A Scientific Perspective on “Embracing Your Emotional State”

For most of its history, clinical psychology has been preoccupied with neurosis, psychosis and everything that can go wrong. In the twentieth-century, however, many psychologists began to shift their emphasis and take an interest in studying health and normality. A central question they began asking is, “what do things look like when everything is working properly and can that be learned and replicated?” This has led to extensive research into the brains and behaviors of people who report high levels of happiness and well-being.

(A parenthetical note may be appropriate here. I am not into trying to help people be happier. As I explained in my article ‘The Power of Attitude‘, our goal as Christians should be towards a life of meaning, not a life of happiness. Nevertheless, there are some valuable insights that can be gained from the scientific work analyzing the brains of happy people. In the rest of this article I want to simply share these discoveries, while in future posts I will suggest how these findings can integrate into a distinctively Christian approach to psychology and wellbeing.)

Using a technology known as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which measures blood flow to different parts of the brain, scientists have been able to pinpoint the physical differences between the brains of happy people vs. the brains of unhappy people. It turns out that people who report high levels of happiness have lower activity in the amygdala (an important part of the limbic system in the subcortical regions of the brain) and the right prefrontal cortex and higher activity in the left prefrontal cortex. Here’s how Dr. Peter Vishton explains this ratio in his course Outsmart Yourself: Brain-Based Strategies to a Better You,

“If you put someone into an fMRI scanner and look at the activity produced in these two different sets of regions, you can calculate a ratio of activity—the amount of left prefrontal cortex activity divided by the activity in the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. This ratio is a remarkably good predictor of someone’s reports of their everyday happiness. Happier people tend to show a larger ratio; unhappier people tend to show a substantially smaller ratio.”

Dr. Vishton goes on to explain that scientists and cognitive psychologists have been studying if anything can be done to help people become happier through shifting this ratio towards the left prefrontal cortex. Their research keeps coming up against the fact that each of our brains seem to have a certain set-point for this ratio. This set-point is like our room temperature that we default to. So if we have positive life experiences then this ratio temporarily gets larger (shifts leftward) whereas if we have negative experiences then the ratio temporarily gets smaller and shifts towards the right prefrontal cortex. Invariably, however, we get used to these experiences and default back to our personal set-point. This is why changes in circumstances like winning the lottery, getting a new home or finding a better spouse, hardly ever yield the emotional changes we expect. Similarly, a year after a person experiences negative changes, like becoming a paraplegic from an accident, there is very little change the person’s overall mood. It seems counter-intuitive, but life circumstances have very little influence over our long-term mood. Indeed, the consistency of our emotional set-point over time is actually a neuro-signature of a stable personality.

But this does not mean that it is totally impossible to shift our brain’s ratio over time. Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin has been conducting experiments on how a person might indefinitely change this ratio by shifting it leftward, towards the left prefrontal cortex. He has found that mindfulness training can change this ratio, and in particular the aspect of mindfulness training where people learn to be present with their experience and embrace their emotional state. Here’s how Dr. Peter Vishton summarized this emerging body of research:

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Dr. Peter Vishton

“As you quietly sit and meditate, you may become aware of the emotions you’re feeling. Specifically, you might feel happy or you might feel sad. Mindfulness training instructors will typically tell you to simply feel that feeling, to be aware of it, in a sense to embrace it. From a scientific perspective this mindfulness description always sounds a bit fluffy to me. It’s tough to imagine how we would measure how much someone has ‘embraced their emotional state.’ But what we can measure is what happens when someone regularly listens to this instruction and tries to perform that embrace of their own thoughts, whatever that is. A lot of the mindfulness training program is centered around meditation, but there are substantial parts that are not. Mindfulness is not just about self-awareness while engaged in meditation. Students of mindfulness training are taught to periodically focus on being very aware of the thing that is happening right now, whatever that is, to be self-aware in this particular moment. Most people spend a lot of their day thinking about things that either have happened in the past or thinking about making plans in the future. As important as this is to our daily cognition and decision making, that focus on things that are outside the domain of our immediate context seems to generate stress, anxiety and generally reduce happiness. When I eat breakfast, I often do so while checking emails, listening to the radio, thinking about what I’m going to do for the rest of the day, and so on. Mindfulness training would encourage me to resist that, at least on some days, to instead to focus on the eating while I’m eating: think about the taste of the food, the experience of taking each bite, being aware of how my sense of hunger goes away over the course of the meal…. After several weeks of this type of training, that ratio of activity (the left frontal cortex activity divided by the sum of the amygdala and the right frontal cortex activity), that happiness ratio, that ratio gets larger. It’s not clear just what parts of the mindfulness training do this, but across many studies now, when mindfulness training is used as an intervention, the brains of participants change—they produce different patterns of activity, and the participants reports that their everyday happiness levels increase. This is an easy tip for you to use in your own life. The next time you do anything, try to focus on experiencing that particular experience. Don’t think about the past or the future. Be in that particular moment. If you do that on a regular basis, this research suggests that your brain will tend to alter its happiness ratio, and you will find yourself being happier. So, your happiness might vary up and down around a particular set-point, like temperature varies. The bulk of your happiness and unhappiness seems to come from within you rather than from the external environment. But it seems there are some ways you can change the temperature on your happiness thermostat. Mindfulness and meditation- they seem to do the trick.”

Most of my readers are Christians, and so I anticipate that many may be wondering how all this stuff about mindfulness and “embracing your emotional state” fits with the teaching of Scripture, or with other themes I routinely explore on my blog such as the sacramental imagination. These are all very good questions that I intend to address in a follow up post.

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