Podcast: Working for Progress

I was interviewed by social entrepreneur, Dani Trudeau, on Working for Progress, a podcast that connects us all through conversations about how we craft our working lives and make progress for ourselves and others.

In this episode, I talk about my personal struggles and growth in searching for my place in the world over the last 25 years, as I globetrotted and career-hopped under the taunts of a fierce inner critic until I finally started learning how to live in harmony with myself – to like myself, in fact.

We talk about:

  • living and working in alignment with what matters to us
  • anxiety and depression in conforming and performing
  • taking risks and knowing when to quit
  • decoupling self-value from achievement
  • awe, human connection and being yourself
  • stepping out of the fast lane
  • doing our best for others by taking care of ourselves

I felt like I’d leapt off a cliff…It was painful and scary and uncomfortable, which sounds like I’m saying don’t do it. In retrospect though, that was the career path. I started to gleefully leap off, as I realised it wasn’t an abyss.

Have a listen to the 30 minute episode here:

Photo by Weaver Ignrvr on Unsplash

5 Lessons from Science about Human Connection

#1 Survival of the Kindest

Among early humans, it was those who could work together and form collaborative relationships who survived the hazards of predators, climate and rival tribes. Evolution favoured cooperation and empathy.

We’ve come to understand that when Darwin spoke of ‘survival of the fittest’ he meant the individual who was strongest prevailed. Here’s what he actually said:

A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection”.

It is not selfish individuals but mutually supportive groups who have survived and thrived.

The ‘selfish gene’ simply doesn’t stand up to the facts of biology. In the 1980s, scientists discovered we and other species have mirror neurons, which fire whether a person makes an action themselves or sees someone else doing so. It is our empathy circuit: our brains react in the same way to other people’s experiences as it does to our own.

This ability to ‘read minds’ makes us fundamentally compassionate. Research has repeatedly revealed that our instinct is to choose another’s wellbeing over our own interests.

#2 The Importance of Connection

Loneliness is the number one reason people seek therapy today, says Stanford Professor Emma Seppala. It is also terrible for our bodies:

loneliness is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure“.

You may or may not feel that loneliness applies to you, but just how well are you connecting?

For the sake of our psychological and physical wellbeing, we must connect and feel we belong. People who feel they have good, close relationships not only have better psychological health but also higher immunity, faster recovery from disease, and greater longevity.

Having problems in our relationships triggers our body’s stress response. Remember, social conflict was a genuine threat to life and limb out on the prehistoric savanna where we relied on the group for survival. The consequence is that those with poor connections experience more anxiety and depression and have worse physical health.

#3 Positivity Resonance

While good relationships are our life blood, we also benefit hugely from even momentary connections.

Researchers have found that any time we feel a mutual bond with someone, no matter how fleeting, our neurons fire in synchrony and our brains release the same neurotransmitters so that we both experience a burst of positive emotion.

This positive emotion is none other than love???? (The science name is ‘positivity resonance’.)

Biosynchronous moments of shared love improve mood and wellbeing, lower stress and improve physical health. They also deepen the bond and commitment between people – they are the ‘secret sauce’ in fledgling and established relationships.

These micro-moments of connection happen all the time, like when you give way to another driver and they catch your eye and smile, or the times you share a laugh with a co-worker, or when a friend gives an encouraging look in the middle of a hard day.

As with all positive emotions, the key to feeling the benefit of micro-connections is to practise paying attention to them and seeking out more opportunities to experience them in daily life.

Once you start looking, you can feel connected anytime, anywhere to anyone.

#4 Altruism

It’s not just about how much we get from relationships. It’s a lot to do with what we give.

Professor Stephen G. Post’s research has shown that altruism has a positive effect on the giver’s health and happiness. When we can help someone, we feel useful and valued, generating feel-good chemicals that have a positive effect on our bodies and minds.

When I feel myself starting to slide down, I don’t do something for myself. I try to do something for someone else,” says Johann Hari in his powerful book examining depression, Lost Connections.

Darwin showed that natural selection favours not the strongest individual but the most cooperative group with ‘hive emotions’ – shared empathy, love, gratitude, admiration and forgiveness – which bolster connectedness.

When we experience these emotions towards others, we, too, benefit.

#5 Share the Good Times

Research tells us that how we respond to other people’s good news predicts the health of our relationships with them.

When your partner or friend tells you some good news, do you fully pay attention, asking the person all about the experience and showing you’re glad for them? You’ll have a deeper and closer relationship if you do.

When we don’t show enough interest, or when we focus on problems or worries about the news, or when we change the subject and turn away, we damage our bonds.

We need to celebrate together. We need to actively and constructively support the people in our lives for our relationships to thrive.


