You may not always view your emotions as your friends. Noticing certain feeling states as sadness, fear, or anger in yourself or others might make you uncomfortable and tempt you to ignore these states or disown them altogether. Many people do, assuming that such emotional avoidance will help them cope or feel better overall.
A recent meta-analysis of 25 studies of emotional intelligence, however, shows otherwise (Sanchez-Alvarez, Extremera and Fernandez-Berrocal 2016). Emotional intelligence refers to how we use information from our emotions to help us navigate through the stress in our lives. Emotional skills include the ability to accurately perceive our mood states and regulate them, as well as to effectively express and exchange emotions interpersonally.
The researchers found a significant relationship in the cross-cultural studies between participants’ emotional intelligence and subjective well-being. Regardless of how emotional intelligence was measured, the results found that those who understood their emotions better tended to experience a greater sense of psychological wellness. The researchers conclude that emotional intelligence is a “key skill” in personal and social development.
So, while you may not want or welcome certain feelings, it can be quite helpful to at least respect them and allow the emotions to inform you about what’s going on inside and outside of yourself.
It goes without saying that helping others is good for the people receiving the help. But what about for
the individual helper?
A recent study by Nadav Klein at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago (Klein 2017) investigated whether participants who volunteered and gave money to help others reported greater meaning in their lives.
Previous research has documented the many benefits associated with viewing one’s life as meaningful, including fewer mental and physical symptoms and greater longevity.
Klein found that, in a nationally representative sample of adult Americans, greater volunteering was associated with a stronger belief that one’s life has a purpose. In addition, the study found that spending money on others increased perceptions of meaning in life, compared to spending money on oneself.
But how exactly does spending money on others increase perceptions of meaning in life? - by increasing one’s self-worth? – by providing a sense of connection to others? – by affirming one’s moral values? – by fostering a sense of personal control?
In a follow-up study, Klein found that spending money to benefit other people increases perceptions of meaning in life through increasing perceptions of self-worth. In other words, there is a self-sustaining quality to helping others. Prosocial behavior builds personal worth and self-esteem, which then strengthens the sense that one’s life is meaningful.
The mental and physical benefits of gratitude (thankfulness for what one has) have been well-documented. Research has shown that being grateful can improve life satisfaction, sleep, optimism and outlook. It can also decrease physical complaints and trauma. Gratitude makes people more likely to help others.
A current study by Solom and colleagues at Eastern Washington University (2017) addresses the “Thieves of Thankfulness” – the factors that get in the way of practicing gratitude. Most of us simply forget to take the time to appreciate what’s going well in our lives. But these researchers dig a little deeper, examining the traits that inhibit the development of gratitude over time.
Here are their results:
1. Narcissism was found to be one of the strongest inhibitors of gratitude. This makes sense when you consider the key components of gratitude: recognizing the value of what’s been given to you and recognizing the goodness of the giver of the gifts. Narcissists tend to feel superior and entitled, and thus unlikely to appreciate the benefits that others provide them.
2. Cynicism also predicted decreases in gratitude over time. Cynicism causes people to be suspicious of others and their motives. It is difficult to receive and appreciate gifts or compliments from others when there is an assumption that they are inherently selfish.
3. Materialism and envy inhibit the emotion of gratitude. Focusing on one’s material possessions or the possessions of others tends to distract one from the life blessings that do exist.
What does this mean in practical terms?
If we want to enjoy the feeling/outlook of gratitude – the warmth, interconnectedness, and well-being that it offers, then we have to be on the lookout for what undermines it. Not only must we address the narcissism, cynicism, materialism and envy that arises within us (conditioned in part by our cultural environment, no doubt), but we must also cultivate practices that counter these tendencies. We can develop trust instead of cynicism and humility instead of narcissism. We can learn to better appreciate the simple pleasures in our lives that we are gifted with, but often ignore while waiting for “one’s due” or the “jackpot” one’s neighbor received.
Researchers at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK recently conducted a study about an emotion called moral elevation (Van de Vyver & Abrams, 2017). This emotion is a positive, warm, expansive feeling that occurs when we witness a virtuous act. When we watch a person do something that improves the welfare of another, we tend to admire that person and feel affection towards them. The researchers wondered whether experiencing moral elevation would then make people more likely to act altruistically themselves.
The study found that moral elevation correlates with behavioral activation, that is, interest and motivation to approach events and participate (versus behavioral inhibition, which is characterized by avoidance and withdrawal). When study participants experienced feelings of moral elevation, they were more likely to report wanting to help others and to demonstrate willingness and readiness to take action.
