The Real Secret is a different kind of self help. We debunk the empty promises of so many books and DVDs and bring you a simple, sensible approach to real life fulfillment. We don't believe you can achieve happiness, or anything else, by simply wishing for, thinking about or visualising it. Our book - and this blog - takes only the best of what really works and turns it into a positive, practical 12-step programme that will enable you to take control of your life and raise your happiness levels.

* Learn Happiness Habits from Positive Psychology * Tame your Fear with Cutting Edge Neuroscience * Control your Time and Money like an Entrepreneur * Build Better Relationships through one Tested Technique

The Real Secret is simple, sensible, scientifically supported self help
by Lucy McCarraher & Annabel Shaw


Happiness Habits - The Real Secret to Beating Depression

The Happiness Habits Experiment, which we carried out this year, was unfunded, therefore smallscale and short term, but nonetheless produced some very positive results.

We asked participants to carry out between one and six simple, sensible and scientifically supported positive activities for three weeks; then to give us feedback on whether these had affected their happiness levels and whether they felt the repetition had embedded the activities as habits.

In our Report we told you that:

"Overall, carrying out daily Happiness Habits raised happiness levels for almost two thirds (62%) of respondents, with "Three Good Things" the most effective (65%), followed by "Smile" (58%) and "Fun To-Do Lists" (50%)....

"The Happiness Habits Experiment provides supporting evidence to the existing body of research demonstrating that happiness levels can be raised in many individuals by simple physical and psycho-physiological interventions."

Participants said:

"You just can't feel too bad when you are smiling even if things seen awful, it changes you, I felt lighter."
"It is a great feeling to know that level of happiness can be changed for the better just knowing the keys."

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside and Duke University Medical Center have reported on a much further-reaching research project and have come to a similar conclusion: that practicing positive activities may serve as an effective, low-cost treatment for people suffering from depression.

In “Delivering Happiness: Translating Positive Psychology Intervention Research for Treating Major and Minor Depressive Disorders”the team of UCR and Duke psychology, neuroscience and psychopharmacology researchers have proposed a new approach for treating depression – Positive Activity Interventions (PAI).

PAIs are intentional activities, such as performing acts of kindness (our "Spreading Happiness"), practicing optimism (eg, our "Yes I Can"), and counting one’s blessings (Happiness Habit: "Three Good Things") which have been taken from decades of research into how happy and unhappy people differ. They could be the way forward to helping depressed people who don't want or don't respond to anti-depressant drugs, who are not able or willing to find therapy, are waiting for therapy, or fall below the threshold at which either of these is prescribed. It represents a much less costly intervention, could save the time of doctors and therapists, and may be a quicker and more effective way of improving mood and raising happiness levels. Added to which, this kind of self help comes without the stigma attached to "mental health problems" and has no side effects.

Between 8% and 12% of the UK population experience depression in any one year and it affects one in five older people (The Office for National Statistics Psychiatric Morbidity report, 2001). About 8% of the US population (about 16 million adults) – suffer from either major or chronic depression. About 70% of reported cases either do not receive the recommended level of treatment or do not get treated at all, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that depression affects more than 100 million people.

The research team – Kristin Layous and Joseph Chancellor, graduate students at UC Riverside; Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology and director of the Positive Psychology Laboratory at UC Riverside; and Lihong Wang, MD, and P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, of Duke University – conducted a rigorous review of previous studies of PAIs, including randomised, controlled interventions with thousands of normal men and women as well as functional MRI scans in people with depressive symptoms.

Sonja Lyubomirski said, “Over the last several decades, social psychology studies of flourishing individuals who are happy, optimistic and grateful have produced a lot of new information about the benefits of positive activity interventions on mood and well-being."

And P. Murali Doraiswamy commented that “Very few psychiatrists collaborate with social scientists and no one in my field ever reads the journals where most happiness studies have been published. It was eye-opening for me as a psychopharmacologist to read this literature.”

