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