Another emotion was also found to be linked to behavioral activation: anger. Feelings of anger at watching a video of corporate corruption and injustice led to higher levels of prosocial motivation, that is, greater willingness to help others.
Not surprisingly, the emotion of shame was found to correlate more with inhibition. When we feel ashamed, we’re more likely to avoid taking action.
During a time when so much needs tending to in our local, national and global community, we would do well to take a moment and identify which emotional states inspire us towards action. You don’t have to be an activist to help others. We can all source and sustain the desire to help by simply accessing our most basic human feelings.
Despite a growing body of research about the benefits of being humble, humility is not a new topic. Augustine wrote that "unless humility precede...every good action we perform...any good work is...wholly wrested from our hand by pride."
Recent empirical studies, though, offer us a clearer sense of what humility exactly entails and how it serves our physical and mental health.
Here are the key components of humility as cited in the social science literature (developed by Tangney, 2000):
1) an accurate assessment of one's abilities and accomplishments
2) the ability to acknowledge one's mistakes and limitations
3) openness to new ideas, contradictory information, and advice
4) keeping one's abilities and accomplishments in perspective
5) maintaining a low self-focus
6) valuing things in life that go beyond the self
A nationwide survey of 3010 people found that humility may help adults cope better with stress (Krause et al, 2016). Specifically, humility was found to offset the effects of certain stressful life events including illness of a family member, interpersonal problems with family, and death of a close friend. Those with higher levels of humility were found to have lower levels of depression and anxiety. Humility was also associated with higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction.
Basically, this study suggests that the more humble you are, the less negative effects certain types of stress will have on you.
Why does humility play such a stress-buffering role?
Here are five theories the survey researchers propose as to why being humble helps people cope better with unwanted events in their lives:
1) Humble people tend to ask for and accept support more readily from others during difficult times.
2) In the midst of adversity, humble people focus on things of value beyond themselves, and find growth in the face of their current circumstances.
3) Humble people are more adept at repairing damaged relationships through their willingness to admit wrongdoing.
4). Humble people tend to be more secure and accepting of their identities, and thus more resilient to ego-threatening events.
5). Humble people are more likely to forgive themselves over time. Self-forgiveness is associated with better physical and emotional health.
So, we don't need a moralistic fear of pride to lead us to humility. We don't need to be humble to "tame every demonic power" as St. Maximos the Confessor declared in 630-645 C.E.
Rather, we simply need to acknowledge the significant association between our level of humility and our well-being.
Does Venting Work?
Many people keep diaries and regularly journal about their feelings and reactions to what happens during the course of their lives. Challenging events and painful feelings especially tend to fill up space on the page. Such venting of emotion through writing has conventionally been thought of as cathartic and relieving.
Many of the clients I meet with in my psychotherapy practice ask me if it would help their healing process to journal about the trauma they’ve experienced. Here’s what I tell them:
Research over the past ten years has shown that writing about one’s deepest thoughts and feelings about traumatic experiences has mixed results at best. This type of journaling, called expressive writing, has been found to actually increase distress and lower mood, especially in the short-run.
But there are other forms of therapeutic writing that do not come at an emotional cost. A recent study out of Germany published in the Journal of Positive Psychology examined the use of a resource diary. Participants were asked to write down positive experiences and personal resources, answers to such questions as What gave you strength today? How did this become apparent to you? Which aspects of your personality are you content with? What do you like about yourself? What do you think others like about you?
The comparison group in the study kept an expressive writing diary for an equal length of time, engaging with negative emotional experiences. After four weeks of diary keeping, the results showed that those who focused on positive experiences and strengths with the resource diary demonstrated a significantly better mood than those who did the expressive writing focusing on painful emotions. The resource diary group also perceived more social support in their lives than the comparison group. This is an important finding because perceived social support is correlated with overall well-being and health.
Thus, when we bring written attention to what’s going well for us – our abilities and qualities, our relationships and resources - we tend to feel better than we do when we document painful wounds and grievances in our diaries.
It should be noted, though, that the healing of trauma is a process which does often require directly working with and through difficult emotions. We just need to make sure that the writing we do actually moves us in the direction of insight and growth, rather than reactivating old injuries and complicating our recovery. The guidance of a mental health professional is usually an essential component in the therapeutic treatment of trauma.