Why make new year’s resolutions? – you’ll never do them!

New year’s resolutions should be no different to the goals we make at any time of year in order to move closer to who we want to be, how we want to operate and what we want to achieve. The problem is, as soon as its new year we all go a bit mad and create a long list of things that we feel will appease us from the sins of Christmas and New Year. Inevitably we then fail and feel rubbish about ourselves as a result. The reason is, making goals at any time needs to fulfil certain behavioural considerations. I hate the term but they really do need to be ‘SMART’ otherwise they just won’t work. So, for those who are making resolutions, I thought this extract from my book may help. Good luck and happy 2019!!

Key points to consider before you start:

  • Don’t try to change too many behaviors at once. It just won’t work, and the sense of failure you will inevitably feel as a result could prevent you from living out your purpose effectively.
  • The changes you are aiming to make should take you out of your comfort zone and stretch you, but shouldn’t push you to extreme discomfort. It’s better to take smaller, successful steps than a giant leap.
  • Pick the things that you feel intrinsically motivated to work on (as opposed to doing it because you feel you ought to or someone else has told you to).

The headings below are the areas you should consider with each resolution you set. The italics provide an example of what sort of thing you may want to write.

Goal: Becoming more empathic.

The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to fill out the remainder of the plan so this may be expanded to:

I’m going to work on my empathy to become better at relating to other people when I’m feeling stressed and under pressure.

What will success look like and what will the positive outcomes be?
Becoming a more effective influencer and forming more positive relationships.

What obstacles may I come up against and what can I do about them?
Internal obstacles e.g., feeling demotivated, having self-doubt, fear, anger, anxiety. Frustration and impatience. Action to overcome: create a trigger that reminds me to take a step back

External obstacles e.g. lack of money, lack of time, lack of skills, health constraints.
Need to gain skills in the area of communicating more effectively.

Which strengths can I make use of to help me?

Interest in other people
Ability to listen
Desire to grow as a person

Action and by when? How can I break down my goal into smaller steps, how can I action those steps, and when by?
Take the overall area for goal and make it into something that you can carry out a step at a time. It’s very important to make your actions ‘time-bound,’ setting a day, date, and even a time for each of them where you can.

  1. Make sure that I am consciously listening to people at least once a day. Start doing this in my first meeting of the day from tomorrow and continue for two months, until March 3rd.
  2. Show empathic curiosity, really try to understand what the other person is saying and putting myself in their shoes. Continue doing step 1 and from March 3rdbuild in step 2 once a day for two months, until May 3rd.
  3. Go on a communication and influencing course by July 2019.
  4. Bring the understanding I get from the course into my everyday communications—continue with steps 1 and 2 and build the information into the company presentations I’m doing on August 31, thinking through how best to get the message across so that people can connect with it.

What will my review mechanism be?

You need to know how you’re doing against your specific goals, otherwise you don’t know how close or far away you are from achieving them. Measuring behavior change can be tricky, but there are some simple methods you can use, like rating yourself, asking for feedback, and logging progress.

  • Check I’ve completed the actions above by the specified date.
  • Ask for feedback from people who work with me.
  • Make a log in my diary of the interactions I have every day.
  • Rate myself out of 10 in terms of how I think I’m progressing.



  • Create reminders: reminder for your specific actions somewhere that you will see frequently, e.g., on your daily to-do list, in your diary, an alarm on your phone. This is a small but critical step – the difference between making something happen and just thinking about it.
  • Create a cue: tie the actions into something you do every day, e.g., if your goal is to start flossing your teeth, use brushing your teeth as a reminder.
  • Reward yourself: every time you achieve success, however small. The reward should be something that will really provide you with personal satisfaction.
  • Enlist social support: ask a friend, relation, colleague, or even a member of the community to encourage and support you.
  • Persist: repetition is key to making a behavior stick. Research has shown that it can take from 15 to 254 days to truly form a new habit.


My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Photo Credit: Brooke Lark Unsplash


Is it right under your nose?

What I’ve seen in my many years working with ‘successful’ people from different walks of life is that we often don’t notice what we’re good at. That sounds odd right? But when we’re good at something it just feels like something we do and because it comes easily we forget that it’s not something that everyone can do. As a result, we don’t make the most of these strengths or leverage our full capability.

