This is the last in a four-part series on Flourishing.
Human flourishing is characterized by: 1) optimal functioning, 2) flexibility in your thoughts and behaviors, 3) personal and social growth, and 4) resilience in the face of adversity.
Expressing authentic emotions -- meaningful responses that are appropriate to the circumstances -- makes all of these things easier to attain. It doesn’t matter whether the emotions you express are positive or negative – as long as they are real they will help you flourish.
Sincere positive emotions make us freer to explore the world and find our place in it. They enrich us through the well being they provide, the knowledge we gain, and the flexibility they inspire. Sincere negative emotions alert us to dangers and prompt reactions that may protect us. Expressing our emotions honestly communicates our responses and feelings to others and helps us be more resilient.
Of course, we all hide some portion of our emotions to smooth over interactions with others and to be polite. There is no harm in this falseness as long as you are aware of what you are doing. There are many good reasons not to express or act upon your emotions when you first feel them.
The trouble occurs when you trick yourself about how you feel: your mind and body suffer along with your intimate relationships.
Research has shown many ways that phony emotions are harmful -- psychologically and physically. Despite our hopes, insincere apologies don’t usually improve relationships. In fact, saying “sorry” without meaning is usually seen as manipulative and more likely to enflame negative emotions than to quell them.
Being “too positive” also impedes flourishing. It keeps us from “knowing what we know” and interferes with intimacy by squelching meaningful interactions. False cheer and sunny platitudes close off opportunities for being understood, preventing meaningful exploration of the concerns at hand. It may seem supportive and upbeat to tell someone “I’m sure it will all work out,” but it rarely helps another person's heartfelt concern or setback. Fake smiles do not create positive emotions inside our body; instead they stimulate abnormal heart function and brain activity compatible with negative emotions. Phoniness, even when it is positive, provokes distance and confusion rather than closeness.
How can you know when an emotional response is real or phony?
Inauthentic emotions often feel "off": they tend to be inappropriate to the circumstances, prolonged, or convoluted. Be on the lookout for those that are:
- unwarranted (laughing when someone has hurt you, lashing out in anger when you feel guilty)
- excessive (screaming or crying over minor incidents)
- overly global (when it seems like this emotion is all you have ever felt)
Authentic emotions just feel "right": they are fitting to the circumstances, time-limited, and straightforward.
Beware of phony emotions in others. Keep in mind that words do not necessarily convey emotions accurately: tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions are all better indications of authentic emotion. Test your ability to detect a fake smile by clicking here.
Don't be fooled by phony emotions -- they are merely disguises that interfere with your flourishing.