Although the paper found that positive activity interventions are effective in teaching individuals ways to increase their positive thinking, positive affect and positive behaviours, only two studies specifically tested these activities in individuals with mild depression and in one of these, lasting improvements were found for six months. Effective PAIs used in the study included writing letters of gratitude, counting one’s blessings, practicing optimism, performing acts of kindness, meditating on positive feelings toward others, and using one’s signature strengths, all of which feature in the Steps of The Real Secret.

The researchers’ review of brain imaging studies also led them to theorise that PAIs may act to boost the dampened reward/pleasure circuit mechanisms of depressives and reverse apathy – a key benefit that does not usually arise from treatment with medication alone.

A major benefit of positive activities is that they are simple to practice and inexpensive to deliver.

“If we’re serious about tackling a problem as large as depression, we should be as concerned about the scalability of our solutions as much as their potency,” JosephChancellor said.

To quote from the conclusions of our own Happiness Habits Report: "A nationally available, low level self help intervention based on Happiness Habits, could be delivered from GP surgeries and provide immediate support for people of all ages suffering from ‘life’, as well as those with mild depression and/or anxiety. Such a programme could also substantially reduce mental health problems in young people and other marginalised groups, reduce the prescription of antidepressants, reduce pressure on GPs and therapists and prevent people waiting for psychological treatments from getting worse."

If you, or anyone you know, suffers from mild to moderate depression and/or anxiety, this research suggests it would be worthwhile to try the Steps and Habits of The Real Secret to alleviate symptoms, either with, or instead of, anti-depressant medication, while awaiting or after completing a course of therapy. The Real Secret is available in paperback or kindle format on and

Posted by Lucy


Happiness At Work - The Facts and Figures

As we've said before, success doesn't necessarily bring happiness, but happiness is an underlying factor for success. Happiness leads to more successful relationships, parenting, better jobs, and higher earnings. As a work-life balance expert, I've been telling employers and managers for many years that happier (better balanced) employees will bring their organisation or team greater productivity and creativity, higher levels of commitment and less sickness absence and staff turnover. Despite the evidence, it can be a hard sell. Some bosses already know it intuitively and have been working in a people-centred way all along; others really find it hard to believe that the wellbeing of their staff is anything more than a "soft" issue, promoted by HR for the wrong reasons.

In Jessica Pryce-Jones' well-researched book called Happiness at Work: Maximizing Your Psychological Capital for Success, she demonstrates, with convincing examples, how employees who are happier at work achieve their highest potential, earn more, are promoted more readily, and are much more productive than unhappy staff members.

Having interpreted the data of a four year research project, in which she interviewed at one end of the scale CEOs, like Willie Walsh, of British Airways, and at the other, a refugee server in Au Bon Pain, Boston, and Brother Paulus Terwitte, the Capuchin Friar who was passionate about enabling everyone to finding meaning in what they do, Jessica found that "at some core level, people believe that happiness at work is a mindset which helps you maximize your potential. You do that by being aware of the highs and lows when working alone or with others. In other words it’s the way you approach things, manage yourself while understanding that your happiness as a valuable resource."  

She makes the case that happiness is indeed very closely associated with productivity, so if organisations were to start to drive it through addressing what makes their workforce happy – which need not be difficult or costly to do - workplaces could be very different, and more successful, environments.

For those people who still believe that workplace wellbeing is a soft and fluffy subject, or indeed for those who are trying to convince them otherwise, here are some useful statistics:

People who are happiest at work are 47% more productive, take 300% less sick leave and intend to stay about 200% longer in their jobs. In other words there’s a high price for low happiness.

Individuals who are happiest at work have a host of benefits. They:

• are 180% more energised
• experience 155% more happiness in their jobs
• find 108% more engagement
• feel 50% more motivated
• find 50% more belief in their potential
• are 40% more confident
• think they have 35% more control over what they do.

People who are happier at work will also be happier with the home lives too; their general happiness scores are 150% higher than their least happy colleagues.

Jessica Pryce Jones said that two of the things that surprised her most from her research were: the importance of listening for happiness at work and enabling great performance; and the research data that showed money has no effect on overall workplace happiness (although it does affect overall general happiness).

