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Positive Psychology and Buddhism

Positive Psychology and Buddhism
Seven years ago when I started studying for a masters degree in Positive Psychology, the thing that drew me in was a headline in a paper “Can you train your mind to be happier?”. That sounded appealing. We all want happiness, none of us want to suffer.

The very basic idea of Positive Psychology is that there are certain practices you can undertake that will help to train the brain to attend to what works well in your life, as well as your friends and colleagues lives. This brain training helps us to overcome evolutionary biases that might otherwise cause us to focus on the danger and deficits in life. Armed with a buffer of positive emotions you are then more likely to make positive life choices and may be better equipped to handle the inevitable loss and suffering that comes our way in life.

Some of the techniques to help focus on the positive have been really useful in my own life and have helped me grow our business. If you want to know more about these send me a mail.

I’ve also worked with great companies and organisations such as Amerada Hess and the House of Commons, introducing their staff to Positive Psychology.

I now have a huge dilemma. The more I study Buddhism, Yoga and Positive Psychology, the less trusting I am of the findings of Positive Psychology. For example much of the research is based on simple self-reported wellbeing questions such as “How satisfied are you with your life?”. I no longer believe that you can truly know your own wellbeing level. People get used to their new circumstances and quickly return to their historical self-reported levels of wellbeing. After all, even the most self-centred person could say they are 9 out of 10 happy. T to truly measure wellbeing you would also need to include life experiences, self acceptance, positive detachment and how much love and positive energy the person radiates to friends, loved ones and the environment.

My other criticism of Positive Psychology is the self and tribe focused nature of the interventions. I’m ok, my tribe’s good and I’m not too bothered about the rest of the world and the environment.

The way I see it, many of the interventions in Positive Psychology (such as keeping a diary of things that work well for you) are at a fairly low level in human evolution.. At their best they help you build tenacity to overcome life’s ups and downs.

Buddhist philosophy does not view emotions as good or bad or high energy or low energy. Buddhist practitioners question whether emotions are afflictive or not. That is to say do they rumble on after the event creating disturbance and imbalance. For example, it’s normal to feel sorrow and grief at the loss of a close friend. The question is whether it continues to disturb the mind long after the event. For example if you lose a loved one who you unconditionally loved and who also loved you, you inevitably will feel loss and despair. If that person truly loved you however, they would want you to return to the default setting of joy as soon as possible.

Life is so short and the Buddhists believe it is normal to experience the full range of emotions in life (and not to avoid or run away from the negative ones). They teach that we should learn to view the world as it is, learn acceptance, learn how to detach, learn to focus the mind on the present and learn to love each other more. Even those people, or especially those people not in our tribe.


Yoga training for the mind

A few months ago I wrote about yoga for the first time. It’s taken me so long to get around to writing about this because its so vast and complex. What started for me 12 years ago as a nice stretch in the gym has turned into a tool which has guided and shaped my life. Going back to 1999 I was working for KPMG in a fairly senior position in corporate finance. It’s hard to imagine how doing simple yoga stretches can change a person but I feel it has changed the way my mind works.  I’m going to try to explain some of the process (apologies to the many experts on the Yoga Sutras and Hatha Yoga Pradipika out there).

The first point to understand is that the physical aspects of yoga you see in a class or a gym, are just one aspect of Yoga. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written over 2,000 years ago distil knowledge from seekers of knowledge from the previous 2,000 years. Its content is very similar to the foundations of Buddhism. Nowhere in the text does it explain a system for physical exercise. It took another 1,500 years before the physical aspects were documented in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

Like Buddhism the Yoga Sutras encourage us to enquire what truth is. However it’s the search for truth that’s important because there is no perfect point of view or perfect observation. In order to illustrate this point I will demonstrate how what we perceive to be truth is an illusion created by our tendency to view and judge our surroundings based on how we have learnt to filter and absorb information

How we perceive the world

We all perceive the world through a prism of past experience. The information that we are primed to observe depends on how we have observed information in the past and what our current mood state is. I’ve written about this many times. For example our ability to see spectrum’s of colour and detail is dependent on how we feel and what we expect to see (or are told to expect to see). I’ve used this example before but check this out if you don’t believe how expectation directs perception

In Yoga and Buddhist philosophy it is the misperception of reality which leads to pain and suffering. For example, if I strongly hold to a belief whilst those around me hold different views based on how they see the world, this can lead to isolation, frustration and confrontation.

