Buddha felt that we needed to rely on our personal experience to verify his Four Noble Truths, and presumably any other alleged truth. There’s no ‘take my word for it’ hoodwinking here. Nowadays, modern science is steadily helping us discern fact from myth. Still, personal experience must always be the final arbiter. Keep this in mind as you consider this research reported in Science News. Google [The bright side of sadness]. It makes some thought provoking points… such as, “Bad moods can have unappreciated mental upsides”. I’ll go ahead and quote some of this report and comment here and there.
Thomas Jefferson defended the right to pursue happiness in the Declaration of Independence. But that’s so 237 years ago. Many modern societies champion everyone’s right to be happy pretty much all the time.
Jefferson’s view always struck me as misguided. To be sure, animals pursue well-being (a.k.a. happiness). Biology cues up all living things for this pursuit. To put it simply, pleasure attracts; pain repulses. The only ‘rights’ I’d accept are along the lines of Buddha’s Rights, i.e. Right Comprehension, Right Resolution, etc. There is a right and wrong way to open a pickle jar. Twist clockwise and it will never open. Jefferson’s ‘right’ smacks of moral rights and wrongs, which are non-existent in nature. Even so, I have no problem with groups of people setting up arbitrary rights and wrongs for their society. That’s just a natural attempt to maintain social order. The urge is natural, but the rights are not. As a result, people insist that the ‘rights’ they support be endorsed by an authority, whether by Jefferson and the Constitution, or earlier, by Moses and his clay tablets. But, I digress…
“Bad moods are seen in our happiness-focused culture as representing a problem, but we need to be aware that temporary, mild negative feelings have important benefits,” Forgas says.
Growing evidence suggests that gloomy moods improve key types of thinking and behavior, Forgas asserts in a new review paper aptly titled “Don’t worry, be sad!” For good evolutionary reasons, positive and negative moods subtly recruit thinking styles suited to either benign or troubling situations, he says. Each way of dealing with current circumstances generally works well, if imperfectly.
New and recent studies described by Forgas in the June Current Directions in Psychological Science illustrate some of the ways in which periods of sadness spontaneously recruit a detail-oriented, analytical thinking style. Morose moods have evolved as early-warning signs of problematic or dangerous situations that demand close attention, these reports suggest.
Different moods may trigger distinct thinking styles that allow people to respond appropriately to whatever situation they find themselves in, scientists speculate. There are likely benefits, and costs, to each thinking style.
One investigation found that people in sad moods have an advantage remembering the details of unusual incidents that they have witnessed. And a little gloominess could help job applicants; lousy moods cut down on the tendency to stereotype others, thus boosting the accuracy of first impressions. People in sad moods also show a greater willingness to work on demanding tasks, communicate more persuasively and are more concerned with being fair to others than are peers in neutral or happy moods.
Alternatively, good moods trigger a loose mode of thought conducive to creativity and seeing the big picture. Happiness signals that a situation is safe, or at least not immediately threatening, Forgas suggests. As a result, people in a cheery state have the luxury of focusing on themselves rather than on their environments.
Whether good or bad, moods are relatively low-intensity, background feelings that can last for anywhere from a few minutes to the whole day. A person may feel somewhat good or bad, happy or sad, without knowing why or even being aware of such moods. Sad moods fall far short of clinical depression’s constant feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. But moods linger much longer than emotions, which typically flare up and burn out fairly quickly. In contrast to a mood, joy, anger and disgust feel intense and are experienced as having definite causes.
First, saying that moods “can last for anywhere from a few minutes to the whole day”, is not the whole story. In my case, I see a general mood that lasted for the first forty years of my life. Then, riding on top that baseline mood were the short-term fluctuations addressed in this research. From the descriptions given here, I suppose I suffered from a long-term “good mood”. The value of this research illuminates potential problems arising from too much “happiness” and “good mood”.
“Happiness signals that a situation is safe” helps explain much of my first forty years. I’ve never felt much fear, at least that which springs up from imagination. The visceral kind is another matter… so when shot at in Vietnam I naturally pissed my pants. Then, a few years later, when facing off Algerian police in the Sahara Desert, I pooped my pants. Fortunately, most of my life has lacked that sort of intense autonomic stimulus, and so lacking imagination-induced fear, it was easy to travel the world as long as I did.