She claims the five Cs for happiness at work are:

Contribution, which is the effort you make and your perception of it
Conviction, which is your motivation in good times or bad
Culture, which is about how well you feel you fit
Commitment, which is about your level of engagement
Confidence, which is about your ability to take a risk

"They matter because they affect everything you do and without them your happiness levels will take a dive – fast, and in turn your performance will plummet too... There’s a clear line of sight between happiness and performance"  

If you are not happy in your work and are not sure how to make changes, a good place to start is with yourself. By following the Steps of The Real Secret, or identifying those which relate to your situation, you can raise your personal happiness levels, which will impact on those around you at work and at home. You can also learn how to listen better (empathic listening), improve relationships at work and at home, as well as build confidence and deal with difficult people. It is available in paperback and kindle on  and Amazon. com

Posted by Lucy


Seeing Another Person's Point of View

 We have a 15-year old French student staying with us for a fortnight to improve her English, see something of our culture and experience British family life. There's nothing like someone from outside coming into your home to make you see yourself and your way of life from another perspective. Charlotte is a charming, polite girl who fits in with whatever we're doing, but her presence has really made me question -- everything, really, from my parenting style, levels of empathy, domestic routine and cooking skills, to my ability to explain the idiosyncracies of the English language with its irregular grammar and often bizarre idioms.

Apparently, Americans and people from Western cultures are more challenged than others in our ability to understand someone else’s point of view because our culture encourages so much individualism. By contrast, the Chinese, whose culture encourages a collectivist attitude, are much better at understanding other people's perspectives.

 Boaz Keysar, Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago, says that our Western problem in seeing another's person's point of view is partly to do with communication. “Many actions and words have multiple meanings. In order to sort out what a person really means, we need to gain some perspective on what he or she might be thinking and, Americans for example, who don’t have that skill very well developed, probably tend to make more errors in understanding what another person means,” Keysar said.

Keysar is the co-author with graduate student Shali Wu of “The Effect of Culture on Perspective Taking,” which discusses their research and is published in the journal Psychological Science.

We know from studies of children that the ability to appreciate another person’s perspective is universal, but it seems not all societies encourage their members to develop the skill as they grow up. “Members of collectivist cultures tend to be interdependent and to have self-concepts defined in terms of relationships and social obligations,” say Keysar and Wu. “In contrast, members of individualist cultures tend to strive for independence and have self-concepts defined in terms of their own aspirations and achievements.”

To study this cultural difference in interpersonal communications, their team devised a game that tested how quickly and naturally people from the two groups were able to access another person’s perspective. They chose two groups of University of Chicago students, one consisting of 20 people from China who grew up speaking Mandarin, and another including 20 non-Asian Americans who were all native English speakers.

They were testing the hypothesis that interdependence would make people focus on others and away from themselves, and did this by having people from the same cultural group pair up and work together to move objects around in a grid of squares placed between them. In the game, one person, the “director,” would tell the other person, the “subject”, where the objects should be moved. Over some of the squares, a piece of cardboard blocked the view of the director, so the subject could clearly tell what objects the director could not see. In some cases there were two similar objects, one blocked from the director’s view and one visible to both people playing the game.

The Chinese subjects almost immediately focused on the objects the director could see and moved the correct objects. When Americans were asked to move an object and there were two similar objects on the grid, they paused and often had to work to figure out which object the director could not see before moving the right one object. The Americans spent on average about twice as much time completing the moves as the Chinese, and often ignored the fact that the director could not see all the objects; 65%of American subjects failed to consider the director’s pespective at least once during the experiment.

Although we'd all like to think that we can put ourselves in other people's shoes better than the American students above, I have found myself questioning my assumptions about what a French student would want to experience and achieve from two weeks in England - and how well I'm fulfilling those desires.

Of course, different languages and cultures do add to the difficulties of seeing another person's point of view, and in a separate piece of research, Boaz Keysar with Anne Henly showed that speakers readily overestimate their effectiveness in communicating meaning. They asked speakers to read an ambiguous sentence (such as “Angela shot the man with the gun”) in a way that communicated one of its two possible meanings. The speakers routinely overestimated their listeners’ accuracy in perceiving the intended message and presumed that what was obvious to them would be similarly obvious to their audience. 