#1 Goleman, D. (2006) Social Intelligence: The new science of human relationships, London, Arrow Books.

Keltner, D (2009) Born to be Good: The science of a meaningful life, New York, Norton & Company.

Lieberman, M. D. (2013) Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, New York, Crown Publishers.

#2 Seppala, E., Rossomando. T., Doty, J. R. (2013). Social Connection and Compassion: Important Predictors of Health and Well-Being. Social Research Quarterly, Vol. 80, no. 2.

#3 Fredrickson, B. (2013) Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, New York, Plume Books.

#4 Post, S. G. (2005) Altruism, Happiness & Health: It’s Good to be Good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Vol. 12, No. 2, 66–77.

#5 Seligman, P. (2011) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing, New York, Free Press.

Photo by OC Gonzalez on Unsplash

The Science of Attachment and Emotional Attunement


According to psychologist D. W. Winnicott (1964), humans are born to be in relationships with others. This is evidenced by infants (and, to a lesser extent, young children) being so helpless that they must rely on others for all needs to be met.

The idea that attachment can be innate is supported by Lorenz’s discovery that goslings attach to (‘imprint on’) the first moving object they see, whether goose, thing or researcher. Given the long period of human infancy, it has been argued that it is adaptive for humans to form attachments to caregivers.

The nature of this attachment was once understood as being purely utilitarian, in that the infant needed practical needs fulfilling, such as nourishment and protection. A hundred years ago, parents were even urged not to pick up their young children in order to encourage independence.

However, Harlow (1958) challenged such assumptions by proposing that infants’ need for ‘contact comfort’ is as essential, if not more so, than their need for ‘primary drives’, such as eating, to be fulfilled. In experiments with infant macaque monkeys raised in captivity and in isolation, Harlow discovered that the monkeys preferred wire frames covered in cloth to cloth-less wire frames with integrated milk feeders. In other words, when offered the choice between sustenance and the comfort of something that approximated a caregiver, the infants chose comfort.

Twenty-first century advances in neuroscience have provided evidence that humans are ‘wired to connect’ (e.g. Lieberman, 2013; Goleman, 2006), but in the mid-twentieth century, Harlow’s findings were revolutionary. They added weight to the ideas of Bowlby, who argued that children are negatively impacted by poor parenting or the loss of or separation from a parent.

Bowlby proposed that how we relate to others and ourselves, and how we experience the relationship between the two, is determined in early childhood based on our repeated experiences with caregivers. While he acknowledged this can be modified with new experiences of relating, he believed that our early lessons in attachment persist across the lifespan.

This internalised belief system he described as an ‘internal working model’ (IWM), which he regarded as templates for all relationships (Bowlby, 1969). It comprises three elements:

Self – how capable we are at getting our needs met, and how worthy we feel of this

Other – how much we can rely on significant others to comfort and care for us

Relational – how well the relationship between self and other can weather challenges and sustain effective communication

Bowlby’s theory was advanced by the work of Ainsworth (1962), who suggested four attachment types as IWMs. She found empirical support through the design of an experiment called the Strange Situation Test (SST) (Ainsworth et al, 1978).

By conducting the SST with 9-18 month olds, Ainsworth found Type B (secure attachment) infants behaved in predicted ways when reunited with their mothers after a short absence during which a stranger interacted with them. Such behaviour included being distressed at the absence of their mother and seeking and accepting comfort and emotional regulation from her when she returned.

In contrast, Type A (insecure-avoidant) infants did not appear distressed when their mothers left, and avoided interaction when they returned. Type C (insecure-resistant or ambivalent), on the other hand, sought contact with the returned mother, but then rejected her. Finally, Type D (disorganised or disoriented) exhibited contradictory behaviour and appeared apprehensive about approaching their mothers.

These researchers proposed three components of a secure attachment: emotional communication, sensitivity and mind-mindedness.

Emotional communication involves children being empowered to show a full range of emotions and learning that all emotions are valid by caregivers responding appropriately to the full spectrum of emotion states.

Sensitivity means caregivers gauge the infant’s needs and emotional states accurately and respond suitably, as opposed to over- or under-stimulating her, responding out of sync, or rejecting her.

Mind-mindedness is akin to sensitivity, in that it involves being in attunement with the infant, but it goes a step further, as to demonstrate mind-mindedness is to show accurate understanding of the child’s mental states by verbalising these. For instance, if a child is crying and the caregiver returns to comfort her, they show sensitivity, but when they also correctly recognise the child is crying because she feels distressed at their absence, and they talk to her about what’s ‘on her mind’ (e.g. “you were worried because I left the room and you wanted me to come back”), this is mind-mindedness.

Research has found that it is the number of non-attuned comments that predicts that the infant will have an insecure attachment type.