I recall a period in my 30’s when I seriously longed to feel a deeper sense of compassion. This is odd when I think about it. For example, I’m not sure now what I understood compassion to be back then. Perhaps my long-term baseline mood was shifting toward the sadder end of the spectrum. Was I feeling compassionate about my lacking sufficient compassion?
Then, in the early 1980’s, after completing Correlations (p.565), I experienced what I assume was depression. I’ve experience sadness at least half the time ever since then, with a full helping of compassion to go with it. This research sheds light on the connection. Sometimes I look back on the time I longed to feel compassion, and appreciate the depth of sadness I am now able to experience. This report, speaking to the positive side of negativity, tells me why I actually value my intensely sad moods. As chapter 78 hints,
“I-self” vs. “IT-SELF”
One result of exploring Correlations (p.565) was a deep sense that balance is a defining principle of nature. At a personal level, I saw this break down into two complimentary sides of self-ness. These are what I call the “I” and the “IT-SELF”. Whatever lurks at the depths of the “IT-SELF” will be counterbalanced by the “I” (i.e., the ego self).
The spiral graphic (above) for this “I-self” vs. “IT-SELF” dynamic may be a bit confusing. The benefit of a little confusion is that this helps the mind reach beyond itself. For help with this, see http://www.centertao.org/media/I-IT-Dynamic.pdf. Bear in mind, this dynamic and the Correlations process it entails only introduces an initial approach. It is your observations, which it evokes that reach beyond. Naturally, you must also unlearn what you think you know to an extent. Chapter 71 suggest a way to begin ‘unlearning’… Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.
Keep in mind, ordinary learning stresses differences, which works great for worldly understanding. However, here the details of difference thinking only increase misunderstanding. Chapter 56 shows how to begin to see life’s hidden side… Subdue its sharpness, untie its tangles, Soften its brightness, be the same as dust, This is called profound sameness.
On which side of the spiral am I?
Lately, uncertainty arose over which side of the happy/sad fence I was experiencing. I seem to feel both at the same time. Is this due to aging? I mean, I’ve never experienced this degree of aging before. Indeed, I never felt aging as a young man, per se. I suppose youth naturally feels and sees life more black and white. Youth can’t imagine getting old. It takes getting old to actually appreciate both sides of life’s coin… life vs. death and by extension, happy vs. sad.
One thing is apparent; we don’t get to choose our moods! They choose us. My emotional shift toward sadness in the early 1980’s probably influenced my change of mind concerning free will. Before Correlations, I was a 100% believer in free will. Overall, I had too much happy good mood for my own holistic good. The onslaught of depression and sadness brought balance to my life (1).
Individuals aren’t slaves to their moods, Schwarz cautions. A sad person can think outside the box if necessary, say, to solve problems at work. And a happy person can accurately fill out tax forms or complete other detail-heavy tasks.
Evidence from many labs supports Schwarz’s view that moods inform people’s judgments, often advantageously and outside of awareness, psychologist Rainer Greifeneder of the University of Basel in Switzerland and his colleagues reported in the May 2011 Personality and Social Psychology Review.
I like to think of this “outside of awareness” as being the rest of the iceberg. The tip is what we think we know, as my often quoted chapter 71 alludes to, Realizing I don’t know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. The problem with cognitive awareness is that it dominates consciousness. Recognizing the dominant influence of the primal aspects of our nature enhances self-understanding, but I suppose only if one is in the mood to notice and accept such.
“In natural situations, feelings provide mostly valid information about whether there is a problem or not and how to respond to current tasks,” Schwarz says. “Negative moods direct attention to tasks at hand and promote analytical thinking, whereas positive moods broaden attention and prompt original thinking.
Forgas sees no need for a special field of research to study “negative psychology.” He would settle for “more awareness that negative feelings are so common and widespread that they must have adaptive functions.” Reports of specific ways in which sadness benefits thinking are beginning to accumulate.
Saying negative feelings “must have adaptive functions” recognizes the value that all aspects of life contribute to survival. As chapter 34 suggests, The great way flows, such as it may left and right and chapter 73 adds, Nature’s net is vast and thin, yet never misses. Nature is most subtle, wasting nothing; everything has a purpose, even if that purpose is ‘Nothing’.
