The (fairly mind-blowing) new science of emotional well-being

This article features excerpts from the soon to be released “The Poetry of Human Emotion: A Science-based Guide to Emotional Well-being” (Jack Ricchiuto, 2020 NuanceWorks). Learn more here: thepoetryofhumanemotion.com

You’re not alone these days if you’re feeling a growing interest in articles and podcasts about emotional well-being. Even though it feels like you know yourself emotionally fairly well, maybe there are some new insights out there that would make your emotional life even more manageable, if not more satisfying. We all share a daily wish to struggle less and enjoy more.

Our best emotional life possible requires an accurate understanding of how emotions actually work. The new science of emotion has a lot to say about this. Here is a short list of 10 gems, inspired by the brilliant work of researchers like Lisa Feldman Barrett and her colleagues at Northeastern University. 

Emotions don’t happen to us, they happen by us. They are not triggered by situations. In fractions of a second, they are produced so quickly in our brain they seem like instant reactions to situations. Our brain composes each of them and we can learn how to compose new ones for any situation we could ever create or encounter.  

The only emotions we have in any moment our the ones we are aware of. Each is bootstrapped by our brain in and for the moment as a way to make sense of our experience and prepare our body for action. Emotions are not stored in our brain. They aren’t sitting around like virtual assistants waiting to be activated. Like a chef, our brain cooks them up from the ingredients of past and present experience as it runs millions of predictive simulations every second. We never have to wonder what we’re feeling. They are all hiding in full view. 

Feelings and emotions are different. Feelings are the wordless, physical sensations of pleasant and unpleasant our brain produces when it assesses a situation as good or bad relative to our likes and wants. As soon as we put words to feelings, we compose emotions. Words like “I love this” and “I hate this” don’t describe or express emotions that already exist. They literally create the emotions we experience in the moment. Any change in our language composes different variations and varieties of emotions.

Our brain has no attachment to any emotions. The chemicals of emotions last in our blood stream for about 90 seconds. Emotions exist to remind us of what’s important to us. They are our brain’s best guess at the meaning of each lived moment. When we simply allow emotions to remind us of what’s important to us, they come and go. They keep returning until their job as reminder is done.

More meaningful emotions are quieter, less intense emotions. Every felt emotion lives on two continuums: a valence continuum from pleasant to unpleasant and a volume continuum from more intense and louder to less intense and quieter. Quieter emotions demand and require less attention than the more louder emotions. Quieter emotions create more flexible perspectives. Louder emotions create more fixed perspectives. Louder emotions can be more generic. When we compose more meaningful emotions, we create a wider range of quiet emotions. 

Emotional well-being means experiencing ourselves as the author of our emotions. This doesn’t mean becoming the author, it means realizing we are and practicing the compositional art of emotional well-being. Emotional well-being means composing varieties of meaningful emotions. We’re not talking about a few more. We’re talking about at least dozens and hundreds more. The wider our range of emotions, the more well-being we experience and the better we are in supporting the emotional well-being of others.

Struggling and suffering are not the result of having problem emotions. They result from having narrow ranges of emotions. Emotional well-being means expanding our ranges of emotions by composing new versions and varieties of emotions. This means composing more experience-specific emotions beyond generic categories like glad, sad, and mad. More specific emotions are more meaningful emotions.

Meaningful emotions have three ingredients: what’s true about our situation, what might be true, and what we like or want in this situation. The delightful feeling when we’re getting ready to get together with one of our closest friends we haven’t seen in forever and keep restlessly checking to see if they’ve arrived is an emotion. It is actually an emotion the Intuit people call Iktuarpok. This is just one of many examples of how every culture has language for emotions other cultures don’t. This emotion is more meaningful than a generic emotional category like “happy” because it is situationally more accurate, specific, and granular.

We can author more meaningful emotions in any situation. Take the feeling when we think we’re getting to the bottom of a guilty pleasure bag of chips, wanting to savor the last morsels, only to reach and find nothing. This is an emotion. We feel it in our body. It is granular and accurate to the situation. It is more meaningful than the generic emotion of sad that can apply to any number of similar yet unique experiences. By expanding the details of our emotional experience with the three ingredients, we can compose more expansive variety of meaningful emotions.  

Our emotional language shapes the arc of our life. Children and adults with wider ranges of more emotional language granularity do better in school, in relationships, in their health, and at work. They struggle less with anxiety and depression. People with narrower ranges of granularity struggle more psychologically, educationally, socially, medically, economically, and in their careers. Friends, couples, and partners enjoy more and struggle less when their emotional ranges are wider and more granular. The more granular our emotional language, the more our life flourishes on every level and every dimension. 

Welcome to the new science of emotional well-being.

Learn more here: thepoetryofhumanemotion.com

Jack

About Jack

In my late twenties I had the good fortune to have mentors who were practice leaders in what was then called the Human Potentials Movement. They inspired me to help organizations and communities realize their potential in ways they never imagined. It became clear this was the core gift that would shape the past 40 years.