Emotional Attunement

An ‘emotion’ has five components:

1. Physiological (e.g. increased heart rate when hearing a noise in the night)

2. Behaviour (e.g. freezing or escaping)

3. Cognition (e.g. perceiving a threat)

4. Affect (e.g. fear)

5. Context (e.g. camping alone in bear country; culture’s and/or family’s attitude toward bears)

These five aspects represent the systemic nature of emotions and explains why emotional triggers, appraisal and expression are highly mediated by culture and personal interpretation.

Emotional experience emerges from the interplay between these five facets of emotion and the complex social environments we exist in (Smith and Thelen, 2003). The dynamic and interpersonal nature of emotional experience is demonstrated in Lavelli and Fogel’s (2005) study in which infants not only responded to caregivers but actively elicited interaction, so that the pairs entered a cycle of “mutual amplification”.

Tronick et al’s (1978) Still Face Paradigm (SFP) showed what happens when this dynamic interplay is interrupted. SFP involves an initial stage where infant and caregiver interact warmly, followed by a period when the carer ceases to interact and adopts a still face, followed by a return to the interaction. The findings revealed that when the interaction was disrupted, the infants were distressed, tried to reengage the carer, and managed their emotions by turning their gaze away. Once interaction resumed, the infants reengaged but with less positive affect.

The implications of this are substantial. It is evidence that infants’ emotional experience is mediated by others, which means this can be shaped – for better or for worse. In a review of the key literature, Morris et al. (2007) proposed that it is in terms of emotional regulation (ER) that caregivers affect infants’ emotional development.

Emotional regulation consists of internal and external processes involved in initiating, maintaining, and modulating the occurrence, intensity, and expression of emotion” (Thompson, 1994, cited in Morris et al., 2007, p. 363).

There are three mechanisms by which caregivers influence infants’ emotional regulation: modelling, parenting practices, and the emotional climate of the family (Morris et al., 2007). Other factors do undoubtedly play a role, such as peers, culture and the bidirectional nature of the carer-infant relationship, but caregiver influences remain important.

Firstly, children learn through observation, and so modelling appropriate emotional responses is a means of positively influencing their development.

Secondly, parenting practices – that is, parents’ behaviour and discourse around emotions, what strategies they teach, and what their meta-emotion philosophy is – are key influencers.

Finally, the emotional climate of the family is shown to play a powerful role in children’s emotional formation, and so ensuring that this promotes emotional regulation and emotional security is essential. Emotions are contagious, and so the (dis)harmony of the familial relationships is absorbed by the child, as is the ‘family expressiveness’ (i.e. the levels of positive/negative emotions exhibited). When negativity reigns, or there is simmering unease or outright animosity between family members, or the parenting style is such that the caregivers are overly demanding or under-responsive, the child experiences emotional insecurity (because they cannot be sure their needs will be met) and emotional dysregulation (because they are overwhelmed by emotions they have not learned to regulate).


Ainsworth, M. D. (1962) ‘The effects of material deprivation: a review of findings and controversy in the context of research strategy’, Deprivation of Maternal Care: A Reassessment of Its Effects, (Public Health Papers, No. 14), Geneva, World Health Organisation.

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E. and Wall, S. (1978) Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation, Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss: Volume 1. Attachment, New York, Basic Books.

Goleman, D. (2006) Social Intelligence: The new science of human relationships, London, Arrow Books.

Harlow, H. F. (1958) ‘The nature of love’, American Psychologist, vol. 13, pp. 673-85.

Lavelli, M. and Fogel, A. (2005) ‘Developmental changes in the relationship between the infant’s attention and emotion during early face-to-face communication: the 2-month transition’, Developmental Psychology, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 265-80.

Lieberman, M. D. (2013) Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, New York, Crown Publishers.

Morris, A. S., Silk, J. S., Steinberg, L., Myers, S. S., and Robinson, L. R. (2007) ‘The Role of the Family Context in the Development of Emotion Regulation’, Social Development, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 361-388

Smith, L. B. and Thelen, E. (2003) ‘Development as a dynamic system’, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 7, no. 8, pp.343-8.

Tronick, E. Z., Als, H., Adamson, L., Wise, S. and Brazelton, T. B. (1978) ‘The infant’s response to entrapment between contradictory messages in face-to-face interaction’, Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, vol. 17. no. 1, pp. 1-13.

Winnicott, D. W. (1964) The Child, the Family and the Outside World, London, Pelican Books.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

40 things for 40

Written December 2019:

It’s my 40th birthday in January! I’m feeling pretty good about it.

There was a time (not too long ago) when I would’ve lamented all the ways in which my life isn’t the way I’d imagined it would be at 40. I’ve no kids, I’m not married, and I’m not minted.

