Buddhist and Psychological Perspectives on Emotions and Well-being
Excerpts taken from this article.
The influence of emotion
Buddhists and psychologists alike believe that emotions strongly influence our thoughts, words, and actions; and at times, they help us in our pursuit of transient pleasures and satisfaction.
From a Buddhist perspective, however, some emotions are conducive to genuine and enduring happiness and others are not. The Buddhist term for such happiness is “sukha,” which is a state of flourishing that arises from a state of mental balance and insight into the nature of reality. Rather than a fleeting emotion or mood, it is a state underlying and suffusing all emotional states. Many Buddhist contemplatives claim to have experienced such sukha, entailing a conceptually unstructured and unfiltered awareness of the true nature of reality.
Similarly, the Buddhist concept of “duhkha,” often translated as “suffering,” is not simply an unpleasant feeling. Rather, it refers to our basic vulnerability to suffering and pain due to misapprehending the nature of reality. (The terms sukha and duhkha are from the Sanskrit, which is one of the primary languages of Buddhist literature).
The traditional languages of Buddhism, such as Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan, have no word for “emotion” as such. Rather than distinguishing between emotions and other mental processes, Buddhism is concerned with understanding which types of mental activity are truly conducive to one’s own and others’ well-being, and which are harmful, especially in the long run.
Psychologists do not distinguish between beneficial or harmful emotions. Those who take an evolutionary view of emotion (e.g., Cosmides & Tooby, 2000; Ekman, 1992;), have proposed that over the history of our species, and currently, emotions are adaptive. Even those who categorize emotions as simply positive or negative (e.g., Watson, Clark & Tellegen, 1988) do not propose that all of the negative emotions are harmful to oneself or to others. The goal is not to rid oneself or transcend an emotion, not even hatred, but to regulate experience and action once an emotion is felt (Davidson, Jackson & Kalin, 2000) (note not all theorists consider hatred an emotion). Rather than focusing on increasing consciousness of one’s inner state, the emphasis in psychology is on learning how to re-appraise situations (Lazarus, 1991), or control (regulate) emotional behavior and expressions (Gross, 1999).
Overlap and contributions
The fact that there is no term in Buddhism for emotion, while discrepant from the modern research tradition on emotion that has isolated emotion as a process for explicit study, is actually quite consistent with what we know about the brain and emotion. Every region in the brain that has been identified with some aspect of emotion has also been identified with aspects of cognition (e.g., Davidson & Irwin, 1999). The circuitry that supports affect and the circuitry that supports cognition are completely intertwined. This anatomical arrangement is consistent with the Buddhist view that these processes cannot be separated.
Buddhist conceptions and practices that deal with emotional life make three very distinct contributions to psychology. Conceptually they raise issues that have been ignored by many, calling on psychologists to make more finely nuanced distinctions in thinking about emotional experience. Methodologically they offer practices for enriching the potential for individuals to report on their own internal experiences, providing crucial data not otherwise available in that detail or comprehensiveness from the techniques now used to study subjective emotional experience. Finally, the practices themselves offer a therapy, not just for the disturbed, but also for all those who seek to improve the quality of their lives. We hope what we have reported will serve to spark the interest of psychologists to learn more about this tradition.