The Atlas of Emotions — an interactive map of feelings
Emotions are deceiving — some can even pollute our mind.
In a groundbreaking move, the Dalai Lama joined forces with top Western psychologists with a lofty mission. He purposefully wanted to put religion aside.
The ultimate goal? He wants to help turn people into more self-aware, compassionate humans. If we can learn to navigate our (destructive) emotions, we will be able to achieve calmness and inner peace.
“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master.” — Epictetus
Our emotions shape our lives, not just our thoughts and behavior. However, in western culture, managing our emotions is associated with moral and social interaction, not for being a good person. Unlike Buddhists, we don’t think of emotions as a way to a harmonious inner-life.
But, what happens when we bring both science and Buddhism together? That’s what the Dalai Lama found out.
The Science of Emotions
Western science has been measuring what mental hygiene looks like for ages — unfortunately, most studies have created division, rather than alignment, among experts.
The Dalai Lama imagined “a map of our emotions to develop a calm mind.” He asked renowned emotion scientist, Dr. Paul Ekman, to realize his idea but to keep religion out of it.
The first step Ekman took was finding some common ground among scientists — his survey provided a shared foundation to how emotions work. The majority of experts agree that:
- Emotions are universal — facial signals to emotions are similar across cultures too
- We all experience five fundamental emotions: anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and enjoyment
- There are universal triggers to emotion
We get angry when something blocks us or when we think we’re being treated unfairly. Sadness is a response to loss — feeling sad allows us to take a timeout and show others that we need support.
Feeling disgusted by what is toxic helps us avoid being poisoned — both physically or socially. Our fear of danger lets us anticipate threats to our safety. Enjoyment describes the many good feelings that arise from experiences both novel and familiar.
Thoughts are private; emotions are public.
According to Dr. Paul Ekman, Professor of Psychology at UCSF we can know someone’s emotion, but not the thought that provoked it. He cites the example of someone who’s fearful when arrested. Is he afraid because he was caught or because he is innocent?
Emotions are an instant brain response — they happen to us, we don’t choose them.
But, when do emotions become destructive?
Science says all emotions are natural and okay, and that emotions become destructive only when they are expressed inappropriately. For example, it’s normal to experience sadness when someone dies, but a depressed person is sad in an inappropriate way.
Buddhism, on the other hand, believes that destructive emotions are obstacles — we must overcome them to achieve happiness.
Constructive emotions help improve a situation; destructive emotions make it worse.
The Emotional Timeline
The Atlas of Emotions is a visual representation of what researchers have learned from studying emotion. It helps us be aware of our emotions — how they are triggered, what they feel like, and how we can respond.
Dr. Ekman, who formerly worked as an advisor in Pixar’s “Inside Out” film, recalled the Dalai Lama telling him: “When we wanted to get to the New World, we needed a map. So make a map of emotions so we can get to a calm state.”
Our emotions unfold on a timeline — they begin with a trigger that initiates the emotional experience and ultimately results in a response.
The trigger occurs in a context defined by our circumstances and feelings, the event itself, and our worldview. The same stimulus can lead to different responses.
For example, we might suppress feelings of frustration at work, but express our frustration by yelling at a family member at home. Emotion suppression can create a short-term win — like avoiding an argument — but can become destructive if you are hurt by not speaking up for yourself.
“Whatever is begun in anger, ends in shame.” — Benjamin Franklin
Not all emotions are equal — they have varying shapes and intensities. For example, annoyance is a mild expression of anger, while fury is the most extreme version of that same emotion.
Our emotional experience clouds our perception of a situation — we filter people and events through our emotions. Your reaction can turn an emotion into a destructive one.
Emotions are a signal — they can prevent danger, or get you in trouble.
Our response is the last element — and the most important one — of the emotional timeline. Although it’s not always easy to control our emotions, some responses are more destructive than others. Rather than reacting to them, we must learn to understand our emotions.
“In the past, compassion was something of a sign of weakness, or anger a sign of power, a sign of strength. Basic human nature is more compassionate. That’s the real basis of our hope.” — Dalai Lama
Destructive emotions, according to Daniel Goldman, refer to an emotion that can lead us to harm ourselves and others — either mentally or physically. Though anger, paralyzing fear, and depression are the most frequent ones, almost any emotion can cause harm. Craving and addiction — even an obsessive pursuit of happiness — can become destructive.
Emotions distort our ability to think clearly making it more difficult to choose the right response. After a destructive emotion arises, there is a “refractory period” — we don’t let new information enter our mind, and we keep rehashing one particular emotion.
Time and distance help us gain clarity and make better choices.
