On Nurturing Our ‘Good’ Feelings

ALL HUMAN EMOTIONS NEED TO BE HONOURED, BUT POSITIVE EMOTIONS CONFER THE GREATEST SURVIVAL BENEFITS

We all have a tendency to label our emotions as either good or bad – those we call ‘bad’ include sadness, anger, jealousy, hurt, fear; and those we call ‘good’ include joy, love, hope, gratitude, trust, compassion.

All emotions are part of the human psyche, and all need to be honoured. What we term the ‘bad’ emotions tend to get labelled that way due to the intensity of those feelings when we experience them – especially when they’re related to a perceived personal fault or failure. As emotions are so closely tied to survival of the self, they have long tentacles that can be felt on a deep, primordial level. When we’re threatened our emotions are automatically triggered, bringing forth behaviours that are often pre-programmed. In a split second, our brain has already experienced the event, perceived its potential impact, and triggered the emotions and behaviour deemed appropriate.

We know that the subconscious mind does not create new feelings and new behaviours with every emotional experience; instead it recycles and reuses the same files for situations that are similar to what has been previously experienced.

For example: an argument with a girlfriend may trigger an auto response reminiscent of a fight with your mother decades ago. The subconscious is not exact; it only recognizes ‘similar’ files. This part of the brain does not know that the friend you’re arguing with is not your mother; it only knows it’s a female and you are fighting, and so your brain pulls out that file. Once the file is opened, the available response options are already laid out (for example we may escalate the fight, withdraw and pout, or respond with any other of a number of behavioural options in our ‘fight kit bag’).

This is why we often find ourselves repeating the same patterns in the way we experience and express anger. All of the so-called ‘bad’ feelings tend to have the same general memories associated with them, and all are ready for recall when warranted. Who or what precipitated our anger or fear is irrelevant.

The ‘Good’

Therapies that deal with the human psyche are familiar with the so-called ‘bad’ emotions, the ‘I and mine’ feelings. However, it is only recently that research has been conducted on the ‘good’ emotions.

Over the last two decades, cultural anthropology and neuroscience have been focused on the study of these emotions – the ones espoused by many religions as those to which we should all aspire – what some might even call the ‘spiritual’ emotions. While the ‘bad’ emotions are judged as ‘self- or me-centered’, the spiritual emotions are considered ‘we-oriented’; our thoughts are directed away from ourselves and our emotions have an outward orientation as their catalyst.

Nature can nurture these feelings – scenes of lush mountain meadows and majestic hills, or thoughts of love (toward both those we know and strangers toward whom we’re inspired to extend a helping hand). Nature and natural compassion can both spark altruistic feelings in us. They epitomize what Charles Darwin called the social emotions; they help us “break out of the ego cage of ‘I and mine’.” (Bhagavad-Gita, Mahatma Gandhi, Fowler, 1984).

Evolutionary biology theorizes that the development of Group Consciousness has played a crucial role in our evolution; we needed to develop the ‘good/spiritual’ emotional body in order to survive as a species. Alone in the savannah, an individual was at the mercy of both the environment and the animals roaming the plains in search of food (read ‘us’) for their next meal. Collectively, our ancestors learned that en masse we were safer, thus enjoying both better survival rates and the successful propagation of our species.

The so called ‘bad’ emotions are also critical to our survival as they can indeed protect us, but only in the present moment. If these ‘negative’ emotions protect us in the now, the more expansive and inclusionary spiritual (or ‘good’) emotions help us to go beyond survival and build a better future.

Up until 20 years ago, very little was known about the good emotions. The foundations of psychology as laid out in the textbooks of W. Wundt (1896) and W. James (1893) each allotted a single, somewhat disdainful, chapter to the emotions. In 1953 B. Skinner, a renowned psychologist, was outright dismissive, and Sigmund Freud never once mentioned the word, joy.

The Ignored

Neuroscience, however, continues to provide important data regarding the profound effect that positive emotions can have on us. Through neuroscience, we have discovered the limbic system in the brain and the crucial role it plays in our emotional life. This system is responsible for our emotions, survival instincts, and memory. The positive emotions have a strong effect on our parasympathetic nervous system – exactly the same effect that meditation has in lowering blood pressure, anxiety, and respiratory and heart rate. Indeed positive emotions and spiritual experiences cannot be disentangled (Benson 1996). The negative emotions, on the other hand, effect the sympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for the flight–fight mechanism that releases adrenalin and cortisol into the blood stream for survival, and can induce an ongoing state of anxiety.

While much of the focus regarding emotional health has been on feelings of anger, shame, guilt and sadness, ignoring and devaluing the positive emotions has come at a cost. We have within us the power to begin a shift from the negative and painful into another set of feelings that can produce positive results, without the need for depression and anxiety medications. We are on the edge of a whole new era of wellness and mental healthcare led by neuroscientists, cultural psychologists, and the anthropological sciences. While this article cannot do justice to the vast and rapidly burgeoning field of neuroscience and human emotions, it may nonetheless serve to have us consider this: the point where science and spirituality finally meet is within reach.

It is the research scientists and medical personnel such as Harvard professor G. Vaillant, who dared to think far beyond the box, who are putting these ideas together. We are seeing time and again that what was once considered absolute truth is moved aside as we discover new possibilities. Copernicus comes to mind. The role of the positive emotions may just become the truest reality of all, after centuries of being ignored.

“The path to our destination is not always a straight one. We go down the wrong road, we get lost, we turn back. Maybe it doesn’t matter which road we embark on. Maybe what matters is that we embark.” – Barbara Hall

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