Practicing joy and other emotions

The brain can be trained through small, positive habits over time
Humans are emotional beings. Recent research points to fascinating details about how our emotions arise and the way our brains use them. These insights can help us better shape the emotional experiences we want to have. It was thought that when we experience something, our emotions arise immediately and uncontrollably. But those may be incorrect assumptions, according to NPR interviews with leading neuroscientists.

For example, say you hear a series of sudden, explosive sounds nearby. The old theory assumed that fear arises when we are startled, and then the body reacts, our heart rate climbs, our pupils dilate. We experience a “fight or flight” response.

But current research shows that as the brain registers the sounds, it is actually our physical responses that kick in first. Then emotion arises.

Emotions form based on what’s going on inside and outside the body. This allows the brain to calculate what is happening at the moment and what’s needed to survive. The brain also uses memories of similar experiences to give context to what’s happening.

Maybe your last experience of explosive sounds was a delightful firework show. Fun! You likely felt joy and excitement, maybe awe. But probably not fear. However, if you previously had a life-threatening experience with explosive sounds, fear likely ran high.

“You can, in fact, modify what you feel in very direct ways,” psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett says in the NPR article. “If you know that your brain uses your past in order to make sense [of] and create the present, then you can practice cultivating [positive] emotions today so that your brain can automatically use that knowledge when it’s making emotions tomorrow,” Barrett says.

We can reprogram our brains by practicing specific emotions. “Your brain grows new connections that make it easier for you to automatically cultivate these emotions in the future.”

Cultivating emotion and deepening connection

Decades ago, researchers gathered positive emotions under one big umbrella. Happiness. Now, more of us know and feel the subtle differences between emotions like awe, appreciation, achievement, and purpose.

Many of these feel-good emotions have a key ingredient in common. They are evoked when we focus on other people more than ourselves. They help us self-balance and recognize the joy we feel in our relationships.

“People report levels of higher well-being when they’re giving to others, and it can feel better to be on the giving end rather than the receiving end,” psychologist Belinda Campos tells NPR. “I think that’s more evidence that focusing on others can be really good for us.”

Cultivating positive emotions involves two steps:

  • Step 1: Choose emotions you want to cultivate.
  • Step 2: Regularly practice specific actions that evoke those emotions.

With time, negative emotions can become less of a default. With practice, your brain will turn to positive emotions more often. Choose to practice actions that include other people. This may build the positive emotions and bonds of your relationships.

“To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.” – Mark Twain

The language of emotions

After surveying 7,000 people over the course of five years, sociologist and author Brené Brown found most people could identify only three basic emotions as they experienced them: happiness, sadness, and anger.

Believing that was an insufficient snapshot of the complexity of human emotion, Brown wrote “Atlas of the Heart,” an exploration of what she considers the nuances of feelings we experience. She lists 87 different emotions.

According to Brown, there are a few variations on the emotion of happiness, or the ways we feel life is good: joy, calm, contentment, gratitude, relief, tranquility, and even something called “foreboding joy” – the worry that the feeling won’t last or isn’t deserved. Next time you become aware of an emotion such as joy, take a moment to consider its more subtle qualities.

Source: Atlas of the Heart

Three ways to rewire our emotional response to future situations

We may be creatures of habit, but we need not settle for emotional reactions that bring chronic unhappiness. With practice, we can reboot our future response to a situation in order to experience more positive emotions. Even if past relationships triggered uncomfortable emotions, it’s possible to create a new context for engaging with that person with happier results.

Try these practices suggested by NPR to get the hang of it:

Share appreciation. Recognizing what we appreciate is a common mood lifter. Try taking it to the next level. Invite some friends to a mutual appreciation circle. Have each friend write down three things they appreciate or are grateful for about each other person. Then let the shower of mutual appreciation begin and share all of it with each other.

Go for an awe walk. Prepare by turning the cell phone off, or leaving it behind. As you step outside and start your walk, focus your awareness on what’s outside of you. Keep an eye out for unexpected, unexplained, or delightful things. Notice cloud patterns, the shape of a tree trunk, birds, and other animals.

Listen to a nature concert. A recent meta-analysis from the University of Michigan found that sounds of the environment soothe. Among others, birdsongs and water sounds lower stress, promote calmness, and improve our mood. Even in the bustle of a big city there is nature. Try sitting on a park bench, close your eyes and focus on the sounds around you. Allow and enjoy any calm washing over you.

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