Aside from the arrogant or narcissistic few who flaunt and overblow their capabilities, most people underplay or fob off their strengths. When they get a report output from a profile (which details various areas of personality, strengths and areas for development), they dive straight into what they are not doing well and dismiss the things that they are good at. While looking at how they can grow is helpful, like most things in life balance works best and only focusing on areas for development doesn’t allow us to reach our full potential.

One lady I coached, a senior executive in a FTSE 100, completely overlooked her capability to skilfully read her environment and navigate politics. Her core strengths was her ability to resolve issues between members of the board, to get people talking to one another about problems, to find her way around blockers in order to deliver her own agenda and enable others to fulfil theirs. Her response to this observation was “That’s just what I do, I’ve always done that, there’s nothing special about it”. But having seen hundreds of leaders up close and personal, I know that this is something a large number  desperately strive to achieve what she was ‘just doing’. Take for example the exceptionally bright high potential guy who has an IQ that’s through the roof but struggles with anything that involves EQ. Or the older executive who has always delivered through telling others and following the rules who now struggles to adapt to the ever-changing demands of todays’ fast paced environment.

The point is, we all have strengths that we take for granted that we are unaware of because they come so naturally. While the humility that accompanies this is appealing, without awareness of our strengths we can’t fully leverage them so we are doing ourselves and others a disservice. For example, I always loved psychology and studied it at University. I also had an interest in business so I did a business masters. The mistake I then made was to do what I thought was the ‘best thing to do’ – joining a business consultancy as a graduate. But this didn’t make use of my natural strengths and interests. As I gradually become more miserable and found myself chasing any elements of projects which lent themselves to the business psychologists view of the world I went back to University so that I could become a Chartered Psychologist. I love what I do and although I have self-doubts like anyone, if I hadn’t pursued this career I wouldn’t have been able to help all the people that I have (I know this as I’ve been lucky enough to have had feedback), I wouldn’t have written a book that I hope to help even more people with and I wouldn’t have been able to inadvertently influenced many people who work for the leaders I work with. I would have just been a reasonable management consultant, not an exceptional one, and not fully making use of being able to read and empathise with others. I don’t hold myself up as a gleaming example, I’m still trying to find exactly what it is I’m good at. For example, although public speaking about topics that I’m passionate about gives a far better output than when I try and fit purely with a clients needs, I still tend to focus on the latter.

Although I advocate finding strengths and using them, I don’t  believe we fulfil our potential by ignoring our weaknesses. It’s important to know what we’re not so good at, not so that we then throw ourselves into a role that forces us to get better, but so we can remain aware of the things that may trip us up or have a negative impact on others and do our best to mitigate them. So, we can find people to help fill in the gaps on areas we’re not so good at. Also, so we can seek to refine those areas that are most relevant to what we’re doing.


  • What are your strengths – the things that you’ve always just be able to do naturally? If you’re not sure ask people who know you really well.
  • What knowledge do you have that other people don’t and how can you use that to help achieve your own goals and help others to achieve theirs?
  • How can you apply your strengths to the goals that you want to achieve?


Explore your own strengths by reading:

Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden – available at amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK.

From July 24th 2018 Defining You will also be available across the English speaking world e.g. amazon.com, amazon.au, amazon.ca

Defining You gives unique access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

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Why Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat…

The late Stephen Hawking advised “It’s a crazy world out there. Be curious, I know I will forever be.” Throughout his life he not only exercised an insatiable curiosity about physics and some of the biggest questions facing mankind, but he also urged people to open their own eyes to every possibility.

Hawking’s encouraged curiosity, inspiring people to take leaps forward in their own understanding. He championed and role-modelled this behaviour, making extraordinary use of his brain to remain intrigued by every corner of the universe. Despite being trapped in an immobile body his brain was constantly exploring. It may even have been what kept him alive for the five decades beyond the doctors gave him. Although that may sound implausible, one study which looked at more than 2000 people over a 5-year period showed that older adults who were more curious actually lived longer (even after taking other risk factors into account).

