Atlas of Emotions in the New York Times

May 6, 2016

As featured in The New York Times (Inner Peace? The Dalai Lama Made a Website for That)

ROCHESTER, Minn. — The Dalai Lama, who tirelessly preaches inner peace while chiding people for their selfish, materialistic ways, has commissioned scientists for a lofty mission: to help turn secular audiences into more self-aware, compassionate humans.

That is, of course, no easy task. So the Dalai Lama ordered up something with a grand name to go with his grand ambitions: a comprehensive Atlas of Emotions to help the more than seven billion people on the planet navigate the morass of their feelings in order to attain peace and happiness.

“It is my duty to publish such work,” the Dalai Lama said.

To create this “map of the mind,” as he called it, the Dalai Lama reached out to a source Hollywood had used to plumb the inner workings of the human psyche.

Specifically, he commissioned his good friend Paul Ekman — a psychologist who helped advise the creators of Pixar’s “Inside Out,” an animated film set inside a girl’s head — to map out the range of human sentiments. Dr. Ekman later distilled them into the five basic emotions depicted in the movie, from anger to enjoyment.

Dr. Ekman’s daughter, Eve, also a psychologist, worked on the project as well, with the goal of producing an interactive guide to human emotions that anyone with an Internet connection could study in a quest for self-understanding, calm and constructive action.

“We have, by nature or biologically, this destructive emotion, also constructive emotion,” the Dalai Lama said. “This innerness, people should pay more attention to, from kindergarten level up to university level. This is not just for knowledge, but in order to create a happy human being. Happy family, happy community and, finally, happy humanity.”

The Dalai Lama paid Dr. Ekman at least $750,000 to develop the project, which began with a request several years ago.

“ ‘When we wanted to get to the New World, we needed a map,’ ” Dr. Ekman recalled the Dalai Lama telling him. “ ‘So make a map of emotions so we can get to a calm state.’ ”

As a first step, Dr. Ekman conducted a survey of 149 scientists (emotion scientists, neuroscientists and psychologists who are published leaders in their fields) to see where there was consensus about the nature of emotions, the moods or states they produce, and related areas.

Based on the survey, Dr. Ekman concluded that there were five broad categories of emotions — anger, fear, disgust, sadness and enjoyment — and that each had an elaborate subset of emotional states, triggers, actions and moods. He then took these findings to a cartography and data visualization firm, Stamen, to depict them in a visual and, hopefully, useful way.

“If it isn’t fun, it’s a failure,” Dr. Ekman said. “It’s got to be fun for people to use.”

Stamen’s founder, Eric Rodenbeck, has created data visualizations for Google, Facebook and MTV, as well as maps showing climate change and rising oceans. But he said the Atlas was the most challenging project he had ever worked on because it was “built around knowledge and wisdom rather than data.”

Not surprisingly, getting scientists to reach a unified understanding of human emotions was difficult.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, also counseled Pixar on establishing and depicting the emotional characters for “Inside Out.” He has even advised Facebook on its emoticons.

While Dr. Keltner took part in Dr. Ekman’s survey, the two are not in complete agreement on the number of core emotions. Dr. Keltner said that the findings the Atlas was based on were not without flaws, but that he saw the project as a good step.

“The survey questions could have allowed for more gray areas,” he said. “But it’s important to take stock of what the scientific consensus is in the field.”

Dr. Ekman emphasized that the Atlas was not a scientific work intended for peer review.

“This is not a science project,” he said. “It is a visualization for what we think has been learned from scientific studies. It’s a transformative process, a work of explanation.”

Whether science project or tool for self-enlightenment, the Dalai Lama wants to keep religion out of it.

“If we see this research work as relying on religious belief or tradition, then it automatically becomes limited,” he said. “Even if you pray to God, pray to Buddha, emotionally, very nice, very good. But every problem, we have created. So I think even God or Buddha cannot do much.”

The Dalai Lama said he hoped the Atlas could be a tool for cultivating good in the world by defeating the bad within us.

“Ultimately, our emotion is the real troublemaker,” he said. “We have to know the nature of that enemy.”

The Dalai Lama said he had been encouraged by President Obama’s reaction to the project when he told him about it in India.

“Obama seems, I think, to show more interest about our inner value,” he said. “In the past, compassion was something of a sign of weakness, or anger a sign of power, sign of strength. Basic human nature is more compassionate. That’s the real basis of our hope.”

While excited about the Atlas, however, the 80-year-old Dalai Lama will probably not be clicking around the interactive site. He is much more comfortable turning the printed pages of a version that was custom-made for him.

“Technology is for my next body,” he once quipped to the researchers.