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Useful Book: Emotional Intelligence


Psychologist Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence may be 15 years old, but the ideas and information in it, far from being out of date, are being confirmed and expanded in psychological research to an extent that might be surprising even Goleman.

When the book first came out, the idea that emotional skills–like patience, self-control, focus, cooperation, and empathy, for instance–might be as important as intellectual skills was one that needed to be argued for. Goleman’s argument seems to have succeeded: these days as a general rule people seem to take it for granted that emotional skills are important for success, but exactly what those skills are, how they’re useful, and how they’re gained is still not common knowledge.

If you’ve read posts on this site regularly, you might find this book unnecessary: most of the information in it has been adopted and built upon by the relatively new field of Positive Psychology, and therefore has been demonstrated or even taken as a starting point in much of the research I’ve delved into over the past few years. However, as an introduction to the subject of emotional intelligence or even self-improvement in general, Goleman’s book covers more of the bases than pretty much any other book I could readily name.

Goleman also pays special attention to how emotional intelligence works in children and to strategies and school programs that can make a dramatic difference in a child’s life. As such, I’d doubly recommend the book to teachers and to parents wanting an introduction to some of the approaches used to help kids learn emotional skills.

A note about editions: I read the original version of this book rather than the revised, 2006 version I link to here, which appears to have some improvements and added, more recent material. Confusingly, there’s an apparently unrelated book called Emotional Intelligence 2.0, which appears to be getting good reviews from readers and selling very well. While I understand the marketing appeal of usurping the name of Goleman’s popular book (which I assume isn’t trademarked), I’m disappointed in the approach. However, it’s always possible that the authors really are working with Goleman or have his blessing and it just isn’t apparent from the book listing. In any case, to be clear, I’m referring to Goleman’s book in this post, and recommend it highly unless you’ve already learned all the basics of the subject.

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Good Resources on Mental Schemas


Mental schemas are an approach to understanding the kinds of issues that come up in our lives over and over, usually problems that we didn’t get a chance to work out when we were young that are still sticking with us today, like feeling abandoned or alienated, having trouble with trust or self-control, and so on. A brief introduction to mental schemas and a list of all of the schemas can be found on my mental schemas page, where you’ll also find links to the individual articles on each of the schemas that I’ve been adding to the site over time.

If you’re interested in learning more about mental schemas, here are some useful resources.

Dr. Tara Bennett-Goleman’s book Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart delves into using mindfulness to make use of the insights of schema therapy. The link between mindfulness and schemas is an important one, because unless we learn to be aware (that is, mindful) of our schemas and notice when they’re kicking in, we have little hope of making progress in overcoming them.

Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide is a substantial, informative, readable book by the man who developed schema therapy, Dr. Jeffrey Young, with Janet Klosko and Marjorie Weishaar. It’s available in book form as well as for the Amazon Kindle, and most of it can be found online through Google Books.

Finally, a 13-page PDF called A Client’s Guide to Schema Therapy, by Dr. David Bricker with, again, Dr. Young, is available online for free. This gives a variety of helpful examples in the course of providing an introduction to the subject.

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Useful Book on Social Networks: Connected


In my recent article “Can We Expect Other People to Help Us?” I mention the book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by sociologist Nicholas Christakis and political scientist James Fowler. Connected is a fascinating work that examines social networks widely enough to provide a broad understanding and specifically enough to provide practical insights.

The questions Christakis and Fowler ask cover a lot of ground. How do social networks form and change? Why do we have them? What’s the difference between looking at the individual behavior of a number of people and looking at their social network? How is a network different from just a group or class of people? What does it mean to be closer to the center or the edge of a network, and why does that matter?

Christakis and Fowler show us a variety of networks and a variety of things that pass through them: money, illness, recovery, weight loss, smoking behavior, ideas, suicide, happiness, altruism, delusion, sexual behavior, and a lot more. They describe how we influence and are influenced not just by the people we know, but by the people they know, and even by the people those friends-of-friends know, our friends-of-friends-of-friends. (Interestingly, they offer substantial evidence that the influence more or less stops after those three degrees.)

The book has some limitations that are worth knowing about. Notably, they sometimes describe the impact of social networks as determining behavior instead of influencing it–for instance, saying that if a friend of a friend of yours gains weight, you will gain weight yourself (instead of saying, as is more accurate, that you will be more likely to gain weight). In some cases it sounds as though they feel that individual behavior has no impact on anything at all, though I don’t think that’s their intention.

Regardless, the book is often fascinating and offers a lot of meaning and food for thought. If you’re interested social networks, whether out of curiosity about how they affect you or out of interest in understanding human systems, it’s well worth a read.