“Look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” S. Hawking

Curiosity is a fascinating, even magical behavior that’s relevant to each and every one of us. It defines our natural inquisitiveness as humans, without curiosity we wouldn’t have moved beyond being cave dwellers. Exploiting our curiosity has enabled us to reach the advanced scientific and technological world of the twenty-first century. And with that understanding of the brain and behaviour we’ve found other benefits that curiosity itself brings. These include factors essential to happiness and success:


A paper by Matthew Gallagher in the Journal of Positive Psychology showed that the “exploration” component of curiosity is positively associated with well-being. Further to this, a German study found that curiosity has a more positive impact on well-being and happiness than gratitude, hope, or even humor.


When we show genuine interest in others, a curiosity and openness about who they are, wanting to know them and not to judge them, it builds trust and allows a deeper connection to form, ultimately fuelling positive and fulfilling relationships.


Todd Kashdan, Professor of Psychology at George Mason University has carried out extensive research on curiosity and says: “When curiosity is supported in the workplace, employees feel energized, engaged and committed, and this helps drive innovation.”


Sophie von Stumm from the University of Edinburgh worked with colleagues to look at curiosity within an academic setting. She found that intellectual curiosity influenced academic performance to the same extent as IQ. Research published in the neuroscientific journal Neuron showed how our brain learns better and retains more information when we are curious about a subject. And Einstein, another giant of intellect said “I am neither clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious”

We all started life curious about the world. Some people manage to hone and develop that curiosity, Stephen Hawking being case in point, but most of us become too busy ‘doing things’ to fully engage our curiosity, meaning that this valuable skill dwindles gradually as we age. But the good news is that it’s never too late to improve.

Kashdan has found that there are two key elements to curiosity:

  • Being motivated to discover new knowledge and experiences.
  • Having an inclination to embrace novel and unpredictable situations.

How do you use this? Well as a starting point it’s here are 10 things worth trying: 

  1. Following Your Fascination – a stepping stone to developing curiosity is looking about and investigating the things that peak your interest.
  2. Reading – anything and everything you can get your hands on.
  3. Learning from Others – listen to people with experience, people you know and even those you don’t know by watching YouTube, Tedtalks, documentaries and reading autobiographies. The more you listen and learn, the more you will want to learn.
  4. Learning New Things – it sounds obvious but do you do it? Look into what courses you could take whether it’s an hour at your local college or a PhD it doesn’t matter. Try out what works and what doesn’t for you and once you see what does, throw yourself into it to learn and explore in more depth.
  5. Asking Questions – and listening to the answers (before shutting down, thinking about something else or deciding you’re not interested). Other people’s views are always noteworthy, especially when they are different from you own. Try to be open minded, explore and be prepared to shift your perspective (that doesn’t mean you have to, just be open to it)
  6. Observing and Watching– see what’s going on around you, what’s new, what’s changed, look at things as a young child does, even the same landscape is constantly in flux, notice those changes. Be a detective, look under every stone, work out the connections, relentlessly explore.
  7. Trying New Things and going to new places – jump in feet first even if it feels a little scary, it’s only by experiencing difference that we can really stretch our minds.
  8. Pursuing Personal Development – learn more about you, raise your self-awareness, understand where and how you fit in the world, what are your strengths, what you find meaning in.
  9. Speaking to Strangers– not ‘strange’ people but people you don’t know. We learn a lot more from people who are not like us and that tends to be people we don’t know.
  10. Pushing Yourself Beyond Your Comfort Zone – go on, jump in and try something new. As renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow said “In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or back into safety” Which will you choose?

Extracts taken and adapted from Defining You.

Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden will be out in April 2018 (UK) and July 2018 (USA, Canada, Australia and rest of the world). To pre-order a copy go to amazon.co.uk, Waterstonesamazon.com, amazon.au . It will also be available in WHSmith’s UK from mid April 2018.

Defining You gives unique access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.


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M.W. Gallagher & S.J. Lopez (2009) Positive expectancies and mental health: Identifying the unique contributions of hope and optimism, Journal of Positive Psychology 4(6): 548–56.

Gander, R.T. Proyer, W. Ruch, & T. Wyss (2012) The good character at work: An initial study on the contribution of character strengths in identifying healthy and unhealthy work-related behavior and experience patterns, International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health 85(8): 895–904.

J. Gruber, M. J. B. D. Gelman, & C. Ranganath C (2014) States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit, Neuron, Oct 02, 2014

T, Kashdan (2009) Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. Harper Perennial

von Stumm, B. Hell, & T. Chamorro-Premuzic (2011) The hungry mind: Intellectual curiosity Is the third pillar of academic performance, Perspectives on Psychological Science 6(6): 574–88.

