back to the springbok: if it had escaped the cheetah, would it have experienced trauma? The answer is no. The springbok would have returned to its herd and moved on with its life as if nothing happened. A similar event happening to a human being might have had serious psychological consequences. So what is the difference between humans and animals in dealing with stressful and traumatic events?

Why humans suffer from trauma

As human beings, we share certain parts of our brain with other mammals and reptiles. Those parts comprise the so-called “reptilian brain” which drives instinctual responses. When we are faced with what is perceived as an inescapable or overwhelming threat, humans use the same immobility response as the springbok. We don’t have conscious control over this reaction, it is involuntarily activated by the reptilian brain. Imagine driving around a bend in your car while suddenly, a big truck directly speeds towards you; or imagine you closely witness an accident. Unless trained otherwise, we usually first freeze.

In this state, our internal nervous system is highly active and energized, while the outer body is immobile. This creates a forceful turbulence inside the body. Subsequent trauma is not caused by the event itself, but stems from the frozen residue of this energy that has not been discharged, but instead remains trapped in the nervous system. Symptoms develop when we cannot complete the process of moving into, through and out of the immobility or freezing state. Symptoms are the organism’s way of dealing with the residual energy.

SpringbokIn contrast to us, animals in the wild instinctively discharge all their compressed energy after the threatening event, they literally shake it off, and seldom develop adverse symptoms. Children up until the age of seven are often still able to use this natural mechanism: being threatened, they will get a fright, shake until they feel better, and then carry on with their lives. This natural mechanism has however become socially unacceptable in most cultures. Over centuries of acculturation we have suppressed this organic inbuilt function, since we defined shaking as a pathology or weakness.

What we can do

Sometimes we try to discharge the residual energies in dysfunctional ways, for example by drinking alcohol or taking medication, keeping us in a viscous cycle and aggravating problems. Taking into account that the reactions caused by trauma are controlled by the reptilian brain and not susceptible to conscious will, even talking about the event and working through the emotions may lead to improvements, but not dissolve the trauma itself.

Based on these findings, Dr. David Berceli developed Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) which re-activate the natural response to stress. The so-called neurogenic tremors kick in automatically after certain muscle groups have been stretched and lightly tensed. The shaking then allows the autonomic nervous system to return to a balanced state. These exercises are easy to learn and dissolve the trauma on a physical level by taping in the body’s own healing resources.

The Hopeful Message of Trauma

As David Berceli puts it: “The human animal is designed to experience, endure and survive traumatic episodes. If we did not possess this ability, the human species would have become extinct shortly after it was born. This natural ability to let go of and resolve post traumatic reactions is genetically encoded in us to complete one process and begin something new as a part of our unending cycle of evolution.”

When we are stressed or traumatised, we feel overwhelmed. However, this state contains an immense opportunity to leave our old ways of thinking behind and grow into an improved existence. Nelson Mandela is a South African role-model for how immense stress can be turned into a higher morality and being. When mobilized correctly, the same energy that created the trauma, can be transformed and utilised for positive growth.

TRE and Positive Psychology

The insights above call for stress and trauma interventions that integrate both body and mind. FMRI imaging of the brain has proven that the brain is constantly rewiring itself according to the messages received from the body. When the body learns to return to a homoeostasis through TRE, we gain a new openness as well as powerful insights on which we can build to make positive and lasting changes in our lives.

Melanie Silberbauer (TRE Level 2, Sole-Reiki, massage and energy balancing practitioner) and I have designed a course that combines the benefits of TRE exercises (body) and Positive Psychology Coaching (mind).

The course will take 8 weeks in total and include 6 integrated TRE sessions with a focus on Positive Psychology as well as 2 one-on-one coaching sessions.

Benefits of the course

  • The TRE exercises can be used at home after the course. The changes and insights of each participant will be accompanied with journalling, group discussions and coaching, to ensure lasting change.

