Emotional Rescue

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To most scientists, human emotion is something to be minimized at all costs in their pursuit of rigorously objective understanding of the world around them.  In many cases, this makes perfect sense.  If we’re determined to investigate the underlying mechanisms responsible for dark matter, say, there’s a strong argument for leaving our emotional states at the laboratory door.  But what if what we’re interested in studying is actually ourselves?

Well, that’s clearly different.  After all, you don’t have to be a scientist to recognize that our emotional states play a large role in who we are and how we interact with the world.  Except, ironically enough, until recently, many professional psychologists weren’t even willing to recognize emotions as an integral part of the human condition.  Why? Well, let’s just say that they were suffering from strong emotional biases surrounding the question.

FREDRenowned social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson describes her somewhat unusual trajectory towards becoming one of the world’s foremost emotion researchers.

“People have asked me, ‘You study positive emotions.  Is this because you’ve had this extraordinarily happy childhood and everyone around you was bubbly and upbeat all the time?’

“And I say, ‘Absolutely not.’  I grew up in Minnesota, in a very stoic, Nordic, household.  There was no discussion of emotion and very little expression of emotions.  More generally, in psychology at the time, there was very little study of emotions either.  It was simply not a target of scholarly work until the late 1980s. It had been part of psychology a hundred years earlier with William James, but then Behaviourism shut the door on internal experiences as being a legitimate focus of study, considering it simply irrelevant – just “lights on the machine”.  Years later, when the science of psychology was finally waking up to the idea that emotions can be studied, I came across it and thought, What is this emotions stuff?”

Finally recognizing that humans are inherently emotional creatures is clearly a form of progress, if admittedly rather belated.  But the next step is to investigate why they exist at all. How do they work? What purpose do they serve? Do they help us or hinder us in our pursuit of knowledge of the world around us?  

Negative emotions – fear, anxiety, anger – seem to be grounded in a transparent evolutionary framework.  Flight from predators, worrying about the daily food supply and competition for sexual partners, to name but three, all have a clear evolutionary justification.  But what about happiness and laughter?  What about the warm glow we feel when we do something for others? How do they fit in with our belief in evolutionary theory?

“That was the puzzle that drew me in,” Barbara admitted. “We had templates for understanding the evolutionary value of emotions, and as the science of emotions began to develop, there was kind of a ‘cookie-cutter’ template used for all emotions, which was: Emotions promote specific action tendencies, which had helped our ancestors survive threats to life and limb.  If you use that for understanding the evolutionary value of emotions, it’s easy to just leave the positive emotions out. There were theories of emotions that were saying, This is how emotions evolved, that didn’t even mention positive emotions, which I find pretty amusing, given their obvious existence and importance in most people’s lives.”

Into this yawning gap, Barbara went on to develop her “broaden-and-build” theory of positive emotions.  Rather than generating any specific action that will save our skin at any given moment like its negative emotion counterpart, positive emotions supply us with increasing moments of “broadened understanding” that help our overall. survival in the long term.  In particular, by making us feel good about performing a certain action, they encourage us to repeat it and get better at it. By preparing us to develop knowledge, positive emotions are thus vital to any learning process.

You might well think that such an insight has transformed our awareness of how we learn, with a wealth of specific consequences for education, retraining, and a host of other socially relevant activities.  Well, not quite yet.

“We have so much more capacity to regulate our emotions than we give ourselves credit for.  We often think of emotions like the weather – they just happen. But especially with positive emotions, we have a lot of choice about whether to let them emerge and bloom or just blow right past them because we’re too busy doing something else.  Positive emotions are particularly fragile. They are not as potent or powerful as negative emotions, and the initial seeds of them in a way, are easy to overlook.”

But Barbara goes well beyond describing her theory of positive emotions.  As a research scientist, she’s naturally determined to rigorously test it.   Which brought her directly to meditation, another research avenue looked somewhat dubiously upon by many of her fellow scientists.

Metta“I started studying meditation not to study meditation per se, but to test my theory.  I really wanted to find out whether the ‘build’ part of the ‘broaden-and-build’ theory held water.  To do that, you have to essentially change people’s emotional personality, change their daily diet of emotions by including more positive emotions.

“I happened to be in a faculty seminar on integrative medicine and was introduced to some work on what’s called ‘Metta meditation’ or ‘loving-kindness meditation’.  A huge light bulb went off for me: I could use this to test my theory!

So what did she discover?

“We’ve found that people can, indeed, increase their positive emotions – not in a whopping way, but in a subtle upward shift in everyday mild positive emotions.

“That is what people can create in their lives.  And that subtle shift leads to changes in resilience, resourcefulness, cardiovascular health, immune health, and so forth.  People aren’t suddenly changing from being incredibly dour to extremely happy-go-lucky: they’re just becoming slightly more upbeat, uplifted, cheerful versions of themselves.”

That seems like such a hugely significant result, of direct and overwhelming relevance to all of us, that it’s hard to appreciate why everyone isn’t taking Barbara’s recommended 15-20 minutes per day to substantially improve their health, happiness, and learning capabilities.  

But changing habits is hard.   Even for someone who should definitely know better.  Like Barbara herself.

“I think there was a stretch where I was completely fascinated by the science, drawn into it.  I was well over the edge in becoming a workaholic. By my late thirties, the irony of it sunk in: here I was studying flourishing mental health, and I wasn’t sure I was flourishing myself.  I realized that I could really take lessons from my own work.

“I thought to myself, If that’s true, if flourishing people have this higher ratio of positive-to-negative emotions, then working 14-hour days in isolation is not going to lead to good places.  I feel like I’m the first student of this work in terms of it making a difference in my life; and I’m really lucky in that way.”

Lucky?  Perhaps.  But looking at Barbara’s calm, smiling countenance, it was hard not to conclude that she had simply figured something out.  

Howard Burton, howard@ideasroadshow.com

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Related video resources and eBook that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal: Clips: Positive Emotions, Emotional Development, Measuring Emotions, Harnessing Meditation, Compilations: Social Psychology, Frontiers of Social Psychology, Full-length video and eBook: The Science of Emotions

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