The Feel Good Manifesto - Part I
Updated: Apr 18
The Dalai Lama says, “The very purpose of our life is happiness, the very motion of our life is toward happiness.” I agree. All the things we want in life, we want because we think they will make us happy.
All the other creatures on Earth seem to ‘get’ that feeling good is the ultimate goal in life. But we humans, with our big complex brains, tend to analyze, judge, compare, label, jump to conclusions, blame, dwell on the past, worry about the future, and otherwise sabotage our own sense of peace and contentment.
So who am I to think I can help you crawl out of an emotional hole, habitually generate more positive thoughts and feelings, and raise your everyday baseline of well-being?
I was once a complete hostage to my emotions. I could wallow in a negative loop of painful thoughts and feelings for hours and then have to deal with the puffy eyes and utter exhaustion that followed. My feelings seemed to have a life of their own, beyond my control. To learn how to dig myself out of distressing holes of my own making, I became a self-help junkie, on a relentless course of “bibliotherapy.”
I was a psychology major in the 1970’s before positive psychology was even a thing. Aside from Abraham Maslow’s model of self-actualization and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s study of the ‘flow’ experience, it was pretty much all about diagnoses and disorders and what was wrong with people. Not how to thrive.
Then, at about the same time as new imaging technologies were catapulting neuroscience forward, the ancient Eastern art of mindfulness meditation was migrating to the West. This intersection of brain science, spirituality, and positive psychology captured my imagination.
From my 20’s, self-help and psychology books were my primary reads. Still today my go-to section in a library search is Non-fiction > Psychology where I can always find something of interest on how we humans tick.
I know firsthand that change is challenging, whether it’s a habitual, hard-wired behavior or a pattern of thought. And I know many of the hurdles to be overcome from 35 years working with adults in behavioral change programs, from fitness training to recovery from addiction to rehabilitation for violent offenders.
I’d studied curriculum development in my M.Ed. (Masters in Education) program at the University of Texas, and channeled that skill set into creating effective programs for behavior change.
This crash course in emotional intelligence (feeling as good as possible as much as possible) draws from that experience and more.
Part I. DIGGING OUT OF AN EMOTIONAL HOLE
FEELING BAD. So-called negative feelings aren’t always a bad thing. They can serve as warning flags, alerting us to needs not being met in our lives. They let us know that we may need to take action on our behalf to come back into balance.
For example, fear might be a red flag alerting us to an unsafe situation. Guilt might indicate that we have violated our own standards of right and wrong. Anger might show up when we believe our rights have been violated by another, or that we have failed ourselves in some way.
Some form of course correction (in thought and/or action) is probably in order in each of these situations. Feelings are our cues, our feedback. You could think of negative feelings as the bumps on the side of the road that warn you when you’re going off track and help you stay out of the ditch.
So we can come to appreciate all of our feelings, knowing that they are all offering us guidance and none of them are ‘wrong.’ When we know what we don’t want, we’re closer to knowing what we do want (dating offers a good example) and we can focus our energy there.
While there are hundreds of feeling words in the English language, they can easily be sorted into ‘good’ (when our needs are being met) or ‘bad’ (when our needs are not being met). One task of maturity is learning to manage those undesirable feelings and turn them around before they do damage to our bodies, our relationships, our life goals, and our happiness.
“We heal one aha at a time,” says Marianne Williamson. My hope, dear reader, is that there are multiple aha’s here that resonate with you, strategies you can embrace to make your life feel better and work better.
EMOTIONS VS. FEELINGS. What's the difference? Emotions are neuro-physiological reactions to internal or external events. Feelings are our subjective, learned interpretations of those bodily responses. So emotions are physical. Feelings are mental.
We all have automatic habitual thoughts and feelings, old tapes, and unexamined beliefs that run in the background and can trip us up.
We re-experience traumatic events from the past and even ‘pre-experience’ future events with full blown, fearful stories of what could happen. (We’ll touch on worry later.)
Meet your amygdalae, two almond sized nodes in the temporal lobes of your brain. They’re the alarm centers where threats are detected, memories of past trauma are stored, decisions are made, and emotions are processed. When we get emotionally triggered it’s the amygdalae that freak out, often linking something about the current situation to a traumatic event in the past.