In Yoga misperception of how the world appears is called Avidya . It is the belief that our view of the world is correct and permanent. This creates separation between people because the view that you will have will be different to mine. Your processing of information will be enabled by how you have learned to perceive the world. Once we’ve made our minds up about “a thing” (say marmite) it’s really hard to experience the thing in a different way.

As soon as I write marmite people think about food types and whether they like or dislike it. I could have used the example of a favourite colour, or whether to vote Conservative or Labour, or whether to believe in climate change or not, or whether to believe Israelis are reclaiming their homeland or invading another’s. These different view points enable humour, gossip and help bring advances in science and the arts. Exploring difference through dialogue is a joy but some people lack the awareness that their view is but one of many.

Amongst other things Yoga teaches us about impermanence and humility. The more we learn, the more we know there is more to learn and the less certain we can be in our beliefs.

Observing many selves within us

In last weeks blog/newsletter I explored how we think and act as often being directed by deep subconscious patterns – bundles of deep lying thoughts and emotions which direct our behaviours.

I’m going to try and explain how yoga practices unbundle these packages of conditioned thoughts and emotions, and enable us to understand how we see the world, and how the world really is, are not the same. We learn to become confident in our uncertainty and this uncertainty drives us to ask others about how they see the world. It makes us more communicative, creative and adaptable to change.  In order to observe these deep “packages” that direct our behaviours, we first have to appreciate that when we observe ourselves (thoughts, emotions, behaviours, physical sensations) we are already primed to observe ourselves in a way that is directed by how we feel right now.

For example, when I examine my own thoughts, feelings and behaviours, there are times when I can observe that I am confident and strong and there are other times when I can feel small and low and abandoned. If I sit still I can observe that I act/think/feel in many different ways depending upon context. In truth I am not one self but made up of many different selves.

This is a really hard thing to explain especially as Western Psychology often fails to explore the idea of multiple self and context. To give you an illustration of how context changes behaviours I’ll give you the example of the good Samaritan study:

In an experiment, a group of students studying theology were asked to take a mock psychology test but at the last minute were told that they had to change venues to do the test. Half of the students were primed with words like “you’d better get a move on because the new venue is a good 10 mins walk away and the exam starts soon”. The rest were told to proceed to the new venue at their own pace. Halfway between the old and the new venue an actor paid for by the study designers pretended to be hurt. It looked as though he had been attacked or had a serious accident. In the study, the number of people who stopped to give the man assistance was significantly less from the group primed with time-scarcity words compared to the other group. And remember these were students studying religion well versed in the story of the good Samaritan – for those that don’t know the story the good Samaritan was a dude in the bible who helped an injured person on the road to Damascus thereby finding God. Just to emphasise the point a little more – the designers of the experiment had arranged that just before the mock psychology test the students had actually received a lecture on the good Samaritan story from their tutors – it was right at the front of their minds but time-scarcity, or the perception of it, changed their behaviours.  For more about this study go to

So now consider how in a busy city our behaviours/thoughts/feelings/perception of sensations are highly contextual and influenced by our surroundings. The only way to observe these different “packages” of behaviours/thoughts/feelings/perception is to somehow slow the world down to enable us to observe our myriad selves behaving in many different ways.

When I practice self-observation I can observe that when I feel confident and strong I’m more likely to try new things and catch up with friends. I can also begin to observe that this confident outgoing person can become arrogant. When I’m time pressured I can be aloof. I can also observe that certain triggers make me feel insecure and vulnerable. When I work with my charity YourStory I feel kind and generous. These selves are all contained within this thing I think of as me. But each of these selves acts and behaves in different ways depending on context.

Each of us have many selves within. Each nurtured by past and present experience. Each directing our behaviours. Yoga trains us to concentrate the mind to observe these selves and how they impact our actions.

Don Juan, the Yacqui Native American tutor of the anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, explains that to perceive the world you have to stop the world. You have to be still to notice that what you observe is what you expect to observe based on past experience. To see the world through fresh eyes is to raise the veil of Avidya or ignorance.  To do this its useful to to concentrate the mind so that you can train yourself to begin to observe these selves within and how they influence behaviour. In future articles I will (try) and explain how each of the 8 steps of Yoga help raise this veil of Avidya.

In order to stop the world for a moment you can do a number of things:

– Put yourself in a place of great beauty. A place that shocks the senses. As I write this I’m looking at the Southern Cross in a clear night sky – wonder and awe are great at fostering humility and uncertainty about your views and place within the world.