Younger me knew these were no hardships, that being footloose and fancy-free, with no desire to measure my worth against my bank balance, was essentially living the dream.

Then 30-something me wallowed in the whole compare-and-despair thing, noticing only the gap between the life I live and what ‘everyone else’ is (apparently) doing.

Funnily enough, the more I tried to shrink that gap, the emptier I felt. Probably something to do with the fact I was moving further away from who I really am and what rocks my world.

As a teen, what I wanted to do when I grew up was go everywhere, learn everything, meet all kinds of interesting people, and do everything. I went on to basically do that! I spent years in my element: travelling, learning, trying new work, studying, and being inspired by other non-conformists.

And then I lost it.

Well, not entirely, I guess. That sense of curiosity and adventure remained, and I put it to use in my work and life. But I forgot that in doing so I was living exactly the life I’m meant to live.

And then, 2019. This has been my year of remembering. Nothing’s changed really, but now I recognise how friggin lucky I am.

If I measure success in my terms – Am I growing and experiencing? Am I connecting with people? Are my strengths being harnessed? – then I feel blown away by how good things are.

Forget metrics that aren’t of your making.

I wonder if, in our society, 40 is subconsiously a mini-‘death’. It was, after all, the average life expectancy in the not too distant past, so perhaps there’s even an in-built drive to achieve a lifetime of goals by the big four oh.

Either way, there are a lot of messages out there telling us we’ve got till 40 to do x, y and z. If you can get over that conditioning and see it for the fiction it is, well then, the world’s your oyster really!

And so, as my 40th approaches, I realise how excited I am about what’s ahead. If things have been so interesting in the last 20 years, imagine what might happen in the next 20! Now I’ve got 20 years of skills, relationships and maturity behind me, there are so many new and fascinating directions that could unfurl before me. Growth could be exponential!

For my fortieth then, I’m going to do forty things to honour and celebrate each of the years I’ve been lucky enough to live. I’d like them to be small pleasures, often shared with others, that will allow me to take time to stop and appreciate what’s good in life.

I’ve started today (tried reiki) and will do a couple of things each week till the start of Spring (it’s also a useful way to get through the Scottish winter, eh…!).

I’d LOVE to have your suggestions so I can complete the list, so PLEASE get in touch!

Here are some ideas friends have given me so far (it keeps expanding as I add to it):

  1. Walk the Eilden Hills from Melrose
  2. Cycle the 7 hills of Edinburgh
  3. Iceskating
  4. Escape the room team game
  5. Karaoke
  6. Afternoon chai & Old Fashioned at Dishoom
  7. Host a dinner and try a new recipe
  8. Henna my hair
  9. Somatic experiencing workshop
  10. Try a gong bath
  11. Buddhism introductory course
  12. Skiing in Glencoe
  13. NLP course
  14. Creative writing evening
  15. Visit Drift Café in North Berwick
  16. Play Cards Against Humanity
  17. Brunch at Gardner’s Cottage
  18. Try reiki
  19. Live music at Cloud Café
  20. Get a portrait done of my dog!
  21. Star-gazing at Kielder Observatory, Northumbria
  22. Storytelling workshop with Real Talk
  23. Try an expressive dance class
  24. Non-violent Communication (NVC) course
  25. Silent disco
  26. “Go away for a weekend with some great gal pals, switch off phones, light a fire and drink some wine”????
  27. Beecraigs Festive Forest
  28. Pilates with pygmy goats!
  29. Get fit again
  30. Visit Findhorn
  31. Pole dancing class
  32. Make actual printed photo albums
  33. Turkish baths in Portobello
  34. Artist’s Way
  35. Drink and Draw
  36. ??? Your ideas!


For the Love of Coworking

This post was written in 2018 for my beloved coworking community, Tribe Porty in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Why is it that coworking at Tribe is so very pleasant?

It’s because we’re all a bit in love with each other…

I’m not talking about secret trysts and unrequited infatuation; it’s what psychologist Dr Barbara Fredrickson calls ‘positivity resonance’. AKA, love.

Every time we fully engage with people, whenever we feel we’ve clicked with someone, and all those moments we share a feeling of mutual connection, it’s love, says Fredrickson.

Seen in this way, love isn’t some rare, lofty state, enjoyed only when all the stars align and feelings are intense between two (or a select number of) people.

Instead, love is experienced in the micro-moments of real-time connection we can get all around us. In other words, when we resonate with people in person, anytime, anywhere, we get a dose of love.

It happens when you smile at the driver giving way and they smile back. It’s when you stop for a chat about your dogs with a stranger on the beach. It’s when you’re actually present with the people you spend time with (rather than checking your phone or worrying about your to-do list).