  • The course addresses, connects and aligns body and mind: TRE accesses the instinctual, reptilian part of the brain and unlocks the energy stored in the body by stressful and traumatic experiences. Positive Psychology Coaching builds on this openness for change, accessing the rational, human part of the brain (neo-cortex) by helping participants to make their insights and realisations conscious and to implement concrete, positive steps for change.
  • After releasing the physical tension, we look and build on what what is right, rather than wrong in our lives. “We are much more likely to heal from the effects of trauma by creating a positive framework”. (Peter A. Levine, “Waking the Tiger”). This course is therefore not about looking back onto trauma and re-living it, but about shifting into a more authentic and hopeful self that is emerging forward, and focusing on how we can foster positive emotions in our daily lives.

The course will start in May at the Mayfair Cottage in Somerset West, please contact me or Melanie for more information.



1 The theoretical contents of this blog are based on Dr. Peter A. Levine’s work and his book “Waking the Tiger – Healing Trauma”, 1997, North Atlantic Books, California.

Image from Stockvault User 2happy


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Can we think ourselves healthy or sick?

Mario pondersThinking about Positive Psychology and well-being, one  will sooner or later ponder the question whether and how our thinking, or mind, influences health and disease.

Answers to this question vary greatly. On the one extreme is the traditional medical viewpoint, in which illness constitutes a biophysical disorder and is caused by factors such as viruses, trauma, genetic vulnerability or environmental triggers (e. g. toxins). On the other end of the spectrum, people, such as the followers of the New Age movement, see every illness as a lesson, brought upon us because we need to learn something important in order to grow spiritually. In this paradigm, it is the mind alone that causes the illness, and the mind alone can cure it.

Let’s be honest: whatever you believe, you will likely be able to find prove for it. Let’s consider the following scenarios:

  • Think of a young child that died of cancer. Could it possibly have contributed to its illness, did it fail to “learn its lesson”? If the answer is no, then it can not have been the mind that caused the illness.
  • But then, recent studies proved that people with positive emotions have a later lung cancer onset, higher resistance to viral infections and better immune functioning when compared to people with a rather negative mindset. If all other variables are identical in those studies, wasn’t it the mind that made the difference towards health?

I recently read some books on this topic 1, 2 and would summarize my viewpoint on how we can reconcile these events in three statements:

1. Western Medicine and Psychology: an artificial ditch

Western Medicine started out as a purely physical-level science. Medical practitioners can usually observe or “measure” disease and progress towards healing, for example by quantifying various body functions such as temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, hormone levels etc. In contrast, Psychology became the science of internal processes that require interpretation: psychological disease and growth can only be assessed indirectly, through people’s self-description in questionnaires and conversations. They can however not be measured directly through diagnostic tests.*

In accordance to the above, the classification of an illness can be relatively straight forward. When we break our leg for example, nobody would recommend psychotherapy, just as we would not suggest surgery to a trauma victim.

This western world view however, which defines things as belonging to categories possessing discrete attributes and sharp boundaries to other classes of things, is now being challenged in many fields.

The Platypus refuses to fit our scientific categories

The Platypus does not want to fit our scientific categories

Where, for example, does “orange” end and “red” begin? Where does homosexuality end and bisexuality begin? When does a mammal become a reptile? Where does bipolar disorder end and schizophrenia begin? None of these questions can be answered satisfactorily, and so the Australian Platypus is classified as a mammal although it does lay eggs, and psychologists introduce more disorders such as the schizo-affective disorder for cases that share symptoms of both bipolar depression and schizophrenia.

These challenges however point towards the realisation that things don’t exist in distinct categories, but are inter-connected within a continuum. In the health sector, the separation between “psychological” versus “medical” illness is not only insufficient for explaining reality, but is often counter-productive to those who seek help. In fact, most diseases don’t stem from a single and isolated cause, but are a product of countless uniquely interacting factors (e.g. heredity, occupation, culture, diet, life-style, personality, mindset). None of those factors can be isolated from the others, and it gets more complex as they also manifest on different levels.

Consequently, over the last decades more and more physical troubles have been understood as so called psychosomatic disorders: there is now an acknowledgement that their occurrence and development are influenced by social, psychological and behavioural factors. To name just a few, some of those disorders are chronic pain, tinnitus, diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases3.

