Category Archives: Happiness strategies

How to stop negative emotions defining who you are

In the ten or so years I’ve been writing posts for Moodscope, and then Moodnudges, I’ve almost never handed my blog keys to another driver.

A week ago, though, Cate – a loyal and long-term reader – emailed me a piece that her twenty-year-old son Jacob had written on the subject of emotions and behaviours.

I thought it was really special, so much so, that I asked Jacob for his permission to share it with you, and you’ll find it below.

Jacob Harvey grew up in Nottingham, and now lives in London, working in financial services.

He tells me that he spends a lot of time trying to understand how we human beings operate, and what makes us who we are.

I loved this, his very first post, and particularly enjoyed seeing things through the eyes of someone who has spent the greater part of his life living in the 21st century.

I’ll add a link to Jacob’s blog below, but here’s what he wrote:

I am vs I feel

I’ve been identifying too much with my emotions.

Quite a deep introduction, but hear me out…

I feel like I let my emotions define me. I can wake up in the morning and, for whatever reason, not feel good about things.

I might wake up and say to myself, ‘Today I am frustrated/upset/angry/anxious.’

Then I identify with those emotions and ultimately become them. Throughout the day, that’s me.

What a waste, right?!

I want to share a small trick I stumbled across that has really helped me feel better, reduced the power of my negative emotions, and stopped me overthinking and identifying with them.

I’ve called it ‘I am vs I feel,’ and it’s the art of disassociating.

It starts with a reframe.

I’m a strong believer that you are who you are. There’s nothing you can do to change that.

Yes, you can grow, and develop, and mature, but no matter what situation you are in, or what emotions you’re feeling, you’re still the same person.

You are you.

But, instead of identifying with emotions and letting them define you by telling yourself, ‘Today I am frustrated,’ say instead, ‘Right now I feel frustration.’

Accept the emotion is there, but don’t let it become you.

I am Jacob Harvey. That’s me. And sometimes I feel frustration. That’s fine!

But this doesn’t mean I am a frustrated person.

The power of You never goes away, but you can very easily let the You be blurred by emotion.

So try it now.

If you’re jealous about something, don’t say ‘I am jealous,’ say ‘I’m feeling jealousy.’

Don’t say ‘I am angry,’ say ‘I’m feeling anger.’

Don’t say ‘I am sad,’ say ‘I’m feeling sadness.’

Think of a negative emotion you’re feeling now, or have felt recently, then apply this concept and see how it makes you feel.

When I applied this to my own feelings, it almost immediately reduced the power of them. It made them feel temporary.

Now that they weren’t consuming my every thought, I could get some perspective, and think more rationally about them, and get along with my day-to-day life.

So keep the emotions in the box they deserve to be in. Don’t let them consume you, and don’t let them become you.

As I said above, you are who you are, emotions don’t change that.

We’ll never be able to prevent negative thoughts and feelings, but what we can do is try our best to work with them.

In the words of author Mark Manson, ‘Accept them. Defuse from them. And then act despite them.’

The great thing about changing from ‘I am frustrated’ to ‘I feel frustrated’ is that it helps us observe the emotion in a healthier way.

You’re still going to feel negative emotions and think negative thoughts, but this doesn’t need to change who you are.

Using the ‘I am vs I feel’ concept makes our emotions seem short-term, and disassociates us from them. It enables us to feel happier, not allowing those annoying emotion things ruin a whole day/week/lifetime.

I’m not saying it’s a one-time cure, but it’s a good start to get some perspective on how you’re feeling, and a great step to dealing with emotions in a happier and healthier way.

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Isn’t that good? A big thank you to Jacob Harvey for sharing this. Here’s a link to his new blog:

Lastly, in a break from tradition, if you have reflections on Jacob’s thoughts, please post them on his blog, rather than here on the Moodnudges site, maybe letting Jacob know that Moodnudges sent you:

I am vs I feel

Mood nudging? Piece of cake. Well, pie, actually.

What exactly is a mood nudge?

Well, in my book (no pun intended) it’s some small action you can take – often right now – that’s designed to give your overall sense of psychological well-being a modest boost.

