Thoughts and emotions are intricately related and can be experienced together, but they are distinct.
What are thoughts?
Thoughts are mental cognitions—our ideas, opinions, and beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. They include the perspectiveswe bring to any situation or experience that color our point of view (for better, worse, or neutral).
An example of a long-lived thought is an attitude, which develops as thoughts are repeated over and over and reinforced.
While thoughts are shaped by life experiences, genetics, and education, they are generally under conscious control. In other words, if you are aware of your thoughts and attitudes, you can choose to change them.
What are emotions?
It may be useful to think of emotions as the flow and experience of feelings, for example, joy, sadness, anger, or fear. Emotions can be triggered by something external (from seeing a friend suffer or watching a movie) or something internal (an upsetting memory).
While emotions are universal, each person may experience them and respond to them in a different way. Some people may struggle with understanding what emotion they are experiencing.
Emotions serve to connect us with others and help cultivate strong social bonds. Learn more about relationships – This may be the evolutionary purpose of emotions—people who were able to form strong bonds and emotional ties become a part of a community and were more likely to find the support and protection necessary for survival.
According to Christakis and Fowler, “People the world over have different ideas, beliefs, and opinions—different thoughts—but they have very similar, if not identical, feelings.”
What influences emotions?
Researchers such as Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, authors of Connected, have also found that emotions are “contagious.” We have a tendency to mimic each other’s outward states (for example, by smiling when someone smiles at us), and our outward states can affect our internal ones (smiling can actually make you feel happy!).
Emotions can also be influenced by other factors:
- Cultural traditions and beliefs can affect the way a group or an individual expresses emotions. There are some cultures in which it is deemed “bad manners” to express emotions in a way that may be considered healthy and appropriate in other cultures.
- Genetics (or, more specifically, brain and personality structure, including self-control) can affect the emotional expression of an individual or family. (While a person’s genetic makeup cannot be altered, the brain is another story, according to neuroscientist Richard Davidson. He has identified six distinct “emotional styles” that are based upon the structure of our brains but can be re-shaped with practice.)
- Physical conditions: Brain tumors, strokes, Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and metabolic diseases, such as diabetes and thyroid disorders, can cause a person’s emotional responses to change dramatically.
What we think impacts what we feel
Thoughts and emotions have a profound effect on one another. Thoughts can trigger emotions (worrying about an upcoming job interview may cause fear) and also serve as an appraisal of that emotion (“this isn’t a realistic fear”). In addition, how we attend to and appraise our lives has an effect on how we feel. For example, a person with a fear of dogs is likely hyperattentive of the dog across the street and appraises the approach of the dog as threatening, which leads to emotional distress. Another person who appraises the dog’s approach as friendly will have a very different emotional response to the same situation.
According to Christakis and Fowler, “People the world over have different ideas, beliefs, and opinions—different thoughts—but they have very similar, if not identical, feelings.”
Can we change our thoughts and emotions?
We tend to believe that emotions are just “part of us” and can’t be changed. Research, however, has established that emotions are malleable. They can be changed by:
- Altering an external situation (divorcing an abusive spouse)
- Shifting our attention (choosing to focus on a more positive aspect of a situation
- Re-appraising a situation (the upcoming test is an opportunity for learning, not an assessment of my personal worth).
How we choose to live our lives has tremendous power over the way we feel every day.
Sonja Lyubomirsky and other positivity researchers have found that 50% of happiness is determined by your “set point,” or genetics, and 10% is determined by your circumstances (finances, health, living situation). The other 40% is based upon your own intentional efforts to become happier, meaning you have a big say in how you feel.
Certain types of mental training, such as mindfulness or positive thinking, can affect our perceptions of the world and make us feel calmer, more resilient, and happier. Other researchers have identified many other helpful attitudes—such as forgiveness, gratitude, and kindness—that can be cultivated with practice.
If you are aware of your thoughts and emotions, you can choose to change them!
Think and Feel for Health
Your thoughts and emotions can impact your physical health. Emotions that are freely experienced and expressed without judgment or attachment tend to flow fluidly. On the other hand, repressed emotions (especially fearful or negative ones) can zap mental energy and lead to health problems..
It’s important to recognize our thoughts and emotions and be aware of the impact they have—not only on each other, but also on our bodies, behavior, and relationships.