 2. Both body and mind affect healing

Based on the points above, it is impossible to examine or treat the body without affecting the mind and vice versa. “Body” and “mind” are simply two aspects of the same thing, and whatever happens on one level of being affects all the other levels to a greater or lesser degree.

Consider the recent study of Prof. Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin: Two groups of hospital patients were anxious about a forthcoming operation. Both of them received an anti-anxiety drug through a catheter on a regular schedule. However, only one of the the two groups was visited by a doctor by the time the drug was given. The doctor only did some basic checks, after which he reassured them that they should feel better in a moment. Those in the other group received the usual hospital care, but no doctor’s visit. The remarkable discovery was that only those who saw the doctor got any benefit from the drug, while the other group reported no benefit at all. This shows that the reassurance by the doctor caused the effect as it created a positive shift in the patient’s mind, while the effect of the “real treatment”, the drug, was negligible.4

In exactly the same way can physical illness affect the mind. Simply think back to a time when you were severely sick or had chronic pain. Try to remember how it changed the way you felt, or which changes you made after your recovery.

The next question would be how much influence our thoughts have on physical parameters. This is a difficult question to answer and differs from person to person. Consider the Tummo monks who can through meditation alter their body temperature to a point where they can dry wet towels on their uncovered skin in freezing temperatures. We are only at the beginning of an understanding of what is possible.

One of the most successful and rather easy strategies which have been proven beneficial for healing is positive visualisation. Imagery influences our body and immune system directly, be it positively or negatively. The reason for this is that the visual circuit is evolutionary much older than others areas of the brain (like those responsible for language for example), and thus more ingrained in our physiology.

3. The logical fallacy

The above suggests that every healing process is affected by psychology, and every illness has a psychological component. In this regard, every illness could be be called psychosomatic. This is a crucial realisation which was disregarded or underestimated in the history of Western societies.

In some New Age circles however, people seem to have moved to the other extreme, postulating that all illness is created by our own mind (which one would call psychogenic, not psychosomatic). These beliefs seems to be strong especially for very scary diseases about whose causes we still have very little knowledge, like cancer.

This is also due to the reason that people often make significant and profound psychological changes when they suffer from a major illness, and bystanders then conclude that it was the lack of those changes that caused the illness. This is not necessarily true, and in some cases this would be as if someone observed a person taking an aspirin to treat a headache, and then concluded it was a lack of the pill’s active agent acetylsalicylic acid that caused the headache.

Be free to think!Obviously, anyone is free to hold their own beliefs on the questions raised. Yet, it can be perceived as judgemental and patronizing for patients suffering from a major, life threatening illness when outsiders provide a self-made diagnosis which holds them entirely responsible for their pain. This is where I would speak out for cautiousness and sincere interest in the patient’s circumstances instead of judgement. Sometimes we like to believe that someone brought negative circumstances upon themselves because the alternative conclusion, that bad things can randomly happen to good people, threatens us.

From a holistic viewpoint, illness is a product of various physical, emotional and mental factors, and treatment should involve all of these dimensions where applicable. Furthermore, thought processes and beliefs can most definitely be the deciding factor towards health or sickness. I believe we should use the power of our thoughts as much as we can, and newer fields such as Behavioural Medicine acknowledge this by combining medical and psychological treatments.

There are however also factors we cannot influence, and sometimes we might have to surrender and realise that we are not like an almighty being who can order the universe around as we please. To know the difference is real wisdom, as reflected in an old prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,          

The courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”



*Although psychiatrists, coming from the medical camp, try to develop tools which can measure objective markers for psychological disorders.