E. Swan, & D. Carmelli (1996). Curiosity and mortality in aging adults: A 5-year follow-up of the Western Collaborative Group Study. Psychology and Aging, 11(3), 449-453.


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Plastic, Elastic – Bouncing Back to Success

Emotional Resilience is closely linked to success. In fact, some argue that success is reliant on it, for example US psychologist Angela Duckworth believes that the prime gauge of achievement isn’t IQ or talent, but the possession of what she calls “grit”, aka resilience. But success is not the only benefit that resilience brings, research links it with mental health, physical health, ability to learn, to innovate, to deal with failure and to thrive in spite of tragedy or daily life stressors.

It’s not news that those who make it, those who win medals, entrepreneurs whose businesses succeed against the odds, all have resilience. When it comes to achieving despite the odds, the same famous role-models are quoted e.g.

  • J.K. Rowling who went from being a single parent battling depression, rejected by 12 publishers to the world’s best-selling children’s author.
  • Oprah Winfrey born into poverty and suffering many hardships as a child who has become one of the most influential women in the world.
  • Walt Disney among other trials was fired from a newspaper for “not being creative enough” and told Mickey Mouse would fail because the character would terrify women. He went on to be nominated for 59 Academy Awards, winning 32.

When we’re at our lowest point these inspirational examples are given in good faith and we’re told to ‘never give up, keep trying’. But if it was that easy wouldn’t we all just carry on regardless to fulfil our dreams? Wouldn’t we all be OK irrespective of what life throws at us?

So, what’s their magic?

Over the centuries many people have tried to figure out what distinguishes those who keep trying from those who give up. Churchill said “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” And courage is one facet of personality that has been linked to resilience. However this belief reflects a more outdated understanding of resilience, as something you’re simply born with or not, something straight forward and one dimensional. More recent research has revealed that resilience is a complex and dynamic process of interacting systems involving our genes, personality, social support system and cultural background.

With an updated view, academics have proposed definitions of resilience such as ‘a process to harness resources to sustain well-being’. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense. Thousands of years ago we lived in egalitarian tribes where we were dependent on one another to survive, the belief systems and group support systems were a necessary facet of staying alive. It wasn’t just the person with courage or individual with grit, but also the one who knew how to bring others together, to harness the power of the group and to get along with their fellow tribesmen and women who stayed alive. Today with the help of others and making use of the right resources we can not only survive but if we get it right, we can thrive. 

You can have the magic too…

 Taking the traditional meaning of emotional resilience some of us are left wanting – if we were not born with the personality to keep on getting up every time we fell whether through courage, determination or optimism it’s not something we can easily change. However, the most recent academic insights provide hope – while yes, some people are indeed born more resilient than others, research shows that we can all develop our emotional resilience regardless of where we start. How? By working on:

Social connections – nurturing relationships with family, friends and people more broadly is a critical contributor to resilience. Knowing or learning how to ask for and how to accept help is a sign of strength not weakness. Unfortunately, society often teaches us otherwise so this can feel counter intuitive. It is however the way we evolved to survive – going against it is literally going against nature and the way our brain works.

Reframing – our brains naturally kick up negative emotions – we can’t get rid of them but we can reframe them more positively as something we are in control of. This prevents negative thoughts creating a catastrophic story that leaves us feeling helpless. For example, if we failed an exam we could think:

 Negative approach –

Thought: “I failed my exams because I am not very bright.”

Outcome: out of your control and with negative meaning.

Positive reframing –

Thought: “I failed my exams because I didn’t work hard enough.”

Outcome: within your control “It was a good life lesson, because of it I have worked harder at things that matter to me ever since”—and with positive meaning

Research suggests that “framing” our life so that things have meaning and outcomes we are in control of is so powerful that it positively changes brain functioning.

(extract from Defining You)

Psychological flexibility Dr. Russ Harris defines this as the ability to adapt to a situation with awareness, openness, and focus and to take effective action guided by your values. It’s about being able to accept and regulate our emotions rather than letting them control us. Learning to be more accepting of situations and thoughts is an extremely powerful tool. Read “The Happiness Trap” for a very accessible and robustly researched account of how to do this. Also practicing mindfulness (suggested apps below) will help develop the skills needed to better regulate your emotions.