Negativity is not good for your health
Negative attitudes and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can create chronic stress, which upsets the body’s hormone balance, depletes the brain chemicals required for happiness, and damages the immune system. Chronic stress can actually decrease our lifespan. (Science has now identified that stress shortens our telomeres, the “end caps” of our DNA strands, which causes us to age more quickly.)
Poorly managed or repressed anger (hostility) is also related to a slew of health conditions, such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, digestive disorders, and infection.
The importance of positivity
Watch Living with Positivity: An Interview with Barabara Fredrickson Scientist Barbara Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions:
- Broaden our perspective of the world (thus inspiring more creativity, wonder, and options)
- Build over time, creating lasting emotional resilience and flourishing.
Dr. Fredrickson has spent years researching and publishing the physical and emotional benefits of positivity, including faster recovery from cardiovascular stress, better sleep, fewer colds, and a greater sense of overall happiness. The good news is not only that positive attitudes—such as playfulness, gratitude, awe, love, interest, serenity, and feeling connected to others—have a direct impact on health and wellbeing, but that we can develop them ourselves with practice
Overcoming our negativity bias
Because we are wired to defend against threat and loss in life, we tend to prioritize bad over good. While this is a tidy survival mechanism for someone who needs to stay hyper vigilant in a dangerous environment, the truth is that for most of us, this “negativity bias” is counter-productive.
Our “negativity bias” means that we spend too much time ruminating over the minor frustrations we experience—bad traffic or a disagreement with a loved one— and ignore the many chances we have to experience wonder, awe, and gratitude throughout the day.
In order to offset this negativity bias and experience a harmonious emotional state, Fredrickson proposes that we need to experience three positive emotions for every negative one. This, she claims, can be done intentionally for those of us less “wired” to positivity. These positive emotions literally reverse the physical effects of negativity and build up psychological resources that contribute to a flourishing life.
The role of forgiveness
Forgiveness means fully accepting that a negative event has occurred and relinquishing our negative feelings surrounding the circumstance. Research shows that forgiveness helps us experience better mental, emotional and physical health. And it can be learned, as demonstrated by the Stanford Forgiveness Project, which trained 260 adults in forgiveness in a 6-week course.
- 70% reported a decrease in their feelings of hurt
- 13% experienced reduced anger
- 27% experienced fewer physical complaints (for example, pain, gastrointestinal upset, dizziness, etc.)
The practice of forgiveness has also been linked to better immune function and a longer lifespan. Other studies have shown that forgiveness has more than just a metaphorical effect on the heart: it can actually lower our blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health as well.
The benefits of gratitude
Brene Brown discusses the relationship between joy and gratitude Acknowledging the good aspects of life and giving thanks have a powerful impact on emotional wellbeing. In a landmark study, people who were asked to count their blessings felt happier, exercised more, had fewer physical complaints, and slept better than those who created lists of hassles.
Brené Brown has found that there is a relationship between joy and gratitude, but with a surprising twist: It’s not joy that makes us grateful, but gratitude that makes us joyful.
Positive emotions lead to emotional resilience
Positive emotions have a scientific purpose—to help the body recover from the ill effects of negative emotions. Thus cultivating positivity over time can help us become more resilient in the face of crisis or stress.
Emotional resilience is like a rubber band—no matter how far a resilient person is stretched or pulled by negative emotions, he or she has the ability to bounce back to his or her original state.
Resilient people are able to experience tough emotions like pain, sorrow, frustration, and grief without falling apart. Resilient people do not deny the pain or suffering they are experiencing; rather, they retain a sense of positivity that helps them overcome the negative effects of their situation. In fact, some people are able to look at challenging times with optimism and hope, knowing that their hardships will lead to personal growth and an expanded outlook on life.
Take a positive breath
- Inhale into a soft belly, taking in light, love, and healing energy. Picture this as clear, bright, or sparkling. Feel yourself becoming brighter as you fill with light and joy.
- Exhale fully, releasing any negative states or feelings. You may picture it as darkness or a fog. If you have anger, fear or sadness, breathe them out. If you have tension, anxieties, or worry, release them as you exhale.
Express your emotions
Many people are afraid to express strong emotions because they fear losing control. This exercise can help you to own your emotions and learn how to express them in a safe and healthy way.
- Begin by identifying what you are feeling right now, in this moment.