1 Ken Wilber: Grace and Grit, Shambala Publications, 1991. For a deeper discussion of the questions above I highly recommend this book. Read my Amazon review here: amzn.to/RRUIEK

2 Carolyn Myss: Anatomy of the Spirit, Three River’s Press, 1996. This book is based on the assumption that all physical illness is caused by emotional and psychological stressors, and can be healed by the mind. Read my Amazon review of the book here: amzn.to/RRUIEK

3 Ehlert: Verhaltensmedizin (Behavioural Medicine), Textbook, Springer 2003.

4 Reader’s Digest, South Africa, 09/12

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Horses as Coaches: What a horse can teach you

At present, I am involved in the development of a coaching program on communication and leadership with horses.

This involvement was at first a professional opportunity to connect my life-long love for horses and the experience I have in that field with my passion for coaching. The process since then also led to a deep appreciation for the insights facilitated by the horses when we allow them to be our coaches. With this blog post I aim to share this enthusiasm and illuminate some of the principles that play together in such a process.

Challenges of Leadership and Communication

Good leadership is one of those things that can look easy from the outside. And yet, being a good leader is extremely difficult, something we realise quickly when being in a leadership position ourselves. Leaders need a multitude of skills, and one of the most important ones, I believe, is a well developed awareness for the interactions and dynamics between oneself and others.

A major challenge however is that when we are leading others, we often don’t really know how our actions are perceived as we can not step outside of ourselves. Multiple layers of concurrent information, events, as well as politics and hierarchies within an organisation further hamper this awareness. As a result, the message a leader wants to transfer is often skewed and misunderstood on the receivers’ side.

When leaders fail to get the results they expect, the underlying reasons often appear to be a black box. How can a leader get to an understanding of what it is they should change? If team members have an opinion of what their leader lacks or what they wish for, they are often not going to express this for a fear of disadvantaging themselves. And even if they did, people’s wishes are often incongruent or do not necessarily promote the best outcome for the organisation as a whole.

In spite of good intentions, a leader can easily get stuck in this complexity of human interactions. Some will rigidly stick to the style they believe is best and in the process often lose part of their invaluable human resources. Others resort to a rather messy process of trial and error which might heighten the uncertainty for all involved.

What if this complexity could be disentangled, so that the leader can find his or her leadership style which is authentic, balanced and understood by those to be led? And this is where the horses come in.

Horses as Leadership Coaches

The work with horses offers learning opportunities with immediate feedback, which is critical for leadership. Guided exercises directly mirror real life experiences and challenges around leadership, however freed of the distractions and ambiguity of human communication. Most of the reasons for horses being such powerful facilitators lie their nature as prey animals:

Evolutionary, horses have developed a very fine tuned survival response to sense and be aware of the present moment. This sensitivity to their environment allows them to stay safe when grazing the plains. Thus, horses do not normally leave their herd. Although there is a clear hierarchy within a herd, horses do not blindly follow a leading horse, but fulfil their special role and relationships towards the other horses.

From the viewpoint of a horse, it its placed into a dangerous spot away from the safety of the herd when it is being taken out by a human being. When we approach a horse in order to lead it, it will not be distracted by our words, status or appearance like many of our fellow human beings. Instead, they are alert to the human as a predator and need to trust the person as a leader.

Because of this well-developed sensitivity to detect dangers, horses test our intentions, ask questions and respond through their behaviour. In this way, they provide us with honest and clear feedback about our presence, impact as a leader, our body language and emotions. In other words, they reflect back to us our authentic selves. When humans are not congruent with themselves or towards the horse, the horse often becomes uneasy or walks away. When we remove our masks, are who we say we are and do what we say we will do, they visible calm down, relax and and often move towards us.

In this way, horses lead us into insights and reveal new ways of interacting with others and ourselves. Without judgment, they make us aware of what we can not see about ourselves.

Experiential Learning

Simply put, experiential learning means learning from direct experience, through the reflection on what we have done. When we are thinking of life lessons and the attainment of wisdom, this seems intuitive for most people. With regards to skills and specific content however the traditional expectation is that we are provided with information first. We have a teacher, book, video or presentation and try to swallow and digest the information in one way or another. The next step in which we attempt to apply the knowledge often gets neglected in traditional settings such as universities. This in turn means that we often know far more in theory than we can skilfully apply in practice.

