In the modern world, we’ve become out of touch with the “creative and innovative genius that we are wired for,” according to Emma Seppälä, psychologist and author of Sovereign: Reclaim Your Freedom, Energy, and Power in a Time of Distraction, Uncertainty, and Chaos.

Woman pensively looking out over body of water with sunlight

Her solution? To regain sovereignty. That means “becoming aware of the level of conditioning that divorces us from our own inner voice, intuition, and creativity,” she says. To tune back into what she calls “our own innate intelligence.”

In this latest book, Seppälä, author of The Happiness Track, presents “an invitation to look at how we are living and how we’re relating to ourselves,” drawing attention to the ways we are psychologically imprisoned by our own beliefs and habits—everything from our technological devices to our work-around-the-clock mindset. She offers stories as well as science-backed techniques to help us overcome these shackles to live more authentic, self-driven lives.

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“We need to gain more awareness of how we are, unknowingly, standing in our own way,” says Seppälä. “Not allowing us to show up to our fullest potential. Right now, we need that. And we need to model that for our children.”

I talked with Seppälä, a researcher who teaches at the Yale School of Management, about the different ways we remain mentally “bound,” how sovereignty is distinct from happiness, and why it’s essential to pay attention to our intuition, among other subjects. Here is our conversation, edited for clarity.

Hope Reese: There’s been a lot of talk about mindfulness when it comes to mental health, but the concept of sovereignty feels new. Why did you choose this term? How does it fit into our overall well-being?

Emma Seppälä: I’ve been studying the science of happiness and well-being, meditation interventions, and doing research on many different things, like student well-being. But I felt like there was no term that encapsulated what I’m talking about, which is beyond well-being. You can do all the well-being practices in the world, but if you’re still falling for behavior patterns and thought patterns that are destructive to you, then you’re still not free. You might feel better after your yoga classes, but you’re still bound by those kinds of patterns, behaviors that are keeping you trapped.

Sometimes when everybody’s doing it, we forget to question it. That’s why I didn’t want to use another concept that was already being used—because this is not the same thing.

HR: What does being “bound” look like?

ES: A really simple one that anyone can identify with is how bound we are to technology in ways that, for many of us, feel unhealthy. And yet we’re stuck in it. How many teenagers have deleted social media from their phone, only to put it back on, knowing that it’s destructive? And how many people, when they’re not feeling well, fall for some kind of addictive behavior? You don’t have to be alcoholic for this—you could look saintly, like “I’m working 80 hours a week,” or “I’m volunteering 40 hours a week,” or “I’m just exercising.”

There’s so many coping mechanisms—stress eating or drinking or smoking weed or whatever it is—that people use that bind us. On the other side of these coping mechanisms, we’re still stuck.

HR: How does this idea follow up on your work on the science of happiness, your message in the book The Happiness Track?

ES: The Happiness Track was also inviting people to question the way that they were working, because the way that a lot of people work is this burning-of-both-ends-into-the-ground phenomenon, which does not actually work over the long term. It leads to burnout, which is why 50% of people burn out. There’s a lot of disengagement in the workplace.

Here, I’m going beyond that questioning. Even if you can do all the well-being practices, I’m meditating twice a day and doing all the things, I could see for myself that I was still going for ways of thinking and acting that weren’t serving me. It doesn’t really matter what you’re doing if you’re not awake.

HR: You direct the Women’s Leadership Program at the Yale School of Business. How do you see this issue of sovereignty affecting women, specifically?

ES: Sovereignty can apply to both men and women. But teaching so many cohorts of highly talented female executives in high-level jobs, I noticed how the biggest thing in their way was not the gender biases that are definitely present, but their relationship with their own selves. I remember this one woman coming up to me and saying, “Well, I get an A in leadership and a D in parenting.” It just broke my heart to see how hard she was on herself and how hard, how abusive, people’s relationships can be with themselves. We don’t even realize it, and we actually think it’s normal.