At Tribe Porty, love abounds when someone offers you a cup of tea, you share a joke across the hotdesk, or you grab a bite with whoever’s in reception!

The thought of this might be making you feel warm and fuzzy, but what’ll blow your socks off is the impact positivity resonance has on our brains and long-term health and wellbeing!

Each of those momentary experiences of connection deepen the bond and commitment between people because we become biosynchronous; that is, our neuronal emotional responses literally mimic each other. We genuinely feel with the other person, because our neurons fire and neurotransmitters release in synchrony with them.

Isn’t that lovely?

What’s more, micro-moments of connection optimise the functioning of the vagus nerve, the link between brain and heart. Doing so steadies heart rate, regulates blood sugar and improves immune response, which are vitally important for the body’s health.

High vagal tones also help us maintain attention and deal with emotions, which together improve our social skills. And since being socially adept means more opportunities for positivity resonance, a virtuous cycle is born!

Next time you’re reaching for a left-over Nairn’s oat cake and your hand brushes a fellow Triber’s so that you both have a giggle, go ahead. Tell them you love them. They’ll get it.

Photo by Shridhar Gupta on Unsplash

Wired to Connect

Social exclusion registers in the same regions of the brain as physical pain. In other words, being ostricised is as harmful, even life-threatening, as being physically hurt.

Let that sink in for a moment.

When kids shun a classmate at lunch, when a colleague is short with you, or when a lover storms off, the pain is as real as a punch to the stomach.

Not convinced? fMRI scans show the pain responses in the brain reduce when a sufferer of ‘social pain’ takes a Tylenol.

According to UCLA’s Matthew Lieberman, a lead researcher in the emerging field of social cognitive neuroscience (the study of what happens in the brain when people interact), Maslow has the hierarchy of needs in the wrong order. It is not food, water and shelter that are the primary conditions for survival. It is human connection.

Social brain

Human offspring are remarkably incapable of taking care of themselves. As infants, we simply cannot live without reliable providers of sustenance, protection, training and comfort. To survive, we’ve evolved to be mutually connected. Babies and children unleash a full arsenal to galvanise bigger people to fulfill their needs, from crying and looking adorable, to sharing an oxytocin high with their caregiver and imbuing life with a sense of meaning.

Inter-dependency doesn’t end in childhood. Among early humans, it was those who could garner cooperation and navigate the social landscape who survived the hazards of saber tooth tigers, inhospitable terrain and murderous tribesmen. Evolution favoured social intelligence, and to this day – counter to popular belief – it is cooperation and empathy that are powerful allies of success.

Survival of the kindest

According to Daniel Goleman, who popularised the concept of emotional intelligence and writes compellingly about the social brain in his seminal book, Social Intelligenceeffective leaders are those who “develop a genuine interest in and [have a] talent for fostering positive feelings in the people whose cooperation and support [they] need”.

We are not all here thanks to ‘survival of the fittest’ then (a theory erroneously attributed to Darwin but actually promoted by Herbert Spencer to justify class and racial hierarchy). We are here because of ‘survival of the kindest‘ (Darwin’s actual meaning).

Skeptics might argue that at heart we are self-interested, that it’s a fundamentally selfish, dog-eat-dog world. They are wrong. This view is based in archaic theories that have been thoroughly debunked by the discovery of mirror neurons: the mechanism for empathy. Simply, when someone else suffers or rejoices, our own cerebral neurons mirror their experience so that we feel it ourselves. Ever cried at a sad film or winced at an outtake reel?

This ability to ‘read minds’ and empathise means that our first urge is to be compassionate, not self-interested. Research with not only rats and primates but also human infants and adults repeatedly reveals an instinct for compassion over selfishness – of choosing another’s wellbeing over our own interests.

The discovery of mirror neurons has another important implication. We can no longer conceive of our fellow humans as separate, isolated others. We are literally all part of the same neural network. As Goleman writes,

“[It is] not a case of two (or more) independent brains reacting consciously or unconsciously to each other. Rather, the individual minds become, in a sense, fused into a single system”.

Connection is oxygen

For the intimacy-shy, that’s a powerful realisation. It is not a character flaw to need people; connecting is as essential as oxygen.

Healthy connectionsAccording to Stanford professor Emma Seppala, loneliness is the number one reason people seek therapy today. The side effect of being wired to connect is that relationships matter so much, not having them or having them go wrong can be excruciating.

For the sake of our psychological and physical wellbeing, we must connect and connect well. People who feel they have good, close relationships not only have better psychological health but also higher immunity, faster recovery from disease, and greater longevity.

Those with poor connections experience more anxiety and depression, are more likely to commit suicide and violence, have worse physical health, and live shorter lives. Seppala isn’t kidding when she says,

“loneliness is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure“.