- Practice saying what you are feeling out loud, using “I” language. For example: I feel angry, I feel sad, I feel scared. Own your emotions.
- Start by expressing your emotions when you are alone. After you become more comfortable, practice with someone with whom you have a safe, trusting relationship.
- Finally begin to practice in more challenging situations. Remember not to blame the other person and to be open to hearing their experience. You can also ask others for feedback.
In her book Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson offers five specific tips to help increase positive emotions:
- Practice gratitude. Recognizing and appreciating the good aspects of your life, no matter how small, can have a tremendous impact on your emotional wellbeing. How you decide to practice gratitude is up to you—maybe you’ll choose to jot down your blessings in a notebook, thank a friend face-to-face, or simply sit in quiet reflection to contemplate all the good in your life. (Experts recommend adding variety to your gratitude practice by expressing your thanks in different ways each day, for things both big and small, to keep the practice meaningful and fresh.)
- Be kind. Helping others has been scientifically proven to boost your own mood and lengthen your lifespan. But instead of exhausting yourself with nonstop generosity (which can become either mundane or emotionally taxing), Fredrickson suggests designating a “Kindness Day” once a week, during which you can sprinkle your ordinary activities with extra warmth—holding doors open for others, putting a quarter in an expired parking meter—or take an extra step and volunteer with a shelter or drive a friend to a doctor’s appointment.
- Read more about relationships – Connect with others. Warm, trusted relationships are an essential component of emotional wellbeing. Strong social ties can boost confidence and self-esteem, as well as provide a psychological buffer against stress, depression, and anxiety. Identify the most important connections in your life—perhaps with a partner, relative, close confidante, or spiritual friend—and nurture those relationships by spending quality time together.
- Spend time in nature. The environment can play a big role in triggering or soothing stress, and researchers say the more green in your life, Enhance your wellbeing with nature, the better you’ll feel. Studies show that people who spend more time outdoors (or have access to green plants and windows in their indoor environment) have better moods, expanded thinking, and find more meaning in life than those who stay cooped up inside.
- Savor goodness. Humans perpetually rush through life experiences—especially good ones. Learning to savor life means slowing down and appreciating moments of joy, contentment, and peace, no matter how small. The longer something is held in awareness, the more neurons that fire and store the object or thought in memory. Thus, savoring positive experiences and thoughts will “teach” the brain to fall into a more naturally positive pattern. Look forward to a positive experience, relish it while it’s happening, and later allow the positive feelings to re-emerge as you hold the experience in your memory.
Deal with Negativity
Increasing your positivity doesn’t mean becoming unreasonably naïve or optimistic in the face of suffering. It’s just as important to recognize that pain is simply a natural wave in the flow of life. In fact, experiencing and processing negative emotions in a healthy way can be an important part of personal growth.
People tend to make two mistakes when confronted with a negative emotion: they either ruminate and obsess over the problem, or they try to numb their emotions.
Why ruminating and numbing don’t work
- Rumination is deceptive because it feels productive to “think things through,” but gratuitously obsessing over a situation that caused pain only reinforces the strength of the negative thoughts and emotions.
- Numbing the emotions does not work either, according to researcher Brené Brown, because it’s not possible to selectively numb an emotion—in other words, if you try to blot out your anger, you’ll blot out happiness and serenity along with it. Similarly, avoidance of an experience does not allow us to find other ways to deal with it: if we deal with sadness by using alcohol to numb ourselves, we don’t learn how to cope with sadness (and we potentially develop another problem with overuse of alcohol).
Healthy Coping Skills
Instead of numbing emotions or obsessing over them, experts recommend that you recognize the inevitability of encountering some suffering and then move beyond it. This process may include:
- Staying present with the negative feelings and practice watching them with a gentle, nonjudgmental attitude. Recognize when they are triggered by thoughts, and assess whether your emotions are responding to what you are thinking or what is actually happening.
- Recognizing that pain is often a catalyst for growth and resilience.
- Seeking out the support of others.
- Using a creative activity, such as journaling or drawing, to express emotions.
- Practicing forgiveness for those who have caused pain.
- Identifying unhealthy or ruminative thought patterns and gently letting them go.
Be Good to Yourself
The advice in this section could boil down to this: take care of yourself–mentally and physically–as you would a friend or relative.
A crucial ingredient in emotional health is self-compassion, which we think of as the basic practice of treating yourself with acceptance, kindness, and gentleness—much as you would treat another person you care deeply about.
