Happiness is the Ability to Relate to Emotions with Greater Granularity and Depth - The Benefits of Practicing "Emodiversity".
“Perhaps happiness is always to be found in the journey uphill and not in the ephemeral sense of satisfaction awaiting at the next peak” — Jordan Peterson
Researchers are increasingly adopting a more complex and realistic definition of happiness, one that places less emphasis on "uninterrupted bliss". One of the myths about happiness is that we should always feel good, always be in a state of enjoyment and avoid negative emotions altogether. This is obviously unsustainable and unhealthy. First of all, it is impossible to control our emotions. They are transient, they come and go. Second, unpleasant emotions, such as fear, anger, and sadness, help us anticipate threats and danger and motivate us to take proactive measures. Fear can lead to change. Anger can lead to action. Sadness can lead to acceptance.
When you reconsider what it means to be happy, you may notice that you start to experience it much more.
Defining the world through the prism of diverse emotions
Genuinely happy people lead emotionally diverse lives. They are able to experience a wide range of emotions, both "good" and "bad”. Since they are not limited to feeling only good or to feeling one or two emotions at a time, they do not end up perceiving them as permanent. Either life is always hard, or it is always great, or we constantly feel guilty for being such a horrible creature, etc. So, we adopt a mindset that defines the world based on a single emotion! Yet, there are multiple subcategories of emotions, such as admiration, contentment, hope, gratitude, joy, pride AND anxiety, fear, shame, sadness, embarrassment, guilt, boredom, despair or just plain tiredness.
Decades of research on emotions suggested that happiness and health are conditioned by high levels of positive emotions and low levels of negative emotions. Accordingly, Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology and a world leader in happiness research, devoted the first 35 years of his career seeking to suppress negative emotions such as fear, sadness and anger.
We find a perfect illustration contradicting this long-held misconception in the 2015 animated movie “Inside Out”. Ryley, an 11-year-old girl, tries to hold back her negative emotions when her parents relocate to San Francisco, robbing her of her life in the Midwest. To cope, she represses her sadness, which eventually disrupts her inner balance to the point of losing her identity. The moral of the film reveals that sadness is an important and desirable emotion, and that ignoring it can lead to mental health problems. The film's producer and director also expose the common myth that happiness is the key to a fulfilling life.
Discover and adopt emodiversity
The first evidence for the concept of “emodiversity” originated from a 2014 article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, involving over 35,000 people. The researchers found that experiencing a broader variety and frequency of both positive and negative emotions benefited our mental and physical health. Specifically, subjects with higher overall emodiversity suffered less depression than those who felt only positive emotions. As the authors note, emodiversity is a "...previously unidentified metric for assessing the health of the human emotional ecosystem."
Emodiversity draws on research in the natural sciences on the benefits of ecosystem biodiversity. It compares our emotional landscape to an ecosystem. An environment is healthier when various species play their respective functional roles and suffers when one species is threatened or becomes overabundant, disrupting the balance. Similarly, emotions serve functional roles for people, helping them to prioritize and regulate their behavior to fit a given situation. It starts with feeling the appropriate emotion for the situation and responding in kind. For example, if I am bored when I should be worried, or pleased when I should be angry, these feelings will not help me cope with life, let alone survive.
The benefits of emodiversity
Emodiversity is the foundation of an emotionally well-adjusted person, promoting mental and physical health. The more we are able to notice and name a wide range of different and specific emotions (e.g., anger, shame, sadness, anxiety), compared to fewer or more general emotions (e.g., feeling bad), the more we are able to channel them into productive actions. The notion of emodiversity therefore means:
1) A better adaptive value as specific emotions provide richer information to guide our daily decisions in response to a given challenge. A more sophisticated appreciation of how we feel about a stressful situation, a behavioral challenge, a joyful experience - allows us to better process and respond to the event rather than reacting without regard to the emotions underlying our behavior. One caveat: poor health can lead to a less diverse emotional life due to an excessive focus on a narrower set of emotions, such as anxiety or anger, notes Quoidbach, one of the study's lead authors.
2) A greater degree of self-awareness and authenticity that has been repeatedly linked to health and well-being. This is reflected in our ability to see ourselves clearly and respond appropriately by removing emotion from decision making. It gives us a sense of control over our lives.
3) A greater resilience. Just as biodiversity prevents a single predator from wiping out an entire ecosystem, the experience of nuanced emotions makes it harder for a single harmful emotion, such as acute stress, anger, or sadness, to dominate and overwhelm the emotional ecosystem. For example, prolonged sadness can lead to depression, but the joint experience of sadness and anger - while unpleasant - can prevent someone from completely withdrawing from life and finding a new purpose, as depicted in the movie “Inside Out”. If you are comfortable with anger, you will be able to invoke it at the appropriate moment and use it, just as Riley uses her outburst of anger to overcome obstacles and reclaim both sadness and joy. The more diverse your emotional landscape, the more resilient you will be in the face of the upheavals that life throws at you.
“Stop obsessing about feeling good all the time”
One of the greatest challenges of practicing emodiversity is learning to notice and name the wide range of positive and negative emotions we experience in a day, an hour, a minute... As we become more aware of the importance of emotions in "self-regulation", we begin to notice some of them, but the appropriate vocabulary to name them may be painfully lacking at first. Needless to say, this takes time and patience – it’s a life's work...
But there is one thing that is helpful to practice right from the start: stop obsessing about feeling good all the time – it makes staying in the upper range of your happiness potential all the more unlikely!