I become particularly aware of this when I hear my children talking to Charlotte far too fast and indistinctly for her to understand, and using phrases and metaphors that make no sense to her. Suddenly the ordinary seems ridiculous - how could any non English person be expected to understand what "It's chucking it down" or "In yer face" means? Not to mention, "A military legend" - a phrase my 9-year old has inexplicably latched onto, but completeIy misunderstood!

 It may not be comfortable, but it's certainly salutary when something or someone comes into your life and makes you question your abilities to empathise with others and see things from their point of view. The question is, will the insight enable me to make Charlotte's English experience the best it can be.

Posted by Lucy

For information and advice on ways to increase empathy and develop intimate and other relationships, get your copy of The Real Secret in paperback or Kindle on or


How not to sabotage yourself with false pattern-finding

The weekend before last my daughter had an "atypical migraine episode" and had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. Last weekend my computer was stolen and we had the police round to view the scene of crime and take statements.

"Do you realise we've had a different emergency service out two Saturdays running," said my daughter after the CSI team had left. "That must mean we're going to have a fire next Saturday, as it's the only one left."

Even writing this makes me feel I might be tempting fate, although I know rationally that the two events were entirely unconnected and that "bad luck" doesn't come in threes, as the old saying claims - it's simply that the human brain has developed an amazing ability to find patterns in not only landscapes and images, mathematics and geological events, but also in our own experiences and expectations.

Some of us are better at finding patterns in different things than others, and the different patterns we each see are indicative of our ways of perceiving and thinking about our experience.

The Rorschach inkblot test (also called the "Rorschach" test), in which participants are asked to describe pictures or patterns they see in random inkblots, is a method of psychological evaluation. Psychologists use this test in an attempt to examine the personality characteristics and emotional functioning of their patients. This test is often employed in diagnosing underlying thought disorders and differentiating psychotic from non-psychotic thinking in cases where the patient is reluctant to openly admit to psychotic thinking.

You can take the Inkblot Test online here.

What do you see in the image above? The first thing I see is a woman wearing earrings and a full skirt carrying a basket on her head. The blot at the top to the right reminds me of a clipped poodle. The one to the left could be a dog's head in profile looking at the "woman". If I try hard enough I see two empty nightshirts (like cartoon headless ghosts) on either side of her waist with their arms out. The bottom blobs say nothing to me, even though I've tried hard to make them into meaningful shapes. The fact is, none of the meaning is there. We have a strong ability - and an innate desire - to find meaning by seeing patterns in every element of our lives.

The ability to find patterns in landscapes and weather, for instance, was vital to our ancestors' survival and still plays a crucial role in our lives now. We need to be able to work out genuine cause and effect: what makes us ill or unhappy on a regular basis; what has positive effects and brings us pleasure.

But sometimes our pattern-finding abilities go into overdrive and tell us that patterns exist where none do. This is the cause of much superstition of the "I wore my red t-shirt to both the exams I came top in, so it's a lucky t-shirt and I'll always wear it so I'll do well" type. People who score highly on pattern-finding tests also tend to have more "paranormal" or weird experiences than average - such as seeing mysterious faces in a pool of water, or religious symbols in a vegetable. This can also be related to suggestibility - and our earlier post How Gullible Are You?, and it has also been shown from research by Adam Galinsky and Jennifer Whitson of the University of Austin, Texas, that the more insecure or out of control we feel, the more likely we are to see patterns or make connections that don't exist. In times of economic hardship, for example, far more people read their horoscopes.

Sometimes the false patterns that we read into our experiences work for our benefit - for instance, wearing the red t-shirt that I believe to be lucky could give me confidence, stop me panicking and therefore I will do better in the exam because I'm wearing it. This, of course, will verify my false pattern-finding and give me even more belief in my lucky red t-shirt - until I fail an exam while wearing it, perhaps more than once, and I have to re-evaluate the pattern I've perceived. Perhaps it will then become my unlucky t-shirt.

