MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
PERMISSION TO FEEL
Permission to Feel
HOW ARE YOU FEELING?
Given the subject of this book, it’s a reasonable question. I may ask it more than once before we’re through. In theory, given that it’s something we’re asked so often in one form or another, that should make it the easiest question ever, instead of the hardest—depending on how honest we’re going to be when we answer.
I’m speaking now not only as a psychologist and director of a center devoted to emotional well-being but also as a fellow human. To be perfectly honest, I wish someone had asked me that question when I was a kid—asked it and really, truly, wanted to know the answer and had the courage to do something about what I would have revealed.
I was not a happy child.
I felt scared, angry, hopeless. Bullied. Isolated. And I suffered.
Boy, did I suffer.
When I was in middle school, you only had to look at me to see that something was seriously wrong. I was a poor student in school, mostly Cs and Ds. My eating was so messed up that I went from severely thin to overweight. I had no real friends.
My parents loved me and cared for me—I knew that. But they had their own miseries. Mom was anxious and depressed and had a drinking problem. Dad was raging, scary, and disappointed in a son who wasn’t as tough as he was. But they had at least one thing in common: no clue about how to deal with feelings—neither their own nor mine.
I would spend hours alone in my room, crying or anguishing over the bullying I silently endured at school. But my main response to life was rage. I would talk back to my mother, yell, scream. “Who do you think you are to talk to me like that?” she would holler back. “Wait till your father gets home!” When he did, my mother would tell him how I had mistreated her, and then he would storm into my room, shouting, “If I have to tell you one more time to stop speaking to your mother that way, I’m going to lose it!” Sometimes he’d spare me the lecture and just start hitting.
Then my mother would jump in, and the two of them would battle over how he was handling the situation. Finally, he would give up, and my mother would come into my room and say, “Marc, I saved you this time…”
I wondered: What did she think she had saved me from?
Without meaning to, they taught me a powerful lesson. Keep my feelings to myself. Definitely do not allow my parents to see them. That would just make a bad scene worse.
This was around the time they learned my most terrible secret—that a neighbor, a friend of the family, had been sexually abusing me. When my parents finally found out, my father grabbed a bat from the basement and nearly killed the man. My mother almost had a nervous breakdown. The police came and arrested the neighbor, and soon the whole neighborhood knew. It turned out my abuser had been violating dozens of other children as well.
You’d think everyone would be glad that I had come forward and exposed this horror. But you’d be wrong. I became an instant pariah. Every adult warned their kids to stay away from me. The bullying got even worse.
Suddenly, the source of my constant emotional meltdowns was clear to my parents. My bad grades. My bulimia. My social isolation. My despair. My rage.
My parents did what many people do under similar pressures.
They freaked out.
That’s not entirely accurate—they knew enough to send me to a therapist. They were too overwhelmed by their own problems, just trying to survive, to be able to deal with anybody else’s emotional life. They either missed or ignored all the signals I was sending, which doesn’t really come as a surprise. Maybe they felt safer not asking too many questions about my life at school or in our neighborhood. Maybe they were afraid of what they’d find out—afraid that once they knew, they’d have to do something about it.
Perhaps if their parents had asked them the right questions, and taught them how to deal with their feelings and what to do when problems arose, my life back then might have been different. Maybe my parents would have been able to see the pain I was in and know how to help me.
Some of this may sound familiar to you. In my line of work, I meet a lot of people who spent their childhoods as I did. Unseen, unacknowledged, bad feelings buried deep inside. No two stories are identical. People tell me how they were physically abused. Or ignored and silenced. Or made to suffer emotional abuse. Or smothered by parents who lived vicariously through them. Or neglected by parents who were alcoholics or addicts. It’s our responses that are the same.
Sometimes the tales aren’t nearly so dramatic—just people who grew up in homes where everyday emotional issues were ignored because no one had ever learned how to talk about them or take actions to address them. Your life didn’t have to be tragic for you to feel as though your emotional life didn’t matter to anyone but you.
Here’s how I responded: I became numb to how I felt. I was under emotional lockdown. Survival mode.
And then a miracle took place.
Its name was Marvin. Uncle Marvin, actually.
He was my mother’s brother, a schoolteacher by day and a bandleader at night and on the weekends. Our family would travel from New Jersey up to the resorts in the Catskill Mountains to see our family celebrity perform. Uncle Marvin was truly an outlier—unique among all my relatives and every other adult I knew. He was like the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society.
In his day job, even back then in the 1970s, Uncle Marvin was trying to create a curriculum that would encourage students to express how they felt. He believed it was the missing link in their education—that emotion skills would improve their learning and their lives. I would help Uncle Marvin by typing his notes as he read them aloud. I encountered terms such as “despair,” “alienation,” “commitment,” and “elation” and recognized myself in many of them.
One summer afternoon, while we were sitting in our backyard together, he asked if he could give me an IQ test. Turns out that I was smarter than my dismal report cards suggested. I also think he suspected that I had a lot of turmoil going on deep inside having to do with school and being abused. It led Uncle Marvin to ask me a question I had rarely, if ever, heard coming from an adult or anyone else:
“Marc,” he said, “how are you feeling?”
With those words, the dam inside me broke, and out came the torrent. Every horrible thing I was experiencing at the time, and every feeling I had in response, all came tumbling out in a rush.
That one little question was all it took to change my life. It wasn’t just what he said, it was the way he said it. Truly wanting to hear the answer. Not judging me for what I felt. He just listened, openly and with empathy, to what I was expressing. He didn’t try to interpret me or explain me.
I really let loose that day.
“I have no real friends, I suck at sports, I’m fat, and the kids at school all hate me,” I wailed, sobbing.
Uncle Marvin just listened. He heard me out. My uncle was the first person who had ever chosen not to focus on my outward behavior—snarky, withdrawn, defiant, definitely unpleasant to be around—and instead sensed that something else was going on, something significant that no one, not even I, had acknowledged.
Uncle Marvin gave me permission to feel.
* * *
Given all that, it’s no surprise that for the past twenty-five years I’ve been researching and writing about emotions and running around the world talking to people about their feelings. It’s become my passion and my life’s work. I’m a professor in the Yale Child Study Center and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. At the center, I lead a team of scientists and practitioners who conduct research on emotions and emotion skills and develop approaches to teach people of all ages—from preschoolers to CEOs—the skills that can help them thrive. Our center’s goal is to use the power of emotions to create a healthier and more equitable, innovative, and compassionate society.
Each year I give dozens of talks to educators, schoolchildren, parents, business executives, entrepreneurs, political leaders, scientists, medical practitioners, and every other kind of person you can imagine, all over the world. My message for everyone is the same: that if we can learn to identify, express, and harness our feelings, even the most challenging ones, we can use those emotions to help us create positive, satisfying lives.
Whenever I speak to a group, I start by asking people to spend a few minutes thinking about how they’re feeling right in the moment. Then I call on them to share. Their answers reveal a lot—not necessarily about their emotions but about our difficulty in discussing our emotional lives. What I find is that we don’t even have the vocabulary to describe our feelings in useful detail—three-quarters of the people have a hard time coming up with a “feeling” word. When the words do come, they don’t usually tell us very much. People fumble around a bit, hem and haw, and then use the most commonplace terms we all rely on—I feel fine, good, okay …
It makes you wonder: Do I even know how I’m feeling? Have I given myself permission to ask? Have I ever really asked my partner, my child, my colleague? Today, when nearly every question can be handled instantly by Siri, or Google, or Alexa, we’re losing the habit of pausing to look inward, or to one another, for answers. But even Siri doesn’t know everything. And Google can’t tell you why your son or daughter is feeling hopeless or excited, or why your significant other feels not so significant lately, or why you can’t shake that chronic low-level anxiety that plagues you.