(That 24 word definition perhaps explains why it’s easier for us all to simply refer to it as a mood nudge.)

So today, let’s agree to not be long-winded and instead just cut to the chase.

This week, my own mood was appropriately nudged by watching an entertaining little video, less than three minutes long.

Joseph Herscher is a New Yorker who constructs ingenious set-ups/machines in his apartment to, in his own words, “solve everyday problems using familiar objects in unfamiliar ways”.

Here’s what he built to serve himself a slice of pie after he’d finished his dinner, which reminded me of my old Professor Branestawm books, illustrated by W. Heath Robinson.

I hope it does for your mood what it did for mine.

Personally, I loved the baby’s second appearance right at the end.

Where’s your happy place?

Have you ever noticed your mood changing depending on where you are? It’s a fairly common phenomenon, actually.

For the past few weeks I’ve been contributing to the Stanford University radio station KZSU’s Friday evening news hour, as the show’s emotional well-being correspondent.

Each week, the host, Darlene Franklin, and I explore a topical news item involving emotional well-being. I suggest tips that could help listeners, then Darlene plays short interviews she’s recorded with people on the university campus, commenting on the theme.

We also encourage listeners to contribute to the show with texts and tweets.

It’s such a fun project to work on, and if you’d like to hear last Friday’s segment, there’s a link to a recording below.

But if you don’t have time to listen, here’s the gist of the news story.

Researchers at the Israel Institute of Technology studied 14 million tweets sent by people who were out and about in New York City.

These tweets were geo-tagged, making it possible to identify the precise locations from which they were sent.

The tweets were then run through some special “sentiment analysis” software, that automatically determined emotions expressed by those who sent them.

In this way, researchers could build an emotion map of NYC, showing which emotions were felt where.

They focused on six in particular: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and surprise.

So what did they find? Well, a few results stood out for me.

One was that people expressed a wide variety of intense emotions (all those examined, actually) when they tweeted from theatres and cinemas – presumably feeling strongly moved one way or another by the play or movie they’d just seen.

It was also intriguing to learn that the predominant emotion associated with transport hubs, such as railway stations and bus stops, was anger. Let the train cause the pain, eh?

Meanwhile, in terms of happy places, these were often open-air spots such as Central Park and Washington Square.

KZSU listeners had plenty to say about their own happy places – so I wonder where yours is (or are)? Maybe you’ll share them in the comments below.

My three Moodnudge suggestions around this topic are:

1. Once you’ve identified your own happy place, do your best to seek it out whenever you can. It makes sense to spend time in a place that makes you feel good.

2. On the other hand, if there are places with less happy associations for you, try limiting your exposure to them if possible, or change the way you think about them. You could turn a long, boring slog in a waiting room into a chance to enjoy listening to a podcast or reading a book, for example, and actually look forward to it.

3. Ask others about their happy places. Based on our listeners’ responses, it’s a good way to learn more about people, and also pick up tips on great spots you could visit yourself.

Finally, here’s the emotional well-being spot last Friday on KZSU.

It’s unedited, and a little long at 37 minutes, but if you have the time, I think you’ll enjoy it.

And please let us all know about your happy place, in the comments.

What can you do today, for Future You?

I love learning about other people’s happiness-nudging ideas, so I’m delighted to pass along this one from my good friend Josh, who’s hit on a smart self-care strategy. Over to you, Josh…

* * * * * * *

I wanted to share a thought experiment I’ve been trying that I think you’ll enjoy.

It started with my morning coffee.

Sometimes I clean and prepare all my coffee making paraphernalia the night before, rinsing out old grinds, filling the kettle, washing my mug, and placing the scoop in the bin of beans.

Other times I do not.

One day I realized that when I had prepared everything in advance, I was subconsciously saying things to myself like “Damn, you really set Future Josh up today,” or “Past Josh must have been a pretty good guy to think of me!”

But when I had not, I would gently chastise myself for not doing it.

Then the thought occurred to me —I wonder if I can use this to motivate myself to do things I won’t enjoy doing now, but will later appreciate having already been done?

For the past week I’ve been testing out this idea.