Learning and reflection through journaling –  writing things down can help to develop insights and find the patterns or traps that we may be being pulled into – creating a greater level of perspective. It also helps to create constructive meaning to events especially if our focus is on what we have learnt, what may have been gained from experiences and how we may like things to pan out in the future.

Self-awareness – working on our personal development helps us to understand the situations which drain us and those which energise us so that we are better able to regulate our emotional and physical well-being.

Ratio of 3:1 – research shows that people who have a ratio of 3 times as many experiences of positive emotions to 1 of negative emotions on a daily basis (3-to-1 ratio) are more likely to be resilient. You may not naturally have this but working on the factors relating to resilience (e.g. connections, reframing) will help you to create and sustain this ratio. Erstwhile if all else fails (and even if it doesn’t)…..

Keep on keeping on– at our most difficult times and lowest points, putting one foot in front of the other even when we don’t believe, is what we need to do to ultimately reach our intended goal. Our emotions ebb and flow, but if we can keep on ‘doing’ in spite of losing hope, we’ll still be on the right track once our hope has returned. Years ago a professional athlete said to me “The difference between those who win medals and those who don’t make it is comes down to who is prepared to go out and practice whatever the weather, however they feel, they just do it day after day”. This reflects what Duckworth believes – that the prime gauge of achievement isn’t IQ or talent, but the ability to keep on keeping on. If every day you do something to keep moving toward your goal, little by little you will gradually move away from where you are and toward where you want to be.

As with any of these things read more, explore and try things out to find what works best for you.


Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden will be out in April 2018 (UK) and July 2018 (USA, Canada, Australia and rest of the world). To pre-order a copy go to amazon.co.ukamazon.com or Waterstones. It will also be available in WHSmith’s UK from April 2018.

The book gives you unique access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

Subscribe to our mailing list to get more news, tips and tools from Fiona

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Mindfulness Apps & Reading

Duckworth, A (2016). GRIT: the power of passion and perseverance. Harper Collins

Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.

Buddhify: http://buddhify.com

Headspace: www.headspace.com

iMindfulness: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/imindfulness/id473747142?mt=8

Mindfulness Daily: www.mindfulnessdailyapp.com

Smiling Mind: www.smilingmind.com.au



Brown K.W.  & Ryan R.M. (2003) The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84(4): 822–48. C.R.

Cloninger (2006) The science of well-being: An integrated approach to mental health and its disorders, World Psychiatry 5(2): 71–6.

Duckworth, A (2016). GRIT: the power of passion and PERSEVERANCE. Harper Collins

Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.

Giordano B. (1997) Resilience: a survival tool for the nineties. Association of Perioperative Registered Nurses Journal 65, 1032– 1036.

Meichenbaum, D. (2007). Important facts about resilience: A consideration of research findings about resilience and implications for assessment and treatment. Melissa Institute: Miami, FL, USA.

Murden, F (2018) Defining You: How to profile yourself and unlock your full potential. Hodder & Stoughton.

Southwick, S. M., Bonanno, G. A., Masten, A. S., Panter-Brick, C., & Yehuda, R. (2014). Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: Interdisciplinary perspectives. European journal of psychotraumatology5(1), 25338.


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Your Success in 2018 and the Green Eyed Monster of Others…

Staring a new year in the face brings dreams of success both big and small: from losing a couple of pounds to drinking less, running a great 10k time, starting a business, being promoted – our new years’ resolutions cover a multitude of possibilities. The hope that they hold is both exciting and exhilarating. But with success comes envy, and sadly it’s our closest peers who will feel most unsettled by our achievements and we by theirs. This unspoken truth can leave us confused – we want our friends to be happy yet these horrid and poisonous feelings creep in. Bitterness, envy, resentment, disdain, threat or feelings of inferiority all come with the territory of someone else’s success.

But these emotions are natural and don’t make us ‘bad people’. Evolutionary psychologists explain how they enabled our ancient ancestors to evaluate status within a group. Having higher status meant access to better resources (e.g. food, sexual partners, social alliances, safety). So, the negative emotions felt when someone similar succeeded was a motivation to readdress the balance and to do better yourself. Say for example, a friend had better spoils from hunting, the discomfort would motivate you to take action so that you and your family had an equal chance of survival as theirs. Importantly, this comparison mattered most when it was amongst peers, rather than someone in another tribe. This is why our friends may feel more uncomfortable about our success than people who are only acquaintances.

