It is fascinating to learn about how malleable our brains really are. My big discovery recently was about how the daily ebb and flow of our emotions actually contribute to overall longer lasting good moods. Incredible findings are being made at the crossroads of neurobiology, neuroscience and the study of the roots of compassion, happiness and altruism.
My keen interest in neuroscience has reached a new level now that I’ve discovered dynamic researchers on the subject who are relatable, witty, and possess an engaging enthusiasm about their work. They share their complex findings in digestible, meaningful ways that helps us take better care of our brains. In the past, so much focus in clinical psychology was on anxiety, sadness and depression. Now there are studies being done on positive emotions and moods — and their major benefits for our mental health and overall quality of life.
A shining example of this research is the “Awe Walk”, which is a white paper published by Dr. Dacher Keltner and the Greater Good Science Center in Berkley. Participants in this study were given a few simple instructions and told to go outdoors once a week and look for something that felt like “awe” to them. From personal experience, I can tell you that a walk outdoors with a curious three year old will open your eyes to a myriad of small wonders that evoke a sense of awe. It was revealed in this study, that the participants who were 75 years old or older tended to be a little more anxious. Over time, with a regular weekly practice of taking the “Awe Walk”, these older participants gravitated toward that space where they were recognizing “awe” in their daily lives — the beauty of their partner’s face, how delectable their meal looked. They were cultivating both awareness and appreciation of the small things in life that felt good. In turn, their anxiety levels were reduced.
Dr. Keltner also collaborated with Pixar on the movie “Inside Out“. If you are familiar with the animated film, Inside Out, then you know that its focus was on our 5 basic emotions — Anger, fear, sadness, disgust and joy. Dr. Keltner describes these five as our core “fight or flight emotions”.
A deeper dive into the world of emotions by Dr. Keltner and his research team discovered that there are not just 5, but 20 distinct and fundamental emotions that we experience in our social lives. These twenty emotions are very much intertwined in all our relationships – with ourselves, at home, at work and in our communities.
Just when you think that is enough to digest, Dr. Rick Hanson added that our physical and attitudinal responses also get “mushed together” with our emotions as we go through our normal days. Our bodies just organically react to emotions we are feeling – a racing heart, a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, tingles down the spine or flush of heat on our cheeks. Unknowingly, we can be predisposed by our attitudes towards others to have very different emotions to a given situation just because of the people involved.
Dr. Hanson also points out that we move through our daily experiences in a fluid space of different emotional qualities in a very intimate way. We all experience a wide range of emotions each day and some are strong and some are just bland. Just for fun, track even a portion of your day, to get some real insight into your own emotional ranges.
I did that little experiment yesterday which included overly excited grandchildren FaceTiming me about Christmas, big chunks of solitude since I am home alone, two hours of watching football and rooting for my team with wild abandon, basking in the warmth of the sun in the late afternoon, having a spontaneous dance party in the kitchen while preparing my dinner and then reading about some heartbreaking news on a Facebook post. I confess that I was surprised at the data and marveling that what seemed like an overall benign kind of day was chock full of these 20+ emotions.
Dr. Hanson shared an insight that is significant and directly correlates with the Awe Walk research. As we go through our day, we have residues of our emotional experiences that sink in. He recalled the traditional saying that “your mind takes its shape from what it repeatedly rests upon“. The Awe Walk supports the evidence that ‘if you repeatedly experience moments of gratitude, authentic experiences of grit and resilience, confidence and open-heartedness, those accumulated positive residues become internalized in neurobiological ways.”
He went on to say over time, you will increasingly find yourself centered in a mood that reflects those positive traits. The link between our emotions and our general mood is in the “collecting” of those positive emotional residues that moves you into your preferred space of well being.
Dr. Keltner reinforced this when he said “the challenge of life is to gravitate to the space that you desire.” How do you move into these spaces? “You practice, you get outside, you think about what you are grateful for.”
I love the simplicity of this prescription for cultivating positive, happy, resilient moods. Make it a daily practice to look for the awe and to be grateful. The more you stay present in the moment, the greater your chances of realizing your own personal awe and moments of gratitude. Tuck those moments in your heart and your neurobiology. Prepare to be amazed at what this practice will do for your overall well being.
Being Well Podcast with Dr. Dacher Keltner:
Greater Good Science Center:
Greater Good Magazine: The Science of a Meaningful Life