– Meditate on the breath – in a relaxed state you engage the parasympathetic nervous system and concious thoughts slow. With practice this focus and concentration allows you to observe noisy thoughts from myriad selves that jostle for attention. Meditation practices do not empty our head of thoughts but allow us to observe these thoughts and how they influence behaviours.

– The next step is to be aware that as we learn to observe these different strands of self bubbling to the surface there is no one coherent self. Sometimes we observe packages of thoughts/feelings/behaviours/sensations which are confident and happy, sometimes lonely and sad. With ongoing practice we observe that these different selves may be very different from one another and that there is no one coherent self (accept maybe the self that observes these things).

– With further self-enquiry we observe that these different selves have emerged as patterns throughout our lives.

Each of the eight limbs of yoga seeks to concentrate the mind and lift the veil of ignorance that bounds us to a view of self separating us from true knowledge of our surroundings.

Untying the knot means becoming relaxed with uncertainty and going with the flow rather than trying to think our way to happiness. We get tied up by clinging to our thoughts and believing that they are us. Like everything else they arise and pass away over time. Everything around us is in constant flux and therefore we need to train the mind to be adaptable. In this way we can see the world afresh and remain youthful and vibrant.

The benefits of Yoga

A year ago I began a series of newsletters/blogs about the wellbeing courses that have inspired me. I wrote quite a few articles about the benefits that I received from studying Positive Psychology and Emotional Intelligence courses

In this newsletter I take a look at Yoga. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to this because of all the courses I’ve taken over the last 15 years it’s the thing that’s been the most beneficial to my physical and mental wellbeing.

One of the reasons that I’ve left it so long is the sheer complexity of Yoga. I teach about 15 hours every week and often find myself trying to encapsulate its usefulness. Each time I try, different words come out. The narrowest possible view is that it makes you more flexible. This is true but of equal importance is the increased physical strength, the improved balance and ease of movement.

However the physiological benefits derived from practicing the Asanas (physical postures) are just one part of the practice of Yoga. Yoga is a complete wellbeing system. The physical and psychological tools it provides you with enable a diligent practitioner to move towards mastery of the body, thoughts and emotions. In Yoga there is no delineation between the body and the mind. The body is trained to benefit the mind. The mind is trained to benefit the body.


Whether or not you attend Yoga classes in gyms or in Yoga centres we can begin to introduce a Yoga practice into our lives. It is not a religion and does not require a special place to practice. It is based on 4,000 years of human observation of the complex relationship between the body and the mind.

If you are interested in improving your wellbeing but have little interest in attending Yoga classes then this newsletter provides three simple techniques for bringing the practice of Yoga into everything you do:

1. Be aware of your physical essence – For example, if you are exercising a particular part of your body focus on that body part. In past newsletters I’ve set out research which indicates that when you focus attention on the muscle group you are exercising, the muscle develops more strongly than when your attention is scattered – energy flows where your attention goes. As another example, notice how when you are commuting or driving, your energy levels improve and thoughts become brighter when you sit up straight and focus on your posture.

2. Be aware of your breath – Observe your breathing in a dispassionate way (ie. not directing the breath to make it fast or slow). When you do this the act of observation has the effect of focusing the attention and engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. If you focus on your breathing, your attention is diverted away from anxiety stimulating thoughts. Thoughts have a consequential physiological impact. We find it difficult to multi-task and by focusing on our breath we learn to sharpen our attention and enable a feeling of centered calm to reside. By feeling calm and centered inside we are less likely to pay attention to our own internal thoughts and prejudices and more likely to observe the fine detail of the world around us.

In Yoga breath is Prana or energy. In addition to breath there are other forms of subtle energy. If we allow ourselves to observe the present moment we can tap into a limitless supply of universal energy. In my last sentence I’m not repeating what I’ve read in a book about Yoga. It’s what I’ve observed in my own practice. The more you practice, the more you observe the complex relationship between thought, energy and matter. Yoga is a about practice and personal observation of cause and effect.

3. Observe your thoughts and emotions – As you move through the world, continue to observe your thoughts and emotions as they flow through your mind. Become the observer of yourself. In Buddhism there is no delineation between thoughts and emotions. They are bundled together. One does not precede the other. They emerge blended. Through the practices of Yoga you charge your energy levels by allowing a universal energy to flow through you. You feel light, connected and balanced. As you feel connected you feel less isolated and more confident in the world around you and your place within it. Once you cease to observe your thoughts they can wander and become scattered. This scatters the energy you have built up. Even worse than this is that in an absent-minded way your thoughts may drift to a situation that causes you anxiety. Immediately the energy that you have built up seeps away – energy flows where attention goes.