I’m teaching a cohort of 45 women this week. Inevitably, if I asked them,“Who’s hard on themselves here?,” 98% of the room raises their hand. There’s one or two women who aren’t—and they are always so powerful, because they’re there for themselves.

HR: You talk about individual work, placing emphasis on self-growth. What about structural barriers? What else is holding people back from becoming sovereign?

ES: Structural and societal challenges are there, and there’s plenty of work to be done there. But one way that I define sovereignty is that chaos is going to come your way, challenges are going to come your way. The pandemic was a perfect example of complete chaos and loss of control. But the one thing you do have a say over is the state of your own mind, your internal sovereignty. That is going to allow you to show up as your best in whatever challenge—and there will be challenges, and there are structural problems. How are we facing them? How are we showing up?

If we show up upset and angry, maybe it’ll work; maybe it won’t. But if we show up sovereign internally, then we’re going to at least be able to think on our feet and do the best we can, despite the situation.

HR: How does our intuition relate to being sovereign?

Sovereign: Reclaim Your Freedom, Energy, and Power in a Time of Distraction, Uncertainty, and Chaos (Hay House, 2024, 256 pages)

ES: It’s common to meet the idea of intuition with an eyeroll. We tend to value reason over everything else, using expressions like “think before you act,” “think twice,” and “look before you leap.” We don’t trust intuition. In fact, we believe it’s flawed and magical thinking, either vaguely crazy or downright stupid. 

We are rational and reasoned, and that can make us very sensible, but sometimes also narrow-minded and unaware because we rely on intellect at the cost of other modes of perception. We live in a highly cerebral world, in our heads, on our screens—so a lot of people are not in touch with their feelings at all.

But we should not allow the pursuit of reason, logic, and proof to shame us into dimming other sources of insight. Intelligence is understanding that we have processing mechanisms other than our intellect.

For example, it’s important to notice—“Oh, my heart rate is increasing, what’s going on?” The brain is processing information in the background in a way our logic may not understand, but it’s putting together information at rapid speed, alerting us to danger.

We depend, trust, and rely exclusively on information coming from outside of us, shutting down a valuable additional resource: our inner knowings. This binds us through a limited perspective that doesn’t take advantage of other forms of cognition to which we could have access.

Yet research shows that we are wired for intuition in different ways:

  • Physiological: Research shows our heart rate increases when we are around someone who is inauthentic and suppressing their emotion.
  • Observational: Keen awareness of your surroundings is the way the military trains Marines for intuition in their Combat Hunter Training program.
  • Creative: We know the brain is most likely to come up with a-ha solutions to problems and creative insights when it is in alpha-wave mode, i.e., when you are in a receptive and relaxed state.
  • Problem solving: Neuroscience research by Joseph Mikels demonstrates that when decisions are complex, we make a better decision when we go with our gut feeling as opposed to our reason.

HR: As you mention, you’re working with a group of people who are in or on track for high-level positions. What about people who don’t have this privilege? Does the message apply to everyone?

ES: The message is for everyone, unless you’re in a situation where you’re starving. As long as you have food and shelter and feel safe.

I talk a lot about meditation. Meditation is really a radical art, a radical act of disconnecting—from the noise, from the activity, and from the constant “go, go, go,” and from a constant input. A sort of clearing out.

That can be anxiety-provoking, in itself. We’re so used to being in fight-or-flight—all of this caffeine we’re consuming, it’s not normal. We can keep ourselves out of a state of awareness, a state of calm. Breathing exercises can be really powerful. You can get yourself out of the fight-or-flight that keeps us in a bound state. It’s a first step, literally conditioning your nervous system to come to a state of calm. Another way is to spend time in nature. These are well-being practices—but it’s also about being more aware.

None of us have learned to handle our emotions, we just haven’t. So many of us fall into coping mechanisms. Constantly falling for ideas that keep us bound. That’s why I use a new word—a new way of looking at things.

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