How emotions are made

This post covers The Book: “How Emotions are made”. By Lisa Feldman Barret. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2017).

Why should you care how your emotions are made?

Let me ask you this: how often do you feel a victim of your emotions? or someone else’s? Conversely, how often do you feel fully in charge of your emotions?

Once upon a time

Many moons ago (around 24,000), ideas of how emotions develop started to form.  Ideas which are still the basis of much of today’s science, as well as day-to-day life such as sesame street and common approaches to therapy.

These ideas form the ‘classical view’ of emotions and go like this: we all have an innate/inborn understanding of emotions. In addition, we all express them in similar ways; in our faces and within our bodies … like our heart rate, hormones, and other stuff.  It is as if we have a mental and physiological ‘fingerprints’ of certain emotions.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?  It feels like how I intuitively understand emotions.

But wait…there’s more…

Lisa Feldman Barret is bravely proposing a totally new theory of emotions, she calls it the constructed view of emotions.

Like it says on the tin – the idea is we construct emotions, moment-to-moment, based on our personal history and the cues we see in the environment and in our bodies.  The best example the book offered was a picture of a woman, close up, screaming in terror.  It was terrifying.  Turn the page and there is a wider view of one of the Williams (tennis) sisters having just beaten the other and the emotion is utter joy plus in the rush of victory.

If Feldman Baret is right, it does not seem very dramatic, does it?  Who cares too much really? Actually, it could change how we do research as well as how therapists do therapy and even how writers write children’s shows.  So this thing could be something amazing.

Scientists do self-help too

One of the big traumas of me becoming a scientist is that many of my gurus, lifestyle preferences and personal development books have been ripped from under me: spoiled with the scientific truths.  That Barret gets to some science-based personal development tips (after many pages of science) is thrilling.

Hence I completely devour Barret’s tips: enjoy touch – get a massage, do yoga, surround yourself with quiet and greenery, enjoy a good book, have a regular lunch date with a friend, take it in turns to shout.

Ok (I hear you say) I can get that from any ‘health’ magazine or Pinterest board.

But what there is more: try new stuff – take trips, try new clothing, try new perspectives (like they are new clothes), learn new words, and develop your emotional granularity.

You’ll have to read the book to fully understand emotional granularity.  I will say: it is helpful to try and describe your feelings in a way that captures them better than ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘angry’ …. what about “the thrill and apprehension of apply lipstick before a second date”?

Hard Science Meets Pop Psych.

So there it is, hard scientists can offer up interesting enough stuff that one can enjoy it over a glass of wine.

It is time to embrace your very own “50 shades of feeling crappy/happy” …. I strongly recommend beginning with this book.

Let me know what you think.

Yours as ever,

Dr Rachel

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