Image courtesy of Le Vent Le Cri on Flickr


My friend Fred looked very unhappy. He was explaining to me why he was about to make a commitment to a colleague that would require him to co-author a paper and present it at a conference that he really did not want to attend. I asked him again, “is this something you really want to do?” He said “no” but then reiterated his reasons – his colleague really needed his help, she was someone he wanted to support and so on.

Fred was facing a dilemma we all face over and over. Our heart wants us to go one way but our head makes a strong case for the opposite direction. And, trained as we are in Western cultures, we elevate reason above emotion.  So we choose the logical path charted by our brain and ask our heart to get with the program. We drift into a life of duty, self-sacrifice and obligation. We live in prisons of our own making and wonder why we are successful but unhappy and exhausted.

“The heart has reasons that reason cannot understand” – Jacques Benigne Boussel

What if you flipped things around and chose to follow your heart in deciding where to go next? And then engaged your head in doing what it does best; i.e. figure out a successful action plan?

Our brains are spectacularly unsuited to predict – and choose — what will give us an exuberant life. Our hearts know our yearnings and what keeps us connected to what we truly care about. The heart signals the way to a life that truly lights us up.

The brain naturally focuses on the past and the future. Between past regrets and future worries it charts a very conservative course. Our brain seeks to mitigate risks and maintain the status quo. It acts as a constraint much of the time.

The heart is a renegade. It lives in the moment. It uses nostalgia, not to pull us backwards, but as a guide for what brings us fully alive. It sees the future through the filter of our dreams. It beats with possibility in the present. It whispers to us to “take a chance” on life. It puts a glow on us that others rally round.

Exuberance is a love affair with life 

We all have a birthright to exuberant living. With our heart as our compass and our head as our outfitter and navigator we have a good shot at a life’s journey that we love. One in which we experience freedom at every step rather than the self-imposed prison of obligations and the living out of old decisions that no longer serve us. When we follow our heart we gain the capacity to bounce back from life’s inevitable crises. Our heart is the source of gratitude for whatever we already have. It is the antidote to the “entitlement” that our heads often claim.

When we continually override our heart to do “what makes sense” we gradually lose its signal. The head determines all our choices. Over time, the disappointment of our heart shows up in our faces and the dissipation of our energy. We may work even harder but enjoy it less and resent it more. Our “inner light” dims and our relationships lose their sparkle. People who once followed us look elsewhere for inspiration.

Take a look in the mirror. What do you see?

To follow your heart takes practice. Start by asking different questions.

  • Ask “what am I yearning for?” instead of “what makes the most sense?”
  • Ask “what makes my eyes shine?” rather than “what is the safest course?”
  • Ask “what will develop me as a whole-hearted human being?” rather than “what will earn me the most money or status?”

Choose “what” with your heart. Then let your head figure out “how”.