Fast forward several thousand years and these emotions are complicated by cultural responses. While countries such as the USA hold success up as something to be celebrated (e.g. people such as Oprah Winfrey are heralded in the media as ‘The Name of Success’) in the UK, we are equally celebratory about someone successful failing (e.g. when Branson’s balloon didn’t make it around the globe the headlines read Branson’s ‘glorious failure’). A cousin who worked in the USA and has now returned to Australia has noticed the same cultural contrast and mentioned something called the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” described as “a tendency in Australian society to try and cut down people who are considered to be too successful or prominent (cutting the tall poppies down to size). Australians generally don’t like others to do too well.”[1] Gossip, disapproval, discrediting or undermining others in the way we belittle attempts such as Branson’s, all serves to bring people back down to size. Every day examples may sound like: “Do you know that she only lost 4lb because she cut out all carbohydrates, that’s so dangerous and there’s no way she’ll be able to maintain it.” or “He only got promoted because he went on that trip with the boss and had his ear for 48 hours.” I’m not suggesting that the USA is free from these tendencies nor that every Brit or Australian detests the success of their peers but culture certainly plays its part in exacerbating the issue.

So, what do you do if you feel a bit of envy creeping in:

  1. Celebrate your friends’ success – it will help take away the sting.
  2. Recognise that it’s normal (and does not pose a threat to your survival).
  3. Decide what to do: unhelpful responses – engage with or suppress the emotion.  helpful responses – acknowledge and accept the emotion, leave it alone and move on. Or use it to motivate you to achieve equal success
  4. Acknowledge that outward success shows no indication of the inward life that someone is leading – their personal struggles, trials and tribulations. Take for example Robin Williams, his numerous awards indicate someone who would be envied by his peers, yet he was a troubled man who took his own life.
  5. Celebrate your friends’ success (yes again)!

And when facing the envy of others:

  1. See negativity directed your way for what it is – a display of a primitive emotion and a need for that person to make themselves feel better.
  2. Try not to inadvertently flaunt your success to people who are struggling to achieve. This may seem obvious but in the excitement of our own achievements we can forget to stop and think about how other people may be feeling.
  3. Keep going – negativity can make you feel like you want to stop, after all that will make any scorn go away. You may fear you’ll lose your friends or subconsciously believe that you need to moderate how far you go. But just because others haven’t achieved what you have that doesn’t mean you should hold yourself back. Your real friends will stick with you however high you soar. Shoot for the stars!

Happy New Year and may you achieve all you set out to in 2018!


N.B. While celebration of success in the USA has its positives it also has more negative connotations such as blaming those who do not make it for not trying hard enough. 

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[1] Oxford Dictionaries blog

CHAPTER The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy, Sarah E. Hill and David M. Buss pp. 61. In Envy: Theory and Research by Richard Smith (2008)

No One Has Ever Become Poor From Giving

Quote: Anne Frank, Picture: Elizabeth Waight Photography

Giving may seem like an obvious topic for this time of year but ‘it’s not just for Christmas’ – giving is relevant every single day of the year. Gifts yes, but also time, help, friendship, charity, donations, blood, a hug, a kiss or simply a smile.

The Evolution of Giving

If you conjure up an image of our ancient ancestors out on the planes struggling to survive, it’s not a helpful friendly giving sort of a chap that comes to mind. Being helpful doesn’t feel like a natural behaviour to display in life and death scenarios where surely the priority becomes looking out for number one?

Research suggests not, that altruism is actually favoured over selfishness (although science doesn’t always agree on why) meaning that humans evolved to give over taking, because it actually aided survival. To work with and cooperate with other people proved to be a much more effective way of staying alive than not caring about anyone else. Ultimately this means that we have evolved to be givers, even when in the harshest of environments.

Our Brain Rewards Us For Giving

As a result, deep within the more primitive area of our brain lies a mechanism that releases the ‘Happiness Trifecta’ of neurochemicals: dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, when we display altruistic behaviour.

