- Managing emotions means managing the situations we enter, our orientations to them, and our interpretations of what occurs.
- The most engaging situations are those where our personal qualities match well with the challenges presented there.
- Emotions register contrasts between our judgments of what is occurring and what we feel should be occurring. We can reconsider both judgments.
“If you don’t stop complaining, I’ll slug you. You’re in the happiest place on Earth," I overheard a mother tell her child at a Florida amusement park that makes the above claim.
To be fair, the frazzled woman had several young children to manage. She was the only adult caretaker. Everyone was tired after waiting in long lines on a warm, humid day and her child was being balky about an overpriced sandwich.
Although many years have intervened, I continue to recall that tourist’s frustration because it symbolizes so much about the character of human emotions. Fully on display are “feelings about the present,” the sudden reactions and urgencies that move us into and through our daily behaviors.
Evident also, though as a backdrop, are “feelings about the future.” These are the hopes, fears, and anxieties we have about moments to come. Such dreaming and scheming—perhaps visions of going to a resort, taking a hike, or visiting friends—got us into our current situations. Now we are here.
There are also “feelings about the past.” Just as we fret about present and future concerns, so we brood about what has already occurred. Some of those occasions produce feelings of pride and gratitude; others, regret, and shame. The mother in my example may have felt remorse about “creating a scene.” For me, as an observer, the incident was filed away, if just as something not to do in a public setting.
In any case, we should sympathize with those who seek happy places for themselves and their loved ones. Only sometimes do these visions materialize the way we wish.
Can We Manage Happiness?
In this post, I discuss our ability to regulate the feelings we have, whether these be focused on the past, present, or future. On the face of it, this is a dreadful idea. Surely, no one wants to be so robotic that they suppress the feelings that are part of our creaturely heritage. Less extremely, who wants to administer their many forms of awareness? Life is about excitement and passion, about feeling ourselves being taken to places we had not anticipated.
I acknowledge all of that. Nevertheless, many combinations of thought-behavior-feeling are essentially psychological entrapments. Spontaneity may be a gift; compulsivity is not. To be sure, we need to be well-acquainted with negative emotions like anger, fear, depression, sadness, and shame, if only so we can recognize them in ourselves and in other people. But they—or the circumstances that produce them—shouldn’t dominate us. More than that, if our goal is to have wider experiences with positive emotions (and summarily, happiness) we should reflect on the issues involved in that quest. In that spirit, consider three challenges of emotion management.
1. Managing situations
The noted positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that finding happiness commonly entails finding settings where we can operate in a focused, creative way. This deep engagement, or “flow,” is most likely to arise when our abilities match well with the kinds of challenges presented by the environment. Challenges that are too difficult for us produce anxiety; those that are too easy lead to boredom.
Between those extremes, we have the best chance of being absorbed in what we do. For such reasons, the happiest tennis or chess matches are between players who are equally matched. Rock climbers and skiers should take on challenges appropriate to their skill levels. Golfers should play from tees that respect their skills, physical condition, and stage of life.
What this means—and this is the lesson of both successful play and work—is that we should seek situations that seem right for us rather than for other people. Skill level is only one part of this. Also important are our personal interests, values, and more general life orientations. In other words, it is appropriate to ask: Does this activity in this setting mesh with my understanding of who I am and who I can be?
For example, I’ve known people who spend their vacations in Las Vegas gambling. I don’t dispute their right to do this, but it’s not for me. The same can be said for friends who spend inordinate amounts of time in the gym or who spend as much time as possible traveling abroad. Instead, one should find ways to cultivate their own interests and aptitudes.
Such advice is hardly worth offering, except that we live in a class-based society marked by status pressures, widespread commercial advertising, and identity confusion. Most of us want to sustain the feeling that we are still “young” and have a wonderful future ahead of us. Surely, we tell ourselves, all things are possible.
A better course, or so I believe, is to find situations where we become our best selves. That means not only appropriate choice of settings and activities (indeed, some are toxic) but also encounters with stimulating, supportive people. Does the setting cultivate worthy personal qualities?
Happiness, as Csikszentmihalyi stresses, is not stasis. Neither is it “pleasure.” It is the sense that one is moving into a more interesting and deeply engaged period of life.
2. Managing orientations
Emotion is our psycho-biological reading of “how things are going.” Pointedly, that reading involves a comparison of our judgment of what is occurring and our anticipation of what should be occurring. Said differently, all of us have standards for how the world should conduct itself. Unusual or dissonant happenings make us take note. We react to things we see on television just as we do to those occurring in front of us or within our bodies.
A critical part of emotional reading then is the personal standards we bring to events. There is a range of these, from “wildest dreams” to “darkest fears.” In between are “expectations,” our most strongly supported anticipations of what is appropriate.
When events meet those expectations, we are reassured, though not especially stimulated. When they fail to meet expectations, we feel dissatisfied. When they exceed expectations—perhaps we won a lottery—we are very pleased indeed.
The pursuit of happiness involves the management of these personal orientations. To be sure, we should keep our dreams and remember our fears; but our expectations—for others and for ourselves—require ongoing adjustment.
This does not mean that we should lower those expectations. (“After all, what can you expect from human beings, particularly from older people?”) It does mean that we should keep adjusting our thinking as we add new knowledge. Ask yourself: What is reasonable to assume about the changing world we live in?
I prefer the term “orientations” (to “expectations”) because it suggests the broad range of commitments we bring to situations. What are our values, interests, and skills? What do we want from this experience? What can we contribute to it? Places are not inherently happy. It is our commitments to them that make them so.
3. Managing interpretations
In his classic book Frame Analysis, sociologist Erving Goffman claimed that the principal question confronting people in every situation is this: “What is it that’s going on here?” The answer, it seems, is far from obvious.
A comment from someone could be a straightforward description of something, but it could also be a joke, a bit of sarcasm, a criticism, a ploy, or another bit of deception, and so forth. Drawing clues from the situation, we must decide. Reading non-verbal behavior is just as difficult.
The same applies to any circumstance we are in. What should we make of this? Was the party we hosted last night a success? How should we interpret Wilson’s strange behavior at that event? Indeed, how should we think about some of the things we said and did?
So it is that we try to make sense of things. There is a place for dark interpretations (“OK, another failure on my part") and for lighter ones (“Not too bad. I’m satisfied with that.”) The honest person can see the pertinence of both views. The wise one can integrate them (“Still not where I want to be, but I can see I’m making progress.”)
The art of happiness, I would argue, is the application of the right frames of interpretation to life events. How we see ourselves—and other people—is crucial. Frequently enough, we rely on outdated ideas to process experience (perhaps stereotypes about race, class, gender, and sexual orientation we learned growing up). Sometimes, we refuse to acknowledge that we are aging and moving into new circumstances. What is “good” or “successful” for us may not be pertinent to someone else.
At bottom, the search for happiness involves these elements. Stay open to the possibilities of life but acknowledge your own limitations. Have orientations that are hopeful rather than despairing. Be as generous to others—and to yourself—as you can be. Acknowledge that circumstances mean different things to different people. Life is about coherent growth. Our emotions are simply the signifiers of our movement along that path.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Goffman, E. (1974). Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper and Row.
Henricks, T. (2012). Selves, Societies, and Emotions: Understanding the Pathways of Experience. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.