It makes perfect sense that we’re uncomfortable and awkward when expressing our emotional lives. This is true even when we’re experiencing positive feelings. But it’s especially so when they’re unpleasant—sad, resentful, scared, rejected. Those all connect us to our weaknesses, and who wants to show those off? The instinct to protect ourselves by hiding our vulnerability is natural. Even animals in the wild do it. It’s self-preservation, pure and simple.
And yet we all ask this question or something like it countless times a day, and we’re called on to answer it just as often:
How are you? How are you doing? How are you feeling?
We ask it so reflexively that we scarcely hear ourselves. And we answer in the same spirit:
Great, thanks, how are you? Everything’s fine! Busy!
Without pausing for even a second to think before we reply.
It’s one of the great paradoxes of the human condition—we ask some variation of the question “How are you feeling?” over and over, which would lead one to assume that we attach some importance to it. And yet we never expect or desire—or provide—an honest answer.
Imagine what would happen if next time an acquaintance (or the barista at Starbucks) says, “Hi, how are you?” you were to stop and take the next five minutes to give a detailed—unedited—response. Really bare your soul. I guarantee it would be a long time before that particular person inquired again.
There’s something meaningful going on in there—in that huge disconnect between our willingness to ask how we feel and our reluctance to respond thoughtfully. We now know that, aside maybe from physical health, our emotional state is one of the most important aspects of our lives. It rules everything else. Its influence is pervasive. Yet it is also the thing we steer around most carefully. Our inner lives are uncharted territory even to us, a risky place to explore.
Our lives are saturated with emotions—sadness, disappointment, anxiety, irritation, enthusiasm, and even tranquility. Sometimes—often—those feelings are inconvenient. They get in the way of our busy lives, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. So we do our best to ignore them. It’s everywhere, from the stiff upper lip of our country’s Puritan founders to the tough-it-out ethos of schoolyards and playgrounds. We all believe that our feelings are important and deserve to be addressed respectfully and fully. But we also think of emotions as being disruptive and unproductive—at work, at home, and everywhere else. Until the 1980s, most psychologists viewed emotions as extraneous noise, useless static. Our feelings slow us down and get in the way of achieving our goals. We’ve all heard the message: Get over it. Stop focusing on yourself (as though such a thing were possible!). Don’t be so sensitive. Time to move on.
The irony, though, is that when we ignore our feelings, or suppress them, they only become stronger. The really powerful emotions build up inside us, like a dark force that inevitably poisons everything we do, whether we like it or not. Hurt feelings don’t vanish on their own. They don’t heal themselves. If we don’t express our emotions, they pile up like a debt that will eventually come due.
And I’m not talking only about the times we’re feeling something unpleasant. We may also fail to understand exactly how we feel when things are going great. We’re content just to enjoy the emotions and not probe too deeply. It’s a mistake, of course. If we’re going to make positive choices in the future, we need to know what will bring us happiness—and why.
Proof of our inability to deal constructively with our emotional lives is all around us. In 2015, in collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Born This Way Foundation (founded by Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta), we conducted a large-scale survey of twenty-two thousand teenagers from across the United States and asked them to describe how they feel while in school. Three-quarters of the words they used were negative, with “tired,” “bored,” and “stressed” topping the list. This wasn’t surprising given that around 30 percent of elementary and middle school students now experience adjustment problems severe enough to require regular counseling. In economically disadvantaged schools, this runs as high as 60 percent.
American youths now rank in the bottom quarter among developed nations in well-being and life satisfaction, according to a report by UNICEF. Research shows that our youths have stress levels that surpass those of adults. Our teenagers are now world leaders in violence, binge drinking, marijuana use, and obesity. More than half of college students experience overwhelming anxiety, and a third report intense depression. And over the last two decades, there has been a 28 percent increase in our suicide rate.
How clearly will kids think when they are feeling tired, bored, and stressed? How well do they absorb new information when they are anxious? Do they take their studies seriously? Do they feel inclined to express their curiosity and pursue learning?
Here’s a story that tells me a lot about the emotional atmosphere in schools.
The superintendent of a major metropolitan district was out making classroom visits. As she walked the halls with the principal, she saw a little girl headed to a classroom and greeted her, attempting to start up a conversation.
The girl refused to acknowledge her.
“She wouldn’t say hello to me,” the superintendent told me. After a moment of mutual confusion, the little girl put her head down and continued on her way. Apparently, students had been told they could walk only on the white line painted down the middle of the corridors. “Stepping over to talk to me would mean breaking the rules,” said the superintendent.
We’ll never know how that conversation might have gone. The natural instinct of both student and educator to engage with each other was squelched by the school’s demand for order above all else.
What can happen in a single exchange? A moment of small talk in a hallway? Probably very little. Although if you are like me, you have some memories from early childhood that stand out from the fog of years, that have endured over time for no other reason than that a grown-up made space in his or her life, for a moment, for you. A small thing like that, if it is heartfelt, can reverberate.
It’s not only students who feel oppressed. What about their teachers? In 2017, in collaboration with the New Teacher Center, we surveyed more than five thousand educators and found that they spend nearly 70 percent of their workdays feeling “frustrated,” “overwhelmed,” and “stressed.” This conforms with Gallup data showing that nearly half of U.S. teachers report high stress on a daily basis. A frightening snapshot of our educational system, wouldn’t you agree?
How effective are our educators when they feel just as frustrated, overwhelmed, and stressed as the kids? Will they give 100 percent to their lessons? Do they snap at students unintentionally, or ignore their needs, because they are emotionally exhausted? Are they leaving work feeling burned out, dreading tomorrow’s return to the classroom?
If we don’t understand emotions and find strategies to deal with them, they will take over our lives, as they did for me as a child. Fear and anxiety made it impossible for me to try to deal with my problems. I was paralyzed. The science now proves why. If there had been someone to teach me the skills—if there had been someone to even tell me there were such skills—I might have felt more in control of my situation. Instead, all I could do was endure it.
During presentations, I’ll often make the observation that many children today are in serious crisis mode. Usually this will prompt someone to ask a question that’s really more of an opinion: “Don’t you think these kids lack the toughness and moral fiber that people had generations ago?”
My response to this has matured over the years. Once, a statement like that would really rile me. It sounded like somebody looking for a reason to feel superior and blame the victims. Now I think it’s irresponsible.
Let’s suppose that children today do lack the emotional strength we, or some other generation, had in abundance. Let’s assume that in the past kids were just as challenged—maybe more—but they were able to buckle down and deal with it.
Would that mean we abdicate responsibility for doing our best to help today’s kids? If they do require a little help, isn’t it our job to give it to them, without judging? And if they need so much support, how did they end up that way? Did it have anything to do with how we raised them?
There was a time, not so long ago, that children did have a serious need that was not being met. Our national response was instructive. In 1945, while World War II was still raging, a general (and former teacher) named Lewis B. Hershey testified before Congress that almost half of all army draftees were turned away for reasons owing to poor nutrition. He was in a good position to know: Hershey was in charge of the Selective Service System. He saw the underfed and malnourished young American men and realized their unfitness for war.
Congress did not issue a proclamation condemning the fecklessness of the younger generation. It passed a bipartisan bill: the National School Lunch Act.
In other words, we fed our kids.
* * *
It’s time to feed our kids again.
At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, that’s all we think about: how we can help people to identify their emotions, understand the influence of their feelings on all aspects of their lives, and develop the skills to make sure they use their emotions in healthy, productive ways.
