Most of us have given or received well-wishing when we’re ill: “feel better soon!”, we’re told. In pursuit of feeling better, we spend enormous sums of time, energy, money, intelligence and focus. It’s a vast, almost inexorable common denominator that lies at the heart of our daily rounds. Cooking healthy food, learning new skills, trying a new hair do, or embarking on a new exercise program- we really DO want to have a good feeling in our bodies, emotions and spirits.
Most of our interpersonal and intrapersonal activities fall into this category. What DOES “feeling better” or “feeling well” even mean? Little of what is asserted, posited or contemplated in the sphere of feeling is held in common. Or objectively provable. We’re dealing with a variety of constructs. Our attempts to describe the causes, effects, interplay and aftereffects of feelings are inconsistent. The sensations, perceptions and consciousness of emotion are partial and subjective, at best.
Yet each of us must rely on one or more of these systems. Life coaches speak of energy, focus and narrative. Psychologists speak of feelings, trauma and family systems. Theologians speak of some version of ethics, good and evil. Doctors speak of physical systems and genetics. Of necessity, our felt experience of living and acting on ourselves, others and the environment is described.
How, then, are we to get the best possible utility out of the interaction between the self, these systems and the other people, places and things in our world? Those “objects” and persons with whom we must co-dwell? In short, how do we, in fact, feel better? Well, naming a thing, describing a thing, sorting these things and systematizing these things is the first step. THEN we can begin to work with them. Our behaviors, when aligned with our beliefs, bring us closer to “feeling better”. Which is essentially that “abundant life” or the ideal life of our vision.
We map the world around us as well as the world within. We do this through observation, interpretation and the exercise of agency. That is to say, we observe, make meanings and make choices based on those observations and those meanings that we make. For example, pretend that you and I are sitting at a cozy cafe and waiting for our order to be served. The sun is shining through the tall windows and people are working on their tablets or laptop computers, carrying on conversations with their lunch partners and enjoying their food.
We see a young mom and her daughter seated nearby. The child looks to be about three, with curly brown hair and big brown eyes. She is dressed in a riot of pink from head to toe. Leotard, tutu, leg warmers, slippers, small bag and cardigan. Odds are, you and I have already concluded that she is coming or going from a tots version of dance class and she loves pink. I’ve concluded that she’s a girly girl, but maybe you’ve decided that mom is probably the girly girl at heart and is living vicariously through her kid.
The waiter who is just now serving lunch to the little girl thinks that she looks JUST LIKE an older version of a Gerber baby image she remembers. The older cashier thinks that it’s a shame in this day and age to dress little girls in frilly pink clothes when simple shorts or pants and a shirt would be more comfortable for her. The same basic set of circumstances lead each of us to different interpretations, meanings and conclusions. All shaped by our own inner maps of how things are (or how they should be).
Observation is bounded at its outer edges by the limits of our sensory and extrasensory abilities. That said, the conclusion that we draw are predicated on the whole body of meanings that we have made. We each have some history behind us, the present moment and some sense of the future. Together, these intervals make up the story of our lives. Not the facts of our lives, but how we FEEL about them.
We’re limited by our own faculties and the ways in which we take things in, analyze them and draw conclusions about them. And by the systems that we use to perform those operations. Most of us would say that education and medicine are better now than they were in the eighteenth, nineteenth or twentieth centuries. Or at least their potential application is better. The ways in which we categorize, compare and draw conclusions changes with time,, place,, person,, context and culture. On the whole,, we have more and better options now than ever before with respect to how to map reality. The quality of implementation may be a different matter, depending on whose opinion is consulted.
Our capacity to bring the power of focus to bear is also material to the observations that we make and to the interpretations that follow on thereafter. All of this is further enhanced or inhibited by existing external and internal conditions. “There’s none so blind as those who will not see” is both a literal and metaphorical reference to the fact that we have more than one type of sensing ability. We perceive things through our physicality, psyche and spirit.
Without the regular use or good health of any one of these physical or metaphysical sensorial capacities, the quality and quantity of raw data with which we have to work will be restricted and compromised. Our physical senses are the classic five: we touch, taste, smell, see and hear. Two additional are balance (vestibular) and awareness of the position or movement of the body (proprioception). The use of other sensing faculties may be enhanced if one of these is compromised. Hearing or smell may become more sensitive in the absence of sight, for example.
However, the added acuity attained through the over-exercise of one or more other senses won’t replace the whole of the data lost. We haven’t learned to see comprehensively with smell or hearing, though information is certainly coming in. In terms of how much of the world around us is taken in through our senses, individual capacity varies.
