The complexity of emotions has led to many misleading conceptions in research, and it has also given emotions a lousy reputation. But the more we learn about them, the more we understand that emotions are, in fact,  a superpower. 

A well-developed emotional intelligence, not emotional sensitivity but a reflected understanding of the complexity of emotions, differentiates between high-achievers and people trying to make it but unable to create the desired change. 

Why is that? 

Did you know that meaningful change happens only in accordance with positive emotions? This is because our brain becomes more creative when we feel safe and confident. Let me rephrase that: negative emotions and experiences hinder the development of neural pathways that allow envisioning an optimistic future. Therefore, they hinder us from learning, being creative, and finding solutions for new problems. 

That doesn’t mean that you need to ensure that you live a happy life; on the contrary, the full spectrum of emotions is necessary to understand how the other side of the coin looks. You cannot know what true joy is without also understanding sadness or even loss. Therefore, it is essential to experience anger, fear, and even jealousy to reflect on your emotional understanding. 

How emotional culture impacts or interprets emotions. 

Most likely, you have come across the common conception that nordic European countries are stoic, Latin countries are highly emotional, Americans are often perceived as fake, and eastern European countries are highly negative. As much as some of these are exaggerated, culture goes beyond traditions, values, and norms. It modulates how we understand and express emotions. It tells us how we should feel in specific situations and which emotions we need to express. Therefore you and I will most likely have a different understanding of emotions. We might even express emotions in another way. 

Just to give you an example: I remember celebrating one of my birthdays in Florida with my exchange-host family. They were very excited to have me there, made a special cake, and had a wonderful birthday gift. After opening the gift, they wanted to know if I liked it, and in my very German way, I responded, yes, it is good. Now for many Americans, that means that I didn’t like it too much since I didn’t express in full excitement how amazing the gift was. I wasn’t just modulating and holding my emotions back. I never learned the culturally appropriate expression on showing in an American context that I liked the gift.

What is the difference between emotionally intelligent and emotionally sensitive? 

In recent years the conversation on being emotionally sensitive has influenced various psychological and sociological discussions, including being an empath and having a higher emotional understanding. This topic is challenging to navigate through, especially when many people think it is more important to listen to your own emotions and give yourself space to feel everything you are feeling.

Firstly, just because someone allows herself to feel everything doesn’t mean they have high social-emotional intelligence. It is one thing to feel what you are feeling and another to place it into a context and understand how your emotions affect others. Secondly, your understanding of specific emotions can differ, meaning you can misinterpret emotions. I regularly see this when women express excitement about a project, and men twist it as too emotional.

Rather than developing emotional sensitivity, it is necessary to develop emotional intelligence, which allows a full-spectrum reflection on emotions. That means that it is not essential to decoding right away what others are feeling. Instead, it is consequential to give space for reflection because emotions are a complex social construct beyond the physical experience of feeling. 

The three sides to emotions. 

As previously written and shown in my research on “masculinity and emotions in high-security prison facilities,” emotions have three components: Experiencing, Evaluating, and Expressing – the 3 E’s. Emotions are, therefore, another dynamic social process, and they are always moving. They are not static cultural constructs and are not embedded in set rules. Each of us has an individual imprint of how to understand our emotions. Upbringing, culture, family structure, gender, and social environment are just a few factors influencing our emotional world.

The one common factor that we as human beings worldwide share is that we are emotional beings and not rational because our emotions influence our rationale. And without a trained reflective process, we can’t be anything else than subjective in our interactions and decisions. And, of course, pure objectivity is, in my opinion, something that is impossible to reach. But, still, through an appropriate reflective process, we can start to understand how we are influencing our decision-making process. 

“Learn to see the whole picture.”

Why do we need to let go of the belief that rationale is the only way to make decisions? 