For example, I’ll sometimes stop what I’m doing, scan the house for a task that will make Future Josh happy, then do it, taking pleasure in the fact that I’ve set myself up for tomorrow.

The interesting thing is, I’ll often refer to “Future Josh” out loud, then get excited because I know he’ll be happy not having to do the thing I’m doing now.

And since Future Josh will be a little happier for not having to think about or do this, both current and Future Josh are happier.

It truly is a win-win.

Do you ever do anything like this?

* * * * * * *

My thanks to Josh.

PS—When I wrote about emotional contagion last week, I began by boasting that I hadn’t had a cold all winter, then suggested I was probably tempting fate by doing so. This week? Yup, first cold for months now coming on fast and furious. Honestly, you can’t win, can you?

Keep Calm and Cousins On

Yesterday will definitely go down as an Odd Day for me.

You see, through a remarkable series of coincidences, I discovered that I share a last name with the man who almost certainly designed one of the most famous morale-boosting publicity campaigns of all time.

Yup, the designer of the “Keep Calm And Carry On” poster was born Charles Cousins.


Right now, I have no idea if we could be distantly related, but it’s clearly a possibility given the relatively small number of people named Cousins in the world.

A website called reveals that my name is the 15,696th most common in the world.

By the time Charles Cousins (the same name as my grandfather, by the way) was asked by the Ministry of Information to put together designs for morale-boosting posters in 1939, he’d changed his name to Edgar Wall-Cousins, which became Wallcousins.

The Edgar was his middle name. The Wall came from his first wife Marjorie’s maiden name.

By doing the double-barrelled thing, they were clearly way ahead of the game when they married, in 1902.

Given my fascination with the idea of developing a way to measure and track morale, it does seem pretty exciting that I might even share some genes with the designer of the Keep Calm poster.

How do you research this kind of thing?

I’m not sure, but it’s certainly got me fascinated.

The elementary genealogical exploration I began yesterday (and quickly abandoned upon realising how complicated it would get) was a time-consuming but enjoyable diversion from the main task in hand for me, right now, which is to explore the potential of morale as a measure of our psychological well-being.

However, one slight reservation I have is whether the word “morale” is sufficiently meaningful in a context outside the world of work or the military?

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve mentioned to you that we easily use the word “demoralised” in a personal setting, understanding what it means with no problems.

But “morale”?

Maybe it’s okay, but perhaps there’s a better term for it?

One dictionary definition of morale is that it’s “an emotional or mental condition with respect to cheerfulness, confidence, zeal, etc, especially in the face of opposition hardship.”

I can think of a number of possible synonyms for morale, but I don’t want to influence you because I do want your help, please.

Which words or terms might you use in place of the word morale?

I’d love to know, so I’ve put a simple form online to gather ideas:

Once we’ve collected a goodly number, I’ll assemble them into a voting form so we can take a second pass at ranking them in popular order.

For now, though, please put on your very best thinking cap.

Meanwhile I’m still trying trying to digest the “Keep Calm” connection, which ironically is exciting enough to actually make it feel quite hard to, well, carry on.

Brilliant book. Rocket reaction.

Around one-in-ten Moodnudges readers already know what I’m going to say.

Does this mean we have a lot of mind readers in our database?

Well, possibly not.

The truth is that about 10% of our readership is currently taking part in the trial of Signpost, the new emotional health management tool we’re building.

What these trialists will know is that this week has been what you might call eventful.

A calculation hiccup resulted in some people being told they were angry when they weren’t.

I joked (nervously) that even if they weren’t actually annoyed to start with, being told this might irritate the heck out of someone.

Fortunately, everyone concerned seems to have taken it with good grace, understanding that these kinds of wobbles are the very reason you run pilot tests.

In fact, it gave me renewed joy to be reminded that you and our other readers are just so very, very nice.

What a fabulous community we have here, frankly.

In between discovering how physically tiring it can be when you exert yourself mentally, as I tried to fix the “anger-stat” (and a great reminder of how intrinsically linked physical and mental health are) I’ve also been enjoying reading a new book by Johann Hari: Lost Connections.