On the other hand, perceiving false patterns in our experience can work against our best interests and well being. "Self-defeating assumptions", as psychologists call them, build in our minds when we make an association between negative incidents and create a false pattern from them. For ancient survival reasons, our brain has a bias towards the negative and often pays more attention and gives more weight to negative than positive. So if in the past we have been made redundant, and this happens to us again - despite the fact that we may have had a number of successful jobs we have chosen to move on from, or that this current unemployment is more to do with the economic situation than our performance - we may be more ready to find a pattern of employment failure in our life - which will affect how we view our past and approach new work.

So, it's important to recognise whether we might be creating or have created false negative patterns - and avoid self-defeating asssumptions. If you lose a job or a partner leaves you, it is important not to internalise the rejection and assume you'll never be employed or loved again. Don't allow one rejection to derail your dreams, make you fearful of the future or lower your self esteem. The more in control and secure you feel, the less likely you are to find negative false patterns in the events of your life.

"Give a person a sense of security and control, and defensiveness and obsessiveness melt away."
Jennifer Whitson. 

I'll let you know for sure next week whether my daughter's pattern-finding in emergency service visits was false - assuming I haven't lost another computer in the fire!

Posted by Lucy

There's more about taking control of your life, defeating negative beliefs and low self esteem in The Real Secret which is available in paperback and Kindle on and


How To Deal With Difficult People

Dealing with difficult people can be... well difficult, or it can be incredibly easy. The choice is yours. As always. Again, it really does depend on how you choose to respond. You can get all involved and tied up with negative disagreement, and possibly anger, or you can keep your cool as well as your sanity. Keeping your cool does not mean you will necessarily win any battles - actually, you’ll probably lose a large number, but in the end it’s the war with yourself that matters.Well, it’s something to aim for.

Nor should you imagine that there is a simple solution, albeit tiresome, that can be applied each and every time you come across a difficult person. No such luck - it’s a fresh challenge on each occasion.

Difficult people come in all shapes and sizes. Some are easy to spot (these ones tend to shout a lot), some come quietly and stab you in the back (as Oscar Wilde remarked, friends would stab you in the front).The worst are the ones who pretend to listen and say they understand, but don’t do either.They are the worst because they suggest that maybe you are the difficult person. Maybe you are. It’s been intimated.

Here are some helpful hints. They work for me. Sometimes.

It’s Not About Them, It’s About You
It’s not personal, so why take it personally? People are often so upset and unhappy with their own lives that they want to take others down with them. Or they just want to find someone else to blame. Just say no thank you. Well not actually say it; just adopt a non-confrontational expression of non-interest and don’t, whatever you do, look into their eyes - look at different parts of their face as though you were scanning their face for possible clues to something completely unrelated. At this point you can look mildly interested. This will unnerve them because, a) you don’t appear to be taking them seriously, and b) you can’t possibly take someone seriously if you’re scanning their face for defects. In other words, difficult people should not be taken seriously. It’s bad for your health and dangerous to theirs. This is not about them, it's about you. Your response.

Some people suggest that you should try to imagine the difficult person as a baby and that way you’ll feel more kindly towards them. This doesn’t work for me because I love babies and refuse to have their good name contaminated by difficult adults. I forgive babies everything - especially difficult babies. This is not the same feeling I have with adults where my instinct calls for wringing necks.

Don’t Engage With Anger
Well not unless you want to feel angry yourself. Some of us do, perversely, I know. It’s so easy to stoke anger - you only have to imagine feeling angry and there it is, all up and ready to fight. Actually engaging with an angry person... well, you are definitely asking for it. You can hardly blame the other if you go swimming with them.

Theories Of Anger Management
I have this theory about how to deal with difficult people - it’s the same theory that I apply to minor irritations. And it isn’t what you’ll find in most self help books. Most self help authors suggest that the best way to deal with the potential build-up of anger that can all too often arise from minor irritations is to let it out. Punch a bag or a pillow. Imagine the pillow is the person that is annoying you. This works, apparently, because you’ll be violent to a pillow and not to yourself by holding in all that irritation. This is the "catharsis hypothesis" - the notion that it’s better to vent your anger than keep it bottled up. Well, I don’t agree. Not least because, despite my perversity, I’m also a non-violent person. I really don’t want to punch even the idea of a person. It’s still violence to me.

