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Life By Design Blog

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Business Book Club: Heaven and Hell The Psychology of the Emotions

I've set myself a goal to read one self-development book per month. To make sure I really reflect on what I'm reading I'm going to extract the wisdom from the best business and personal development books and share it with you.

This month I’ve been reading Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions by Neel Burton


The book:

I’ve long been of the view that our emotions are too often ignored at the expense of intellect. It would seem that the author Neel Burton is of the same mind. He wrote the book to help us think more deeply about emotions and consider their purpose. In it, he examines 29 emotions ranging from lust to love and humility to humiliation, and drawing some interesting conclusions along the way.  The 29 emotions he covers in the book are:

  • Boredom
  • Loneliness
  • Laziness
  • Embarrassment, shame, and guilt
  • Pride
  • Humiliation
  • Humility
  • Gratitude
  • Envy
  • Lust
  • Sadomasochism
  • Desire
  • Hope
  • Nostalgia
  • Ambition
  • Anger
  • Patience
  • Depression
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Altruism
  • Friendship
  • Love
  • Kissing
  • Self-esteem
  • Courage
  • Ecstasy
  • Wonder
  • Empathy
  • Greed
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Below, is some of what I learnt:

First, some thoughts on emotions

We don’t give them enough credit.

The historical valuing of reason over emotions has not just lead to the suppression of feelings but to almost a complete disregard for them. The domain of emotions has been so neglected, Neel says, that most people are “oblivious to the deep currents that move them, hold them back, and lead them astray”.

We are not the best judges of our own behaviour: 

It seems we much more forgiving of our own emotional outbursts than those of others. When we explain the behaviours of others we tend to blame their personality traits but when it comes to our own behaviour we are more generous. When it's our emotional outbursts under the spot light we tend to place a greater blame on the situation. This means we are possibly not the best judges of our own emotions or behaviour.

Emotions and beliefs are different:

This is such a simple notion but it's something we rarely think about day to day. Beliefs are thoughts, things that are held rather than felt. For example, I might feel Bill is lying to me. In truth, I think bill is lying to me. This confusion between beliefs and emotions means that we might fail to recognise our true emotions, in this case perhaps the fact that I dislike Bill. Beliefs and thoughts are connected, one can give rise to the other and vice versa. However, if I fail to recognise the difference between them, my true feelings and desires go suppressed or ignored.

Emotions and time:

We can't feel emotions in the past or the future, all emotions are felt in the present. If we are worried about the future the feeling of worry is experienced in the present. The worry might be about the future but feeling of worry exists for you now. We can help ourselves by not fixating about the future but focusing on what we are feeling in the here and now. 

However, we can feel emotions about the past or the future and we when do this we come up with interesting names for theses feelings. When we feel emotions about the past we call this memory, when they are about the future we call this imagination or when they are about no time at all we call this fantasy.

Emotions aren’t just helpful, they are necessary:

Some people believe that having the ability to think without emotional interference would be wonderful. In reality, we need emotions to make decisions. Without emotions we would be overwhelmed by the amount of available information with which we could make a decision. Emotions are what tips the scale one way or the other and helps us focus our conscious attention on only the most relevant available facts and alternatives. Without them, we'd be evaluating all the available data all day and making decisions we be nearly impossible.

We have the cause of emotions the wrong way round:

We think that we feel scared then we start to shake. It’s long been known by psychologists that the physiological responses comes first (our pupils dilate, are hearts beat faster and our palms get sweaty) then we feel scared.  We notice the physical response and interpret it afterwards. This is why some people experience these signals as fear and others as excitement. The interpretation of these signals is all in our heads. This gives rise to the question, what interpretations are we choosing?


What of the emotions themselves?

Embrace boredom

I was surprised to learn that boredom can be a desirable thing. We need to let go of the idea that we should be constantly happy or stimulated. Burton points out, most of mankind's achievements are born out of an intuitive understanding of boredom. Boredom serves a purpose:

“Boredom can be our way of telling ourselves that we are not spending our time as well as we could, that we should rather be doing something else, something more useful and important, or more enjoyable and fulfilling”.


Loneliness is different to solitude

Loneliness is the pain of being alone (sometimes referred to as ‘social pain’) and is damaging. It has the same impact on the brain as physical pain. However it serves a purpose. Just as physical pain has evolved to signal and prevent injury, so loneliness may have evolved to signal social isolation and stimulate us to seek out social bonds.

Solitude, on the other hand is the joy of being alone, and is empowering. We need time for solitude and contemplation to process and unravel problems, so much so that our body imposes it upon us each night in the form of sleep.