Once, after a talk to mental health professionals at a major hospital, the head of child psychiatry approached me. He said, “Marc, great job. But, you know, according to our data we’re going to need another eight thousand child psychiatrists to deal with the problems these kids will be having.”
I was stunned.
“You misunderstood me. I want to put you all out of business,” I said half-jokingly.
He was thinking that all those troubled children would need professional interventions in order to deal with their lives. I was saying that we need to remake education so that it includes emotion skills—so that professional interventions become less necessary.
It’s been nearly thirty years since the idea of emotional intelligence was introduced by my mentors, Peter Salovey, professor of psychology and current president of Yale University, and Jack Mayer, professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire. It’s been a quarter century since Daniel Goleman published his bestselling book Emotional Intelligence, which popularized the concept. And yet we’re still grappling with the most basic questions, such as “How are you feeling?”
Feelings are a form of information. They’re like news reports from inside our psyches, sending messages about what’s going on inside the unique person that is each of us in response to whatever internal or external events we’re experiencing. We need to access that information and then figure out what it’s telling us. That way we can make the most informed decisions.
That’s a major challenge. It’s not as though every emotion comes with a label telling us precisely what prompted it, and why, and what can be done to resolve it. Our thinking and behavior absolutely change in response to what we’re feeling. But we don’t always know why or how best to address our emotions. For parents, this might be a familiar scenario: we see a child who’s clearly suffering, and the reason isn’t apparent. Ask simply, “What’s wrong?” and the answer will almost never reveal the source of the anguish. Maybe the child doesn’t even know what’s wrong.
Here’s an example: Anger can sometimes seem unprovoked or inexplicable, but in almost every case it’s a response to what we perceive as unfair treatment. We’ve suffered an injustice of some kind, big or small, and it makes us mad. Someone cut in front of you in line—and you’re irritated. You were up for a promotion at work, but it went to the boss’s niece—and you’re outraged. But it’s the same basic dynamic at work.
Most of us don’t enjoy dealing with anger, whether it’s our own or someone else’s. When a parent or teacher is faced with what might appear to be an angry child, often the first impulse is to threaten discipline—if you don’t stop yelling, or speaking rudely, or stamping your feet, you’ll go sit in the corner, or I’ll send you to your room, or you’ll lose your privileges!
When it’s an adult who’s angry, our response isn’t much different. We immediately pull back. We stop listening sympathetically. We feel under attack, which makes it nearly impossible for us to deal with the information the person is conveying. But that anger was an important message. If we can try to mollify the injustice that sparked it, the anger will go away, because it’s outlived its usefulness. If not, it will fester, even if it seems to subside.
Thankfully, there’s a science to understanding emotion. It’s not just a matter of intuition, opinion, or gut instinct. We are not born with an innate talent for recognizing what we or anyone else is feeling and why. We all have to learn it. I had to learn it.
As with any science, there’s a process of discovery, a method of investigation. After three decades of research and practical experience, we at the Yale Center have identified the talents needed to become what we’ve termed an “emotion scientist.”
Here are the five skills we’ve identified. We need to
recognize our own emotions and those of others, not just in the things we think, feel, and say but in facial expressions, body language, vocal tones, and other nonverbal signals.understand those feelings and determine their source—what experiences actually caused them—and then see how they’ve influenced our behaviors.label emotions with a nuanced vocabulary.express our feelings in accordance with cultural norms and social contexts in a way that tries to inform and invites empathy from the listener.regulate emotions, rather than let them regulate us, by finding practical strategies for dealing with what we and others feel.The rest of this book is devoted to teaching those skills and how to use them.
In the late 1990s, Uncle Marvin and I set out together to bring these skills to schools. We failed. We were prepared to deliver classroom instruction only to children. But some teachers were resistant. “Teaching kids about anxiety makes me nervous,” one said. “I’m not opening that Pandora’s box of talking about how these kids feel,” said another. If the teachers didn’t believe in the importance of these emotion skills, they’d never be effective at instructing their students. So Marvin and I, along with new colleagues at Yale, went back to the drawing board. We saw that we would never reach children until we first enlisted teachers who understood the importance of emotion skills. And soon after that we realized that only if there was commitment at the very top, at the school board, superintendent, and principal levels, could entire school systems be transformed.
Then it became clear that the skills must be even more widely shared. We adults all need to understand how our emotions influence us and everyone around us, not just schoolchildren. We need to develop the skills and be positive role models. Educators and parents have to demonstrate the ability to identify, discuss, and regulate their own emotions before they can teach the skills to others. Our classroom research shows that where there is an emotionally skilled teacher present, students disrupt less, focus more, and perform better academically. Our studies show that where there is an emotionally skilled principal, there are teachers who are less stressed and more satisfied. And where there is an emotionally skilled parent, there are children who have a greater ability to identify and regulate their emotions.
Once our children grow into emotionally skilled adults, the entire culture will change—for the better. But learning the skills and improving the way we respond to our feelings doesn’t mean we’ll suddenly become happy all the time. Perpetual happiness can’t be our goal—it’s just not how real life works. We need the ability to experience and express all emotions, to down- or up-regulate both pleasant and unpleasant emotions in order to achieve greater well-being, make the most informed decisions, build and maintain meaningful relationships, and realize our potential.
But that starts with all of us. If you’re a parent, ask yourself this: What are the qualities you most want your children to possess as they grow into adults? Is it math skills, scientific knowledge, athletic ability? Or is it confidence, kindness, a sense of purpose, the wisdom to build healthy, lasting relationships? When we consult with corporations, they tell us they’re searching for employees who persevere with a task, who take personal responsibility for their work, who can get along with others and function as members of a team. Not technical abilities or specialized knowledge—they’re looking first for emotional attributes. A colleague from the RAND Corporation told me that technology advances so rapidly today that companies don’t hire workers for their current skills—firms are looking for people who are flexible, who can present new ideas, inspire cooperation in groups, manage and lead teams, and so on.
We may acquire some of those skills by osmosis—by watching and emulating others who possess them. But for the most part they must be taught. And they are best learned in communities. Emotion skills are both personal and mutual. They can be used privately, but their best application is throughout a community, so that a network emerges to reinforce its own influence. I have seen this happen—these skills are being deployed in thousands of schools all over the world, with dramatic results. The children benefit, naturally: there is less bullying and emotional distress, better attendance, fewer suspensions, and greater academic achievement. But we have also seen that schools where these skills are taught have teachers with lower levels of stress and burnout, fewer intentions to leave the profession, greater job satisfaction, and more engaging classrooms.
We all want our lives, and the lives of the people we love, to be free of hardship and troubling events.
We can never make that happen.
We all want our lives to be filled with healthy relationships, compassion, and a sense of purpose.
That we can make happen.
Uncle Marvin showed me how. It starts with the permission to feel, the first step of the process.
Emotions Are Information
SO, HOW ARE YOU FEELING?
It’s not a trick question. But it’s more complicated than it sounds. We’re always feeling something, usually more than one thing at a time. Our emotions are a continuous flow, not an occasional event. Inside each of us there’s a river—placid and contained sometimes, but raging and overflowing its banks at others. There’s a lot to navigate.
Picture yourself at the moment you awaken. Even then, as you slowly regain consciousness, you’re feeling something. Perhaps you’re desperate for another hour of rest. Or you feel supercharged and ready to vault out of bed. On a bad day, maybe it’s dread at the thought of your commute or what you’ll have to face at work in a few hours. It might be raining, which could dampen your mood even more. Or you could be feeling completely joyous and full of energy thanks to whatever it is you’re going to do later. Maybe it’s the great relief upon remembering that today is Saturday. Or the anticipation of a day that will be filled with creativity and excitement. Ten minutes from now, your emotional state might be completely different, depending on what you saw on the morning news, what your significant other told you about your plans for tonight, or what you just noticed about the shingles on the roof. Our emotional lives are a roller coaster, climbing high one moment and plunging the next.
