Monday, February 10, 2014

Emotion beliefs and goals: Our role in our experience of emotion

Being part of a research team that studies emotion has taught me so much about emotion science. What I didn't expect to learn about... is how I experience emotions. When we better understand how emotions emerge, it becomes a bit easier to have more of the emotions we want and less of the ones we don't want (Although it's still harder than I would like).

Emotions emerge in so many ways, in response to so many situations, for so many reasons. But people's beliefs and goals, specifically around emotion, are particularly intriguing factors that contribute to emotion experiences. We most often think about these factors and how they affect other areas of our lives, but we rarely question whether our beliefs and goals regarding our emotions are the best choice for us. Let me explain a bit more so it makes sense why these are so important.

Emotion Beliefs:
As you know, beliefs affect behavior. If someone believes that eating animals is wrong, he/she might become a vegetarian. Or if someone believes in a higher power, he/she might go to church. These are beliefs we are very familiar with. But what about emotion beliefs? What if someone believes that emotions are uncontrollable? Do you think they will be likely to try to regulate their emotions? Turns out, they aren't 1. What if someone believes that their emotions are bad. Do you think they will feel even worse about having them? It seems so 2. And what if someone believes that they deserve to feel bad? They might have hard time letting themselves feel good. Beliefs about emotions seem to crucially affect experience of emotion.

But beliefs seem very automatic and difficult to change directly. Imagine telling yourself, "Me! Stop believing emotions are bad!" Do you think that would work? I am skeptical. So I tend to think that targeting unconscious process through rewiring the brain might be a better strategy for changing emotion beliefs. For example, if a person believes that she is bad  in some way, she is unlikely to suddenly not have that belief. But what if she were to engage in an exercise that forced her to repeatedly think of herself in positive ways? Her brain could learn that it is possible, that it feels better when it thinks this way, and that it is possible to think this way. At, one of the games we are working on (based on implicit bias research 5) is designed to strengthen the neural pathways that connect the self to positive experiences. We hope that by creating games that help people restructure their beliefs about emotion, we can make it easier for people change their beliefs and improve the quality of their lives.

Take a moment to think about what you believe? How might these beliefs be affecting your experience? What can you do to try to foster beliefs that promote emotions that you want to feel? What actions should you practice to reinforce these beliefs?

Emotion Goals:
What are some common goals? To have money? To spend time with family? To find happiness? Let's think about how these goals affect behavior. If someone has a goal of spending time with family, he/she will likely make the effort required to spend time with family. If someone wants more money, he/she might spend a lot of time at work. But if someone wants happiness... what should he do? Well, it's tricky. Research suggests that "prioritizing positivity", or putting forth effort to do things that make you feel good, is good for emotional health 3. However, overvaluing happiness can actually be worse for emotional health 4. But why? Well it seems that we need to set realistic goals. Just as someone on a diet can not expect to loose 10 lbs each week, a person with a goal of improving happiness cannot expect to be happy after only a week of work. Having unrealistic expectations likely leads to disappointment, which kind of defeats the whole purpose.

This is such an important point that I want to reiterate. Research supports the idea that emotional health, just like physical health, requires repeated practice and continuous effort 6. Just like getting fit, happiness requires a lifestyle change. We don't often think of happiness a something we have to practice, or as an activity that we need to engage in daily, but it seems this is how happiness works...

...more on that another time.

1. Tamir, M., John, O. P., Srivastava, S., & Gross, J. J. (2007). Implicit theories of emotion: Affective and social outcomes across a major life transition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 731-744. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.4.731
2. Shallcross, A. J., Troy, A. S., Boland, M., & Mauss, I. B. (2010). Let it be: Accepting negative emotional experiences predicts decreased negative affect and depressive symptoms. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 48, 921-929. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2010.05.025
3. Fredrickson (2012). “Prioritizing Positivity.” Manuscript in preparation.
4. Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people happy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion. 
5. for more on implicit biases:
6. Layous, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2012). The how, who, what, when, and why of happiness: Mechanisms underlying the success of positive interventions. In J. Gruber & J. Moskowitz (Eds.), Light and dark side of positive emotion Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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