Much of nature’s process clearly goes against what we personally desire. Self-interest dictates how we think life should be and self-righteously cite some authority as proof. It’s fine to want what we want… let us just be honest about it. However, chapter 65 notes, Of ancients adept in the way, none ever use it to enlighten people, They will use it in order to fool them. Additionally, chapter 18 observes, When intelligence increases, there is great falseness. Such mixed messages are not what I want to hear! If I’m honest, I must admit that any moral indignation I hold on to is simply a projection—a symptom—of what I want or fear. (See symptoms point of view, p.141) Realizing these inner working of thought helps offset the disease chapter 71 describes.
Sadness also confers some surprising social benefits. “While a positive mood may increase self-focus and selfishness, a negative mood can increase concern for others and the quality of communication,” Forgas says.
Norbert Schwarz, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, is one of the pioneers in studying how happy and sad moods inform people about their current situation and influence their thinking styles. “We experience our moods as being real and we use them as real information,” Schwarz told staff writer Bruce Bower in an interview. “Even someone like me who studies that stuff falls prey to their own moods.”
I’d go further and say that emotions, happy or sad, not only “influence thinking styles”, they cause them. We are how we feel; we think from within how we feel. To put it in Descartes-ese, “I feel therefore I think the way I think”. This research just helps to demonstrate this.
But moods may not engage specific mental strategies as proposed by Forgas, says psychologist Jeffrey Huntsinger of Loyola University Chicago. Several recent investigations, described by Huntsinger in the August Current Directions in Psychological Science, suggest that positive moods prompt individuals to double down on any current thinking style, while negative moods trigger a shift to an alternative thinking style.
Among neutral-mood volunteers focusing broadly on an experimental task, those induced to be happy thought even more expansively about the task, whereas those prodded into sadness switched to concentrating on details. When already in a detail-oriented frame of mind, volunteers who became happy maintained that perspective, while those who became sad moved to a broad focus.
If these findings hold up, happy and sad moods simply signal whether or not to change one’s current thinking style, Huntsinger says, rather than indicating whether to adopt an analytical or playful thinking style. Researchers have yet to test which of these two possibilities best explains mood-related behaviors.
Forgas acknowledges that much remains unknown about precisely how moods influence thought. If moods work as Huntsinger suggests and not as orchestrators of specific thinking styles, Forgas says, it won’t get him down. Not that there would be anything wrong with that.
Related to sad moods, I have noticed an increased dedication to the dutiful practices that I’ve engaged in most of my life, i.e., yoga, tai chi, and blowing Zen. I always thought this was due to increasing maturity. It still could be, but I suspect now this increased commitment is also due to the onset of a more baseline sadness into my life, which may play a big role. When life gets serious, you take it more seriously.
Finally, I see hints of the researchers running into the free-will wall. While all the biological, sociological, and zoological evidence points away from free will, I find the researchers have a hard time accepting the evidence’s full implications. Of course, no one can prove free will doesn’t exist, but we could acknowledge the lack of evidence for it! I mean, we could if we had free will! 😉 No, I’m afraid the myth of explicit free will is a cornerstone of our Western paradigm. Yet, it goes deeper than that. The Western belief in free will is merely an offshoot of a universal implied sense of free will that has haunted humanity ever since our species evolved the ability to imagine a self. All this then is just the natural result of emotions driving thought. It is always interesting to see us dancing around that issue. It reminds me of Hans Christian Andersen’s, The Emperor’s New Suit (the Emperor had no clothes, but…).
(1) My Correlations project only lasted six months, albeit, six months of 24/7. The shift of my baseline mood to a somber side was rather sudden, but a core free will paradigm persisted for another decade. Only gradually did I begin to doubt it, and look for evidence. I found none that a simpler process couldn’t explain. The simplest and most elegant process I found was this: The strongest need or fear chooses the course all animals (including humans) take in life. That brought Buddha’s Four Truths into deeper focus. Evidence for his Truths became exceedingly easy to find. It appears that waking up to reality is a slow, life long process despite flashes of insight along the way. You could say, enlightenment is both gradual and sudden.