Imagine how it must be for children. The same constant flow of feelings, running the gamut from crushingly negative to euphorically positive—from the moment they wake up in the morning, through the entire school day, to the moment they fall asleep. Except that children haven’t learned yet how to manage their emotions—how to suppress and compartmentalize whatever’s inconvenient at the moment, how to channel useful feelings for maximum benefit. They experience everything so intensely—boredom, frustration, anxiety, worry, excitement, elation. And they sit for hours in a classroom, expected to pay attention to every word spoken by a teacher who’s probably under similar emotional pressures. Children’s brains are less developed than ours, their defenses less robust, and yet the rivers of emotion that course through kids often are more powerful than the ones we experience. It’s a wonder anybody learns anything.
So—a lot to contend with, second by second. We can’t spend every minute focused on our emotions. We wouldn’t have the time or attention to do much else. However, we can’t go through life ignoring what we feel or minimizing its meaning. All emotions are an important source of information about what’s going on inside us. Our multiple senses bring us news from our bodies, our minds, and the outside world, and then our brains process and analyze it and formulate our experience. We call that a feeling.
We humans have a long history of disregarding our feelings, however. It goes back millennia, even before the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece argued that emotions were erratic, idiosyncratic sources of information. Reason and cognition were viewed as higher powers within us; once, the idea of “emotional intelligence” would have seemed inconceivable, a contradiction in terms. A great deal of Western literature, philosophy, and religion ever since has taught us that emotions are a kind of internal interference that gets in the way of sound judgment and rational thought. It’s no coincidence that we still like to think of intelligence and emotion as coming from two completely separate parts of our bodies—one from the head, the other from the heart. Which of the two have we been taught to trust most?
Scientists didn’t like emotions because, unlike intelligence, they can’t be measured with standardized tests. IQ relies primarily on “cold” cognitive processes such as remembering a strand of digits or historical facts, while emotional intelligence relies on “hot” social-emotional-cognitive processes that are often highly charged, relationship driven, and focused on evaluating, predicting, and coping with feelings and behaviors—our own and other people’s.
That’s why the study of intelligence, formalized around 1900, continued the tradition of disregarding emotions. Throughout most of the twentieth century, psychologists and philosophers still debated whether emotions were associated in any way with logical thought and intelligent behavior. It’s no wonder that the identification of an emotional intelligence occurred late compared with that of other kinds.
Then, in 1990, psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer introduced the first formal theory of emotional intelligence to the scientific literature. They defined it as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”
At Yale I interviewed Salovey, who said, “I started studying human emotions in a lab in college in the late 1970s. At that time, there wasn’t much interest in emotions in psychology. The cognitive revolution was in full force and people viewed emotions as ‘noise.’ The idea was that we had emotions, but they didn’t predict anything important. I just couldn’t believe that was true, so I got very motivated to study emotions to show they mattered in a positive way. I wanted to show that we had an emotion system for a reason. We had an emotion system that helped us get through life.”
Emotional intelligence was a synthesis of three burgeoning areas of scientific research, which demonstrated that emotions, when used widely, supported reasoning and complex problem solving.
First was the rediscovery of Charles Darwin’s functional view of emotion. Back in the nineteenth century, he pioneered the idea that emotions signal valuable information and energize adaptive behavior central to survival. Fear finally got its due as being very useful indeed, especially in our species’ early, threat-dense environments. Nothing like a good scare to get you up and fleeing a hungry saber-toothed cat.
Next came how emotions and moods play an essential role in thought processes, judgment, and behavior. Social scientists using clever experiments, and brain scientists who studied different brain regions, began to discover ways that emotions interact with cognition and behavior. Research showed that emotions give purpose, priority, and focus to our thinking. They tell us what to do with the knowledge that our senses deliver. They motivate us to act.
Psychologists proposed the idea of a “cognitive loop” that connects mood to judgment. For example, when a person is in a good mood, they’re more likely to have positive thoughts and memories, which in turn keep the person thinking about positive things (the loop). In a classic study, psychologist Gordon Bower at Stanford University used hypnosis to make subjects feel happy or sad. Then they had to complete three tasks: recall lists of words, write entries in a diary, and remember experiences from childhood. Subjects who were made to feel sad recalled more negative memories and negative words and remembered more unpleasant events for their diaries. Likewise, the participants who were made to feel happy recalled happier memories and words and more positive events. Another study, by the late Alice Isen, a professor at Cornell University, and colleagues, showed some participants a comedy film and others no film at all and then tested them all for creative thinking. Results indicated a clear increase in creativity for those who saw the film—the ones in a “positive affect condition”—compared with the people in the other group. It’s a natural bias—we all perceive and retrieve “mood-congruent” information most easily. It’s just one of many ways that our emotions influence our thinking.
The third area of scientific inquiry was a search for “alternative” intelligences, to include a broad array of mental abilities rather than a single mental ability: IQ. There was increasing frustration among researchers with the inability of IQ tests to explain important life outcomes among individuals. Howard Gardner, a professor from Harvard University, proposed a theory of multiple intelligences that advised educators and scientists to place a greater emphasis on abilities beyond verbal and mathematical skills, such as intrapersonal (the awareness of one’s own strengths and weaknesses) and interpersonal (the ability to communicate effectively and empathize with others) skills. Other researchers, including Robert Sternberg, a psychologist now at Cornell University, proposed a theory of “successful intelligence” and urged scientists and educators to consider creative and practical abilities. Nancy Cantor and John Kihlstrom, psychologists at Stanford University, built upon research in the 1920s by Edward Thorndike, pushing for a greater focus on “social intelligence”—the ability to accumulate knowledge about the social world, understand people, and act wisely in social relations.
By the late 1990s, emotional intelligence finally had achieved parity with the other forms of intelligence. Neuroscientists, psychologists, and intelligence researchers came to agree that emotion and cognition work hand in hand to perform sophisticated information processing. Research began to emerge that demonstrated there were individual differences in people’s ability to reason with and about emotion. For example, research showed a wide range of skill in the abilities to perceive emotions accurately in facial expressions and regulate emotions.
* * *
Everything in this book is based on the past five decades of research into the roles—plural—that emotions play in our lives. At their highest level, from an evolutionary perspective, emotions have an extremely practical purpose: They ensure our survival. They make us smarter. If we didn’t need them, they wouldn’t exist.
I’ve championed five areas where our feelings matter most—the aspects of our everyday lives that are most influenced by our emotions. First, our emotional state determines where we direct our attention, what we remember, and what we learn. Second is decision making: when we’re in the grip of any strong emotion—such as anger or sadness, but also elation or joy—we perceive the world differently, and the choices we make at that moment are influenced, for better or for worse. Third is our social relations. What we feel—and how we interpret other people’s feelings—sends signals to approach or avoid, to affiliate with someone or distance ourselves, to reward or punish. Fourth is the influence of emotions on our health. Positive and negative emotions cause different physiological reactions within our bodies and brains, releasing powerful chemicals that, in turn, affect our physical and mental well-being. And the fifth has to do with creativity, effectiveness, and performance. In order to achieve big goals, get good grades, and thrive in our collaborations at work, we have to use our emotions as though they were tools. Which, of course, they are—or can be.
EMOTIONS AND ATTENTION, MEMORY, AND LEARNING
All learning has an emotional base.—PLATO
Let’s start there, by examining how our emotions affect our attention and our memory, which together determine our ability to learn.
