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The Benefits of Emotional Awareness

Insights into our emotions from Paul Ekman.

Source: Koldunov/Shutterstock

In the 1960s, a young American researcher traveled to Papua New Guinea to study the facial expressions of the isolated Fore people. His findings, which went against the thinking of his contemporary anthropologists, would lay the groundwork for his pioneering research on emotions, and the researcher—Paul Ekman—would go on to become one of the most influential psychologists of the 21st century. His work would span a wide path, from investigating emotions as universal programs written partially by nature and partially by experience to the secrets our faces spill through our micro-expressions. Today, whether through his collaborations with the Dalai Lama (Atlas of Emotions) or with Hollywood productions (Inside Out), Ekman is still working on uncovering the mysteries of our emotional worlds. After decades of accrued insight, he says he might be able to understand his emotions more. But that doesn't mean, he adds with a smile, that he has gained the ability to manage them any better.

Here is Ekman in his own words:

How does insight into our emotions help us?

My research has shown that people would like to be able to choose what they become emotional about and how they behave when they are emotional. But we don't really have that choice. The key to both is having better awareness.

Usually, we are not aware that we are emotional until afterward when we say something like, “Oh, I lost my head.” Well, you didn't lose your head; you just lost your awareness of what you were feeling at the moment.

It is in the nature of emotions, I believe, that you shouldn't have that choice. Your emotions should be running this show, not the rational decision-making part of you. These days, the dangerous predator for most of us is the drunk driver. You wouldn't survive riding on the freeway if your emotions weren’t able to take over and make decisions for you. We have a mechanism that appraises what’s going on very quickly, senses danger, and responds without thought. And it saves our lives. But it also means that we sometimes react quite inappropriately. Like when there really is no danger, and the response we give isn’t the right response.

Why do we need emotions?

It would be very dangerous if we didn't have emotions. It would also be a very dull life. Because, basically, our emotions drive us—excitement, pleasure, even anger. Anger can be a force for social justice. It can motivate us to try and change the environment, because what we see is what we think is wrong. So emotions are fundamentally constructive, not destructive. However, in particular instances they can also be destructive, like when what we learned in the course of growing up becomes not very adaptive for our current environment.

How can we have choices about our emotional behavior?

Our emotions have a dual influence. They are influenced by what has been adaptive for our species and by what has been adaptive in the course of our upbringing. If you want to have a choice in what to become emotional about, it would be very hard to override those things that are a result of the evolution of a species. You may be able to learn to override some things that have to do with your individual development and growth. Freud was right: The things that you learn early about your emotions, even if they no longer fit your current environment, still have a large influence on you. The key to having a choice about your emotional behavior is to be aware of the fact that you are becoming emotional. Until you become aware, you aren’t acting with any choice guiding your behavior. That’s what we would like to be able to do. But that’s what our emotions would like us not to be able to do.

Is awareness the same as mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a term that comes out of a Western adaptation of Buddhist approaches, and it’s associated with a particular technique for trying to enhance awareness. It's a little more restrictive than what I’m talking about, because it’s a name for a particular approach to developing awareness.

Can we self-generate emotions through our facial expressions?

Paradoxically, we can more easily self-generate sadness than we can enjoyment. Everybody can smile, but the contraction of the muscle that creates the smiling lips doesn’t generate enjoyment. You would also have to contract the muscle that orbits the outer portion around your eye, and only 10 percent of people can do that voluntarily. If you do both simultaneously, you’ll start feeling enjoyment: You’ll activate the same parts of the brain that are active when you are spontaneously enjoying yourself. But most of us can’t do it and can’t learn to do it. Memory is a good path to self-generating past emotional experiences and having them once again, if we are not in the grip of an emotion. So, everybody can self-generate joy by remembering an enjoyable experience.

Can we tell what others truly feel about us from their facial micro-expressions?

We can tell what they truly feel, but we won’t know what triggered the feeling—it may not be us. I coined the phrase Othello’s error. Othello, in Shakespeare’s great play, accurately read Desdemona’s fear. But he misidentified what triggered the fear, and that’s why he killed her. (He thought he saw her fear of having been caught in infidelity, but it was fear of a jealous husband.) Emotions don't tell us what triggers them. We presume that it’s going to be obvious what triggers emotions. But our own preconceptions, like Othello’s, can be very misleading. The enemy of being able to tell is our own preconceptions of what we are expecting. We have to have an open mind, and that is not an easy matter.

Your work on the Atlas of Emotion was commissioned by the Dalai Lama in order to help people find a "calm mind." Why is a calm mind so important?

With a calm mind, you are more likely to be able to act by rational choice and appropriately to the situation. When you are in a grip of an emotion, that’s going to bias your perceptions of what is occurring to what fits that emotion. Themes that don't fit in, you are not going to recognize. So, a calm mind is an essential precondition for being able to respond to reality, not the unrealities that you are preoccupied with. The Dalai Lama says that if you are only aware of how you felt afterward, that’s pre-kindergarten. If you are aware immediately afterward, that’s kindergarten. High school is being aware during, and college is if you become aware as the emotion arises. That’s what we would all like to do, so we can choose whether to engage or not, in order not to have episodes that we’ll later regret. And I think it’s possible for everybody to learn this.

Many thanks to Paul Ekman for being generous with his time and insights. Dr. Ekman is a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, and a pioneer in emotion research. With more than 14 books and 170 published articles, he was ranked 59th out of the 100 most cited psychologists of the 20th century. In 2014, he was ranked 15th among the most influential psychologists in the world. He blogs for Psychology Today at "Face It!"

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