Blog Archives

Happiness arises in the space between

balloonsA coach is asked to present a wellbeing workshop for an organisation’s staff. The group arrive and are presented with a room full of fifty golden balloons, each with the name of one of the participants on it.

The coach asks the group to look for their own balloon as quickly as possible and in complete silence. Those who find their balloon are told they will be eligible for a small reward.

There follows a chaotic scramble; lots of pushing and balloon popping. After a few minutes the exercise is stopped and from the fifty there are a handful of participants clutching their balloons. They are rewarded with a small box of chocolates. The rest have the glum outlook of people forced to go on a training course by their employers whilst their workload piles up at their desk.

The coach runs the exercise again but this time lets the group know that once they find a balloon with a colleagues name on it they should take it over to their workmate. Within a few minutes everyone is holding their own golden balloon. The coach then asks everyone to peel off their name tags. Behind each tag the word happiness is written.

I’m not going to hammer the point home but it’s clear and apparent that this simple little exercise reveals some great truths. We find our happiness and get to understand our strengths and weaknesses through helping others find theirs. We hold a mirror up and reflect each other’s joy. The joy is more than doubled. There is the joy of helping another and celebrating with them, the joy of receiving a gift and the collective joy of the group. Someone way smarter than me said,

“Illness begins with I and Wellness begins with we”

We find out what makes us tick by helping others uncover their truth. To do this all you need is a bit of time, a bit of space and people with positive intention for each other . Usually we do this with best mates and family and I feel really blessed to have lovely friends and such an amazing family .

There maybe times in our lives when we feel at a crossroad or feel the need to step outside of the circle of our friends and reflect on our experience in a different way ; for example when looking for a new job or to gain insight into a whole new way of living. So there may be times when our friends and family don’t have the resources to provide this insight and in order to grow we need the dispassionate reflection of a stranger.

At our centre in Waterloo we have coaches who have the time, space and positive intent to help – David, Dorinda, Madeleine , me and Anita. Find out more by reading our profiles at


The Old lady on the train

I wrote this article last year.  Its words mean so much more to me now.  Its about growth through loss.  Its about love and letting go


“A couple of weeks ago I was travelling back from North Wales on a packed Virgin train.  It was crammed with the usual assortment of hungover post hen/stag do people plus university and army people returning to their digs or barracks.  I had spent the weekend at my little brother Dave’s second stag do and hadn’t slept for two days.  As I boarded the train I managed to find the last free seat on the whole train.  I desperately looked forward to catching up on two hours sleep on the way back to London

As I sat down I said hi to the elderly lady in the seat next to me. That was my first mistake. She was a talker, and by Crewe we were deep in conversation.  For the first 20 minutes it was politeness that kept my eyes open. And then things changed .  I told her about my life as a yoga teacher.  I told her about how when I was 30 I stopped trying to accumulate money and became more interested in experiencing life and learning new things.

She was born on the beautiful island of Anglesey but had moved to the South of England with her childhood sweetheart.  They married at 20 and set up a thriving florist business.  They were inseparable.  When she described him she glowed.  At 80 she looked radiant and beautiful.  After 25 years of blissful marriage he died suddenly in her arms in their little shop.  She has spent the last 30 years asking why.

I had started the conversation by telling her about what yoga teachers do and what positive psychology was all about.  As the conversation proceeded I soaked up her wisdom and my tiredness drained away.  Her lesson was so beautiful:

– tell the people you love that you love them, never miss an opportunity for cuddles

– move on quickly – life proceeds in one direction – the people who loved you unconditionally would want you to find new love

– build love inside of you, be happy with your company, don’t be too attached to things or people. Work on self love.  Feeling good is an attractive trait and brings good people and things into your life

– fear of change is natural but you have attracted love and positive things into your life in the past and you will do the same in the future

– be who you are now – speak your truth, tell people what makes you happy as well as what you fear.

– be true to yourself and be true to other people – 80 or 90 years on this planet and so many people pretend to be something they are not

– enjoy your career – find the thing you love and just do it

After three happy hours on the train I helped her with her bags and we gave each other a big hug.  She was a talker.  I’m a talker.  I also cry easily so we both had happy tears flowing down our cheeks.  We connected as two souls in a moment in time.  We both joked that we were terrible with names but neither of us cared about that.  I felt her goodness, her energy and her wide eyed curiosity in the world.  I turned 45 last Saturday and I want to keep being like that.

I don’t know her name but she was beautiful. ”

Since then

I wrote that piece back in July 2013 shortly before my brothers wedding.  In February 2014 my mum passed away suddenly and unexpectedly .  One minute she was playing tennis, baking cakes and getting excited about the arrival of her third grand child and then she was gone

The things that I wrote about in July I have come to experience in my blood and my heart.  I feel humbled by the loss of mum.  I don’t know where she has gone.  My mind plays tricks and I often think that I need to phone my mum.  Loss has made me feel vulnerable and often sad but its also done something very profound.