Think about it: emotions determine what you care about in the moment. If we’re bored to tears or daydreaming about the coming weekend, we’re not likely to absorb what we are reading on this page right now. If we’re fearful, the source of that fear occupies all our thoughts. If the house is on fire, we have but one goal: Get me out of here! If we’re faced with sudden physical danger—whether we’re out hiking and come face-to-face with a growling bear or we’re strolling in the city at night and are stopped by an armed stranger—we’ve pretty much stopped thinking of anything else. Nature has wired our brains this way, and it’s a good thing: any distraction in that moment could prove fatal.
Fear of intangible harm—of embarrassment, of shame, of looking foolish or inadequate in any way—works in a similar way. We may experience it as anxiety or worry instead of terror. The emotion may seem vain and irrational even to ourselves. Doesn’t matter. As we’ve seen, feelings are highly impervious to cold logic. When we anticipate an unfavorable outcome under any circumstances, we’re inhibited from thinking about much else. Perhaps our attention should be elsewhere, but we’re helpless to redirect our minds at that moment.
Strong, negative emotions (fear, anger, anxiety, hopelessness) tend to narrow our minds—it’s as though our peripheral vision has been cut off because we’re so focused on the peril that’s front and center. There’s actually a physiological side to this phenomenon. When these negative feelings are present, our brains respond by secreting cortisol, the stress hormone. This inhibits the prefrontal cortex from effectively processing information, so even at a neurocognitive level our ability to focus and learn is impaired. To be sure, moderate levels of stress—feeling challenged—can enhance our focus. It’s chronic stress that’s toxic and makes it biologically challenging to learning. It’s why I was a C student in middle school. I was too overwhelmed by family problems and bullying to be mentally present in class. When I was forty years old, I went to my hometown to visit the middle school I attended. Two unforgettable things happened. First, the moment I walked in I had a visceral reaction: I felt the fear and shame all over again. I immediately regressed to the fragile thirteen-year-old boy. Second, the only things I could remember were related to my bullying experiences. I couldn’t remember most teachers’ names or recall any subject matter I had learned.
It’s not only negative feelings that can impair our mental capacity. Let’s say a high school student is in the grip of the typical hormonal hurricane that besets most teenagers. Romantic fantasies are fun to indulge, and world history can’t be expected to compete. It’s a wonder that adolescents manage to learn anything when you recall all the intoxicating daydreams that fill our heads at that age. Younger children are no less obsessed, but they’re imagining the fun they’ll have playing once the school day is through or going to Disney World for spring break. Joy and exuberance are as powerful as any other emotion when it comes to our ability to direct our thoughts where we want them to go. Instead of stimulating the production of cortisol, positive emotions are generally associated with the excretion of serotonin, dopamine, and other “feel-good” neurochemicals that exert their influence on thinking and behavior.
What research now shows is that different emotions serve different purposes for learning. If we need to engage our critical faculties—if, for instance, we have to edit a letter we’ve written and want to seek out flaws and correct any mistakes—a negative frame of mind might serve us better than its opposite. Pessimism can make it easier for us to anticipate things that could go wrong and then take the proper actions to prevent them. Guilt acts as a moral compass. Anxiety keeps us trying to improve things that a more generous mood might be willing to accept. Even anger is a great motivator—unlike resignation, it drives us to act and perhaps to fix what made us angry in the first place. If we’re furious watching someone being mistreated, we’re likely to step up and seek redress.
Imagine feeling smiley and bubbly, giddy with excitement, as you complete your final draft of a job application. It’s possible, but it’s a healthy fear, not joy, that can make us triple-check our punctuation and sentence structure. Negative emotions have a constructive function: they help narrow and focus our attention. It’s sadness, not happiness, that can help us work through a difficult problem. It’s excitement that stimulates lots of ideas. But too much enthusiasm won’t bring needed consensus to a group—it will disperse the energy necessary for reasoning through the problem at hand, whether mathematical or interpersonal.
We’re currently experiencing what seems like a crisis in education. Our students are tired, bored, and stressed. Their teachers are frustrated, pressured, and overwhelmed. Chronic disengagement and absenteeism are at record highs. How have we responded? By attempting to control student behavior even more than we already do. Or by introducing new math and literacy programs or instituting tougher learning standards. None of these solutions address the fact that how students feel is what gives meaning to what they are learning. The research is clear: emotions determine whether academic content will be processed deeply and remembered. Linking emotion to learning ensures that students find classroom instruction relevant. It’s what supports students in discovering their purpose and passion, it’s what drives their persistence.
Whenever we notice that we’re suddenly having difficulty paying attention, or focusing, or remembering, we should ask ourselves: What emotion information is there, just beneath the surface of our thoughts? And what if anything can we do to regain a handle on our minds?
EMOTIONS AND DECISION MAKING
Affect is not just necessary for wisdom; it’s also irrevocably woven into the fabric of every decision.
—ANTONIO DAMASIO, NEUROSCIENTIST, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Have you ever made a bad decision? You went with your gut, and when it turned out wrong you slapped your forehead and said, “Well, that was a dumb thing to do! What were you thinking?” It was a mental lapse or maybe just poor reasoning. In hindsight, it’s plain to see what you failed to take into account. Let’s just hope you learned a lesson.
A sensible thing to wish for—but what was the lesson?
We believe that our ability to reason and think rationally is our highest mental power, above our unruly emotional side. This is but a trick our brains play on us—in fact, our emotions exert a huge, though mostly unconscious, influence over how our minds function. This fact is especially evident when it comes to the decision-making process.
There are the obvious instances where emotion alone determines our actions. If we fear flying, we’ll drive despite the increased danger. When we’re overcome by passion, we might skip our usual measures to prevent unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.
But emotion’s influence extends far beyond that. Most decisions are attempts at predicting future outcomes: We ought to buy this house. I’m not going to take that job. Pasta is a great choice. In every case, we consider all the options and choose the one that seems most likely to result in a favorable outcome. In theory, at least.
In reality, our emotions largely determine our actions. If we’re feeling something positive—confidence, optimism, contentment—we’ll come to one conclusion about what we ought to do. If our emotions are negative—anxiety, anger, sadness—our decision may be quite different, even though we’re working with the same set of facts.
The resulting patterns are fairly predictable. As discussed earlier in this chapter, anxiety narrows our attention and improves our focus on details. It makes us anticipate what could go wrong. That may not seem like a feeling we’d welcome, but it’s a good frame of mind when we’re performing tasks involving numbers, such as finances, for instance. If we’re deciding whether to make an investment or a major purchase, a sunny mood might lead us to minimize the risks and do something we’ll regret later. Negative emotions make us weigh facts carefully and err on the side of caution.
Positive emotions, on the other hand, fill us with the sense that life is going our way. If we’re feeling strong, exuberant, energetic, we’re more likely to base our decisions on heuristics—our gut instinct at that moment—than on careful reasoning. That’s a useful outlook if we’re planning a birthday party or when someone is in need of moral support, but maybe not so helpful when we’re filing our tax return.
Emotion’s true role in our decision making has been measured abundantly in experiments. Researchers will induce a mood in their subjects—by having them read or watch something happy or sad, for example—and then ask them to make decisions. In one study, subjects were seated in rooms that were either comfortable or uncomfortable and then asked about their satisfaction with their lives. The comfortable-room group reported being more satisfied. In a separate study, when subjects were made to feel sad, they perceived a mountain to be steeper than it actually was. And in a study on medical school admissions, it was found that applicants were more likely to be admitted on sunny days than when it rained (yes, admissions officers’ decisions were biased by the weather!).