At the risk of sounding holistic, life is a full-body experience. We need all of our senses to be able to create complete memories. We smell, feel, see, hear and touch our environment. Nevertheless, many believe that decisions should be solemnly made through rational thinking, taking facts, statistics, and past experiences into account while forecasting the future. The common perception is that a successful decision is a decision that results in precalculated results. But life is constantly changing. Everything around us is in constant change, and if you are acting outside physical laws, you might quickly run into issues with your forecast.

Instead of relying on making decisions based on logic, consider making your decisions based on an all integrating approach. 

Holistic decision-making.

Please bear with me for a moment, even if you have an adverse reaction to the word holistic. 

These six pillars help you make decisions: rationale/logic, motivation/desire, intuition, creativity, physicality/bodily, and emotions. 

Many prefer making decisions and relying on one or a few pillars instead of integrating every aspect of our human experience. Significantly, the emotional part is being left unattended or suppressed –  but that doesn’t mean you can turn off your emotions. Instead, you are making your decisions without reflecting on how your feelings are impacting that decision-making process.

The best example of this was the economic crisis in 2008, when fear was one of the guiding emotions of many financial investors (read more here). The gravity of the situation could have been ameliorated through emotional regulation and understanding of the individual and collective emotions, especially because emotions are contagious. 

Suppressing emotions doesn’t mean that you become more logical. On the contrary, you are afraid of facing a whole experience and therefore prohibiting a well-reflected decision. Allowing yourself to step into your decision superpower means allowing yourself to step into your emotions. 

This is why emotional intelligence is a superpower. 

Being emotionally intelligent is the other kind of intelligence. It involves understanding how others feel and how we feel. With this in mind, it allows us to interact positively with one another. In particular, it will enable us to understand that the other person is doing the best they can. It also allows us to:

  • build healthy relationships
  • Fuels relationships with trust and positivity
  • To express ourselves better
  • Be more successful
  • Express our emotions in a sensitive and nurturing way
  • Prevent conflict

But there is much more to it. Positive emotions are responsible for evolution and progress (read more here. Robert Wright demonstrates the effect of positive emotions and experiences on how we have evolved as humankind in his book Nonzero). 

Being able to take a step back from our emotions and observe them rather than react to them immediately is a skill that helps us be more successful in life. Choosing which emotions we respond to is a significant milestone in deciding where we guide our attention and how we navigate through difficult circumstances. In addition, it allows us to mitigate the impact of stress on our bodies and brains, developing a mindset that helps us reach our goals and experience success. 

Focusing on positive emotions and creating more positive experiences builds resilience (emotional resources needed for coping). Positive emotions broaden our awareness and therefore allow us to see more solutions to problems. In addition, the latest brain research shows compelling evidence that positive emotions increase our creativity and prevent degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and early-onset dementia. 

Further, studies show that people do their best when they have at least three times as many positive emotions as negative emotions because they feel better (read more in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor). 

How can we cultivate positive emotions as the path forward?

Two of the questions that many of my clients ask are: how can I overwrite or change my negative emotions? And, how can I create more positive emotions even when I am feeling down? 

Let’s start with the second one. One of the general issues is within our own cultures, especially in individualistic cultures, there is a tendency to focus on the negative comments around us. Of course, this is partially based on the negativity bias, but culture plays a significant role in how we experience our surroundings. 

The second dilemma is that many of us are in constant competition, which means we are in a constant state of comparison. This alone makes us feel inadequate and makes us question our own identity.

The third difficulty that we are facing is that we base our identity on how we feel. One of the reasons for that is the individualization of emotions. Meaning we assume that every emotion that we are feeling is our personal emotion. This is when the ability to step aside and observe our emotions from the sideline becomes a tremendous change maker. 

As a reminder, emotions are socially and culturally constructed. They are made to keep us in check. However, especially emotions such as shame and power leave long-lasting negative marks on our individual development. They are designed to make us feel inadequate. Of course, they are necessary tools for normal social behavior but often leave a negative imprint that can easily cause depression and anxiety. More so, they prevent us from becoming the best version of ourselves. 