It does so by both congenital factors and by environmental ones. Some people can see very well at a distance. Others have a great sense of balance. Some of us are tone deaf, sadly. Still others have a wonderful ability to balance themselves in dance, gymnastics etc. “Normal” may indeed be a setting on the clothes drier, but each of us has a bounded range of potential for sensing, comprised of these inborn traits. These are further enhanced or diminished by the frequency, efficacy and intensity with which they are exercised.
Data enters our being in the form of impressions: aromas, images, tactile, auditory and olfactory sensations. These physical inputs are often accompanied by an intangible equivalent: we feel, hear, see. taste and smell in the psyche as well as in our physicality. And in our sprit. These inputs may be experienced without conscious volition, yet our extra-physical sensory apparatuses also give us raw product to process. They do so in quantity and quality commensurate with our relevant, regular and rigorous exercise of them.
When our faculties are used with conscious, collective concentration, we have rich access to and recourse from more and better data/ metadata. Extrasensory faculties corresponding to the five senses are the “clairs”: clairvoyance or clear seeing, clairaudience or clear hearing, clairsentience or clear feeling/ knowing, clairiscent or clear smelling and clairgustescence or clear tasting. There are also clairtangency or clear touching (defining an object”s past context through touch) and clairempathy (the ability to sense within oneself the emotions and felt experiences of others. While not supported by sciientifically replicatable inquiries attempted to date, these “clairs” are nonetheless in good company insofar as the relative failure of science to inquire into greater than physical phenomenae.
The metaphysical remains, to date, the realm of the seeker, seer, philosopher, poet and theologian, inasmuch as a refusal to be definitively, quantifiably, irrefutably defined neither diminishes nor obviates many things called “real”. It might be interesting to see whether the “clairs”, so called, are, in fact , an intermediate phase of the pathway from perception to cognition by way of intuition, synthesis, extrapolation and inference. Irrespective of its mechanism, beyond somatic sensory acuity enhances and enriches our foundation for cognitive processing.
Once the sensory and extrasensory product enters any of us, a complex series of interrelationships begins to unfold through the mediation of the self, catalyzed at least in part by its affects, aspirations, and assumptions. Each of us is a complex web of bio-energies and we act upon ourselves before we act upon the outside world. The interplay of these energies can be seen in the way that we feel and perceive the relative wellness of the self, the situation with which we are dealing and the inclination that we choose to act on in consequence of the meanings we have derived from the initial inputs.
In the instant, we have the power to make any meaning that we may choose. The whole of the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual spectrum of possibilities is potentially open to us. The boundaries of the array of choices is certainly limited by other factors. Health, age, resilience, emotional or intellectual intelligence, imagination, capacity to engage with focus and intensity and similar considerations enhanceor inhibit both what we perceive and how we process. Ostensibly, however, humans are certainly “fearfully and wonderfully made”.
The totality of our emotional makeup stems from six basic building blocks and four additional blocks that were added later: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust were the first group of emotions recognized as occurring universally in all cultures, to which were later added pride, shame, embarrassment and excitement. Emotions are indeed elemental and integral to our human experience, but they are not elementary- and complex emotions formed from these building blocks can be more difficult to identify and therefore to reckon with.
Emotions can be considered with respect to intensity of the feeling. Irritation is less intense than anger, which is less intense than rage. And also with respect to duration; a moment of irritation in traffic is less impactful than an afterglow of anger from a negative confrontation with the boss. Which is less impactful than the heat of rage from severe injustice… such as having been beaten and robbed.
Frequency is also a key consideration; a moment of irritation might occur several times in a commute due to heavy traffic. But an interval of anger might arise several times during a workday when there are contentious interactions with demanding bosses and coworkers. A season of rage might occur several times in a lifetime due to experiences of loss and extreme injustice such as the untimely death of a loved one.
After all this- there is also the question of the effect of each emotion as it acts on our physical and psychological selves. Happiness is obviously a beneficial state, whereas fear is often detrimental. Happiness strengthens your heart, help your immune system, reduces the incidence and intensity of aches and pains, and reduces anxiety. Anger weakens your immune system, increases the risk of stroke, decreases cardiac and pulmonary health, and increases the risk of anxiety and depression.
The same person could be exposed to incidents that cause feelings of happiness or to incidents that cause feelings of anger. The impact on their health would vary based on whether they were happy or angry. It would be further amplified or mitigated by the duration, intensity and frequency of exposure to either emotion. We are as habituated to our emotional reactions as we are to our favorite coffee or fast food order.