That primitive part of the brain doesn’t have a concept of time so it’s as if your whole history with abandonment or shame, for example, surge to the surface in this moment. The reaction can feel overwhelming. If we don’t actively engage our thinking brain, we are likely to overreact.
Luckily, we have the gift of early detection systems in our bodies. But it’s not the same for everyone and it’s important to heed the early warning signs. Some people breathe hard and fast when triggered; some stop breathing. Some people’s heart rates soar, or their blood pressure spikes, they get hot, sweat, clench their fists or their jaw. Some people’s shoulders creep up to their ears, some pace in agitation, some shut down. If you aren’t aware of the early signs of distress in your body, ask your loved ones for their feedback. They are probably finely attuned to these signals.
Once we are alert to that first link in our personal chain reaction of distress, we can intercept it — before momentum builds and the ‘program’ has to play itself out in a cascade of negative thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and sometimes regrets.
The emotional (physiological) aspect of a distress response lasts only about 90 seconds. If it goes on much longer, it’s being perpetuated by our thoughts and feelings, often in a continuous loop. What we have some degree of control over, and can learn to manage are our interpretations of the situation.
THE PIVOT. For twelve years I worked with adults who were quitting smoking. This was a 7-day live-in program in California’s Napa Valley and was quite pricey. So these folks were motivated. They’d tried everything and had achieved no lasting success. For the first three days or so, they were in withdrawal from nicotine and usually feeling wretched.
Once though, a woman walked up to me on Day 3, with a smile on her face, and reported, “I had a good moment!” Instead of focusing on the 1439 miserable moments in her day, she was able to shift out of her misery enough to recognize a glimmer of hope. She fanned that ember of hope, got some traction in a positive direction, and built momentum toward her happy outcome: joyous freedom from her addiction.
Thinking about our thinking is called meta-cognition. Only dolphins and macaque monkeys are thought to share that ability with humans. So another gift we have (besides our early detection systems) is the ability to observe our thoughts and choose again when they aren’t working for us. We have the ability to re-frame a situation in a more positive and helpful light.
“Nothing is either good or bad except that thinking makes it so,” wrote Shakespeare.
Good and bad are labels, judgments, not something inherent in a situation. In Buddhism, the space in time before we make that judgment is called emptiness. There is infinite potential in a situation until we decide something is good or bad, right or wrong.
PROJECTION. We also tend to project our stuff out into the world and fight our battles ‘out there’ instead of doing the work ‘in here’ in our own minds. We make up stories about the world and over time, believe our stories are facts.
“We see the world not as it is but as we are. “ –Anais Nin
“The whole world is simply my story, projected back to me on the screen of my own perception.”
NAME IT TO TAME IT. One way to deal with distress in the moment is to simply name the feeling you’re experiencing. Once we’re engaging the thinking, conceptual brain (the prefrontal cortex) to identify what we’re feeling, we’ve broken out of the primitive, reactive ‘reptilian’ part of the brain, whose only options are fight, flight or freeze.
In fact, since words represent concepts, people with large vocabularies of feeling words have more finely tailored, precise concepts of feelings than those with only a handful of feeling words. They are said to have greater emotional intelligence, which serves them in multiple ways in life including the ability to regulate their own emotions, and enjoy healthier relationships and greater career success.
LETTING GO. But sometimes changing our thoughts doesn’t work. Sometimes the thinking brain just makes us spin. Our thoughts can consist of endless rationalizations and justifications for holding on to a painful story. Rumination strengthens the painful story, carving a deeper, wider neural pathway.
Some psychology professionals discourage the naming of negative feelings, believing that labeling an experience causes the brain to launch the automatic ‘program’ for that particular label (i.e. the anger program, the hurt program, the fear program).
I’m not saying it’s easy but if we can surrender a negative feeling (not naming it, conceptualizing it, or analyzing it, but simply choosing to let it go), we’re on the fast track to relief. Some people like to release their persistent and painful negative thoughts and feelings to a higher power, the universe, God.
“Letting go consciously and frequently puts you in charge of how you feel, and you are no longer at the mercy of the world and your reactions to it.” –David Hawkins
At the Hindu temple in my community there is a perpetual flame burning and pieces of paper on which to write down things you want to send up in the flame and release to the care of the universe. Such ritualistic and symbolic actions of surrender can be powerful catalysts for shifting the human psyche.