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Useful Book: Getting Things Done


Getting Things Done by David Allen is by far the best book I’ve ever read on organization, and it also has a lot to say about productivity and peace of mind.

When my friend Roger loaned the book to me, I was a little curious but didn’t expect much. I’d already had a pretty effective task management system in place for some time, and at best I was expecting Allen to offer a few ideas for minor improvements. It it did turn out to be true that most of the things he had to say in his book were things I was already doing, but Allen’s deep understanding of the subject offered me a wider, more useful view that was both practical and powerfully motivating.

Getting Things Done offers a way to look at and interact with “stuff”–papers, objects lying around the house, pestering concerns that keep surfacing in the mind, incomplete projects, dead plants, upcoming events, or anything else that’s fighting for our attention. Allen describes how to stream things into useful categories with a set of simple, familiar systems–task list, calendar, file drawers, etc. Yet the rules for the process he describes are not the familiar ones, because once something has been processed, you stop having to worry about it. Allen’s approach doesn’t just clean up and organize a physical environment: it creates reliable ways to know that you’re keeping track of everything and therefore creates a lot of peace of mind. Of course, this same approach does great things for productivity, and it yields unexpected benefits like increased reliability, management of stress, clarifying priorities, and improved communication.

My initial impression of the book was that it was mainly directed toward busy executives, and it’s true that these seem to be the people Allen mainly works with. However, he also understands perfectly well what needs to be done to deal with a home, family, or even vague set of aspirations for the future. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is trying to organize, get a handle on an overly busy life, create more serenity and confidence, or become more productive.

I’ve written recently on the site about several ideas that overlap with or draw on Allen’s:

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Expanded Book Recommendations on The Willpower Engine

About the site

I’ve been looking forward to organizing the information on some of the really good books I’ve been reading in recent years that touch on or inform the subject of self-motivation. To that end, I’ve made pages for my capsule Goodreads reviews of a variety of recommended books, and compiled those together with my review posts from the site. Down the road I should have a chance to expand on some of those capsule reviews as well as adding links to details about many of the other books I’ve mentioned here. The full listing of books is on the left-hand side of the page, or click on the Resources tab at the top of the page and scroll down to “Books.”

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Book Review: Jenefer Robinson’s Deeper Than Reason


DeeperThanReasonJenefer Robinson’s Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art is one of the most insightful and useful books I’ve ever read about emotions, writing, and music–but it’s also sometimes dry and argumentative, and deals with examples mostly 100 years old or older despite having been written in the past decade.

In the book, Robinson puts forward an idea of how emotions work that is based on detailed and conscientious delving into the philosophy and especially the psychology of emotions. Her conclusions are consistent with all the psychological research I’ve come across and more that she cites, and they go a long way toward describing how emotions develop, arise, change, are understood, and affect our lives. As though that weren’t enough, she then goes into the pivotal role emotion plays in how we react to stories (she deals with novels specifically) and music of all kinds. She describes emotion convincingly as a process and makes intelligent and (for writers and musicians) practical observations on how the arts can engage us through emotional development.

The book is written in an academic style, and as a philosopher, it’s apparently Robinson’s job to describe in detail and then argue apart other people’s theories about the subjects she’s examining. These argumentative sections (and they make up a good chunk of the book) were not helpful to me: I’m not very interested in hearing a theory that I don’t agree with and then hearing it dismantled with great care and thoroughness. Other readers may be; as for me, there were some parts of the book I skipped once I realized what she was doing. Fortunately, she lays out carefully what she’s going to discuss in each section, so I was able to fairly easily figure out what to read and what not to.

Dry arguments or not, on the whole I would say the book is one of the most useful possible things you can read if you are a serious writer or musician, if you’re seeking a deeper understanding of emotions, or if you want to better understand why we connect so deeply with some novels, films, stories, and music (and to some extent other arts).

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How emotions work

States of mind


From Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

How exactly do emotions work? From a scientific point of view the answers to this question are still in the works, but research over the last couple of decades has given us a much clearer sense of how they emerge. In her 2005 book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, Jenefer Robinson digs deep into various theories of emotions and into the neurological and psychological findings that can help us figure this question out and offers a model for understanding the important pieces. Her basic model, added to research and analysis from other sources, is what drives this post. There’s a lot of research still to be done, though, so consider the information here to be more of a glimpse at the best insights we currently have about emotion instead of something complete and set in stone. Even taking it tentatively, though, Robinson’s model gives us some seriously useful information.