It’s not just about how much we get from relationships either. It’s also about what we give. Professor Stephen G. Post’s research has shown that altruism has a positive effect on the giver’s health and happiness. When we can help someone else we feel useful and valued, improving our wellbeing in every way.

Prioritising social

Knowing the power of social gives us cause to consider how much we manoeuvre our lives to keep human connection central. Are we working too much? Are we caught up in our own heads? Are we hiding from intimacy for fear of (very real, it turns out) slings and arrows? How much we prioritise our relationships is worth serious contemplation. As Lieberman says,

“Being social is our superpower, and not knowing in our guts the value of social – the real, literal value of social – is our greatest kryptonite”.

Further reading:

Tips to improve wellbeing through connection, compassion, altruism and gratitude

Ideas for building relationships from the NHS

How to improve your wellbeing from mental health charity Mind

Report from the Mental Health Foundation: Relationships in the 21st century

TED talk about mirror neurons

Photo by Ahmad Dirini on Unsplash

Intolerable Boredom

We underestimate the seriousness of boredom.

We think children are ‘just whining’ when they complain of boredom. Bored adults are ‘lazy’, ‘unimaginative’ or ‘hyperactive’. If generous, we sympathise with the experience of boredom as we would a mild toothache that’ll pass.

Yet boredom is a known threat to wellbeing. Nothing makes that clearer than considering the central role boredom plays in the punishment of prisoners. Locked away, the prisoner suffers the drawn-out malaise of time expanded. As added punishment, they are placed in solitary confinement away from stimulation.

It’s hard to deny the severity of boredom under these conditions, but for many of us, of course, life is not a prison and we can access a plethora of stimuli. For some though, profound boredom pervades.

Boredom proneness

Sherlock Holmes is renowned for his proneness to boredom. When ‘the game is not on’, he is famously drawn to the thrilling escape of narcotics. Holmes is the archetypal hyperactive mind who is chronically understimulated by normal life. Suffering from a so-called low boredom threshold, he is one of two distinctive personality types prone to boredom, says psychologist Professor John Eastwood. The other type finds the world so frightening they retreat, and boredom ensues.

It’s not only these extreme personality types who suffer stultification though. Boredom is a complex phenomenon experienced widely that has only recently gained traction in research (2017 marked the fifth International Interdisciplinary Boredom Conference and the seventh Boring Conference). And there’s still little understood about it, as this vague conclusion in Live Science from a 2012 review of research into malaise demonstrates:

“[Boredom is] some combination of an objective lack of neurological excitement and a subjective psychological state of dissatisfaction, frustration or disinterest, all of which result from a lack of stimulation”.

Existential angst

Philosophers and writers, on the other hand, have been debating boredom widely for millennia. Existentialists especially have taken up tedium’s cause for the feelings of meaninglessness and isolation it evokes, such as Kierkegaard in Either/Or and Heidegger in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics.

While the jury remains out for a full scientific understanding of boredom, what is generally agreed is that it involves decreased motivation, isolation, disconnection, insufficient stimulation and reduced attention, and it arouses deeply unpleasant feelings of existential anxiety. At its core, boredom is a problem of time, attention and meaning. Time stretches out, nothing can occupy us sufficiently, and things feel pointless.

The value of boredom

Yet there are benefits. Ennui has driven human innovation from the dawn of time. From an evolutionary perspective, emotions should be adaptive not destructive, so boredom, while unpleasant, may serve to encourage our curiosity. Professor Heather Lench says boredom “stops us ploughing the same old furrow, and pushes us to try to seek new goals or explore new territories or ideas”. Dr Sandi Mann at the University of Central Lancashire found boredom led to higher performance in tests for creativity, possibly because “tedium encouraged their minds to wander, which leads to more associative and creative ways of thinking”.

Benefits aside, we mustn’t dismiss the experience of boredom as trivial or childish. It’s not just an odd turn of phrase that we say, “bored to death”, “dying of boredom” and “kill time”. The suffering from boredom can be intolerable.

Boredom and depression

Boredom is both a cause and symptom of depression. “Boredom is the average state of melancholia, whereas melancholia is the pathological state of boredom,” said Fromm in The Pathology of Normalcy. When depressed, life loses its colour and the monotony of nothingness can drive a person to utter despair, even oblivion. And when bored, like prisoners deprived of stimulation, a person is vulnerable to the black hole of depression.

Eastwood says that people are more prone to boredom when they feel their lives lack meaning and fulfillment. He found that when research participants were coached to see meaning and purpose in their lives, they were less bored during the tests that followed. Boredom, it seems, is indeed an existential condition.