Take the example of a colleague that frequently arrives late to a meeting. You might think s/he is deliberately insulting you and interpret everything s/he does as a personal attack. Therapy, mindfulness, and meditation train our mind to shorten the refractory period — we learn to reflect rather than being blinded by our feelings.
By increasing self-awareness, we learn to pause before we respond and choose a constructive reaction.
The Antidote to Destructive Emotions
Scientists have learned that recurring negative emotions can create long-term harm.
That’s the case of people who suffer from cynical hostility, a pattern defined by high anger and frequent thoughts that others can’t be trusted. People who experience cynical hostility tend to get more cardiovascular diseases and often die at younger ages.
The antidote to a destructive emotion is a constructive emotion.
To fight anger, hatred, and fear, we must develop compassion, love, and patience. Destructive emotions are impulsive — they are based on misconceptions and illogical reasons. Constructive emotions are realistic — they are grounded in valid observation and reasoning.
The Dalai Lama recommends we use valid reasoning to develop a mental state to overcome destructive emotions. For example, love, as an antidote to anger, must be cultivated through reasoning.
“A calm mind directly leads to peace of mind” — Dalai Lama
The result of constructive emotions is a calm mind — we see and experience life more vividly and realistically. What destroys a calm mind? Fear, suspicion, hatred, anger, greed, and too much ambition.
The Dalai Lama believes that “Just as we teach about physical hygiene in the interest of good health, we now need to teach about emotional hygiene.”
Dr. Mark Greenberg, Professor at Pennsylvania State University, trains young children how to manage their destructive emotions, especially anger. His program helps children calm down — to decrease the refractory period — and become more aware of emotional states in themselves and others.
The program coaches kids to discuss their feelings as a way to solve problems, plan ahead to avoid difficulties, and be aware of the effects their behavior has on others.
Children learn to identify the various emotions and their opposites. They use a set of cards with different facial expressions of emotions, so others know how they’re feeling. Greenberg’s approach teaches that emotions are important signals, but we must be calm to behave appropriately.
The Dalai Lama coined the term Emotional Hygiene to encourage us to get anger, frustration, and anxiety, under control. Negative emotions cloud our mind — we must wash them away.
The spiritual leader believes that, in addition to managing destructive emotions, we need to cultivate positive ones as well. Although they may not be usable in the heat of the moment, positive emotions build a good foundation — they strengthen your ‘emotional immune system.’
Scientists agree that when we practice something positive often, our brain changes for the better.
How to Develop Emotional Hygiene
The same way we learn standards of physical hygiene, we must develop our emotional hygiene. Start by increasing your emotional awareness — you want to understand your emotions, not get rid of them.
1. Recognize emotions
Take time to step back and observe your emotions. How do you feel? What do you experience? Naming our emotions is the first step to increase awareness.
Learn to discriminate your feelings — some people confuse anger with fear. Get familiar with how each emotion manifests. The post below can help you dive deeper into each emotion.
2. Know the triggers
Understand what sets you off. Recognize the signals or stimuli that can cloud your judgment. Are there any particular event, context, or person that usually triggers destructive emotions?
Review recent incidents and use the Emotional Timeline to reflect on your reactions.
Trigger → Emotional Reaction → Behavioral Response
What have you learned? What would you do differently next time? Why?
3. Connect with your body
Our facial language is not the only way we communicate our emotions. Recognize how your feelings affect your body. Notice changes in your breathing pattern, body temperature, heart rate, muscle knots, skin sensitivity, etc.
Our body is a great emotional conductor — notice your physical well-being and reactions. Learn to prevent tensions or to avoid damaging your body, by making space before you act — don’t let emotions create damaging patterns.
4. Manage your reactions
Reflect on how you usually react to a specific situation? Learn to pause before you respond. Emotions usually create a quick impulse to react, by training our mind, we make room to think before our emotions hijack our behavior.
The following mindfulness exercises are a great start to help you pause, reflect, and be more present.
5. Adjust and learn
Emotional Hygiene requires learning to perceive, appraise and express our emotions accurately. Your emotion-management ability not only improves well-being and social interactions but also helps overcome limiting behaviors such as procrastination.
Training your mind is not a linear path — it requires ongoing practice and adjustments. If you feel angry, learn to deal with that anger. You need to let go of that emotion to act more skillfully.
Practice will improve your ability, but don’t get frustrated when you get back to overreacting mode. Be patient and kind to yourself.
A clean mind creates space for loving-kindness, compassion, and happiness. Emotional Hygiene is the antidote to destructive emotions.
The Atlas of Emotions is a powerful visual tool to help you familiarize with your feelings. Play with it. The interactive map lets you click through the emotional timeline from identifying emotions to exploring its multiple layers and expressions.