The gut reaction
Emotions start (Robinson argues) with a gut reaction to something: a face, a sound, an idea, a conclusion, or even some change within our bodies. She calls these reactions “non-cognitive appraisals,” whereas I think for our purposes here, “gut reaction” works just as well, but it’s helpful to realize from that term that these reactions themselves aren’t anything we think through: they happen in hardly any time at all, automatically. That doesn’t mean the whole process of having an emotion is automatic, though, as we’ll see.

The high road and the low road
There are two paths our brain can take to get us to a gut reaction, the high road and the low road. The high road is about what you’d expect: we see or hear (or taste or feel or smell or think or remember) something, we figure out what it means to us, and then we react emotionally. For instance, while driving toward our house we might see blue lights up ahead, realize that they are probably coming  from a police car, and begin to feel worried that something bad has happened.


The low road is a bit more surprising (unless you’ve read my post How to overcome specific fears and anxieties or another source with some of the same information): it still starts with some kind of sensory information, like a sight or sound, but in this case the amygdalae (a primitive part of the brain that we have on both the left and right side) flag it as something that has been associated with a powerful emotion or traumatic event in the past and sets off our gut emotional reaction before we even recognize what the thing is. For instance, if a person has been in an explosion caused by natural gas, the person may experience terror when smelling gas even before realizing that it’s a smell, or what the smell might be. Our brains seem to have evolved this trick of firing up emergency systems first and asking question later in order to help get us away from life-threatening situations as quickly as possible.

Even though the gut reaction is immediate and automatic, it can come down the high road as the result of thinking. For instance, I might spend hours going over my small business’s accounts before having the sudden realization that my accountant is stealing from me. As soon as I’ve had that realization, I’m likely to have a gut reaction (for instance of anger at the accountant, or fear of what will happen to my business, or happiness that I have found the reason for the cash flow problems, or even a combination) that’s automatic in the sense of reacting immediately to a thought that has been a long time coming.

Emotion is a process, not an unchanging state
But if we have that gut reaction, that doesn’t mean that we’re stuck in the corresponding emotion: instead, it seems to make the most sense to think about the emotion being a process that develops in several different ways at once, started by that gut reaction but subject to all kinds of changes. An emotion develops through:

  • Body chemistry:An emotion will spur a physiological reaction through chemicals like dopamine (associated with pleasure), adrenaline (associated with fear and anger), seratonin (associated with serenity), oxytocin (associated with feelings of love), cortisol (associated with stress), and so on. These chemicals have a lot to do with the physical feelings emotions create, like butterflies in the stomach or a thrill of delight, and they also tend to sustain whatever emotion we’re having.
  • Thinking (cognition): Once we start having an emotion, we tend to think about it and monitor our surroundings. For instance, we might see flashing blue lights and initially feel anxiety, thinking they’re from police cars, then round a corner and discover that they’re lights from a party a neighbor is having on their lawn.
  • Body language: It won’t be news to you that happiness can make you smile and depression can make you slump, but it’s more surprising to realize that smiling can make you happy and slumping can make you more depressed. Fascinatingly, our own expressions, posture, and maybe even tone of voice can stimulate the same body chemistry that the corresponding emotion would create. Smiling can make us feel happier, and sitting up straight can help us feel more alert and positive.
  • Being ready for action: Certain emotions tend to prime our bodies to be ready in certain ways: to focus our attention in a certain way or to be ready to move quickly. An example of this is flinching away at a sudden loud noise: our body is ready to act before we can even come up with a plan of how to act.

Different emotions at the same time?
These pieces of the emotional puzzle all go forward when we’re experiencing an emotion, and while they can work at the same time and in similar directions, they can also be out of synch or in conflict with each other. When that happens, they begin to influence each other, so that they tend to converge over time. For instance, if I am thinking something about something that makes me happy and my body is putting out oxytocin, but I decide to frown and turn my attention to things that upset me, the oxytocin will be cut off and replaced with other chemicals, my brain will conjure up memories of things that upset me, and my body will more and more begin to reflect the bad mood I’m creating.

It can be especially confusing to experience emotions that are out of synch. In the blue lights example, once I realize that it’s a party and not a crime scene, I may immediately feel intellectually better about the situation but still be feeling anxiety beneath that, because our thinking can change directions more quickly than our body chemistry. Fortunately, if we keep our thinking in the channel of the new emotion, our body chemistry will soon catch up.