When you focus on your physical presence, your breathing and subtle energy as well as remaining aware of your thoughts, you charge your body with positive energy. In yoga you focus first on your own wellbeing. From this position of confidence and strength you can then choose to help others.

Hope you found this useful


New things at the Breathe Centre

Sara is practicing Chiropractic care 6 days a week at the centre now


Lindsey is now practicing Holistic Massage on Fridays 12 to 5pm and all day Sunday


Zoe does sports massage on Fridays 5 to 7pm


Pawel is focussing on Craniosacral, Mysofascial release and Reflexology on Tuesdays 5 to 9pm





Last week one of my clients told me about a lovely short story which explores how compassion and kindness can transgress social and economic divides. The story ends abruptly with the word ABUNDANCE!  On the tube on the way home the details of the story had already faded but the word abundance still resonated strongly.

What makes people feel abundant?
Research from the fields of behavioural economics and positive psychology informs us that feeling good has little or no relationship to our earnings or how many material possessions we have.  Providing we live in a stable political environment, have access to education and basic healthcare, earning more does not lead to an equivalent incremental increase in how happy we say we are.

Positive Psychology research appears to support some Buddhist teachings – that happiness is a state of mind which can be developed through training rather than through the acquisition of additional material resources.  The pursuit and attainment of wealth may lead to the development of an internal state of happiness but the research suggests it is not the wealth itself that creates happiness, but the journey that is made to attain wealth (ie the friends you meet in your career, the places you visit and enjoy, the sense of self worth developed through the achievement of goals.

Life coaching gurus often recommend one of the most important priorities in life is to develop an internal mindset of abundance and wellbeing.  This feeling of abundance somehow attracts more abundance in the form of material wealth, friendships and opportunities.   This kind of moves us into the sphere of quantum physics and the law of attraction – somehow we manifest our physical reality through our intention.  No matter how many quantum physics books I read I’m not sure whether I will truly understand what Schrodinger and his cat were all about, but
I do know that in the social sciences the observer affects the observed and the outcome of the experiment.  I also know that when I observe a part of my body it changes.  For example if I imagine doing bicep curls my biceps grow more than if I was, for example, playing chess  (Shackell, Standing study, Bishop’s University)    A few months back my blogs were about how our perception of “reality” is influenced by mood, eg. happier people see a greater variety and ranges of colour.  But can it be that my thoughts create and influence all I see?

How does feeling abundant attract abundance?  Ignoring the quantum physics possibilities for a moment I thought of three evidence-based ways in which abundance (or the opposite) might spread.

The spread of emotions – maybe we smell them
Researchers at the University of Utrecht have uncovered a mechanism by which emotions may spread and this may impact our feelings of abundance.  It appears that different emotions have different chemical compositions which we can perceive in each other at a very subtle level and are transferable.  The smell of perspiration released by men while feeling afraid or repulsed was enough to trigger the same emotional reaction in women, an experiment showed.  When exposed to bottled sweat given off by men as they watched clips from the film “The Shining”, women began showing physical signs of being afraid such as a fearful facial expression, darting eye movements and heavier sniffing.  In contrast, the smell of perspiration from men who had been watching MTV’s Jackass – which features stomach-churning stunts – caused a disgusted facial expression and other signs of the emotion including a reduction in eye movement and sniffing.

These findings suggest certain emotions can be contagious and can be detected via chemical signals, even though the women were not aware of it at the time, researchers said.  This system might have evolved as an unconscious form of communication, where fear could be spread between people to warn them of imminent danger, and disgust could be shared to highlight the risks of toxic foods or chemicals.  Dr Gün Semin of Utrecht University, who led the study, says “these findings are important because they contradict the common assumption that human communication occurs exclusively through language and visual cues. Importantly, the women were not aware of these effects and there was no relationship between the effects observed and how pleasant or intense the women judged the stimuli to be.”

Further studies could help establish whether other emotions like happiness or anger, which are less directly related to survival, are equally contagious.

If we pick up the message “this person is giving off abundance vibes”, we may be more willing to trust that person.  We may expect they are more likely to give us something rather than try and attain something from us, and are more likely to welcome these people because they are unlikely to detract from our own abundance.