I also never really understood the metaphor of bottling things up, but apparently if you do let things bottle up then one day, and soon, you’ll explode with the pressure of it all. What began as a minor irritation will eventually release itself in the form an aggressive rage. Same problem that  difficult people display, I’d say. 

I really do think this is a shaky hypothesis and hypothesis is all it is because I couldn't find a scrap of evidence to support it. I looked all morning. What I did find was some fine research which indicates that venting actually makes things worse. Rather than punching pillows, this research suggests doing something incompatible with anger, such as reading or listening to music. Of course this won’t in any way address the cause of the irritation (typical) but it will leave you in a better state to do so. So that’s good. Just like losing some battles in favour of winning the war - makes sense to me. The lazy woman's way.

More Seriously..
I do think it’s important not to engage in the first place. I learnt early on not to wage war with the outside world on inconsequential things, and instead I now turn my attention inward towards myself. This simple shift of attention has changed how I experience my world, including all the outside irritations, including difficult people, that used to drive me insane. As a result I am now more content and a whole lot more tolerant. Apparently. I do my best.
This is what I do:
  • When faced with a difficult person I stop and breathe
  • I pay attention to how I am feeling and what I am thinking. This allows me to recognise how my old habits work so that they now no longer control me.
  • I become aware of my (new) self.
  • I then scan the face of the difficult person, looking for those defects I mentioned earlier, whilst maintaining a composure of polite indifference. Stress on polite - you don’t want to incite rage, remember. If you can manage quizical then that’s best. Quizical is very confusing.
  • I then think of the people I love the most and I pour this love onto my irritation much as you would put balm on a physical wound*.
  • Rinse and repeat

*It doesn’t always work - principally because some of these people that I love the most can also be incredibly difficult. It’s hard to treat difficult love in the same way as treating difficult people you don’t love at all. There’s advice for that, but not for now... you’ll just have to read our book.

Mind Over Matter - does it really matter if you are right?
What we focus on tends to expand itself because where attention goes, energy flows. In other words, don’t waste your precious energy. If the person doesn’t matter then you don’t mind. Feel free to lose battles that do not matter. Getting upset is just a waste of tea time.

Freedom Of Speech
People are as entitled to their opinions as you are yours. Some may have a less than eloquent way of expressing themselves – it may even be offensive, but they are still entitled to do so. Difficult people have the right to express their own opinions and we have the right to choose your responses. Allow them to express how they feel and let it be. Remember that it’s all relative and a matter of perspective. What we consider positive can be perceived by another as negative. Sorry to be the one who tells you, but it’s sometimes the case that you are in the wrong. Just occasionally. Not a big problem. Honestly.

Check Their Shoes
As cliched as this may sound, we tend to forget that we become blind-sided in some situations. Try putting yourself in the difficult person's position.This understanding might give you a new perspective and may help you see where the problem lies. On the other hand it may reinforce your absolute certainty that this is a very difficult person who needs to be left well alone. Check their shoes first - it’s only polite.

Stop Talking About It
Stop talking about difficult people because the more we talk about something, the more of that thing we’ll notice. Do your best to not repeat the story to others. You are depriving difficult people of oxygen remember, not looking for attention. If you haven’t got something good to say about another person then best to say nothing at all  (but don’t actually say this because it’s a dead give away. Obviously). On the other hand, gossip away with trusted friends - that’s what friends are for, after all; just don’t get het up and all upset about it for long because that’s just boring, even to the best of friends.

Go For A Run
or a walk, or a swim. Works well. For a while.

Write It
Take out some paper and write freely about the difficult bastard without editing. Continue to do so until you have nothing else to say. Now, roll the paper up into a ball, close your eyes and toss the paper ball into the rubbish. Gone, gone, gone.Good riddance to bad rubbish. Oh dear you missed the basket.
I see that you are already enlightened.

For more advice on how to deal with difficult people you really will have to read our book. It talks about all those difficult things you really think but find hard to admit to, never mind deal with - such as difficult people that you actually love...

posted by Annabel

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