Initially, the act of giving leads to the release of oxytocin which boosts mood and counters the negative effects of the stress hormone cortisol. This creates a positive cycle, encouraging us to want to help others or ‘give’ more and also triggers the release of serotonin and dopamine, which lead us to pleasant and rewarding feelings.

Other benefits also result from this, oxytocin for example allows us to more readily form social attachments[i], to more effectively read and infer other people’s mental states and to show greater emotional empathy[ii]. From a physiological perspective Oxytocin is also known to reduce pain and enhance wound healing[iii]. Dopamine has its own set of benefits including regulating mood, behaviour, sleep[iv] and cognition (i.e. thinking and decision making)[v]. Serotonin then tops the benefits up further by aiding effective sleep, relaxation, appetite control, improving memory formation and enhancing learning capability.

The release of these chemicals when we give to others, may help explain some of the broader health related benefits associated with altruistic behaviour. Studies have for example found that altruistic behaviour reduces our risk of death by buffering the impact of stress[vi].  So, in short – giving is as good for us both psychologically and physiologically as it is to the person we are giving to.

Giving is Good for Business

Not convinced yet? U.S. Organisational Psychologist Adam Grant who has written a book called Give and Take explains that takers are people who are self-serving in their interactions and who always wants to know ‘what’s in it for me’. At the opposite end of the spectrum are people that he calls givers, who approach the majority of interactions with the question “What can I do for you?”

Grant surveyed over 30,000 people across industries worldwide and found that even when accounting for cultural differences that most people actually lie in the middle. These matchers, try to keep an even balance of give and take – “I’ll do something for you if you do something for me.”

Initially his results look negative, he found that the lowest performing people were givers. But he also found that the very highest performing people were also givers. In my work I see both, those who give and are taken advantage of at one end of the spectrum and those who give without being walked over, who ultimately get far ahead of matchers and takers.

Grant explains using how Adam Rifkin a very successful serial entrepreneur who spends a great deal of his time helping others is a positive example of how to do this right. Rifkin’s personal key to giving without being taken advantage of is what he calls the five minute favour. He says “You don’t have to be Mother Teresa or Gandhi to be a giver. You just have to find small ways to add large value to other people’s lives.” Other tips that Grant offers include: scheduling time for giving, ‘chunking’ your helping behaviours into blocks of time rather than ‘sprinkling’ them throughout your week, giving in ways that align with your own and the organisations goals rather than doing things that force you to make tradeoffs and doing things that allow you to see the impact of your giving – where things make a significant difference.

So, while it may be nice to receive presents, if you’re feeling a little scrooge like, remember that it’s also good to give – good for the soul, your health and if you do it right even your career.


To book Fiona for public speaking please contact lorna.walls@aroka.co.uk

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Grant, A. (2014). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

[i] http://dept.wofford.edu/neuroscience/neuroseminar/pdffall2008/oxy-human.pdf

[ii] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c689/b853b86642d78e7d2bfba59cdd5c7bf301f0.pdf

[iii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3052954/

[iv] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120619225725.htm

[v] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12126656

[vi] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23327269



What Makes Us Happy?


Firstly, apologies for the long overdue blog, I spent late April until coming away in July writing a book. Until now I had no words left for blogging (or speaking – I stopped making any sense by June).

We’re in California, and last night had dinner in downtown Santa Monica where we were served by the loveliest guy. He’d grown up in Florida and I asked him what brought him to L.A. Perhaps unsurprisingly he said, ‘fame and fortune originally’ but added ‘now it’s just to grow as a person’.

Ultimately growing as a person is a fundamental part of what makes us happy. When I say happy I don’t mean walking around with an inane grin, but feeling fulfilled and able to manage the highs and lows of life. But it often takes a huge knock in our expectations to get us to point where we truly realise that’s what life’s about. Most of the time, we trundle along in a world where being happier feels inextricably linked to ‘more’:

having more – a bigger house, a better car, a more talented child, nicer clothes

striving for more – a better job, a bigger position, more influence

being more –  thinner, prettier, younger, cooler, brighter

But it doesn’t make us happy. This is evident in LA more than most places, not only because it’s one of the richest cities in the world, but also created around an industry (i.e. film) which places huge value in ‘more’. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s fun and fun is an important part of life, but in and of itself it doesn’t bring lasting happiness. To the contrary it tends to breed dissatisfaction – there will always be someone who has more, has achieved more or is more. It’s like chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

So why do we live with this funny old cycle of self-destruction? Seeking happiness by getting more but erstwhile moving further and further from where we want to be?  It comes back down to my favourite topic – our brain.