Cultivating positive emotions is a necessary step towards balancing out the negativity bias and degrading social effects. And this is how you can do it. 

Tools to cultivate positive emotions: 

  1. Focus on others and how they positively impact you. Specifically, give sincere thanks to others. Research has shown that one of the most effective tools to get your mind away from negativity and negative emotions is to focus on how others are bringing joy into your life.
  1. Celebrate your strengths. Acknowledging your strengths and what you are good at is essential to understand that you have the power to change and to overcome difficult situations. 
  1. Keep a ‘gratitude journal.’ For example, try to write down every evening the good things that happened throughout the day and read through the journal whenever you feel down. Explicitly try to focus on the positive emotions that you have experienced in these situations. It might help to describe how it made you feel when something went well. And recall these emotions. Shifting your focus allows you to change your perspective. 
  1. Speak to someone who has a different perspective on the situation. Yes, sometimes you want sympathy and someone to listen to your rant. I am a firm believer that letting frustration out can be one of the methods to get you back up. It’s like detoxing your brain from negative thoughts. But if this process takes longer than a few hours, you might need help to move you out of negativity and into the state of flexibility (set vs. flexible mindset). Make sure that you have a list of people who can show you a different perspective and be open with your request. 
  1. Reflect on your behavior. Find an opposite argument to every point you are making. The world is round, and our emotional experiences are a dynamic process in itself. Remember, without experiencing negative emotions, and you wouldn’t have the ability to experience positive ones. The contrast is what is needed. So when you are stuck in negativity, try to contrast your thoughts and emotions.
  1. Find the positive in an adverse event from your past. And reflect on which events had a more significant long-term effect on your life. 
  1. Create time to stay connected with people you care about in your life and invest quality time into these relationships. 
  1. Offer sincere compliments. This allows you to focus on others and also to build meaningful connections. And remember, emotions are contagious. So if you make someone else feel good, you will also feel good. 

Other activities that help cultivate positive emotions include practicing mindfulness and finding the silver lining in difficult situations. Reading funny and entertaining books and watching funny light comedy can also increase oxytocin and dopamine, which play a significant role in how we feel. 

Another trick is changing how you think and feel in observing other people and how they deal with difficult situations. You can also reflect on the following questions in your journal:

  • What can you learn from people who stayed optimistic in life even though they experienced significant losses?
  • Have you or someone you know experienced growth as a result of distress?

Learn from other cultures. 

One of my favorite and most effective ways to prevent and dissolve depression and a negative life experience is traveling. And by travel, I don’t mean going on an all-inclusive vacation and never leaving the hotel or boat (At times, however,  even this can be very effective: especially if you are close to a burnout). What I am referring to is traveling to countries with a very different cultures. Among my favorite places are Mozambique and South Africa.  In these scenarios, it is not about focusing on what you have and what these people don’t, but seeing how magnificent their attitude towards life is even though they don’t have everything we have. 

And don’t get me wrong, many developing countries need support and more access to resources such as education, technology, and health care. But many of us have forgotten the simplicity of life and the ability to be in the present moment. 

And yes, many articles, podcasts, Clubhouse rooms, and various other resources preach mindfulness and meditation. Yes, you are being reminded of being in the present moment constantly. Nevertheless, this is one of the most challenging things. Traveling and seeing other cultures living on a day-to-day basis allows you to take it and experience again what it means to be in the moment. 

And being in the moment is one of the most effective ways of being able to experience positive emotions. Notably, creating these memories is what will allow you to build resilience. 

If you are looking for support in learning to create more positive emotions in your life or want to be a more authentic leader, feel free to reach out to me, and let’s see how we can work together. 

Additional articles:

How fear impacts decision making

The psychology of financial decision making and economic crises

Emotion and Decision Making

Shame- and guilt-proneness: relationships with anxiety disorder symptoms in a clinical sample