In an experiment we conducted at Yale, teachers were divided into two groups. One was told to remember and write about positive classroom experiences, and the other was assigned to recall a negative memory. Then all were asked to grade the same middle school essay. The positive-mood group marked the essay a full grade higher than the negative-mood group. When we asked the teachers if they believed their moods affected how they evaluated the papers, 87 percent said no. Judgments that entail a greater degree of subjectivity, such as grading a creative essay, are generally at a heightened risk of emotional bias compared with judgments that are more objective, such as grading a math test.
And our feelings can linger long past the moment that inspires them—influencing subsequent behavior without us knowing—it’s known as “the incidental mood bias.” So, for instance, if you argue with your kids over breakfast and are still angry while driving to work, you might drive more aggressively than usual and make risky decisions. When we recall happy moments from our past, we’re likely to make decisions based in optimism and confidence. If we’re remembering negative things, we’ll feel skeptical and pessimistic, and we’ll decide things differently.
Anger’s influence isn’t what you might expect: researchers found that when people are angry, they tend to believe that individuals are at fault when things go wrong. When we’re sad, we’re more likely to blame external circumstances. Interestingly, anger makes people more optimistic than does sadness, possibly because angry people feel in greater control of their lives.
We make decisions continually, all day long, and most of them are small. We can’t deliberate over each one, so we rely on our brains to make snap judgments. These issues come up all the time in contemporary research into how our brains operate. There’s the “thinking fast and thinking slow” concept, where our brains are believed to work on two separate but overlapping tracks, one that immediately responds without any or much deliberation and the other that takes its time and weighs the information first. When we use our brains for familiar or relatively simple functions, we come to quick responses, while novel situations or complex problems cause us to cogitate. These quick decisions are particularly susceptible to our moods and unconscious biases, especially when additional information is unavailable. We decide often with minimal conscious thinking.
None of this is to say that emotion inherently clouds our judgment. In fact, with greater emotional awareness, just the opposite may be true: our feelings can serve as another form of information, telling us important things about how we’re responding to any given situation. When we are faced with a decision, anxiety may tell us one thing, enthusiasm something completely different. Knowing this, we can take our emotional state into account before choosing a course of action. Is it our negative mood that’s making us suspicious, or do we have a genuine reason to worry? Is our confidence a result of our exuberant mood, or is this truly the perfect decision?
EMOTION AND RELATIONSHIPS
No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.
Here’s an experiment you can conduct using yourself as the guinea pig: Go through the list of everyone you encounter in the course of your daily life. Everybody—from your significant other and immediate family members to every co-worker, from the top to the bottom, every relative, friend, and acquaintance, the cashier at the supermarket, your doctor, your barber, the desk clerk at your gym, on and on. Just every human being whose path crosses yours, whether for hours on end or just five minutes.
Okay, now go through the list and ask yourself for your instant, top-of-the-head answer to this question: How do I feel when I encounter each and every one of them? How much do I look forward to my interactions with them all, individually? Do I smile at the thought of seeing this one or that? Does it leave me emotionally neutral? Or does something inside me tense up a little at the prospect? It doesn’t have to be outright antipathy, just that little edge of anxiety knowing that this person and I will be face-to-face at some point.
What word would you use to describe the feeling you associate with each one? Is it anxiety? Joy? Confidence? Inadequacy? Boredom? Affection? Irritation? Those all make us more or less attractive to one another. Do you look forward to working alongside the colleague who’s perpetually mad at the world?
Normally, this emotion isn’t something we ever put into words or even think much about. It’s like an instinctive reaction that comes from somewhere deeper than labels can easily express. Almost animalistic. When I see this person, something inside me leaps with joy. Or crashes in dejection. Or something in between.
Experiment over. Now perhaps you have a clearer notion of how our strongest emotional reactions dictate the nature of all our relationships.
In seminars I conduct with teachers, I’ll sometimes ask them to list their students and consider the feeling that each name automatically prompts. Is it love, dislike, trust, joy, fear, disgust? Next I’ll say, Be honest and think about how that emotion causes you to act toward each of those children. I’ve had people break down crying during this exercise. They instantly recognize how differently they treat each child depending solely on their perception of how he or she makes them feel. It has little to do with how the child performs in class, or the child’s needs, or anything they can name. It’s just a strong, almost visceral reaction that usually has to do with something about the teacher, not the student. These are mostly good teachers who do their best to treat each student equally and want to establish a positive, nurturing relationship with them all. But in the real world, despite all our best intentions, it doesn’t work that way. For some reason, teachers can barely make eye contact with one child or give her or him focused attention, while they eagerly look forward to interacting with other students and seek them out during classroom activities.
Outside the classroom, we all operate in the same way. Human relations are infinitely complex because we ourselves are, but the basic dynamic is rather simple: approach or avoid. We tell people to come closer or we tell them to back off. People communicate the same thing to us. So much of what happens between human beings is a result of how we communicate our emotions. And it all depends on something deep inside us, perhaps hidden from our own view: our emotional state.
Relationships are the most important aspects of our lives. There’s plentiful scientific research showing the enormous influence they have on our well-being—people with robust social networks enjoy better mental and physical health and even live longer, while unfavorable outcomes are associated with a lack of connections to other people. The purpose of relationships can be seen in all societies, even among animals: being surrounded by allies is a form of protection that can mean the difference between life and death. Our need to attach ourselves to others isn’t solely sentimental, even if it sometimes seems that way today.
Throughout this book, we will discuss all the ways we communicate our feelings about whomever we’re dealing with at any given moment—the subtle, lightning-fast facial expressions, body language, vocal inflections, touch, and everything else in our arsenal of signals.
When we’re expressing positive emotions authentically—contentment, compassion, joy—we do so in a way that draws in other people, whether it’s your best friend or the supermarket cashier. They can read our signals clearly and may respond in kind, but that depends on their emotional state. People feeling emotions such as sorrow, shame, or anxiety often wish to discourage social interactions, and those signals are also being communicated. Those people might benefit most from engagement with others, but too often it’s unlikely to happen. This is a particularly serious problem in our schools, which often reprimand children when they express a negative emotion rather than see it as a cry for help. These are the kids who are neglected, ignored, or suspended for misbehavior, when they should be given empathy, extra attention, and opportunities to build skills and meaningful relationships. Research shows that having just one caring adult can make the difference between whether a child will thrive or not.
We all have multitudes of relationships—with our children and parents and significant others, but also with the plumber, the driver in the next lane, our softball teammates, our boss or colleague, and the woman who holds the door open for us at the mall. And all these connections operate on the same basic principle: Our mood at any given moment is expressed in the signals we send out. If we’re feeling joyful and open and expansive, it will make us confident and accepting of others. If we’re feeling down on ourselves, it will color how we relate to other people—or if we connect at all. We tell people what we want from them by the messages we send, whether warm and hoping for a response in kind, or off-putting, when all we want is distance. This is the challenge for many people on the autism spectrum: they have difficulty reading the cues and coming up with a fitting response, and they have difficulty sending cues that other people understand. As a result, they struggle building and maintaining relationships.
We also express emotions in order to get what we want from the people in our lives. If we make a show of anger, we may not earn much empathy, but we instill fear in others and maybe remove any obstacles that were in our way. If, on the other hand, we need cooperation and understanding, we know what emotion message to send that will get the response we desire.
People feeling compassion see greater common humanity with strangers. They punish others less, are more generous and cooperative, and are willing to sacrifice for others. Research shows that high-powered individuals tend to be less responsive to the emotions of people around them. In one study, these individuals responded with less compassion than people with less power when listening to someone describe suffering. Does this phenomenon explain anything about our political and business leaders?