Laziness used be a good thing

Our nomadic ancestors had to conserve energy to compete for scarce resources and to fight or flee enemies and predators. Wasting effort on anything other than short-term advantage could jeopardise their very survival. In any case, in the absence of modern inventions such as antibiotics, banks and refrigeration, it made little sense to think long term. Today, mere survival isn’t quite as high up our priority lists and, with ever increasing life expectancies, it is long-term thinking that leads to the best outcomes. The problem is that our instincts have not caught up.


Humility isn't just nice, it has many benefits

Scientists have linked it to pro-social dispositions such as self-control, gratitude, generosity, tolerance, forgiveness, and cooperativeness; and associated it not only with better social relationships, as might be expected, but also with improved health outcomes, better academic and job performance, and even a more effective leadership style.  This appears to be a much underrated emotion.


Modern definitions of depression might do as much harm as good.

Burton explains that in the western world, the concept of depression as a mental disorder has been unhelpfully overextended to include all manner of human suffering. This has led those of us to believe that any sadness or suffering is bad. However ‘‘depression’ (in the wider sense) can actually be good for us.

In traditional societies, emotional distress is more likely to be interpreted as an indicator of the need to address important life problems rather than as a mental disorder requiring professional treatment, and so a diagnosis of depression is less common. Thinking of unhappiness in terms of an illness can be counterproductive because it can prevent us from identifying and addressing the important psychological problems that are at the root of our distress.

But don’t think for one minute that Burton is damning of those who consider themselves to have depression. This simply isn’t true. He is quick to point out that to people with depression are not simply ‘failures’ as some would have us believe. He says:

“If these people are in the depressive position, it is most probably because they have tried too hard or taken on too much, so hard and so much that they have made themselves ‘ill with depression’. That is to say, if these people are in the depressive position, it is because their world was simply not good enough for them. They wanted more, they wanted better, and they wanted different, not just for themselves, but for all those around them. So if they are failures or losers, this is only because they set the bar far too high. They could have swept everything under the carpet and pretended, as many people do, that all is for the best in the best of possible worlds. But unlike many people, they had the honesty and the strength to admit that something was amiss, that something was not quite right. So rather than being failures or losers, they are just the opposite: they are ambitious, they are truthful, and they are courageous. And that is precisely why they got ‘ill’”



Burton suggests that we are all born with a healthy self-esteem and that this is either confirmed or denied by our life experiences. He notes that in the West, self-esteem is primarily based on achievement, whereas in the East (or the traditional East) it is primarily based on ‘worthiness’. In the West, one can get away with being unworthy so long as one is successful; conversely, in the East, one can get away with being unsuccessful so long as one is worthy. Neither culture has as text-book approach though.

Achievement-based self-esteem breeds a fear of failure and encourages the pursuit of ‘success’ at all costs. And because achievement is not wholly within our control, it provides a flimsy basis for  self-esteem.

Worthiness-based self-esteem also has its downsides. Again it is not wholly within our control as it relies on the approval and acceptance of others. The other problem is that this acceptance requires conformity and this severely restricts our range of possibilities.

Healthy self-esteem is internally referenced. People with a healthy self-esteem do not need to prop themselves up with external stimuli such as income, status, or lean on crutches like alcohol, drugs, or sex.

Self-confidence is ‘I can’, pride is ‘I did’, self-esteem is ‘I am’.


Is It Worth a Read?

I’ve been studying the role of emotions on our thinking and behaviour for many years and I chose this book in the hope that it would help me better understand why emotions occur and what we can learn from them. Burton certainly offers some fascinating insights on the full gamut of human emotions and I took a lot away from it. It’s given me a new appreciation of feelings such as humility and gratitude for example and it’s even converted me to the merits of being bored. My biggest takeaways are that, first of all, we don’t spend enough time acknowledging and understanding our feelings. We tend to want to think our way through life despite the fact that it is our emotions that truly give us direction. The second one would be the emotions that helped our nomadic ancestors may not necessarily be so helpful for us in the modern world and that failure to acknowledge and understand this can cause us to be at the mercy of short term impulses and rob us of future opportunities.

Neel Burton is a psychiatrist and philosopher. I was hoping for more of the psychiatrists insight into emotions but for much of the book we get more of Burton the philosopher. Some of emotions are described purely in terms of the thoughts of various schools of philosophy which is interesting enough but didn’t offer a great deal if insight. It even got boring in places (and I quite like philosophy). Overall I thought the book was interesting read and one that really makes you think. If you like thinking about feelings it’s worth a read. It may just cause you to reflection more carefully about why you behave the way you do.


What should I read next?  

Have you read the book? What did you think? What shall I read next?

If you have any recommendations let me know below or via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn

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