In her new book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett makes a compelling case about the constructed theory of emotions. Unlike the classical theory positing that emotions are built-in reactions triggered by the environment, Barrett claims that emotions do not happen to us without our volition. Rather, we construct our emotions by making meaning of sensations and making predictions using our past experiences and our collection of concepts. Thus, as “architects of our experiences," we need not be at the mercy of our emotions — rather, we can learn to master them.
Here are seven suggestions from Barrett to help you do just that:
1. Keep your body budget in good shape.
Mastering your emotions begins with maintaining a balanced body budget. It’s advice we have all heard before — eat healthfully, exercise regularly, get enough sleep — but science is consistent about it being a prerequisite for a healthy emotional life.
The simplest way to master your emotions in the moment is to move your body, Barrett writes. Animals, for instance, regularly get back into balance through movement. A simple walk (in nature) can decrease rumination and reduce neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, thus improving mental well-being. “Moving your body can change your predictions and therefore your experience,” Barrett writes (p. 187).
In addition to the basics of nutrition, sleep, and exercise, building a healthy body budget is possible through many other means. These include massages, yoga, spending time in nature, and reading. Literature invites us to get involved in someone else’s narrative, temporarily getting us out of our own ruminations. Meditation offers a chance to practice observing and experiencing emotions and then, without judgment, releasing them. Gratitude, positive social contact, and giving are also considered body budget-boosting exercises. Barrett suggests making use of them all by setting up regular lunch dates with a friend and taking turns treating each other.
2. Cultivate emotional intelligence.
The term emotional intelligence may evoke different images, but Barrett refers to “getting your brain to construct the most useful instance of the most useful emotion concept in a given situation” (p.179). This will require you to fine-tune your emotion concepts: Instead of piling all affectively similar emotions under one umbrella term (Barrett uses the example of “Awesome” for positive feelings and “Crappy” for negative ones), try to learn the nuanced meanings of different emotions (misery comes in many flavors — bitter, enraged, irritated, mortified — just as there are plenty of ways to feel great, like being ecstatic, jubilant, grateful, or serene). The skill to distinguish between the fine nuances of different emotions will not only make you an emotion expert (a “sommelier of emotion” p. 106), but will give your brain more options to “predict and categorize your sensations more efficiently, and better tailor your actions to your environment” (p. 180).
3. Gain new concepts.
“Be a collector of experiences,” Barrett writes (p. 180). New experiences that you accumulate by taking trips, reading books, watching movies, acquiring new perspectives, trying new foods, studying foreign languages, even learning new words in your native tongue, offer opportunities to construct your experience in new ways.
How does all this novelty help you to master your emotions? By stimulating your brain to form new concepts and bind old ones in new ways, thus affecting your future predictions and behaviors. For instance, enlarging your vocabulary can lead to greater emotional health by providing new concepts, which in turn can not only help you become better equipped to deal with different circumstances but potentially increase your empathy and improve your negotiation skills.
4. Learn to distinguish your emotions more finely.
When therapists help clients to reframe situations, they are in part “finding the most useful categorization in the service of action,” Barrett writes (p. 182). Learning to distinguish emotions with finer granularity can help people to better regulate their emotions because it provides them with more information about how to adjust their behavior and to deal with circumstances (Barrett et al., 2001). Studies have even shown that people who can distinguish finely between emotions were less likely to resort to binge-drinking or feel overwhelmed under stress.
In one study, when people with a fear of spiders labeled their emotions using various anxiety and fear words (i.e., fine-grained categorization), they became less anxious around spiders. Moreover, when 5th and 6th graders enriched their vocabulary of emotion words, they were able to improve their academic performance and social behavior in school. Conversely, individuals with social anxiety and depressive disorders tend to exhibit and experience less differentiated negative emotions in daily life (i.e., low-grained categorization).
5. Keep track of positive experiences.
Concepts become reinforced and entrenched in our model of the world whenever we direct our attention to them. Savoring and attending to positive concepts will make them more salient, in turn helping you predict and cultivate future instances of positivity. One easy way to remember positive experiences is by writing them down. On the other hand, ruminating on negative events makes it easier for your brain’s neural networks to re-create those concepts in the future. “Every experience you construct is an investment, so invest wisely,” Barrett writes. “Cultivate the experiences you want to construct again in the future” (p. 183).
6. Deconstruct and recategorize your emotions.
“Learn to deconstruct a feeling into its mere physical sensations, rather than letting those sensations be a filter through which you view the world,” Barrett writes (p. 188). Deconstructing your feelings (e.g., anxiety) down to their physical sensations (e.g., a racing heart) can have surprising benefits. To begin with, physical sensations are not personal and are easier to let go of than thoughts and emotions. Further, recategorization is useful for regulating behavior. For example, people have shown improved public speaking and test performance after recategorizing anxiety into a body’s natural way of coping. Learning to separate physical sensations from the negative emotions that accompany them can even help sufferers of chronic pain crave fewer painkillers and view pain as a merely physical sensation rather than “a personal catastrophe” (Barrett, 2012). In short, the way we interpret our internal states can influence our emotions and behavior. “When you feel bad, treat yourself like you have a virus, rather than assuming that your unpleasant feelings mean something personal. Your feelings might just be noise,” writes Barrett (p. 194).
7. Cultivate awe.
Awe — the feeling that dwells “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear” (Keltner & Haidt, 2003, p. 297) — can boost our body budgets in different ways. Experiencing awe has been shown to be a strong predictor of lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines (molecules that in elevated levels have been associated with a number of illnesses). Awe rouses curiosity, interconnectedness, and a desire to explore (Stellar et al, 2015). Nature, in particular, offers countless occasions to experience awe. From the still of freshly fallen snow on a mountain peak to the wilderness of a turbulent ocean or a faultless rainbow, awe evokes the sweeping presence of vastness. As we cultivate awe, we can come back to it over and over again, offering the gift of a new perspective, and at times, a much-needed distance from ourselves.
These suggestions are adapted from Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (2017).
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