In their 2007 book, Boreout, Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin write about the dangers of a lack of meaningful work. ‘Boreout’ (in contrast to ‘burnout’) describes the under-stretched worker who is so bored it negatively impacts their productivity and engagement. Management consultancy Sirota Survey Intelligence found in their 2008 study that “being bored has far more serious consequences for an organisation than being overworked”.

Critical theorist and social psychologist Erich Fromm believed boredom to be a response to industrial society in which workers engage in alienated labour. He argued that the thrills and novelty we seek in consumerism are a mere distraction from the tedium induced by this alienation. In our neoliberal, consumerist society, perhaps Oliver Burkeman is on point when he writes, “boredom feels more intolerable, these days, because there’s so much stimulation to be had”.

In 2016, French perfume executive Frédérik Desnard sued his employers for €360,000 for ‘boring him’ out of his €80,000 per year job. Indeed, Mann says boredom can have “severe” consequences, leading to stress, depression and risky habits that can ultimately shorten life expectancy. Yet boreout is not a recognised psychological condition.

In a BBC interview, Natasha Stanley, head coach at Careershifters in London, compares the “insidious creep” of boredom that leads workers to question “what the point of their life is” to the proverbial boiling frog. Drop a frog in boiling water and it’ll hop out. Put it in tepid water and slowly turn up the heat and it’ll boil to death without noticing.

Beware the rising temperature…

Further reading:

Sandi Mann, The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom is Good

Peter Toohey, Boredom: A Lively History

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

Growth Seekers

Written for the Growthseekers blog in 2017:

I am a growth seeker. Looking back at my life and career and “connecting the dots backwards”, as Steve Jobs urges us to do in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, it’s easy to see I’ve thrown myself headlong into every learning opportunity that’s piqued my interest.

But that’s not the narrative I’ve always told myself. In times of doubt, I lament my butterfly tendencies. Why do I chop and change? Can’t I stick at anything? How come the fire that ignites me for a new project inevitably splutters and fizzles?

On failing

Jobs tells the story of his dropping out of college after six months. He had no idea what he was doing, but he followed his intuition that college wasn’t for him. Freed from doing the classes he was supposed to do, he stuck around for another 18 months, sleeping on friends’ floors and collecting cans for the 5 cent deposit while he attended the classes that captivated him.

Jobs followed his curiosity, and those college experiences fed into his revolutionary work and life as an entrepreneur and inventor responsible for Apple and the seismic changes we’ve seen in our lives since.

Only when you look backwards can you connect the dots that led you to doing the best you can with your life. But sometimes, the positive connections can seem a little hazy. Other times, it looks a lot like one bad choice after another.

Connecting dots

When Jobs was 30, 10 years after he had founded Apple with Wozniak in his parents’ garage and it had grown into a $2 billion company, he got fired. That had to feel like a fairly epic failure. I guess Jobs doubted his choices then too.

“It was devastating. I really didn’t know what to do for months. It was a very public failure and I even thought of running away from the valley.”

But he plowed ahead anyway, again following his gut.

“I decided to start again. I didn’t know it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that ever could’ve happened to me….It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

Over the next five years, Jobs founded Pixar and a company called NeXT which Apple then bought, leading Jobs back to Apple where he’d eventually become CEO. NeXT is the technology now at the core of macOS and IOS.

So, the apparently pointless question marks and downright disasters of our pasts will all come good in the end. I can buy that. I want to believe.

But before I pat myself on the back too vigorously for my sagacity in doing some things badly, I think it’s worth probing whether there’s room for improvement. Jobs might be right that if we’re willing to take risks and fail we will grow, but I’m pretty sure he’d have us mine those failures for insight into how to fail less next time.


In her influential book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford Professor Carol Dweck describes how some children were easily deflated when given a difficult task, while others were excited about the challenge. The latter children didn’t see the failure involved in the struggle, only the opportunity to get better.

This was a pretty revolutionary insight. A common view was – and still is, in some spheres – that being smart meant avoiding failure, so failing meant not being smart. These challenge-loving children instead believed we can cultivate skill and intelligence. They had a ‘growth mindset‘. And it’s not just a question of attitude: neuroscience shows that, like muscles, our brains grow through exercise.

Contrast that with the ‘fixed mindset’, where one believes intelligence is simply something you have or don’t have. Only if you have a certain personality and amount of intelligence can you succeed in life.

This belief leads people to give up easily, and to be thwarted by setbacks and so-called failures. They think the people they consider successful got there because they are effortlessly smart and talented and have avoided failure. Jobs is a shining example of just how very wrong they are.

Effortful perfectionism

When I survey my past endeavours, I am troubled by the hints of a fixed mindset. I have sometimes lost momentum because of the discomfort of not being competent quickly enough. I have got disheartened and turned away when the challenge has been too daunting.