Simple words for complex feelings
To make sense of emotions, we have a wide variety of labels for different ones, especially in English: terror, awe, euphoria, ennui, indignation, fury, and so on. When trying to reflect on how we’re feeling now or how we felt a while back, we tend to try to characterize our emotions to fit these available labels (although we also have emotion-charged memories that may give us more detail), and therefore tend to talk about emotions in a simpler way than we experience them. For instance, in the blue lights example, we might say “I was worried when I saw blue lights, but when I saw it was just a party, I was relieved.” This doesn’t capture that temporary conflict of thinking and body chemistry, nor the subtle details–perhaps the initial worry was mixed with indignation that a crime was happening in our neighborhood or guilt at something we ourselves had done; maybe the relief that the blue lights meant just a party was mixed at different times with irritation at the likely amount of noise, excitement that we might be invited to the party, and/or surprise that the neighbors thought blue lights were decorative. To put it another way, our emotions are not simple, exclusive states, but instead an evolving process that can include parallel and conflicting pieces that are hard to easily summarize in words. Fortunately, we have poets, artists, musicians, and others to help us communicate about emotions without resorting to simple summaries.

How idea repair can help drive emotion
A last note: in posts on idea repair, I’ve talked about thinking causing emotions. In light of this article, that idea may seem oversimplified, but to put things in perspective, idea repair is the process of thinking and directing attention that begins immediately after we have that initial gut reaction. Idea repair can’t directly affect the gut reaction (although over time it might train habits that will change initial reactions), but modifying our thinking is probably the most powerful single thing we can do to turn an emotion in a positive direction once an emotional process begins.

Police lights photo by Sven Cipido.


Creativity and fitness motivation resources


Here are couple of sites of interest, both brought to my attention through comments here on the Willpower Engine.

Matt O'BrienFitness instructor Matt O’Brien runs, a site with both motivational and informational resources for people working to get more fit. O’Brien also posts on Twitter.



Writer Amy Fries posts information about harnessing daydreams for visualization and creativity on her blog Daydreams at Work. She has a book of the same name out (I haven’t read it as of this writing, though it looks interesting and I may eventually get an opportunity to do so. Currently the Dalai Lama and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly are the masters of my reading list, along with some writing-related projects). She also tweets (sheesh, this is making me feel so 2008 by comparison!) at .

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Luc’s Desiderata of Titling


Titles can benefit a story in as many as five meaningful ways, only one of which is based on having read the story already. Therefore it tends to be a bad idea to use a title that becomes interesting only after reading the story (e.g. “Charlie”). In no particular order, titles can (and arguably should):

1. Intrigue someone into being curious about the story (“Something Wicked This Way Comes,” The Da Vinci Code).

2. Give the reader an immediate and accurate sense of what kind of story is coming in terms of genre, mood etc. (I, Robot, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

3. Serve as an easily-remembered and easily-communicated label for the book when telling others about it (Dune, The Hobbit). An easily-communicated title is easy to remember, spell, and say, and is strongly connected to the story itself. It stands out: you remember it specifically rather than something like it.

4. Lend a sense of authority or poetry (“To the East, a Bright Star,” The Once and Future King).

5. Be unlikely to be confused with other titles. This particularly makes one-word titles problematic unless the word is extremely unusual (Xenocide).


  • These rules don’t apply in the same way to movies, in part because there are only a very limited number of movies out at a given time and most interested consumers are exposed to a poster and/or trailer for each, making the title less important except for item #3.
  • Also, many very successful books have “broken” these rules, because of course the book itself is more important than the title.
  • And of course it’s debatable how many people will actually be influenced in any way by a title if they don’t have another recommendation for the book. That said, some readers are intrigued by titles, and a title can be the difference between your book being looked at on a shelf or within online search results or disregarded with the all the other books the reader has never heard of.

Many writers, from beginners to established pros, seem to want to come up with titles that cleverly cap off or sum up the story. They’ll write a story about a magical cape and call it “The Cape,” or a story in which the secret is that the protagonist is really dead and call it “Unsettled.” These types of titles often lose the opportunity to ensnare the reader’s interest and advertise what they’re about.

Titles are much more important for books than for short stories, since a person who is browsing for a book online or in a bookstore, or who glimpses the title in a list, has the opportunity to find out about the book and perhaps buy it. Short stories, by contrast, are usually available only in groups within magazines, anthologies, and collections, and so individual titles are unlikely to have much opportunity to attract readers to buy the work.

In terms of learning to write good titles, I highly recommend exercising this part of your brain wherever possible by using good titles for e-mail subjects, forum discussion titles, boring reports you put together for work, etc. It’s a rare situation where anyone will be bothered by you slapping a magnificent title on an otherwise dull report or a quick e-mail, and the more you work to come up with titles the stronger that facility will be.

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