Spread of emotions through facial signals
In their 2003 study Ebling & Levenson suggest people have a simplistic subconscious system of attract versus repulse and these prime directives are expressed in signals on our faces.

As far back as 1986, Mullen’s study of the influential effects of news broadcasters’ expressions on presidential elections, concluded that micro-facial expressions have a significant impact on peoples attract/repulse mechanism. A newscaster’s clear positive favouritism towards one candidate was shown to influence voting patterns. The study noted this was in spite of the tendency of the news channel in question to run negative stories about the candidate. The positive micro expressions seemed to be more influential than the negative words expressed. In 1980 Wells & Petty illustrated how facial impression and movement of the head (nodding agreement) can be influenced by “senders” of energy and this in turn influences decision making and mood. Positive and negative emotions are as much an outside-in as an inside-out mechanism.

When one group of individuals are asked to remember a stressful event they produce identifiable, common facial patterns. When a second group is asked to mimic some of these expressions, without being asked to consider a stressful event, both groups suffer similar physiological effects. This implies that the face not only mimics inner thoughts and feelings but also drives these processes. The face may be both a display cabinet for emotions and also act as a creator of authentic emotions.

Our abundance or lack of it can be on display for all to see.

Choosing the right goals 
When you feel abundant you are more likely to feel calm, centred and relaxed.  In this state you may be less likely to follow the crowd.  You have the confidence to choose the goals and activities which are meaningful to you.  Being motivated by fear and a sense of internal poverty may make us work hard but seeking abundance through external gratification often fails to satisfy the inner hollowness.

If you can smell an inner mental state on other people, and see it written on their faces and these states are able to transfer between people, its sort of understandable why on meditation retreats people are asked to avoid contact with each other.  We’re trained to develop a positive, abundant internal mental state which we can then, hopefully transmit to the world around us.

A great book aimed at creating an abundant mindset is Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom.  Its a wonderful fusion of neuroscience and Buddhist practices.  It explores how you go about training your mind to feel kind, compassionate and abundant.

Hope you found this useful
Cheers Andy

Building a Positive Psychology business

In this week’s newsletter I’m going to explore some ideas on building a business based on the values of Positive Psychology. When we set up Breathe London in 2003, we didn’t have a clear strategy or a clear idea about what we wanted to achieve. For my part I knew what I didn’t want to do, ie. to continue working in corporate finance, but it wasn’t clear what I wanted to create or what I truly wanted to do. The picture has emerged slowly after lots of trials and many errors.

From the start the guiding light for developing a new career was based on a few basic ideas:

  • I wanted to create a job that I loved
  • I wanted to make Mondays at least as interesting as the weekends
  • To create a pattern of work that allowed me to explore my interest in health and fitness
  • To help other people as I supported myself financially
  • Strive to add more to human and environmental wellbeing than I took through my consumption

Over the last nine years Tom and I have travelled to India, become Yoga teachers and studied for Masters degrees in Positive Psychology and Cognitive Science. During that time we’ve both explored many areas of wellbeing, including varied spiritual, physical and psychological practices. This wandering has been an important of what has made our business thrive. There’s a lovely JRR Tolkien quote:

“Not all those who wander are lost”

Sometimes you need to go on a wander to appreciate what’s important.

The findings from Positive Psychology and teachings from Yoga and Buddhism seem to support the decision we made to radically change our career paths. Some of the core findings from Positive Psychology include:

  • Beyond a certain financial level, and given adequate healthcare, education and a stable political environment, additional material resources do not make us happier
  • People who feel that they are happy and engaged in their worklife are more likely to be like this in their home life

In an earlier newsletter I touched on the idea of the three pillars of wellbeing:

  • Autonomy – To feel free to do what you want to do in life
  • Competence – To feel skilled in your role, or know resources are available to attain new skills
  • Relatedness – Your life roles bring you into contact with people who you value (love) and value (love) you

Its taken a long time but I now think we have a network of amazing therapists at Breathe London, and are supported by great landlords in Jubilee Hall Trust/Coin Street and have a wonderful group of clients from whom I learn so much. As we expand to four treatment rooms and increase our corporate wellbeing events it’s important to reflect on why success has come. We broke all the rules of business development.
We didn’t (and still don’t have a strategy).
We take the minimum amount we can from the therapists that work under the Breathe banner’s earnings, to support our overheads
We want to work with clients to provide them life enhancing tools so eventually, they no longer require our services
We send clients to other organizations without expecting reciprocal arrangements

We have learnt many things over many years of wandering, but the most important thing is that while its important to work hard, you should not take yourself or your business too seriously. Try and stay playful when you build a business and look for opportunities to have fun.