Fortunately for me though, we can develop our growth mindset. I am making it my personal challenge to nurture mine.

Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work“. I like that view. But just engaging my willpower won’t do it. Once I venture too far out of my comfort zone, self-preservation will kick in and I’ll forget Edison and just want to get out of there.

In her career change guidebook, Pivot, Jenny Blake warns against getting into your ‘panic zone’. Likewise, Stephen Krashen found that anxiety delimits people’s success in learning (the affective filter hypothesis). With all the best will in the world then, if we aim too high or too fast, we get discouraged. The only way is to take baby steps.

Dweck found people with fixed versus growth mindsets exhibit two kinds of perfectionism: one that expects instant results with no effort (effortless), the other that has high standards and is prepared to work to get there (effortful).

I am committing to effortful growth. I can’t achieve perfection right away, but I can start where I am and work to improve, digesting the challenge nibble by nibble. I expect to have set-backs, but I’ll chip away at them. I am a growth seeker.

The Surprising Benefits of Positive Emotions

The Role of Positive Emotions

Positive emotions don’t just feel good in the moment. They neutralise the effects of negative emotions, help build our psychological, social and practical resources, and improve our physical health and longevity.

We don’t need strong positive emotions to get the benefit, we need little and often. Positive emotions are like nutrients – you don’t eat a single sprig of broccoli and expect the nutritional benefit; you need a steady intake.

Learning to increase how often we experience positive emotions in our daily life and how to notice and savour the fleeting moments we normally miss is the key to getting the most out of them.

Health and Longevity

The fight-or-flight response triggered by negative emotions can take a toll on our bodies if overactivated, such as through chronic stress, leading to sometimes life-threatening conditions.

Happily, positive emotions seem to ‘undo’ the effects of negative emotions, such as by lowering heart rate and blood pressure. This is great news for our health and longevity!

According to research, for every negative emotion we experience, we need three positive emotions as an antidote. The 3:1 ratio is helpful to keep in mind: it’s not that we need to banish negative emotion or permanently feel positive. We just need to take opportunities to experience positive emotions instead of letting them pass us by.

Negativity Bias

Our brains are structured to notice negative events more than positive because detecting threats helped early humans survive.

Think about the last time someone said something that bothered or insulted you – this probably stands out and triggers a negative emotional reaction. Yet all the moments in between when you got along well are largely unnoticed or forgotten.

Negative emotions grab our attention. Consider how you feel when you’re angry or scared. These can be powerful states that overwhelm our bodies and minds. They involve a very real physiological response, as our brain’s amygdala triggers a neural and hormonal cascade causing our body to prepare for ‘fight or flight’.

In contrast, positive emotions can be subtle. If you happen to notice your positive emotions – though quite often, we don’t! – you probably feel a little ’lift’ in your spirits. But if a car then races towards you, it will dominate your attention and get a far bigger reaction from you.

Broaden and Build

Negative emotions might help us survive, but it’s positive emotions that help us thrive.

Whereas negative emotions narrow the focus of our attention and cause us to take actions like defending ourselves or escaping danger, positive emotions cause us to broaden our thinking and behaviour. For instance, joy makes us want to play, and feeling inspired is followed by a desire to do great things.

With these broadened mindsets and behaviours, over time we build our mental and physical resources and even our social bonds. Imagine, for example, that you experience the positive emotion of ‘interest’ in something. Your interest leads you to learn more and more until you find you’ve become quite the expert. Likewise, as you share moments of amusement and affection with someone, your relationship becomes increasingly meaningful and supportive.

As our resources build, we feel more optimistic, more resilient and more socially connected, which in turn generates more positive emotions. This upward spiral is the essence of happiness.

Here’s how these ten positive emotions broaden our thinking and behaviour:

  • Amusement – shared laughter/insight
  • Hope – yearn for positive change
  • Joy – play
  • Pride – dream big
  • Gratitude – creative giving
  • Inspiration – aspire to excellence
  • Serenity – savour
  • Awe – accommodate the new
  • Interest – explore
  • Love – all of the above!

Cohn, M., Fredrickson, B., Brown, S., Mikels, J., Conway, A., & Phelps, E. A. (2009). Happiness Unpacked: Positive Emotions Increase Life Satisfaction by Building Resilience. Emotion9(3), 361-368.

Kashdan, T., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2015). The power of negative emotion: How anger, guilt and self doubt are essential to success and fulfillment. London: Oneworld Publications.

Lomas, T., & Ivtzan, I. (2016). Second Wave Positive Psychology: Exploring the Positive-Negative Dialectics of Wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies17(4), 1753-1768.

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash