Emocracy: Psychology’s Curse

We live in an age of emocracy. In stark difference to most of humanity’s history, emotions overtly govern our private, professional, and public lives[1]. In this and a few subsequent posts, I will explore the question of how, when, and why the shift from keeping emotions “under cover” towards today’s unembarrassed emocracy happened[2]. My first hypothesis is: The rise of emocracy was strongly favored by the invention and (later) popularization of psychology. More specifically: Psychology’s and psychotherapy’s methods equipped us with tools to unpack emotions; psychology’s and psychotherapy’s success stories created the dream of a reachable goal for desirable emotional states; and the broad dissemination of psychological frameworks in business and society increased emotions’ value to the point of replacing reason as the hallmark of humanity.

The tools: In the late 19th and early 20th century, Western psychology, and in particular psychoanalysis, introduced the three-pronged concept of the human mind being moulded by (i) experiences which trigger (ii) emotions which in turn coagulate, forming relatively stable (iii) views of ourselves, others, and the world at large[3]. Especially in the case of painful, pathological states of mind, the various schools of psychology or psychotherapy then developed mechanisms to untangle present and past experiences, their associated emotional states, and the underlying – conscious or unconscious – views. With this, for the first time in (Western) history[4], emotions took over both as the main indicators of mental well-being (or lack thereof) and as an important entry-point for influencing it – by reducing (unwanted) or strengthening (wanted) emotions. Before the invention of psychology, we oriented our external behaviour along pre-defined catalogues of virtues and vices; we then applied reason and judgment to subdue (all) emotions in order to lead an honorable life. After the invention of psychology, we learned to orient our internal moods and feelings (and subsequent actions) along the emotional scale of attraction and repulsion. We worry when we feel down; we enjoy being “high”. The self-help sections of our airport book stores provide plenty of gadgets for tinkering with love, hate, and all that jazz. We now employ reason to support our striving for desirable emotional states, and our attempts to reduce the undesirable ones.

The dream: With the increasing differentiation between desirable and undesirable emotional states and with the tools to manage emotions, came a growing movement to search for a higher, emotionally charged goal. Around the middle of the 20th century, starting in the United States and then spreading around the world, the search for a “true calling”, a “true self”, a “true passion” became an obsession for almost everybody. By now, generations of seekers have meandered wide and far – externally – to find out who they “really” are and what they “really” want. Modern day pilgrimage to India, Bali, New Zealand or Silicon Valley is as much an expression of this as the success of books such as “Flow”[5], “Authentic Happiness”[6], or “Eat, Pray, Love”[7]. The common theme of all such searches is the dream that somehow, someday, somewhere we will finally stumble upon the one thing which will make us happy ever after, introducing us to eternal bliss, and once and for all eradicating all our unwanted emotions. By sheer logical conclusion, this dream implies that all unwanted emotions must be signs that we have not yet found the grail of happiness So whenever an unwanted emotion appears, we are startled into picking up the search again, leaving behind whatever we had thought was the “truth” we had found before. Of course, our ancestors also had dreams of eternal bliss. But: Across cultures, this bliss was expected to be found beyond this world. Well-behaving Jews, Christians, or Muslims would be accepted into their respective God’s heavenly realms; karmically conscious Hindus or Buddhists could hope for rebirth under more favorable circumstances; and sages of all creeds aspired to reach enlightenment, overcoming the foes of our daily grinds. Now, for the first time in history, human beings dream of achieving unconditional, boundless bliss in this very life.

The value: More recently, the dual belief in manageability of emotions and accessibility of emotional bliss has been complemented by a dramatic increase in the valuation of emotions. Once seen as fickle and fleeting, and therefore generally unreliable, emotions have managed to recast themselves as “what makes us human”. One starting point for this (re-) valuation was the discovery of “Emotional Intelligence”, first promoted by Daniel Goleman[8]. While mostly contrasting the “traditional” view on intelligence as expressed in IQ, reviewing plenty of psychological case studies on the value of emotions in human interactions, and speaking extensively about the advantages of managing emotions, Goleman does not stop short of saying that: “[…] all of us mix IQ and emotional intelligence in varying degrees […]. Still, of the two, emotional intelligence adds far more of the qualities that make us more fully human”. As the rise of computers and artificial intelligence is continuously undermining the old modernity’s view of human intelligence as the unique feature of our species, emotions have become first the stand-in, and then the lead actor in our story of “what makes us human”. The Cartesian: “Cogito ergo sum” has been replaced by an authorless (or: multi-authored): “Sentio ergo sum”. We are, because we feel; we are what we feel; we feel valuated (or devalutated) to the extent to which our emotions feel valuated; we therefore value our emotions above all else.

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Emotions are what makes us human; a blissful emotional state can be reached in this world; and (desirable and undesirable) emotions can be conjured up and conjured away at our will: These are the three beliefs that psychology gave to us. Are they Trojan Horses? Three Witches’ Curses? Or Rainbows, Unicorns, and Pink Flamingos?

Stay tuned!

[1] This piece is the second chapter of a series of blog posts on emocracy. The opening chapter can be found here and should be read first for context and perspective.BACK TO TEXT

[2] The questions: “What is gained? What is lost? And for whom?” and: “How do we want to shape our living together now and going forward, given that the age of emocracy seems to be here to stay?”, will then be addressed in later posts.BACK TO TEXT

[3] For the sake of the argument, I’m using this very condensed synthesis of the basis of pretty much all schools of psychology and psychotherapy – maybe with the exception of medical psychology in its narrower sense. This is not meant to belittle the significant differences between different schools of thought, but rather to provide a frame for the following arguments. BACK TO TEXT

[4] Other cultural realms, of course, have other attitudes towards emotions, and some have utilized them in manifold ways for a long time. The whole range of tribal spiritualities comes to mind, as well as the wisdom and methods of Tibetan Tantra with its idea of taking “emotions as the path”. BACK TO TEXT

[5] “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) is a wonderful book about human beings who achieve a continuous state of “flow” in certain highly-skilled, highly-trained physical activities such as sports or music as well as in mental activities such as research or games. It also contains brilliant observations and ideas on how to increase the share of “flow” in whatever each of us is doing. The obvious risk associated with this concept is that it can easily be misunderstood as downgrading all activities which do not coincide with a state of “flow”, thereby contributing to the endlessness of the search for the “true calling”.BACK TO TEXT

[6] “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment” by Martin Seligman (2002) is a wonderful book about the benefits of taking a positive (not in the trivial sense) outlook on life. However, here too, the danger of misunderstanding looms – a good example are the final words of the preface: “So Positive Psychology takes seriously the bright hope that if you find yourself stuck again in the parking lot of life […], there is a road out. This road takes you through the countryside of pleasure and gratification, up into the high country of strength and virtue, and finally to the peak of lasting fulfilment: meaning and pleasure”.BACK TO TEXT

[7] “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia” by Elizabeth Gilbert (2006) is a biographical novel about the author’s search for meaning across the mentioned countries. Her webpage gives further perspective on what happened after the time covered in the novel. Talking about her latest book, “Big Magic”, the website cheers: “Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us”.BACK TO TEXT

[8] Other cultural realms, of course, have other attitudes towards emotions, and some have utilized them in manifold ways for a long time. The whole range of tribal spiritualities comes to mind, as well as the wisdom and methods of Tibetan Tantra with its idea of taking “emotions as the path”. BACK TO TEXT

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