The old wisdom was that we cannot control our feelings – we can only control our response to our feelings. We can’t control whether we become angry, scared, sad or happy – but we can control how we respond to those emotions.
That was the old wisdom. Recent research suggests that we may have been wrong.[i] It turns out that we may have more control over our emotions than previously thought. It has to do with how our brains recognize physical changes in our bodies and associations with past experiences.
For example, say we’re hiking in the woods and we see a black bear in the distance. Our heart rate may increase, our palms might start to sweat, we may start to breathe more quickly. Physical changes.
If our experience with black bears comes from watching Season 1 of Alone on Netflix (a favorite reality series of mine in which people are left out in the Arctic to survive on their own) when Wayne gets charged by a black bear, our brains will register these physical changes as fear – and lots of it!
On the other hand, if our experience with black bears comes from times in which we went hunting with loved ones and the experience of successfully tracking a black bear was a joyous one, our brains might register the sight of a black bear as excitement rather than fear.
NPR reported on the implications of this research this week.[ii] In the report, psychologist Belinda Campos suggests that one way out of the blahs is to practice positive emotions – take part in activities that lead to feelings of gratitude, wonder, contentment, and awe. The more practice we have with the positive emotions, the more likely future events in our lives will bring us back to these emotions. She talks about intentionally cultivating such experiences.
I was struck by the fact that faith communities are usually places which support and nurture these positive experiences of gratitude, wonder, contentment, and awe. One reason the pandemic has been emotionally difficult, is that many of us haven’t been able to do the very things which bring us joy and lead to resilience. We’ve missed the “practice” time to nurture the positive emotions we need.
As we look ahead to gathering together again more fully, I think I’m most looking forward to the opportunities to serve together, to laugh together, to be grateful together, to be astonished by the grace of God…together. I’m looking forward to getting back to practice.
For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.