In his book, Hari argues that a great deal of depression may actually be due, not to disease, but to someone’s life circumstances.

Now there’s a thing.

If you feel friendless, lonely, or under-appreciated, he suggests, slipping into depression might simply be a natural reaction to unpleasant situations, rather than a chemical imbalance in the brain.

I am of course grossly oversimplifying the book’s theories, but they do really make sense to me.

Johann Hari has come under fire from some in the psychiatry profession, who claim he is suggesting that antidepressant medicines serve no purpose at all, and that he is claiming that people can recover from depression by making, on the face of it, simple life changes.

(Although you and I both probably know that, when you’re depressed, nothing is ever simple. Nothing.)

Actually, Hari doesn’t deny the usefulness of meds to some.

What he does say, though, and I think he makes the point strongly, is that medication must never be the only tool in the box.

And in fact this is entirely the view I’ve taken since Caroline, Adrian, and I started Moodscope in 2007, and also while I’ve been Moodnudging since my transplant to California in 2013.

Simple things like getting out in nature, connecting with others, remembering to be grateful, getting healthy exercise… these are all surefire ways to boost your mood.

As I say, I’m relishing Johann Hari’s book, which you may also enjoy. It’s a fast-paced, definitely not heavy, piece of writing.

My heartfelt thanks, as ever, to all those who are experimenting with Signpost, and my heartfelt thanks to you for reading today’s nudge.

If you fall into both camps, well, consider yourself impeccably thanked.

One last thing: that rocket launch on Tuesday.

Boy oh boy, what a magnificent achievement by Elon Musk and SpaceX, almost certainly doing their bit to lift the world’s mood.

Along, of course, with a cherry-red Tesla roadster carrying a Starman, who’d like to come and meet us, but who thinks he’d blow our mind.

He certainly blew mine.

Treat yourself to a really good stretch.

A two-part message today, starting with a nudge, and ending with an update on the experiment I’m running with Signpost, our new online emotional-management tool.

Let’s begin, then, with a quick reminder of how closely connected your emotional health and physical health are.

With so much sickness around this time of year in the northern hemisphere, I’m sure you’re familiar with how rotten someone can feel, mentally, when they’re suffering from a cold.

Perhaps you’ve experienced it yourself this winter, but even if you haven’t, you’ll probably have observed others coughing, sneezing, and complaining their way through the day.

However, just as low physical health can make you feel mentally drained, the opposite can also be true.

Actively taking care of your physical well-being can give your emotions a much-needed boost, too.

Now, I bet you’re expecting me to remind you to get some exercise, eat healthily, drink more water, or something like that.

Well, although they’re all great ideas, no, actually.

This nudge is something much easier to do, but is an action it’s all too easy to forget.

I’m talking about the terribly simple idea of stretching.

Yup, simply taking a moment or two to s-t-r-e-t-c-h your muscles.

Go on, try it now.

Stretching is relaxing, and it can put you in touch with your body.

If you’re able, here’s a great back stretch known as the “standing cat-camel.”


Here’s how to do it:

1. Begin by standing with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart, and your knees slightly bent.

2. Lean forward and place your hands on your legs, just above your knees.

3. Curve your back, with your shoulders forwards, and your chest closed.

4. Now arch your back backwards, opening your chest and rolling your shoulders back. Arms in the air, if you like.

5. Rinse and repeat a few times.

It can feel especially good if you’re spending long periods sitting at your desk.

In fact I’m going to stretch right now.

Ah, that’s better.

So, one good stretch later, how are things progressing with the beta test of Signpost?

Last week I asked for volunteers to experiment with a seven-day trial of the app I’m working on.

It provides daily feedback and tips to your smartphone in audio form, recorded by yours truly.

I’m happy to say that lots of people have kindly offered to help, so this week I’m phasing in over 200 willing individuals.

It has made sense to introduce people in several waves, to ensure the systems are working as expected.

So far, there have been no serious malfunctions (although I’m sure I’ve jinxed it by saying that) and some really positive reactions.

It’s not too late to add yourself to the list of trialists, and thank you if you do, or already have done.

More details on what I’m learning next week.