Sometimes the emotions we feel send signals that elicit the opposite of the response we want and need. Picture a typical child: if he’s troubled or anxious, he may wish that his parent or teacher would reach out and offer comfort. But when those adults sense that child’s emotional state, especially when he’s “acting out,” they may respond in just the opposite way, because of their own emotional response to the signals of a negative mood. This dynamic rules much of human interaction—when we need emotional support most is when we’re least likely to receive it.
I remember being in seventh-grade math class, where two students would regularly write all over a jacket I wore each day. I’m certain I wore that jacket as a form of protection. My fear and despair had to show in my face, body, and chronic disengagement. But the teacher didn’t intervene. What was his mindset? Stay away—this kid’s a wimp who needs to toughen up? Was he too preoccupied with his own issues to pay attention to mine? Perhaps he was just at a loss about what to do. Either way, I suffered socially, emotionally, and academically.
There was a great moment in the film Broadcast News where a character asks, “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If ‘needy’ was a turn-on?” Unfortunately, we humans don’t work that way (yet).
EMOTIONS AND HEALTH
Emotional sickness is avoiding reality at any cost. emotional health is facing reality at any cost.
—M. SCOTT PECK
You lie awake at three A.M., staring at the ceiling, anxious about some serious problem. Impossible to sleep. We’ve all been there. You’re too pressured and distracted to even think about working out, and besides, you have too much else on your plate, so you skip the gym, even though you know it makes you feel good to go. Can’t be helped. Meals are erratic. Instead of thinking about dinner and planning to shop and cook, you grab a pizza on the way home from work. It’s been happening a lot lately. And after that’s done, you need to decompress, so it’s a pint of ice cream in front of the TV for an hour. Until it’s finally time for bed and another three A.M. staring at the ceiling.…
For a moment, forget about your emotional health—imagine what you’re doing to your physical health.
When considering the influence of emotion on our well-being, we must first remember that our brains—where most of our feelings originate—are as much a part of our bodies as any other organ, fed by the same flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients. Our emotions are linked to physiological reactions in our brains, releasing hormones and other powerful chemicals that, in turn, affect our physical health, which has an impact on our emotional state. It’s all connected.
That’s why physical sickness can be caused by a mind under emotional stress. But there’s also the opposite phenomenon: physical wellness that’s fostered by positive feelings. Both kinds underscore the importance of managing our emotional lives.
Even our mindset about stress can influence health outcomes, from weight loss to insomnia. In one study, Alia Crum, an assistant professor at Stanford University, randomly assigned three hundred employees at a finance company to watch two different three-minute videos about stress. Half of the participants watched a video that reinforced the negative aspects of stress; the others watched a similar video, but the messaging reinforced the positive side. After four weeks, the employees were surveyed: the “stress is bad” group experienced more negative health symptoms than those in the “stress is good” group.
Inside our brains, hormones and other neurochemicals are being turned on and off depending on what we’re feeling at any given moment. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, located in the midbrain, is one of the major neuroendocrine systems that controls how we respond to stress and also regulates emotions and moods. The HPA axis is where certain hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, originate. Researchers studying this region of the brain have found that early-life exposure to mild, everyday stressors enhances our future ability to regulate emotions and confers lifelong resilience. But exposure to extreme or prolonged stress does just the opposite—it induces hyperactivity in the HPA axis and lifelong susceptibility to stress.
The difference between good stress and bad stress mainly has to do with duration and intensity. For instance, having to prepare a compelling presentation for a client is a form of stress, but the good kind. It’s caused by the challenge of achieving a desired goal and lasts only a short time. The ending of a game, or a major event such as a wedding day, affects us similarly. Stress inducing but happy. These events prompt the momentary release of stress hormones, but then it ends. Research at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that short bouts of stress can boost immunity and raise levels of cancer-fighting molecules—and the effect lasts for weeks after the stressful situation ends.
We have evolved to handle short-term stress—hormones are released, allowing us to respond successfully to the crisis, and then turn off at the tap. That’s not what happens at some workplaces, where we may be forced to endure eight hours daily with a boss who makes life a living hell, or at schools where students may dread the bullies on the bus ride home. Many of us spend hours and entire days under emotional duress, until it becomes a chronic condition. Our brains are bathed in a constant flow of stress hormones, for which evolution has definitely not prepared us. We don’t suffer only emotionally in those instances—our physical health is affected too.
“Stress leaves you in a fight-or-flight state in which your body turns off long-term building and repair projects,” said Robert Sapolsky, a professor at Stanford University, in his book Behave. “Memory and accuracy are impaired. You tire more easily, you can become depressed and reproduction gets downgraded.”
There’s ample scientific evidence of the long-term harm caused by childhood emotional trauma, such as bullying. Children may experience compromised immunity to disease, digestive tract pain and upset, headaches, poor sleep, inability to concentrate, and depression. These effects can persist into adulthood, creating physical and mental health problems long after the bullying is in the past.
Feeling “down”—pessimism, apathy, depression—is linked to low levels of serotonin and dopamine, the so-called feel-good neurotransmitters. Serotonin plays a role in pain perception, which may be why people experiencing negative emotions report more severe symptoms of illness, and nearly half of patients with depression also suffer aches and pains.
Negative emotional states—anxiety, anger, sadness, stress—are closely associated with unhealthy behaviors, such as poor diet, smoking, excessive drinking, physical inactivity, and social isolation, many of which we found in a recent study with more than five thousand teachers from across the United States. Those are the same lifestyle factors that contribute to our most feared and widespread illnesses: heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, addiction, dementia. These conditions in turn have a devastating impact on our emotional lives, and the feedback loop turns into a downward spiral for our health, mental and physical. Ultimately, they deepen our feelings of hopelessness and despair that we will ever manage to improve our moods or our health. Interestingly, we found that a positive workplace climate acted as a buffer for the deleterious effects of negative emotions on health outcomes for teachers.
There’s a great deal of medical research linking hostility and anger to heart disease. Men reporting the highest levels of anger were over two and a half times more likely to suffer cardiac events such as heart attack than other men. Negative emotions have been associated with hypertension, increased heart rate, constriction of peripheral blood vessels, unhealthy blood lipids, and decreased immune system function.
Not only does an angry outburst cause a spike in blood pressure, but every time we recall what made us so mad, our blood pressure rises again. According to one study, a thirty-minute argument with your significant other can slow your body’s ability to heal by at least a day. And if you argue regularly, that delay is doubled. Even subtle forms of anger, such as impatience, irritability, and grouchiness, may damage health.
We can see the influence of our emotions on our physical health in less dire ways too. The stress associated with knowing you have to deliver a speech can double the severity of allergy symptoms for two days. Feeling sad makes symptoms of illness seem more severe and cause greater discomfort. In one study, people who scored low on positive emotions were three times as likely to become sick after exposure to a virus than those who scored higher. When the latter group did get sick, their symptoms were less severe.
But our emotions can also prompt the release of beneficial neurochemicals and hormones. Crying is soothing because it carries stress hormones out of our bodies. Feelings of gratitude increase oxygen levels in our tissues, speed healing, and boost our immune system. Being in love was found to raise the level of nerve growth factor, a hormonelike substance that restores the nervous system and improves memory. The effect lasts for about a year, according to researchers. In one study, laughter caused by watching a comedy film increased the flow of beta-endorphins, which enhance our mood, and stimulated growth hormones, which repair our cells. Even the anticipation of laughter was found to lower the levels of cortisol and adrenaline. Laughter may also reduce the risk of heart attack. Feeling good, therefore, may encourage healthy behaviors, which in turn can promote greater emotional well-being and physical health.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. college students were tested, and those who experienced the most positive emotions—gratitude, love, and so forth—were less likely to develop depressive symptoms later on. This suggests that after a crisis, people who have more positive feelings may be more resilient than those who experience fewer positive emotions.