Hope you found this interesting


Positive Psychology – barriers to happiness

“When you arise in the morning think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think to enjoy, to love”  Marcus Aurelius


As a race humans are, in general, optimistic about the future.  When asked how satisfied we are with our life now the average response is approximately 7 out of 10  and when asked how satisfied they think we will be in the future most people say they will be more satisfied then than now. At the same time research suggests that we have a tendency to focus on our deficits rather than our strengths, our failings rather than our successes and what we crave rather than what we have. So on the one hand we are satisfied whilst at the same time restless and feel incomplete.

The power of restlessness can be a motivating energy that drives us forward and helps us to achieve great success in life.  It moves us on, thrusting and conquering.  It can be a force for great good, for example when scientists and philanthropists diligently apply their energy, passion and knowledge to overcoming the challenges we face.  It can also be the most destructive force on the planet destroying individual wellbeing, global wellbeing and the environment.

So lets consider the barriers to happiness and why we may feel this underlying restlessness:

The hedonic treadmill – When we enjoy a new material possession, for example a car or a house, our minds quickly adjust to the heightened experience.  Research suggest that at first when we enjoy a new thing we feel “happier” but within no time at all we are back to where we started, restless and seeking the next thing to consume

We are more alert to danger and our defects rather than our opportunities and strengths – From an evolutionary perspective this makes perfect sense.  In the 19th century life expectancy in the UK was 35.  Prior to the 20th century it was often a violent and dangerous world and we needed to be on our toes. As Steven Pinker noted in “A history of violence” despite all its carnage the 20th century was statistically the least violent century there has been and the trend is continuing to improve in the 21st century.  There are many challenges facing us now but in general we’ve never had it so good.  However brains change slowly and training the mind to be receptive to the positive as much as to the negative influences around requires tenacity and heightened awareness.  There are many wonderful exercises arising from Positive Psychology research which remind us to cherish what we have and remind us to count our blessings.  When we are aware of our evolutionary bias, which tends to focus our minds on problems, we can re train our minds to focus on our strengths and those of colleagues and friends. A positive mental outlook goes hand in hand with positive emotions and a healthy body.  With positive emotions and a healthy body we are better equipped to overcome the inevitable loss and suffering which inevitably will come into all our lives

Our ancestors – Studies indicate that when we respond to a survey about how happy we are, the answer that we give is likely to be highly pre determined by heritable factors.  Whether you are a 5 or a 9 out of 10 is determined by three main key factors: your ancestors, the circumstances in your life (for example how much money you make) and lastly the choices that you have made that day to influence your mood state. 50% of the variance between your answer and the average for the population is determined by heritable factors.  In psychology that’s a huge percentage and suggests that the view that we have of our own happiness and how happy we think we will be in the future is fairly well determined at birth.  And as a reminder of why this self evaluation of happiness is important – the more satisfied people say they are with their lives the longer they are likely to live and the healthier they are likely to be.

On the flip side studies indicate that just 10% of our self reported happiness levels are down to the circumstances in our life (eg how much money we earn) and a further 40% is down to the choices we make on a daily basis.  That’s a great positive message.  With this knowledge we can remind ourselves each day that although we have a tendency to have a certain level of happiness which is influenced by our ancestry, it is not fixed.  We have the power to re-write a new future for ourselves and our children.  The key to this may be to raise awareness about the tools that we have been born with – the tendencies that we are born with that propel us towards success or destruction.  When we are able to observe these tendencies in ourselves, our parents and our grandparents it makes it easier to create new positive habits and rituals. This is similar to the karmic tendencies that Hindus believe we inherit from past lives.  They also note importantly each day we are given the opportunity to start again, begin afresh and rewrite the present and the future.  They call this Aagami karma – the karma that you are creating at this moment with your thoughts, emotions and actions.

