10 Keys to Happiness – Emotions

By David Pattinson

This is the eighth reflection on the ’10 keys to happiness” promoted by “Action for happiness”(AfH) – https://www.actionforhappiness.org. AfH have identified these as activities which promote mental health and wellbeing. In this series we are exploring how this psychologically and clinically well researched menu compares with a Biblical perspective.

In this reflection, we are looking at Emotions – Paul Ekman says “Emotions determine the quality of our lives.” They come in two kinds – negative and positive. Both are necessary. Negative emotions motivate us to avoid potentially harmful situations. Positive ones encourage us to take advantage of potentially safe opportunities. It is the balance that is important. And research now indicates that we should aim to have three times as many positive as negative emotional experiences. That’s what constitutes a healthy “positivity ratio”.

But because the negative emotions were once more necessary for survival, “fight or flight”, human beings seem to be hardwired to be more aware of, and pay more attention to, the negative rather than the positive. Psychologist Paul Ekman identified 6 basic human emotions: fear; anger; sadness; disgust; surprise; joy/happiness. There is a much wider range of emotions but these are universal. You can see how hard you have to work to get to the desired positivity ratio, because 5 of them are negative. In fact there are more words for negative emotions than positive ones in the English language (62% compared to 38%)

But positive emotions – like joy, gratitude, contentment, inspiration, and pride – are not just great at the time. Recent research shows that regularly experiencing them creates an ‘upward spiral’, helping to build our resources. So although we need to be realistic about life’s ups and downs, it helps to focus on the good aspects of any situation – the glass half full rather than the glass half empty.

The Poster for this key is “See life as it is but focus on the good bits”

Concentrate on those moments of pleasant emotions, fleeting though they may be. They are like tiny “investments” in our flourishing.

Try to have positive emotional moments even in difficult times.

We read much more now about “emotional intelligence” a term popularised by Daniel Goleman – “the ability to accurately detect, express, manage emotions in ourselves and others”. It’s fundamental to building good connections, but also appears to have many benefits for well being and happiness, including better moods, better relationships, helping others more, higher self-esteem and better work performance. They broaden our focus and people who experience more frequent positive emotions even have better health.

How can we cultivate positive emotions? Barbara Fredrickson has identified 10 positive emotions: Love; Joy; Gratitude; Serenity/contentment; Interest; Hope; Pride; Amusement; Inspiration; Awe.

And we can enhance these emotions by “savouring” them. Immerse ourselves in the experience; pay attention and focus; anchor the experience in our memory – that’s the value of the photo; share the moment with others. Savour past experiences as well as future ones.

So what’s the biblical take on emotions? What immediately struck me was the overlap between Barbara Fredrickson’s 10 positive emotions and Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22 “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” The route to positive emotions is God, The Holy Spirit.

And then two other points. Firstly, it is the heart – the seat of our emotions – which is seen as the centre of who we are, somehow stressing the importance of emotions. When Jesus is asked by the lawyer “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?“ the reply is ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”. Jesus seems to be putting the heart first. The Psalmist opens up his heart in Psalm 84:2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.” Observing our emotions, and especially our emotions about God is important.

Interestingly this is at the heart of Ignatian Spirituality. During the 1520’s, St. Ignatius Loyola began writing about the emotions that took hold of him — feelings of gratitude and anguish, consolation and sadness — while encountering the Scriptures. Those meditations eventually became the Spiritual Exercises, which were first published in 1548. In our contemplation of Scripture we are invited to explore how a biblical passage is making us feel. (More about this in part 2.)

Then secondly, there seems to be a biblical emphasis on the positive. The gospel is not about the negative –  fear; anger; sadness; disgust; surprise. It’s about the positive, because here lies happiness and a kingdom world where “fight or flight” play no part. It’s encapsulated in Mark’s telling of the stilling of the storm. The disciples are terrified to see Jesus walking on the water, but he says “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” He gets into the boat with them, and the storm is still. Whatever our emotional storms, Jesus gets into the boat with us.

There is an important part of this particular key to happiness which I haven’t covered. It deserves a reflection of its own. It’s about gratitude. Coming soon.