“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions, I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”
That quote from Oscar Wilde is how psychologist Doreen Davy kicks off Emotional Life: Managing Your Feelings to Make the Most of Your Precious Time on Earth.
Whether an experience is good or bad is largely the product of how one feels about the event. And yet it can seem at times that we have very little actual control over our emotional outlook. For me, anyway, emotions can feel more fickle than a Seattle summer day: morning clouds burst off into glorious sunshine, only to make way for an evening downpour — none of which the weather forecast predicted. If you can relate to that up-and-down feeling, consider reading Davy’s book.
Davy begins with a sort of Emotions 101. Yet merely understanding our emotions is only the first step — we want ways to influence them, shift the balance towards the positive. Thus the book also focuses on the cultivation of positive emotional states, including skills and strategies to establish more upbeat moods. Davy offers a number of examples of things that can elevate one’s mood. As she notes, “although we may not have full control over every situation in life, we can take quite a lot of responsibility for our personal level of happiness by consciously choosing to engage in activities that will enrich our lives.”
What sort of activities? Davy gives examples from her own life. Spending time in nature or with friends and family, listening to a moving piece of music, seeking out beauty. Clichéd? Perhaps a little. But, she highlights that we can take an active role in thoughtfully building our own happiness.
In addition to the cheery stuff, Davy of course discusses the trap of being stuck in negative emotions — anxiety, depression, or stress — and how our thoughts and behaviors can influence these emotional states and their duration.
I particularly appreciated her chapter on minimizing negative emotions. Reading through her description of the most common thinking errors that can exacerbate negativity, I found myself ticking off mental check boxes. All-or-nothing thinking? Check. Over-generalizing? Check. Catastrophizing? Giant check. There is no potential problem or obstacle that I can’t make worse with a little catastrophizing. What, though, to do about this?
No book is likely to turn my thinking completely Pollyanna-ish overnight. Luckily, rather than seek an always-cheerful outlook, Davy promotes a more balanced approach — acknowledging the negativity but not dwelling there. “Balanced thinking,” she writes, “is important because it helps to create a healthy emotional state, and it’s our emotions that largely determine how well we experience our lives.” To this end, she devotes a chapter to mindfulness, offering examples of how being in the moment while also being aware of the bigger picture can help to center us.
Davy also points out that the emotional and physical well-being are closely linked. Aspects of self-care like nutrition, exercise, and sleep really do help. She offers tips for establishing new, healthier routines, and changing those old habits that may not be serving you.
While the book is worthwhile overall, a chapter near the end that discusses death and our response to it did seem to wander far afield. Talk of reincarnation and cryonics felt rather out of place (though I suppose it does relate to the bigger picture in the most extreme sense).
Still, the book is engaging, with the right blend of common sense and emotional insight. Because the writing is conversational and honest, the book feels a bit like sitting with an engaging therapist — one who is willing to reveal small pieces of her own life to enrich the conversation.
Emotional Life: Managing Your Feelings to Make the Most of Your Precious Time on Earth
Psyche Books, March 2014
Paperback, 219 pages