So today Positive Psychology seems to confirm some aspects of 4,000 years of Vedic teaching – that through the power of positive thought it is possible to manifest a beautiful mind and life.  Buddhist and Vedic scholars remind us that life is over in a flash and that true happiness comes from being authentic, compassionate and kind. Ignorance is when we forget to reflect on the marvel of being alive.  Here’s that quote again:

“When you arise in the morning think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think to enjoy, to love”

Marcus Aurelius

Over the last five years I’ve been lucky to have been asked to run positive psychology and emotional intelligence workshops for some great organizations including Amerada Hess, The House of Commons, Global Capital, KPMG and the training arm of the NHS.  If you think your organization could benefit from a bit of Positive Psychology forward this mail onto your colleagues or contact Andy Roberts to find out more details about our workshops.


Positive psychology – building blocks of happiness

This is the fifth blog/newsletter about the wellbeing courses that have ment something to me. Following on from last week I’m going to explore Positive Psychology in more detail.

Positive Psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology, which seeks to explore topics such as happiness, meaning and engagement. It does not suggest that the rest of psychology is “Negative Psychology” but merely seeks to explore aspects of human flourishing rather than exploring from what may be wrong with an individual.

Before thinking about how you go about raising your happiness level its worth considering the concept of happiness. One man’s happiness is clearly another’s hell and what do we mean by happiness anyway? Do we mean fun or positive emotions or meaning in life or flourishing?

Everyone has a different interpretation of what these things mean and also a different view on which of these things is the most important. For example “individual A” may view life as a sensorial ride to be enjoyed to the full by packing in the most positive, peak experiences that they can. “Individual B” might be on a mission. They have God given talents which they feel destined to use to create something new for society. “A” could view “B” as being dowdy and missing out on the wonder of life. “B” could view “A” as a selfish pleasure seeker, maximising their own wellbeing with scant regard for their impact on others or the environment.

It may be that A and B have much to learn from each other. “B” may realise that their mission can best be achieved by using the positive emotions generated by enjoying life. “A” might gain insight into the joy to be had from devoting energy and time to a project to help others.

Somewhere between “A” and “B” there are the 6.5 billion of the rest of us trying to make some sense out of life. There are lots of different ways to “measure” happiness but some of the most common ways is to ask a series of questions around satisfaction with life. The questions go something like this – “taking everything into account how satisfied are you with your life?” Rate yourself from 1 to 10, 1 being “I can’t go on” to 10 being “a perfect life”. (*the actual scales and descriptions are slightly different to this)

And, on average, the result is about 7. On average we are 7 out of 10 happy now and on average think we will be slightly more than 7 out of 10 in the future. Many interesting observations have arisen over the last few years. For example, despite the huge increase in material wealth in the last 30 years, this 7 out of 10 statistic has remained fairly constant. Secondly, once your basic needs for food, shelter and basic political stability are satisfied, people are no happier in the West than people in some of the most impoverished countries in the world.

Armed with basic questionnaires about happiness and wellbeing psychologists then begin to explore before and after scenarios. For example, I ask you how happy you are and then get you to take part in an activity. This may be a one off event, or be over several months or even a number of years. After the intervention you are asked the “happiness” question again and in this manner they seek to ascertain which activities in life have a positive impact on happiness and wellbeing. They also seek to distinguish between activities which heighten “happiness” in the short term and those which have a long term effect.

One of the most interesting aspects of this research is that there is a relationship between longevity and peoples self reported “happiness” – the happier people say they are the longer they live and the healthier they tend to be. So if you can do research on what are the building blocks of happiness then maybe you can introduce positive psychology techniques to government policies, education reforms, workplace practices and in personal relationships. As noted above there appears little relationship between increases in material wealth and “happiness” once the basic needs in life are satisfied.

The research seems to confirm that “happiness” and wellbeing is promoted when we do the following:

– take regular exercise
– nurture and develop personal relationships
– find meaning and engagement at work
– cherish what we have rather than coveting what we dont
– find little bits of magic every day
– play to our strengths
– help others
– spend more time living in the present
– feel a sense of autonomy – that we have chosen what we want to do in life

Interestingly the research suggests that there is no relationship between how happy a person is and how beautiful looking other people think they are. There is also little evidence to suggest that peoples happiness levels are affected by age (apart from a slight dip during the teen years!)

The main findings of this research are quite supportive of my decision to leave the world of corporate finance 9 years ago. I get to do what I love every day, I get to develop relationships with the Breathe therapists, I get to exercise when I want, I get to choose when I work and when I dont. The main down side is that I never made the jump from senior manager to partner at KPMG so maybe I earn 10% of what I would have if I had stayed on the same career path. The difference is that whereas my worklife was something to be endured I now have wonderful experiences throughout my day and get to meet amazing new people through the Breathe business.