When we read a book or listen to a lecture for example, we receive the information from the perspective of a writer or teacher, and try to filter out the information that is applicable to us. In contrast, when we do something and reflect on it afterwards, the experience strikes something within us which is exactly that which is meaningful to us, which we needed to learn (the “Aha-Effect”). We can then immediately apply our first hand discoveries and refine them in practice because the experience is tangible. The learner has the opportunity to consider and reflect on what is working or failing to work. This honours our uniqueness and the fact that we all have different world views through which we see, interpret and interact with the world. It is therefore not the curriculum that defines the learning process, but the learners, based on what is important for their roles and personal journeys.

Furthermore, the learner physically experiences the effects of his leadership actions in the ‘here-and-now’, in interaction with the horse as a being that knows nothing else than being and reacting in the moment. This mindfulness provides access to direct perception of reality, independent of rational processes. Much of what challenges us in our human relationships and in organizations is beyond words and rational thought, but must be felt. As outlined above, it is often the overload of pressures and information that prevent leaders from authentic and present interactions with their team members. While classic training settings often rely too heavily on cognitive, rational thinking, experiential learning acknowledges that there are more “kinds of knowledge” and makes this accessible in the experience.

In the context of our course for example, different horses will react differently – yet authentic – to a leader, so that a he or she can develop a leadership style that is based on integrity, balanced and yet effective in all settings. If the horses do not follow us, a leadership model from business school likely won’t help. Instead, we need to be sense and experience our own leadership and the results we produce.

I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn. Albert Einstein

Info on the program

The program combines Co-Active Coaching principles with those of experiential learning in a tranquil and beautiful setting in the Swartland of South Africa (2 hours drive from Cape Town). The smaller, theoretical part is based on Transactional Analysis, an internationally renowned theory of communication. We work with specially trained and majestic, black Friesian horses.

UPDATE: The next course will take place from the 23rd to 25th of October 2013.

Please contact CIELARKO if you would like to know more.



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YouTube white board animation on Positive Psychology

Sometimes it can be difficult to explain certain concepts, where pictures make it so much easier. Enjoy!

The video was created by Nick Standlea, a former research associate for Mike Csikszentmihalyi at the Quality of Life Research Center. Thank you very much for the time, effort and sharing.

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The path to happiness – Part II: What makes you (really) happy?

Read part I of this series: Why bad news is stronger than good news

About a month ago, my financé and I were on holiday in Kwazulu-Natal and I was going to spend a day on my own. I was lying on a backpackers’ deck-chair in the sun, surrounded by lush vegetation and some monkeys playing games in the crowns of palm trees.

One would think I must have been very happy. What could I complain about? I was this privileged, young, healthy person in a beautiful place with time and money on my hands, free to do whatever I wanted to do.

And even though I was totally aware of that, I wasn’t happy on that day. Yes, I felt dissatisfied and my mood was clouded due to some issues out of my control.

Being in a bad mood is something that I can not stand for long, so I knew I had to change it. I thought I should do what I would do with my coaching clients and wrote some constructive thoughts into my notebook.

After that I was still not happy. I realised I was thinking too much. How could I practically uplift myself? I went through all the options I had available. The suggestions to myself included getting a cocktail, lie at the beach, having a good meal, shopping, relax in the jacuzzi, listen to good music, lie down for a nap. Nothing excited me really.

After a while I decided to go to the beach in order to simply enjoy nature and think positive thoughts. After all, I am all about Positive Psychology, right?

And there I was then, looking at the waves with the intention to meditate a bit. I hadn’t even started when I saw one of the guys from our backpackers chatting to an unknown beach beauty. I looked over to his spot which he had deserted, and next to his towel was a set of sandpit tools:  a bucket, a grate, a shovel and a sieve. Instruments I hadn’t seen or touched since pre-school times.

All my lights went on immediately. That was it! I was going to build a sandcastle!

For more than an hour, I made towers, built walls, collected decoration, went up and down fetching sea water, and was passionately immersed in the activity. Some teenagers nearby looked embarrassed for me, but that didn’t bother me at all. I was in flow, and while I was busy, I got all kinds of metathoughts. In short, it made my day and I knew exactly why.

