Emotions are neither good nor bad – they just are. They cannot be otherwise, for they operate from that part of the brain clearly removed from the values and belief-driven executive function. Much confusion arises when we assume characteristics of mental processing on that part of the brain that operates below any level of awareness. The emotional brain, variously known as the primal brain, the subconscious, or more specifically, the limbic system, is value neutral – relying instead on the awareness (thinking) part of the brain to function in the person’s best interest. Like other living organisms, humans interact with their environment to get their needs met, and our best interests are served when the interplay of emotion and thinking lead to effective interaction and needs – physical and non-physical, being met appropriately.
As described in a previous blog (24.03.2011), emotions facilitate this interaction. They prepare us for action and carry an expectation that the action will meet a need. The crucial thing about emotions is not about ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, but whether they are discharged effectively. A continuing state of emotional arousal or undischarged emotion reduces the brain’s processing capacity, places stress on the system, and raises the prospect of low mood instead of well-being.
So, given that emotions just are, how is one to handle this statement from a world authority on well-being, Martin Seligman (Flourish, Random House, 2011): Positive emotion does much more than just feel pleasant; it is a neon sign that growth is underway, that psychological capital is accumulating (p66).
My response, tentative at this stage, is that feelings – pleasant or otherwise – are much later along the stimuli-response sequence. Feelings are not simply emotions, nor are they the product of emotional arousal – they are the result of the successful interplay of emotion and thought resulting in needs being met and signs that growth is underway. Separate the emotion; recognising its function in the below-awareness phase of the sequence, and we are better able to focus on feelings or mood states, which clearly have good/bad, positive/negative dimensions.
This focus on feelings or mood states enables specific interventions at the stages that precede feeling good or bad. A focus that begins with a better understanding of emotions, contains an appreciation of the interplay between emotion, thought, action and feeling as discreet entities, and leads to successful interaction with the environment and needs being met. Growth instead of mere survival; flourishing, with more good moods than bad.