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A story about how positive emotions can combine.

Tram in Lisbon

The historic Tram 28 in Lisbon

Recently my husband and I visited Lisbon for the first time. On our second day we travelled along the north bank of the river Tagus to the town of Belem, a place of huge historical influence, inextricably linked with Portugal’s “Golden Age of Discovery”. It was over 500 years ago, starting from here, the sailor Vasco da Gama, set off and discovered a sea route to India.

Exuberant and exotic Manueline style of architecture

Exuberant style of architecture

Vasco da Gama’s tomb can be found in the Monastery of Jeronimos in Belem. The building of the Monastery was funded by the wealth of discovery – the so called “pepper money” i.e. profits made from the spice trade with India.  The stonemasonry of the Monastery is amazing, richly decorated, named as the Manueline style, after the King.

Tomb of Vasco da Gamba, who discovered the sea route to India in 1498

Tomb of Vasco da Gama

Tomb of Vasco da Gama

Portugese influence

It’s not the inside of the Monastery I want to talk about the most though. It’s what was adjacent – the cloisters. They were such a visual delight and enriching experience to walk around, they completely made my day. They fascinated, enthralled and inspired me. Here were double decker cloisters at their best – two stories (obviously!), gorgeous proportions, the stone colour radiating warmth, sunlight accentuating the extensive carving – it was perfect in every way!

Amazing double decker cloisters!

Amazing double decker cloisters!

In the time we spent in the cloisters, I felt so inspired, energised and calm. I have always liked cloisters, as a photo from my childhood when I was at Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire shows. I also had a growing sensation and excitement that as well as a sea route to India, Brazil and Newfoundland had also been discovered from here. Adventure and discovery have always been things I have loved – and found very exciting. (I was recently given an old copy of the Famous Five by Enid Blyton – I devoured these books as a child!)

My interest in cloisters (Rievaulx Abbey) and the adventures of the Famous Five from childhood!

My interests from childhood!

I felt such strong emotion, it got me curious. Why was it so strong? It seemed that these two things – calm and excitement – were somehow complimenting each other. Intellectually I thought they should be opposing, but my body was telling me otherwise. It was working well for me.

Beautiful two tier space to walk around in the cloisters

Beautiful two tier space to walk around

It took me quite a long time to figure it out. They were both positive emotions. And I was reminded of Martin Seligman’s work in his book Flourish.

We went to hear Martin Seligman talk at the RSA in London - always a good way of bringing a book alive for me!

We heard Martin Seligman talk at the RSA in London – a good way of bringing a book alive!

Sometimes known as the Grandfather of Positive Psychology, in this book Seligman urges us to take advantage of our positive emotions. He argues we can become an active participant in capitalising on the opportunities that come from positive emotions and can find ways to increase the number of instances and duration of positivity.

Increasingly I find calm an emotion which resources me, and helps me feel more able facing my challenges, which often seem many and various. Following from this, excitement is usually such a good motivator, such a call to action for me. My surprise was how they can intertwine and be a great combination!

It's interesting how calm and excitement can combine, and intertwine, as positive emotions for me!

Calm and excitement can intertwine as positive emotions for me!

I’m curious – which positive emotions are your favourites? Which ones reliably can help your life feel more manageable, and give you more of what you want in your life? How might positive emotions combine to give you something quite special too? Do let me know!

And if you are wondering if there is a list anywhere to choose from, from searching Google I found this list of positive emotions, such as joy, pride, hope, inspiration – there are lots to choose from – had some quite nice categories. There are many other lists that might appeal to you too.

There are many ideas for building on positive emotions in here

Info on positive emotions in here

PS I can’t resist one final picture of the cloisters…

Another view to show you the magnitude of these lovely cloisters

Look at the scale of this! three other photos from our great day out in Belem and Lisbon.

Nor can we resist showing you three other photos from our great day out…it’s a lovely city.

The Torre de Belem (the starting point for navigators), Pasteis de Belem (custard tarts), and the entrance to the Railway station in Lisbon (for the rail enthusiasts amongst us!)

The Torre de Belem (the starting point for navigators), Pasteis de Belem (custard tarts), and the entrance to the Railway station in Lisbon (for the rail enthusiasts amongst us!)

Photographs by Martin How

Gill How

Helping leaders grow, step up and deliver outstanding results


  • Susanne says:

    Hi Gill, thought provoking post as ever. I think the calm and excitement double act that you speak of are not at all in conflict – for me that’s the state of mind I’m in when I feel I have purpose. Calm to be knowing that I’m going somewhere with my endeavours, and a low-key buzz about getting there, or finding out where ‘there’ is.

    • gillhow says:

      Thank you – that’s a great way of looking at it – thinking more, the combination is often when I’m happy and in flow too….

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