Chances are you’ve heard of the bucket list—the list of things you want to do before you die. What we’re talking about here is the f*** it list—the list of things you want to stop doing. Like the hot stove: if it burns you, stop touching it.
MOMENTUM. It’s to our advantage to pivot quickly from a negative interpretation of events to a more positive one, as our thoughts can build momentum in either direction. An emotion practiced for weeks becomes a mood. A mood practiced for months becomes a temperament. A temperament practiced for years becomes a strong personality trait.
Luckily we can re-wire our mental and emotional circuitry with a big dose of intention and plenty of practice. Even Pavlov’s famous dogs (who learned to associate a ringing bell with food, and would then salivate at the sound of a bell) were able to extinguish (unlearn) their drooling response to the bell with enough repetitions.
Neurons that fire together wire together. So we can create new, better feeling and better working responses to old stimuli. In that gap between the stimulus and the response, we have choices.
That gap is the reason they used to say when you’re mad, count to ten (or a hundred) before saying or doing anything. That’s why timeouts work. They give us a moment to move out of our reptilian brain up into our thinking brain and choose again.
NEGATIVITY BIAS. We humans do have an inborn, hard-wired negativity bias to overcome. It’s a survival mechanism that kept our ancestors alive back in the day, scanning for real threats in their harsh environments. Today we can perceive threat in someone’s tone of voice or raised eyebrow or social media post. Focusing on positive aspects of life like beauty, love, and kindness is not essential to survival. It’s a luxury we can indulge after our basic physiological and safety needs are met. Also related to this negativity bias, if nine things are going well in our lives and the tenth not so much, we tend to focus on the tenth.
ANGER AND BLAME. It was common to hear, in my alternatives to violence groups, “I don’t need anger management. I need people to quit pissing me off.” The problem was always ‘out there.’ But try as we might, we can’t control other people or situations.
I get it. Blame feels better than guilt. And anger feels better than powerlessness. But blame and anger are still on the negative end of the emotional scale. Some of the things that keep us from rising into feelings of contentment, hope, optimism, even enthusiasm, appreciation and joy are our righteousness, pridefulness, and defensiveness, all aspects of the ego.
Funny thing about humans and blame. It’s called fundamental attribution error. We see the flaws and negative behaviors of others as defects in character. We see our own flaws and negative behaviors as situational, so we excuse them. Once we’re aware of this unconscious double standard, we can practice consciously choosing to be curious about the intentions and situations of others, instead of jumping to blame and judgment.
Funny thing about humans and anger. More often than not, anger is a cover-up for a more tender, vulnerable feeling like hurt, fear, disappointment, worry, insecurity, doubt, unworthiness, or overwhelm. Those underlying feelings are where the healing work lies. Anger is the tip of the iceberg above the waterline. Ninety percent of the iceberg is below the surface.
The Buddhist concept of emptiness (mentioned earlier) can be useful in dealing with blame and anger. A Course in Miracles proclaims our basic innocence despite our mistakes. Rumi wrote about meeting in “the field beyond right and wrong.”
Is it possible that anger and blame reside within us? And that the offending person, or situation, or even our own reactive thinking simply activates those toxic responses?
Say you are holding a cup of coffee when someone bumps into you, making you spill your coffee everywhere. Why did you spill the coffee? Because there was coffee in your cup. Had there been tea in the cup, you would have spilled tea. Whatever is inside the cup is what will spill out. When you’re rattled, whatever’s inside you will come out. So we have to ask ourselves, “What’s in my cup?” When life gets tough, what spills out? Joy, gratitude, peace and humility? Or anger, bitterness, harsh words and reactions? We can choose to fill our cups with forgiveness, kindness, appreciation, joyfulness, and love. We can cultivate new habits of thought.
This thought experiment was a powerful wake-up for me. It allowed me to see how much I projected anger and fear onto others. And (I’m not proud of this) then judged them for it. I had to take a good hard look at my own stuff, which had been conveniently repressed.
FORGIVENESS. If we didn’t judge, there’d be no need to forgive. We could practice seeing every encounter as an in-the-moment opportunity to forgive, not only the perceived mistakes and wrongdoings of others (and ourselves) but perceived inadequacies too.