My realisations brought me back to Martin Seligman’s differentiation between pleasures and gratifications:1

In western society we say “eating Sushi makes me happy” just as we say “hiking makes me happy”. This means mixing up two classes of the best things in life and can actually make us unhappy.

Eating Sushi belongs to the first class of delights, which are bodily pleasures. They are directly linked to positive emotions through our senses. The feeling of taking a hot bath, the taste of a good wine on the tongue, watching a movie, listening to music or the first ice cream in summer. Touch, taste, smell, vision and sound can evoke pleasures like comfort, exuberance or ecstasy. These pleasures come easily, need little interpretation, satisfy our biological needs and have an immediate effect.

The problem however is that we cannot build our lives around fleeting and momentary bodily pleasures. Pleasure fades rapidly once the stimulus disappears (for example once we have eaten the pack of chocolate). We also quickly get used to them. Indulging in the same pleasure after a short period of time has much less effect and might even not be pleasurable at all. Try it out by having your favourite meal every day or listening to your favourite song non-stop for 30 minutes. Another problem is that we also often develop cravings or need bigger doses of our favourite pleasures to get the same kick again. In short, nothing is built for the future when we enjoy pleasures, because we consume them and then they are gone.

The second class of things that make us happy are gratifications. Gratifications are activities we enjoy doing, like painting, hiking, singing, teaching, dancing, writing, coding etc. They engage us fully, we become absorbed in them and lose self-consciousness as they produce a special state called “flow”. This state can not be chemically induced nor attained by any short cuts. Think about artists, writers, musicians or any other person being immersed in their favourite activity. While they are busy, they forget about themselves, they are “in it”, become one with what they do.

Gratifications call on our strengths to meet a challenge while we also learn from them. Positive feelings from gratifications are authentic, deeply felt and last longer than those we gain from pleasures. Compare the feeling of having climbed a mountain versus taking the cable cars, or buying something versus making it yourself.  At the same time, gratifications are often hard-won and there is always a risk of failing before we get to enjoy the positive feelings, mostly only after our efforts. 

In simple terms, one can conclude that pleasures are more about short-term consumption and that they usually don’t have long term advantages.  Gratifications require “work” in order to gain the eventual reward, but their advantages usually result in long-term benefits and personal growth. 

In general, there is nothing wrong with enjoying short-term pleasures. I believe the problem is that our capitalist society teaches us the wrong lesson. The general idea portrayed by the media is that if we just have enough money, we will be happy, because then we can afford all the pleasures. We’re shown celebrities as role models for the good life, how they bathe in their money, lie at the beach, drink champagne, party every day and drive a fancy cabriolet. We get conditioned to want that. However, all of those things are pleasures, and while it might be exciting, fun and ego-boosting for the first while, the happiness will not last. That is why lotto millionaires are only ecstatic for a while, and after a few months they are as happy or unhappy with their lives as they were before. It is also why we always crave for more, every wish we grant ourselves, everything we buy and consume just makes us want more and we often can not see that our wants will never end. How often did I fell for the idea in my mind that it is just that one thing that I still need to feel complete? And as we make more money, what we think we need grows bigger. A bigger tv, a better car, a bigger house and then maybe a holiday home we use three weeks a year?

It can be very illuminating to look at those celebrities who have everything and have enjoyed all of life’s pleasures. Their cravings usually don’t stop either and they often become addicted to drugs, sex, new partners, alcohol and the admiration and envy they receive from normal people which prove to them that their life is ideal because so many people want it.

The truth is, when an entire lifetime is taken up by the pursuit of positive feelings gained from pleasures, authenticity and meaning are nowhere to be found. Authentic and lasting positive emotions come from a place within us, not from outer stimuli.

What are the things that make you really happy?

Read more in Seligman, M. E. P. (2007) Authentic happiness: Using the new Positive Psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, Boston.

Read part I of this series: Why bad news is stronger than good news

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