Meantime, I’m getting the bottom of how many digits there are in a Dutch cellphone number, and how to work out what time you need to instruct a server in South Africa (when you yourself are on California time) to send a text to New Zealand, at 8 AM local time. It’s complicated.

Ready to try Signpost?

Hope you’ve had a good week since we last spoke on Jan 18th. Where does the time go?

Things have been busy for me here in California, with a ton of progress made on readying the trial of the brand new Signpost, which I told you a little about last week.

Signpost incorporates more or less everything I’ve learned about managing emotional wellbeing over the past ten years into one neat package, designed to help you take simple, practical actions to take better care of yourself.

You use Signpost on your phone once a day. Daily text messages prompt you to report how you’re doing emotion-wise, via a brief 10-item questionnaire.

Then you’ll hear me giving you about 90 seconds of feedback, tips and advice, customised to your current state of mind. There’ll be new feedback every day.

Signpost also stores your daily questionnaire scores, showing them on a graph, to which you can add notes of explanation.

We’re pretty close to starting a seven-day trial, for which there is obviously no charge, so I’d now like to invite you to register your interest in taking part.

You’ll find a short sign-up form here:

I’m probably going to need to phase in people as they start the seven days, because I’m sure there will be teething troubles with the systems. But I promise you that if you volunteer, you’ll get a chance to try Signpost quite soon. Maybe as early as next week.

You’ll also earn my planet-sized gratitude for helping me get this new show on the road.

Which way next? Check the Signpost.

We’re another week into 2018 and, as promised last time, I’d now love to tell you a bit about what I did work-wise in 2017.

Then – hopefully the more exciting part – I’ll do my best to give you a feel for where things may be headed this year.

To be honest, ever since I began writing regular posts at Moodscope in 2007, I’ve always been deliberately vague about references to my own financial circumstances.

It was a conscious decision, as it felt that for me, our relationship (yours and mine) ought to be more about you than about me.

The truth, however, is that like the majority of people, I need to work to pay the bills.

After I moved to California at the end of 2013, I applied for a visa on the basis of the development I’d carried out with Moodscope, and was granted this in 2014.

It meant I could start earning money (phew), but only in a limited way (ooh).

Then last year, after submitting an application accompanied by more than 1,000 pages of evidence, I was fortunate enough to be granted a Green Card, which makes me a “permanent resident,” although not a full citizen, of the USA.

This gives me many more employment options than my original visa did.

For a couple of years after I got to the USA, I worked as a freelance copywriter for a San Francisco biotechnology company.

Among many other projects, I wrote over a hundred weekly newsletters about the microbiome (the bacteria that lurks in and on our bodies) which others said were more fun than they might otherwise sound.

In May last year, this same company offered me a full-time position as their creative director, which I happily accepted.

I therefore spent a sweet (but short, it turned out) six months commuting to San Francisco every day, to work with a talented team of really fun people.

Somewhat extraordinarily, this was my first proper employed position since I started my ad agency in 1986: other than this one job, I’ve always worked for myself.

It was fantastic to get paid every two weeks (which is the way it usually works here in the States) along with all the usual SF start-up perks like free lunches, all the snacks you could eat, even your commuting costs paid, but I soon came to see that it just wasn’t what I came to California to do.

My mission when I came here was to continue my work in supporting people’s emotional health.

It really wasn’t about writing newsletters about E. coli, pooping, and unpleasant diseases.

It really wasn’t.

Towards the end of last year, therefore, I bid a reluctant farewell to my co-workers, my paychecks, and the free lunches, and found myself with greatly renewed energy to get back to really making a difference in the mental-health world.

Hardest of all was turning my back on the unlimited snacks, of course, but sometimes these things just have to be done.

Almost exactly a year ago, I experimented with publishing one of my “nudges” in audio form, which met with significant approval from lots of readers or, rather, listeners.

Then in March, I took this concept a stage further, playing with an idea where rating your emotional well-being with a simple test took you to one of four audio nudges, each customised to a particular state of mind.

If you tried it, and many did, you would then have gone on to hear tailored feedback if you’d been feeling anxious, angry, or sad, for example.