“Forgiveness creates a world where we do not withhold our love from anyone. Be willing to see the light of an innocent child in everyone you meet. Be willing to see the light of an innocent child within you.” - Gerald Jampolsky
“Love is the absence of judgment.” –The Dalai Lama
WORRY. Worry is an act of visualizing what we don’t want to happen. We’re directing our mental and emotional energy toward an imagined negative outcome. Then we tend to 1) move in the direction of what we’re focused on, and 2) selectively sift for evidence of what we already believe.
They say 85% of the things we worry about never happen. 7.5% we can’t do anything about (so why worry?). The other 7.5% we can do something about. We can take action, practice letting go of the illusion of control, and practice trusting that things will work out for us. That way, regardless of the actual outcome, we feel better, and function better along the way.
Some think if you don’t worry, it means you don’t care. But re-directing that forward-looking energy into holding the light for a positive outcome might just have a more positive impact on the situation than feeding the fear.
Some think about worry as kind of a superstition. They’ve worried in the past and things worked out for them. So they think (maybe subconsciously) that their worry caused it to work out. It’s like the baseball player who continues to give his lucky socks credit for his batting record.
ATTITUDE. There’s a story about a couple of shoe salesmen going out into remote, primitive villages looking for new markets for their shoes. One salesman reported back, “Nothing here. The natives don’t wear shoes.” The other reported back, "Huge opportunity here. The natives don’t wear shoes!”
Attitude is everything. The better it gets, the better it gets. Often, if we set ourselves up for a positive experience, we get one. Imagine how you’d like to feel and how you’d like a situation to play out before you step into it. In this way, you are ‘pre-paving’ your immediate future with your own intentionality and positive expectation. You are in your power, aligned with your vision and, again, holding the light.
You may have heard the story of the farmer in ancient China who had one son and one horse to help him work his land. One day the horse ran off. Neighbors gathered to console the farmer and lament his bad luck. “That’s terrible,” they all agreed. “How do you know?” asked the farmer. The next day his renegade horse returned with two more wild horses in tow. The farmer corralled the horses and the neighbors all gathered to celebrate his good fortune. “That’s wonderful,” they all said. “How do you know?” asked the farmer. The next day, while taming one of the wild horses, the farmer’s son got thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors came. “That’s terrible,” they said. “How do you know?” asked the farmer. Meanwhile, a futile war had broken out in the land and all the young men in the countryside were being drafted to fight in a battle they could not possibly win. Most of the young soldiers would not survive. But the farmer’s son, with his broken leg, was left behind, to live a long and happy life. So how do you know?
Problems often come with gifts in their hands. Re-frames (or self-talk) to consider when things aren’t going as you want them to:
· If it’s happening to me, it’s happening for me.
· I’m always in the right place at the right time.
· The universe has my back.
· Things fall apart so other things can fall together.
· Things work out for me.
RESILIENCE. Stories (and real life) are often like a 3-act play. In Act I you get acquainted with the characters and their situations. You engage with the story. In Act II a conflict arises. It’s sometimes called the messy middle. Brené Brown calls it the rumble.
Margaret Atwood wrote in Alias Grace:
“When you are in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood, like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”
In real life, while you’re in the messy middle of Act II, you can write your own Act III, and create your own happy ending. You can choose to be a hero instead of a victim.
For her book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown interviewed screenwriter Shonda Rhimes, creator of Gray’s Anatomy and Scandal. When asked about the role of struggle in storytelling, Rhimes said, “I don’t even know who a character is until I’ve seen how they handle adversity. Onscreen and offscreeen, that’s how you know who someone is.”
Noam Shpancer, PhD, writes in “Designed for Success” (PSYCHOLOGY TODAY Sep/Oct 2020):
Resilience is the rule, not the exception. Most children from dysfunctional homes become functional adults, and most trauma survivors do not develop PTSD.
Several individual characteristics have been shown to predict resilient outcomes. High intelligence is, in essence, adaptive problem solving. Personality also plays a role. People who score high on the following traits are more likely to thrive under adverse conditions:
• Emotional stability (leaning toward positive emotions and low reactivity),
• Extraversion (tending to be outgoing, gregarious, sociable, and expressive)
• Conscientiousness (being reliable, organized, methodical, and thorough)
Current research suggests that resilience actually resides ”on the hyphen” between person and context. One helpful way to think about resilience is as a contest of sorts between various kinds of protection and risk factors in the life of a person.