Why we’re unhappy…

The part of our brain which ensures our survival, doesn’t know we live in a world that has moved on 50,000 years from the one it evolved to fit. At a sub conscious level we are continually striving for ‘more’ in order to survive (or so that part of our brain believes). At a simple level for example, wanting a piece of chocolate cake or another drink – those things come about because our brain is programmed to want more food and drink whenever we can get it – in order to survive. The other ‘more’ factors above are also based on our survival in a world which existed 50,000 years ago namely reproduction (passing on our genes – e.g. younger, prettier) or belonging to a group (for shelter, safety e.g. – proving we’re good enough to belong through better job, more influence etc). These impulses aimed at keeping us alive have no understanding that the world around us has changed unrecognisably. Is it any wonder we get confused about what to pursue in order to be happy?

When our ancient ancestors were at rest and safe, their brain would switch to using what eminent psychologist Kahneman calls slow thinking, or as I call it the meaning driven brain. This part of the brain looks for significance and purpose, wants to give back and to belong at a more meaningful level (rather than just being in the coolest gang).

The problem is our fast-paced world doesn’t leave much room for slow thinking – while we may not think we face the threats of our forefathers, our brain thinks it still has those things to deal with. Yet they come in the form of seemingly unthreatening ‘things’ such as messages to respond to, news to catch up on, deadlines to meet, appointments to make etc. and they don’t go away. We have very little safe time to engage our slow thinking brain.

What’s the answer?

We don’t want to shut down our survival driven impulses – they keep us safe (e.g. stop us from getting run over) and enable us to have ‘fun’. What we want – ideally – is to know how and when to engage our meaning driven brain. To stop digging a never-ending hole of trying to prove ourselves, instead to recognise that there really is more to life than having the biggest house or the fastest car. We need to take deliberate action to slow down (this is something we’ve all heard before but I feel it’s important to understand why in the context of the brain).

How can we do it?

We can’t switch off the environment we live in: e-mails, traffic, crowds of people, artificial light stretching our days into nights, but we can understand how to limit the impact of the mismatch between our brain and our environment.

First create space for your slow thinking brain, in a way that works for you e.g:

  • Being outside in nature (read work by Prof Joules Pretty)
  • Walking, running, cycling, being active (preferably outside)
  • Meditating
  • Reading
  • Yoga
  • Chatting to friends (steer clear of the competitive)
  • Spending time alone.

Then engage your more advanced slow thinking brain to pursue what it’s evolved for:

Find meaning & purpose – slow down enough to look at what you do and why you’re doing it – is it what you really want from life? Your purpose may well be to become a movie star or CEO of a company – there’s no right or wrong, it’s whatever means something to you and provides you with a sense of personal growth. But you need to know that what you are doing is true to what you really want deep down, what you really want, not driven by a primarily survival driven need to prove yourself or impress others.

This is well worth exploring, having purpose has been shown to protect against heart disease, reducing the impacts of Alzheimer’s, improving our ability to handle pain, staving off depression, diminishing anxiety and lengthening our lives.

Connect with others – at a deeper (as opposed to superficial) level. Research has shown that this has helpful psychological and health related benefits: strengthening the immune system, lowering blood pressure, reducing the risk of getting sick, decreasing levels of anxiety and depression and even lengthening our lives.

Give Back – to society, the community, other people. This doesn’t mean you have to go and volunteer in a soup kitchen (unless you want to). It can be as simple as listening to a friend or helping a stranger. Among other things giving back has shown to reduce depression, improve life expectancy and reduce heart disease.

Keep Learning – always keep growing, remain open and curious. The benefits include improving memory, staving off dementia, improving confidence, enhancing our relationships, improving communication skills and advancing career opportunities.

Ticking these boxes, rather than just seeking to continually ‘keep up with the Jones’s’ will boost your fundamental levels of happiness (as well as having the many other benefits listed). And ironically, if you can do it, it will not only make you happier but also more successful because it will allow you to optimise your capabilities.

But please don’t forget to keep having fun!

P.S. If you’re interested – my book will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in early 2018.

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