Again, this met with gratifyingly positive feedback, and it’s this broad idea which forms the basis of what I plan to do next.

Measuring and tracking my emotional well-being has made the most enormous difference in my own life, so it’s not surprising that I’m a huge advocate of the principle that, as in so many areas of life, we can only manage what we measure.

Coming soon, therefore, is an app called Signpost that has three strings to its bow.

Sign up with it, and you’ll get a text message every day, prompting you to take a brief test that rates your emotional well-being.

You’ll take the test on your phone, where you’ll also be able to view a graph showing your progress over time.

Finally, you’ll get immediate audio feedback from me, tailored to how you happen to be doing at that very moment.

I’ll be recording fresh feedback every day, so my intention is that this will really strengthen the relationship we have, enabling us to work together on managing either occasional or even chronic emotional health challenges that you may face.

I know of nothing else quite like this, so it’s new and somewhat experimental work, but based on my now ten years of working in this field, I have a really good feeling about Signpost.

Offering it will have associated expenses, making it necessary to offer it on a subscription basis from the start, but I will all I can to keep the price as affordable as possible.

By this time next week, I plan to have a bare-bones version of Signpost working well enough to offer a (free) seven-day version of it to a small number of Moodnudges readers.

More details next Thursday, therefore, along with full information about how you can register your interest.

Thank you so much for reading today, and for hopefully being okay with rather more personal disclosure from me than I’ve historically been comfortable with.

Have a great week – see you on January 25.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Time. Goodness me, where does it go?

We’re already over a week into 2018, so it’s not before time that I wish you a happy New Year.

My sincere hope for you is that the coming twelve months will treat you with kindness, fairness, and lightness.

May your best dreams come true, and your worst fears prove groundless.

I last wrote a Moodnudges post on December 17th, explaining that I’d be taking a break from writing until the New Year.

As a result, a veritable multitude of readers got in touch to wish me well.

This was a delight and surprise.

It was also a joy for me to spend 10 days back in the UK, almost entirely with my mum, and my brother and his wife.

Although I adore my life in California (it’s been four years now) and do keep in close contact with my family at home, nothing beats being in the same room as the people you love.

Having a few weeks to take stock of things has also enabled me to start weighing up what might be next for Moodnudges.

Some readers have joined us recently (thank you) while others have loyally followed me since I began writing my daily newsletters for Moodscope in (hold your hats) 2008, a whole decade ago.

One heck of a lot has changed in that time, and although there have been good times for us both, I hope, I’m not so sure that the world in 2018 is much of a happier place than it was ten years ago.

Among many other monumental evolutions and revolutions, the way we communicate is very different.

In 2008, for example, email seemed – and was – a fantastic medium for someone such as me to communicate with a reader like you.

Not so much today, I think.

If you’re anything like me, your inbox has become virtually unmanageable.

The sheer volume of emails has made it all but impossible to deal with.

The Moodnudges email list used to grow consistently, but during the past year it has remained pretty static as some new people subscribed, while others left us – usually explaining a bit ruefully that they were just generally getting too many emails all-round to cope with.

Part of my thinking about taking a break over Christmas, therefore, was to give you a break from at least four messages a week, even though I suspect this would have been but a drop in the ocean.

Partly because of this, and also partly because my own work situation is in flux (in a good way, I hasten to add) I’ve concluded that it may be time to reimagine Moodnudges.

I have some exciting ideas, and I also want to involve you in the process. After all, we’re in this thing together – and I hugely value our friendship.

Over the next few weeks, therefore, I’m going to trim back the frequency of my messages, to just one per week, but I’m going to step up the openness of our communication, giving you more insight into what’s going on behind the scenes in my world, while also doing my best to prevent this becoming self-indulgent.

I hope you’ll find the next few weeks interesting, and that you’ll witness the evolution of something new and exciting.

More importantly, perhaps, you might take advantage of this experience to think a little about stuff in your own life which could benefit from a change or two.

Although stirring things up can sometimes feel uncomfortable, it’s frequently good to make a change or two.

Next week, I’ll tell you a little about what happened to me work-wise in 2017, and what I foresee developing in 2018.

See you next Thursday.