But kindness is only part of it: researcher and psychologist Kristin Neff says that mindfulness (the practice of paying attention to what happens inside and around you with a nonjudgmental attitude) and being aware of the shared suffering of others are both important components of self-compassion.These practices appear to:
- Help decrease self-criticism
- Increase a sense of connection with others
- Promote better emotional responses in the face of the stress of everyday living.
It makes sense: when you’re paying attention, you become more aware of where you tend to judge or criticize yourself or others harshly, and when you take the time to contemplate the experiences of others, you may find that your perspective on your own situation feels less claustrophobic.
Some psychologists now recommend building self-compassion rather than self-esteem. While self-esteem does strive to cultivate a positive view of oneself, it can lead to self-deception and refusal to acknowledge personal limitations or opportunities to improve. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is about recognizing and accepting the imperfections as well.
Take care of your body
Stress and other negative emotions can produce damaging effects on the body, decreasing the immune response and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammation.Positive emotions, on the other hand, are connected to physical health and wellbeing.
Conversely, the body also has a profound effect on the mind. For example, eating high levels of omega-3s can bolster positive moods, decrease impulsivity, and alleviate symptoms of depression. Regular exercise can also boost confidence and mood, as well as eliminate fatigue and stress. Sleep also has a profound impact on emotions: a Gallup study found that people who went to bed in a bad mood but got a full night of sleep had above-average moods the next day.
The mind and body are an interconnected system: making positive choices in one area of your life will directly benefit other areas as well.
Find Out More about Thoughts & Emotions
Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/
Positivity Ratio: https://www.positivityratio.com/
Books & Articles
Blackburn, E. H., & Epel, E. S. (2012). Telomeres and adversity: Too toxic to ignore. Nature, 490(7419), 169–71.
Christakis, N., Fowler, J. (2009). Connected. New York: Hachette Book Group.
Davidson, R., Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Penguin Group.
Emmons, R.A., McCullough, M.E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 84(2):377-89.
Epel, E. (2012). How “reversible” is telomeric aging? Cancer prevention research, 5(10), 1163–8.
Epel, E. S., Blackburn, E. H., Lin, J., Dhabhar, F. S., Adler, N. E., Morrow, J. D., & Cawthon, R. M. (2004). Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(49), 17312–5.
Frederickson, B. (2009). Positivity. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Fredrickson, B.L., Mancuso, R.A., Branigan, C., Tugade, M.M. (2000). The undoing effect of positive emotions. Motivation and Emotion; 24(4):237-258.
Friedberg, J.P., Suchday, S., Shelov, D.V. (2007). The impact of forgiveness on cardiovascular reactivity and recovery. International Journal of Psychophysiology; 65(2):87-94.
Harris, A.H, Luskin, F.M.., Benisovich, S.V., Standard, S., Bruning, J., Evans, S. and Thoresen, C. (2006) Effects of a group forgiveness intervention on forgiveness, perceived stress and trait anger: A randomized trial. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(6) 715-733.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness. New York: Penguin Press.
Neff, K.D. (2009). Self-compassion. In M.R.Leary & R.H.Hoyle (Eds), Handbook of individual differences in social behavior (pp. 561–573). New York: Guilford Press.
Rath, T., Harter, J. (2010). Wellbeing: The five essential elements. New York: Gallup Press.
Southwick, S. (2012). Resilience. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Tibbits, D., Ellis, G., Piramelli, C., Luskin, F., Lukman, R. (2006). Hypertension reduction through forgiveness training. The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling; 60(1-2):27-34.
Toussaint, L.L., Owen, A.D., Cheadle, A. (2012). Forgive to live: forgiveness, health, and longevity. Journal of Behavioral Medicine; 35(4):375-86.
Weil, Andrew. (2011). Spontaneous happiness. New York: Hachette Book Group.
Wood, A.M., Froh, J.J., Geraghty, A.W. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: a review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review; 30(7):890-905.
Worthington, E. L., Jr., Witvliet, C. V. O., Pietrini, P., & Miller, A. J. (2007). Forgiveness, health, and well-being: A review of evidence for emotional versus decisional forgiveness, dispositional forgivingness, and reduced unforgiveness. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 30, 291.
Zolli, A. (2012). Resilience: Why things bounce back. New York: Free Press.