I feel so grateful to be alive.  I live in the moment far more often.  I don’t feel work stress any more.  I prioritise my leisure time.

When mum passed away I was very lucky to be in the company of a very wise friend.  Matthew comforted me and told me of his experience when his dad passed away unexpectedly .  He said that because mum was no longer around in physical form that her kindness, strength and loving energy would come through me.  I often think , what would mum do now?  And as I try to follow her loving nature it reminds me of her and makes me feel that she is close.  Her sudden passing has left a terrible void in my family but I feel its brought us even closer together.  Terrible loss has made me feel more vulnerable than I used to but I also feel stronger, calmer and a happier person. Matthew’s words have come back to me again and again.

I am so grateful of the loving friends and family in my life

David, Michael, Jane, Chris, Kate and Pete I love you very dearly




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

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.


Thinking yourself better – placebo explained

According to a recent article in the Economist the alternative health industry is worth in excess of $60 Billion a year.  However there is little quantitative evidence to support many of the treatments and therapies in the field.  So why do people spend so much money without supporting evidence? Are vulnerable people taken in by the therapy business?  This is of course an important issue for us at Breathe London.  We have massage, acupuncture, hypnotherapy, life coaching, yoga, mediation and many other therapies.

My own background is mathematical. I studied economics and chartered accountancy before becoming a yoga teacher, massage therapist and coach and setting up Breathe London. As a natural sceptic I avoided yoga and therapies throughout my 20s.  In my early 30s living in Sydney the combination of corporate finance work, stress and lots of gym work meant that my back often hurt.  I began to take yoga and pilates classes and get regular massages and this combination seemed to reduce my stress levels, improve the balance of my hips and shoulders and lengthen my hamstrings.

This seems to be the experience of a lot of people.  Although the hard evidence base is not necessarily there to support many alternative therapies, people have a gut feel that pain and suffering goes hand in hand with stress.  When we find therapists and therapies which help us tap into relaxation the body and mind can recover.

There are lots of reasons why it’s difficult to measure a positive effect for alternative therapies.  For example finding adequate test and control groups for research may be difficult.  People who turn up for treatment are obviously a self selecting group who are seeking help and want to feel better.  Cold double blind studies lack this positive intention.  Similarly it’s hard to quantify pain and discomfort because pain assessment is very arbitrary.

One of the many reasons why people who go to therapists feel better is the placebo effect.  As soon as I bring this up many people will then doubt the validity of the therapy.  You shouldn’t.  The placebo effect is real, powerful and little understood.  Irving Kirsch, a professor at Harvard medical school has demonstrated that giving sugar coated pills in a placebo trial for depression was almost as powerful as taking antidepressants. Belief and trust in the treatment is almost as powerful as the treatment.  If you tell someone you are dosing them with morphine compared to aspirin, but both are placebo, neuro imaging shows that the deception stimulates naturally occurring pain killers.  Those people told they are receiving morphine produce more of these naturally occurring pain killers.

The research suggests that the more trust the patient has of the doctor prescribing the treatment and the more elaborate the ceremony around the treatment, the more effective the treatment is.  For example injecting a placebo is more powerful than taking a placebo pill.  To further illustrate the power of placebo Ted Kaptchuk at Harvard medical school conducted a study where participants with IBS were told by a doctor about the placebo effect and how it was almost as effective as real pills.  They were told they were taking part in a study to demonstrate this effect and were then told to take sugar the coated pills – and it was again emphasised that they were placebo.  The study found that even though participants were aware that it was a placebo study, the overall effect was almost as powerful as conventional placebo studies.  What was important was the trust that participants had in what the doctor was saying about the placebo effect.

Karin Meissner of Ludwig Maximillians University, Cologne demonstrated that the placebo effect  was able to effect autonomic nervous system, ie heartbeat , blood pressure etc.

So it seems that when it comes down to treatment it has a lot to do with trust and belief.  In the fields of coaching and counselling research suggests that it is the quality of the relationship between the practitioner and client rather than the type of the therapy which is the most important factor.

In addition to the placebo effect there are lots of reasons why therapies such as massage have a strong positive impact.  Human touch has a powerful physiological and neurological effect.  For example Oxytocin production is stimulated, which has a positive impact on trust, empathy, confidence and wellbeing.

Maybe it’s just about being around good people.  They make us feel good, stimulate us, help us feel relaxed and confident.  If the therapist has positive intention towards you, believes in what they are doing and experience tells you they help you tap into good feelings then go with it and listen to your own intuition.  Your own observations of your own wellbeing are often as valid as cold research on participants with no interest in the process or the outcomes.