These risk and protective factors predict resilience better than individual traits. Intelligence, while influential, could not overcome the effects of such environmental risk factors as deficient parenting, antisocial peers, and poverty in predicting children’s mental health outcomes and academic outcomes. Context matters. Greatly.
A loving bond with a capable adult has been the strongest and most consistent factor linked to resilient outcomes. Healthy attachment establishes for the child a secure base from which to explore.
Overwhelming or traumatic experiences do not as a rule strengthen a child. A history of trauma is a strong risk factor for future trauma. Children who grow up unsupervised do not become tough but rather vulnerable, and their odds of handling the stressors of life diminish rather than increase.
The other extreme—helicopter supervision—is also unlikely to foster resilience. Children who can’t experiment and explore on their own cannot learn. And directing constant parental anxiety at the child conveys to the child that the world is dangerous and that they are not competent or trustworthy. These messages become self-fulfilling prophecies. Healthy attachment bonds facilitate resilience by avoiding these two extreme positions.
Four Habits of Resilience:
• Nurturing positive relationships (our most powerful resilience strategy).
• Practicing flexibility. Bending so as not to break.
• Taking problem-solving action.
• Taking care of ourselves.
We are designed to overcome, not to succumb.
OUTWARD BOUND. Outward Bound is an experiential education program that uses the wilderness as its classroom. It was founded in Wales during World War II with the goal of increasing the survival rate for British merchant marines whose ships were being torpedoed in the Atlantic. The founders observed that it wasn’t the youngest, strongest sailors who survived the sinking of their ships, but the seasoned, savvy sailors who had been tested in life and knew what they were made of. Outward Bound created conditions for developing the coping skills, problem-solving skills, competence, and character required to survive hardship.
I participated in an Outward Bound white water rafting and mountaineering course the year I turned 40. I was the oldest person in the group by at least 10 years, and boy was I tested! But the experience did indeed stretch my comfort zone and expand my confidence in my abilities. Choosing to take on risky and uncomfortable challenges prepares us for the inevitable life challenges that we would never choose for ourselves.
When facing hard times, you too might find inspiration in these quotes on resilience I’ve collected over the decades.
ON ADVERSITY & RESILIENCE
You’ll never find a better sparring partner than adversity. (Walt Schmidt)
We’re like tea bags: you don't know how strong you are ’til you’re in hot water.
The difficulties of life are intended to make us better, not bitter.
Crisis doesn’t develop character; crisis reveals character.
Life is trouble. Only death is not. (Zorba)
Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors. (African proverb)
He knows not his own strength that hath not met adversity. (Ben Johnson)
The gem cannot be polished without friction. (Chinese proverb)
What does not kill me only makes me stronger. (Nietzsche)
If you face the thing you fear, the death of fear is certain. (Emerson)
Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage. (Anais Nin)
Fears are the little darkrooms where negatives are developed. (Michael Pritchard)
Then the day came when the risk to remain in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. (Anais Nin)
Adversity introduces a man to himself.
It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult. (Seneca)
One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore. (Andre Gide)
If you’re going through hell, keep going (Winston Churchill)
An obstacle is something you see when you take your eyes off the goal.
A diamond is a piece of coal that made good under pressure.
A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.
If a man carries his own light with him he need not be afraid of any darkness. (Martin Buber)
When it’s dark enough you can see the stars. (Charles A. Beard)
In the depth of winter I finally learned there was in me invincible summer. (Albert Camus)
Life by the yard is awfully hard. But by the inch, it’s a cinch. (Ann Landers)
Prayer doesn’t necessarily change things for you. but it changes you for things.
Keep your eyes to the light and the shadows fall behind you.
Because the road was steep and long, and through a dark and lonely land, God set upon my lips a song, and put a lantern in my hand. (Joyce Kilmer)
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See also Ten Ways to Feel Better Now
In Part II we’ll explore common Habits of Thought and dozens of ways we can take our power back from self-defeating, counterproductive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
And in Part III, A Better Feeling Baseline, we’ll take a look at how to feel mo’ bettah mo’ of the time, raising our baseline of well-being as we hum along at a high level of life satisfaction and positivity.