Next week I’ll be looking at the barriers to happiness and how you can overcome these using practical exercises from Positive Psychology research

Positive Psychology, religion and ancient traditions – Maori sayings

Positive psychology is the relatively new area of social science that investigates factors which contribute to thriving people, organizations and communities.  This is the first of a series of blogs examining the link between Positive Psychology and ancient traditions and religions.  In the weeks to come we will look at Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and Polynesian traditions .  We are keen to get here your ideas so let us know what you think.

In this newsletter we share with you some New Zealand Māori proverbs and their English translations drawn from an inspirational book called Earth, Sea, Sky written by Patricia and Waiariki Grace and (Craig Potton  Publishers) .  These sayings developed through people being in tune with their surroundings over millennia.  They reflect a respect for the environment that many traditional cultures share.  They speak of what it means to be human.   Their beautiful interpretations have been assorted by us into “Positive Psychology” categories.

We hope you enjoy these and use the wisdom in the proverbs to navigate and rejoice in life.

1. Appreciate life’s beauty and magnificence

Korihi ake ngā manu

Tākiri mai te ata

Ka ao, ka ao. Ka awatea

Tīhei mauri ora

The birds call

The day begins

I am alive

2. Be resilient

He taru kahika

Walk on, as it is only summer rain falling

3. Be optimistic about the future

He iti hau marangai e tū te pāhokahoka

First comes the light wind carrying the rain,

Then comes the rainbow

4. Be confident in yourself

Kimihia te kahurangi;

ki te piko tōu matenga, ki te maunga teitei.

If you bow your head,

Let it be only

To a great mountain

5. Everything is interdependent

Tangi kau ana te hau

Ki runga o marae nui

O Hinemoana

The wind sails across the vast ocean plaza of Hinemoana

(Hinemoana is the ocean spirit that carries the messages of the universe)

6. Play to your strengths

He toka tū moana, arā he toa rongonui

Your strength is like a rock that stands in raging waters

7. Make plans for the future –  a cautionary tale

I hea koe i te ao o te kōwhai

Where were you when the kowhai was in bud?

(The Kowhai tree flowers in the Spring and this is a warning that you need to work hard and sow in the Spring to reap the benefits before the Winter comes)

8. Strive to be the best you can

Te tāpaepae o te rangi

See there, to the place where the sky reaches down

9. Connect to your traditions

Piki atu au ki te taumata o tōku maunga,

Ka kite au i te mana, it e ihi o te whenua nei nō ōku tipuna

I climb to the summit of my mountain to see the land of my ancestors

10. Use your difficulties

He ua ki te pō, he paewai ki te ao

When it rains at night, eels may be caught in the morning

11. Listen to your emotions and act

Tangi ana ngā tai

Rū ana te whenua

Listen to the raw of the sea

Feel the land tremble

12. Be prepared for change – life is uncertain

Ka whaimata te tapuae o Tangoroa.

Tangaroa. Ka haruru

He strides to and fro, Tangaroa

Hear him roar

(Tangaroa is the god of the sea)

13. Be vigilant for ignorance and intolerance

Ka parangia nei te aotūroa

I te pō kerekere

Intense night envelopes the world

14. Learn from those with experience and be respectful

Tirohia ki a Aorangi

Ka kākahutia e te huka rere

Look at Aorangi clothed in snow

(Aorangi is New Zealand’s highest mountain.  This refers to appreciation of the achievements of others and of the time and tenacity it takes to achieve our highest goals)

15. Be aware of your limitations

He manga wai koia

Kia kore e whitikia

It is a big river indeed that cannot be crossed

16. Important changes happen suddenly

Tīhore ana te rangi

i te uira

Lightening splits the heavens

17. We leave you with our favourite!

Whakataka te hau ki te uru

Whakataka te hau ki te tonga

Kia mākinakina i uta

Kia mātaratara i tai

Kia hī ake ana te atakura

He tio, he huka, he hauhunga

Tīhei mauri ora!

Let the cold winds from the west and from the south, that assail the lands and the seas, desist.

Let the red tipped dawn come with a touch of frost, a sharpened air, the promise of a glorious day.

Behold we are alive!

If you are interested in learning more about Positive Psychology, visit our website:

We also offer a 30 day Wellbeing plan available to download now in which you will gain awareness of habits and routines that may nourish or drain your energy, and practice using new tools that enable you to build a more positive life.