We Are We Do: Emotions, Trauma, and Happiness

Our story begins with two elderly gentlemen sitting on a hillside overlooking their village by the seaside. We'll call them Peter and Simon, (good Biblical names, with a little pun included), but any names will do. They've had long and successful lives and they're enjoying their retirement and they're reminiscing. It's a beautiful day, the sounds of seagulls is in the air, the sky is blue with just the hint of white clouds, the sun shines and bounces off the calm sea, and a gentle breeze cools our friends.

But Simon is particularly rueful. He shakes his head and frowns. "Looks at those beautiful fishing boats going out to sea, Peter," he says, giving a disdainful wave. For decades I was the best builder of boats in the village. But do they call me Simon the Boat Builder in the village? No!" Peter nods slowly and silence passes.

Simon is not to be stopped. "After being a boat builder, I became a house painter. Looks at those beautiful houses, with their fresh whiteness, unsullied by the elements. But do they call me Simon The Painter in the village? No! And then, for my third career, I became the town planner. See those new streets and buildings, which I designed to fit the geography. I even went to university to learn this! But do they call me Simon the Town Planner in the village? No!"

"But just one goat!"

Welcome to "We are what we do", a presentation on mindful action as a pathway to manage our emotions, overcome trauma, and to reach happiness. The story of Simon the swainwright, painter, and town planner (among other things) is a reminder that not all actions are equal, and some are more memorable than others.

To give credit where it is due, the title of this address comes from a chapter from a popular and insightful book by physician Gordon Livingstone, with the evocative "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need To Know". As a physician Livingstone makes an observation that is perhaps against his own professional interest; that from moderate sadness to outright depression is not something whose solution can be found in medication, or at the very least not alone. A sleeping tablet might overcome and provide temporary what has been sleepless and anxious nights, but are invariably addictive and can damage memory and attention. They are usually not recommended for long-term treatment and, in many cases, they are not addressing the underlying causes, and those causes are very often a result of what we do.

What we do provides a foundation of our own identity and this is often provided in terms of our professional, vocational, or domestic life. At a glance, if one describes themselves as a mother, an engineer, a student, a musician, a clerk, a nurse, a cleaner, etc we develop a mental image of their activity. We know what they are, it's what they do. Obviously enough, with the often inaccurate separation of public and private life, a person may identify and be described as belonging to multiple spheres of activity. The student, as many (but not enough) may be an activist, the cleaner might also be a father, the engineer might be an alcoholic, and so forth. But of course, these describe their interactions with the external world. They do not deal with their inner life and their emotional states, whether they have a life of happiness or sadness. For that, we must dig a little deeper.

Understanding emotional states, both within ourselves and in others, requires acceptance of their validity. Our assessment of their cause might be wrong, and our reactions to them might be wrong or even harmful, but the emotion itself - fear, love, guilt, joy - remains valid regardless. This is important for both our internal honesty and for establishing an empathic rapport with others. Further, we usually do not have executive control of our emotional states, at least not directly. People do not wake up and say to themselves, "You know? I think I'll be miserable today and wallow in self-loathing". It is far more likely that they wake up feeling miserable and, as a result of that feeling, engage in the wallowing. Expressing an answer a little in advance, we will discover that the latter does, however, influence the former.

Where do these emotional states come from? One thing that we can say for sure is that there is enormous variation in emotional states across different societies. The United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network conducts a "World Happiness Report", based on the subjective ratings of respondants in different countries. Scoring at more than 7.5 out of a possible 10, the happiest countries in the world are Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland. At the other end of the scale at 3.0 and less are Zimbabwe, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. If one wishes to dig deeper into sociological data on the other end of the scale I can assure you that there is also great variation in other markers of aggregate emotional states between countries, such as incidences of murder, suicide, and so forth that cannot be explained by individual or cultural variation alone.

The variation in the degree of control that people have in their lives in these different countries provides an enormous indication suggesting the generation of emotional states. Negative emotional states, such as anxiety and depression, are often generated by traumatic experiences that have been done to a person where they lost control and consent, such as the experience of natural disasters, the experience of abuse, or that of deep betrayal. The scientific literature is pretty clear about this; traumatic experiences (especially in formative years) literally damage the brain. Most of us can also experience the negative emotional state of guilt, for actions, or the failure to act, which resulted in harm or unhappiness to another (including ourselves).

Contrariwise positive emotional states are largely generated by pleasing experiences where a person has had control and consent (e.g., emotional closeness, friendship, professional success) over an experience. None of this, of course, is meant to reduce the importance of genetic or epigenetic predispositions. Some people really are more prone to depression or mania or schizophrenia. There are rare cases where individuals are missing their amygdala and are, as a result, fearless. However, in most cases there is an experiential basis on emotional states and importantly, this is something we can control.

This being the case, there is also a path out of unhappiness and toward happiness that should work for most people and it involves a return to the title of this address; we are what we do. An increased generation of positive emotions will result from increased good and successful actions motivated by kindness, respect, love, truth, and communication. Simple acts of social solidarity not only make the world a better place but make one a better and happier person. This is not to suggest that negative emotional states will not occur. They certainly will; the nightmares of the past do weigh heavily on the minds of the present.

But just like learning a new skill, it is possible to establish new neural pathways by engaging in behavioural change. In other words, just as negative experiences can cause literal brain damage, so it is possible for neurogenesis by wilfil action. Thus, when confronted with a negative emotional state, one can accept the feeling as valid, engage in emotional self-regulation, engage in cognition of what to do about it, and commit one's self to engage in positive action as a response. Which, based on the information provided here, can be both individual behaviour, interactions with others, or even advocacy for political and economic change.

Unfortunately, it is not always so easy by any stretch of the imagination. This is but a tentative sketch of a matter that requires enormous levels of additional research. Plus, on a somewhat pessimistic note, there are many reasons why such a conversion of one's self or society will not occur. Poor coping mechanisms and habits, the grudging ideological acceptance of social norms and privilege, all contribute to the generation of individuals and societies that are far from being as happy as they could be or are even on the right direction.

Past behaviour, unfortunately even when it consistently generates unhappiness and failure, is usually the best predictor of future behaviour. Indeed, there is a negative feedback loop; to alter a behaviour involves change, change means risk, and for a person who is already in a state of regular negative emotions, why would they want to take on the additional risk of failure? What is perhaps most difficult to accept is that there is no alternative if a path to happiness is sought. Whilst the devil that one knows is at least known, and a deal with the devil will always end in one being worse off, whether one takes the lesson from Marlowe, Goethe, or Tolstoy. We are what we do; and if we are unhappy with who we are or the situation we are in, we must do things differently.

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship, Sunday May 15, 2022

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