We’ll never eradicate negative emotions from our lives or those of our kids. Nor should we. But we need to attend to the play of positive and negative emotions, which is out of balance for too many of us. As we reported earlier, our research at Yale revealed that high school students, teachers, and business professionals experience negative emotions up to 70 percent of the time they are in school or at work. Their feelings aren’t the only thing at stake—so is their health. What will it take to switch the ratio of negative-to-positive emotions? What’s your ratio?
EMOTIONS AND CREATIVITY
Rational thoughts never drive people’s creativity the way emotions do.
—NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON
Many of us need to feel creative in order to feel alive, engaged, and fully involved in life and whatever it throws at us. Otherwise we’re just treading water. But what do we mean by creativity?
There’s the obvious answer—artistic work such as painting, music, literature, and the professions that demand (and reward) creativity, such as architecture, science, design, and engineering, among others.
But creativity is much more universal than that. It’s an important element of every human life. Whenever we make a decision or face a challenge, we have an opportunity to be creative—to respond to the moment in a way that doesn’t just repeat what’s always been done before (and perhaps always failed before too). Daily, each of us has many chances to be creative, to act in new and thoughtful ways. It’s what makes life an adventure.
But there can be something scary about creativity too. It represents a break with the status quo and a step into the unknown. Creative decisions, even in the smallest matters, are a way of saying we think we have a better idea. And then comes the feedback—from others, but even from ourselves: What if your new way doesn’t work out so well? What if you’ve made things worse (at least in somebody’s eyes, though maybe not yours)? What makes you think you’re so creative anyway? You can see that our creative impulses and our emotions are closely intertwined.
Many of us believe that personality and intelligence alone drive our ability to be creative. Or that creativity is an all-or-nothing gift, rather than a set of skills that can be improved with practice. True, some personality traits such as “openness to experience” are reliably related to it, but traits alone don’t account for everything. And research confirms that creativity is only modestly associated with IQ (meaning you don’t have to be a genius to be creative!).
This is where our emotional lives extend even beyond the personal. Creativity is the lifeblood of our culture and our economy. In a poll, fifteen hundred corporate CEOs said that an employee’s creativity was the single best indicator of future success. Without innovation, societies stagnate and die.
Creativity also includes two other factors: performance and effectiveness. Creativity can’t exist only in the abstract, in our minds and nowhere else. That’s just having a rich imagination! The creative process needs to be followed by concrete action. Once we devise new strategies, we must have the confidence to put them to use. Effective performance is as much a part of creativity as the initial, animating idea.
But whether we take advantage of all the possibilities every time is a different matter. Safe to say, at times we all feel less creative than we’d like to be. That’s because our creativity is so closely tied to our emotional state—even though the connection may not be so obvious.
Again and again, in working with educators, families, and children, we wind up discussing the ubiquitous problems of stress and frustration—the despair of feeling as though we lack the power to make meaningful changes for the better. It’s hard to imagine a worse feeling. For a child, it can be devastating—children have little control over their lives under the best of conditions. We all go through tough times, but most of us believe that if we persevere, we can find solutions. That’s another form of creativity: everyday creativity, the ability to keep discovering new answers when the old ones no longer work. What must life be like for the children and adults who can’t hope even for that?
We can see how it plays out in schools. Kyung Hee Kim, a professor at the School of Education at the College of William & Mary, made extensive studies of creativity among schoolchildren and found that it has been in decline for the past two decades. Her conclusions are based on results from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), which measure creativity, defined as the ability to respond to situations in ways that are novel and original. For example, people could be asked for all the possible uses for a paper clip or the consequences of people becoming invisible at will. She examined normative data for the TTCT through time, from kindergarten to senior year of high school, and writes, “Children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.” Who or what could we blame except parents and an educational system that often squash original thinking and penalize students for using their imagination? Our students get the message rather quickly from our obsession with kindergarten “readiness,” to society’s detriment. Interestingly, when the developer of the creativity test, Dr. E. Paul Torrance, administered it to students and then tracked them years into the future, he found that scores on his famous creativity tests were a better predictor of adult creative achievements than IQ.
When discussing creative thinking, psychologists often use the terms convergent and divergent thinking. The former operates when searching for only one correct solution to a problem or only one proper answer to a question and tries to arrive at it by mostly straight-ahead, linear thinking. The divergent approach moves in all directions—it assumes there are many possible solutions and tries to consider each, especially the most creative, unusual ones.
The impulse to create seems to come naturally to the human brain. However, we must be encouraged to express it. In schools, it’s hard to be creative when convergent thinking—the ability to remember facts and perform well on standardized tests—is most highly rewarded. To engage children and prepare them for the workforce, they must be given more opportunities and encouragement to be creative. For that to happen, schools need to restructure learning so that it promotes unconventional thinking and fresh approaches to problem solving across content areas, not just in the arts. For example, more and more schools are incorporating project-based learning and design thinking—a five-stage process for solving complex problems that includes (1) defining a problem; (2) understanding the human needs involved; (3) reframing the problem in human-centric ways; (4) generating a multitude of ideas; and (5) a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing.
Research shows that divergent thinking results in feelings of joy, pride, and satisfaction. A study across five countries with four different languages found that working on creative tasks leads to an increase in positive emotions and autonomy. Another study showed that creative behavior on a given day leads to more positive emotions and a sense of flourishing the next day. As with so much about our emotional lives, there’s a feedback loop at work: feeling good encourages us to act creatively, which makes us feel even better.
But happiness is not the single key to creativity. In fact, modest levels of stress have been found in some cases to significantly improve creative performance compared with no stress at all. Even emotions such as anger and distress can serve as motivation for creative thinking and enhance creativity. Take the high school students in Parkland, Florida. They have channeled their anger about the horrific school shooting to build a persuasive campaign around gun reform. The role of sympathy in creative thinking has also been explored. College students were induced to feel sympathy through a slide show of distressed elderly adults, then asked to generate ideas and design a floor plan for an office reception area to make it more welcoming to the elderly. Compared with the control group, the “sympathy” participants showed greater originality in thinking. One explanation is that sympathy is a reaction to other people’s suffering and therefore produces intrinsic motivation to generate solutions that reduce their distress.
Creativity is especially important in the face of adversity—when we’re disappointed because plan A didn’t work out; when we tried hard and still received negative feedback; when someone stands in the way of our progress or even tries to prevent it. We first have to manage our hurt or anger—not deny it but accept it and then put it to good use, as a motivational force. That’s where our creativity can come to our rescue and allow us to achieve our goal despite obstacles.
According to my colleague at Yale, Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, a creativity researcher, “Emotions are both the spark that fires the engine of creativity and the fuel that keeps the firing burning when other people try to douse it, or the kindling runs low.” Emotions rule the whole creative process, from motivating creative work to idea generation to persisting toward the actualization of our own ideas. It’s the challenge that keeps us striving.
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Now do you see how complex that simple question “How do you feel?” really can be? That emotional roller coaster is no small matter—it has an enormous influence over the most important areas of our lives. Religious leaders, poets, and playwrights have known this for centuries; over the past few decades, the scientists have begun to catch up. Now we know better than the ancients (and not so ancients) the degree to which emotions guide everything else. That’s the first step toward accepting who we truly are. What, then, is the next step?
Copyright © 2019 by Marc Brackett.