Emotion may be said to have three components: 1) how any of us may feel somatically, conscious experience 2) what any of us may say to ourselves about given situations and expressive behaviors or 3) what any of us may do, in consequence of the foregoing. When angry, the body is flooded with the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline from the adrenal glands. Blood is moved away from the gut, while heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rates all rise.
Happiness, in contrast, produces a flood of endorphins, with a lowering of blood pressure and heart rate, an increased sense of well-being and also affords protection against both pain and depression. How we feel impacts our felt experience of daily life and is also definitely going to impact our health. The somatic experience of affect is of great consequence and offers hope for the improvement of physical markers that drive positive outcomes for health: improving the baseline of frequency, intensity and duration of positive moods such as happiness, joy and contentment is a priority for all of us.
Conscious experience of emotion, composed of what any of us may tell ourselves about somatic inputs, is the discriminator with respect to better or worse outcomes physically. The interpretation of a single set of somatic inputs can produce a vastly differentiated array of responses.
For example: a car has moved in front if his neighbor at a high rate of speed in heavy traffic without bothering to signal and an initial array of common responses on the part of the driver so mistreated is likely to present itself whose outer boundaries from mild to severe range from apathy or indifference and pass through irritation to annoyance and thence to real anger.
Other factors that might impact the affect include the prior mood of the driver that was cut off, his or her history of exposure to the experience of being cut off in traffic and the prior meanings they’ve made from the circumstance. Responses exhibited and the sense of options that are deemed to be accessible will also come into play. For example, if they were quite happy before having been cut off and if the brakes were in good shape and able to deliver a timely response and if they’ve had no history of aggravated interaction of this type, they may pass the situation off as incidental and respond very mildly.
In contrast, If they were angry before having been cut off and if there were complicating factors such as having experienced an accident due to having been cut off at some time, then they would be likely to experience an intense, negative response. An outlier to the normative array of responses would be road rage, with the potential for violent emotions and perhaps violent actions such as pulling a gun in response.
At the other extreme, a driver who is emotionally aware and able to consciously choose their response might experience gratitude for coming through the situation safely or even satisfaction for having been able to choose a more positive response to the provocation, such as forgiving the other driver or releasing the anger that was stimulated by the encounter.
So- each of us can choose our response to stimuli- to any given situation or context that presents itself. The freedom to do so is necessarily predicated on our ability to be self-aware, self-regulated, self-differentiated and self-actualizing. In other words, the meaning that we make of any given circumstance will foster a greater likelihood of a more positive or a more negative affect, which has implications with respect to our overall physical and psychological health as well as to our felt experience of daily living.
The meaning that we make is also founded upon our predisposition in a given circumstance and is comprised of the totality of our prior experiences and prior meanings made. This existential “corpus” forms our often subconscious bent or default way of being, responding and reacting in any and every context.
Self-awareness comprehends noticing the totality of the internal state without judgement: thoughts, emotions, sensations, reactions, responses and all the foundations of our selves. The ability to notice these without prejudice (formed before evidence), preconception (formed before adequate evidence) or shame is the wellspring of all potential for healthy self-regulation.
The formation of psychological associations and models of the world and the manipulation of these are thought. The state of being formed based on one’s mood, context or relationships is emotion. A feeling or perception based the physical or extraphysical body/ consciousness is sensation. A physiological, psychological or psychic outcome in the instant is a reaction. Consciousness mediating is a response. The quintessential composite of “beingness” that distinguishes one human from another is all of the foundations of the self.
Together, these comprise the “table of elements” that the self-aware individual may notice, study and evaluate. Self-awareness may improve the process of self-regulation. This process is often engaged in without conscious thought and without the benefit of focus, intuition or intention with respect to outcomes. Any attempts to regulate the self without the benefit of conscious engagement aren’t likely to align consistently with preferred behaviors or with personal beliefs.
Self-regulation is generally defined as the ability to choose responses that incorporate intrinsic and extrinsic considerations that optimize outcomes for the individual and for those also impacted by the context. It’s a sort of social and existential homeostasis that, ideally, does a reasonably good job of mediating between the intrapersonal and interpersonal worlds. Intrinsic considerations include available capacities to receive, perceive, intuit and moderate the inputs, moods, mindset and missions/ mandates of the self.
Extrinsic considerations include available capacities to receive, perceive, intuit and modify the collective inputs, moods, mindset and mission/ mandates of the group. Balancing these in a healthy and sustainable way requires something more than the ability to understand the self and others: it requires the ability to consider the sometimes conflicting felt needs, values and visions of the intrapersonal and interpersonal contexts and to resolve frictions along these relational frontiers. We all have a relationship to the self and to the world around us: how healthfully and sustainably we manage these impacts our personal sense of significance, competence and connection.