Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor and neuroscientist at Northeastern University, is challenging hundreds of years of assumptions about emotions. You may think that your emotions are hard-wired and uncontrollable reactions to things we think and experience. That what you define as happiness is the same as how other people define happiness. The science, until now, seemed to back that up, too.
But Barrett’s new book, How Emotions Are Made, suggests we may be able to play a greater role in dictating our own emotions than previously thought. Challenging the classical view, Barrett argues instead for a more holistic view that proposes that emotions are instead created spontaneously and shaped by factors such as previous experiences and cultural upbringing.
These factors, Barrett says, are used by the brain to make calculations and predictions on how best to balance something she calls our “body budget.” She explains that every time the brain moves any part of your body, inside or out, it’s forced to spend “some of its energy resources.” That could be giving a presentation at work, learning something new, or even having sex. Conversely, the brain’s energy resources are boosted by eating, drinking and sleeping.
“To manage all of this spending and replenishing, your brain must constantly predict your body’s energy needs, like a budget for your body,” Barrett says. “Just as a company has a finance department that tracks deposits and withdrawals and moves money between accounts, so its overall budget stays in balance, your brain has circuitry that is largely responsible for your body budget.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Toronto native’s research is what this could mean for emotional self-care. If, as she suggests, it’s possible to control our “budget” to some extent, is it possible to control positive emotions? We spoke to Barrett, who offered up five happiness hacks backed by her research.
Let’s start with the most obvious one. Barrett recommends that, if you can only make one lifestyle change to improve your mood, you should try to get enough sleep. Skipping out on shuteye makes it far harder for your brain to keep your body budget balanced, which is the key to feeling better in general.
High intensity exercise is also must. “Periodic bouts of stress where you disrupt your body budget and then recover are really good for you,” she says. There are many great resources to find high intensity workouts and exercises online, but you can’t really go wrong with the Nike Training app.
Yoga is also useful, since it helps you control your breathing. “Control of your breath is the quickest way to use your parasympathetic nervous system to calm your heart (and your stress) down,” she says.
Barrett argues that mindfulness allows you to change your “affective niche.” Your affective niche, in non-fancy terms, is the range of information that your brain could be picking up on in the present moment to regulate your body budget.
This article you’re reading right now, for example, is within your affective niche. So too are any memories that the words bring to mind, the air temperature around you, and any objects, people or events from your past that influenced your body budget in a similar situation.
Barrett explains that when you practice mindfulness meditation, you have more control over your niche. You tend to pick up on the things that bring you joy and pay attention to things that you might not normally focus on, such as the beauty of the sun streaming through your bedroom window.
Instead of making sense of your bodily sensations in simple terms like “good,” “bad,” “sad” or “happy,” you should try to learn more emotional concepts and delve deeper into how you really feel.
Instead of just “fine,” you could use words such as “grateful” or “relaxed.” Conversely, instead of “bad” you could use “irritated,” “despondent,” “regretful” or “discouraged.” Barrett says that the more developed your emotional vocabulary is—i.e. being able to decipher subtle differences in a wider range of feelings—the more control you’ll have in regulating them.
To make this easier, she suggests reading books that you’d never normally consider or listening to thought-provoking podcasts. You’re looking for new experiences to give you different perspectives. Learning obscure words, or words that don’t exist in your own language, to describe feelings is another way. “Tartle,” for example, is a Scottish word for the panic you feel on recognizing someone but needing a second to remember their name.
This might sound a touch abstract, but according to the professor of psychology but it has some very real results. “Research consistently shows that people who are capable of creating more granular experiences rely on alcohol less, are less aggressive and binge eat less,” Barrett says.
Dwelling on unpleasant moments in your past has very real consequences for your body budget in the present. Since your brain is always trying to anticipate what your body needs and meet those needs before they arise, just thinking about something unpleasant that once happened to you will result in your brain responding by creating a prediction (and triggering all the physical side effects that come with it) that you need to protect yourself.
Recalling, say, the look on your boyfriend or girlfriend’s face during your breakup in your mind will “become entrenched in your (present) model of the world.” Barrett compares remembering traumatic experiences over and over to passersby footsteps making a well-worn path even deeper — the more you dwell on bad things, the more likely you are to continue feeling in those ways.
Luckily, the parts of the brain you need for ruminating same ones that make the predictions to balance your body budget. If you keep those zone busy doing something else, like playing tennis or reading a book, then there won’t be space for ruminating. The next time you’re obsessing over something, do something that requires all of your attention.
So does that mean that certain types of therapy, such as psychoanalysis, where you’d spend years reliving traumatic moments in your past, is a bad idea? Not necessarily, argues Barrett, who trained as a psychotherapist many years ago but no longer practices.
For one thing, a supportive relationship with a therapist can help in and of itself. “If you’re in a very supportive relationship with someone who’s helping to regulate your body budget,” she says. “This creates an opportunity to re-experience something in a new way, recategorizing it, and that is extremely helpful.” She also specifically recommends cognitive behavioral therapy since it involves “the prescription to go out and try things in the world.” This is important, she says, because the lessons you learn change the predictions your brain is capable of making in the future.
The interest group Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies has a search function for finding a cognitive-behavioral therapist covered by your relevant insurance provider in your state in the U.S., while if you’re based in the UK, the mental health charity Mind gives a helpful summary of the different ways you can find a CBT therapist.
Ultimately, Barrett emphasizes that every brain and body budget is unique, and that finding your happy place is a lot like being a scientist: experimenting with things and seeing what works. But these tips should provide a research-backed foundation for feeling sunnier more often.
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