One big distinction between positive emotions [like happiness] and the emotions I’m talking about, is that they have to be social or moral emotions. I could be happy, but I can be happy for lots of things, not just cooperative interactions with other people.
Pride always seems the odd one out to people. The thing about pride is, it’s if you have some skill that those around you admire, and that makes you want to hone it. Why? Because you’re working hard to develop a skill that makes you valuable to other people.
Khazan: How do you cultivate only the good kind of pride, versus being a huge narcissist?
DeSteno: When we start assuming that we are good at everything, or we’re experiencing it in areas we shouldn’t or to too high a degree, then it becomes narcissism, which is a disorder. It’s like any other emotion out of whack.
The trick is, is to experience it [as] tied to skills and abilities that you have or that you’re trying to develop. In that sense, it can be a huge source of motivation.
Khazan: Are there any tips for cultivating these things if they don’t come naturally to you? The advice to “cultivate gratitude” I always find difficult, because when you’re pissed off about something, it’s hard to sit there and be like, “I’m so grateful for this challenge.”
DeSteno: One thing we tell people to do is to daily do a gratitude journal. The problem is, if you think about the same three things every day [to be grateful for], they’re going to lose their power and you’re going to habituate to them.
What you have to do is think of the little things. You don’t have to have a huge level of gratitude ... we show [effects] at very moderate levels. Think about someone who held the door for you, who let you into traffic on the highway, who stopped to give you directions, gave you their seat on the subway. Little things like that daily, reflecting on these things ups your level of gratitude.
What we found is that over three weeks’ time, people who have higher levels of gratitude, in a situation like a marshmallow test, show greater self-control.
Compassion, there’s two ways to do it. One is practicing mindfulness meditation. We have lots of work showing that practicing meditation increases people’s compassionate responses to themselves and to others. Takes 10 minutes a day.
Another way to do it is to perspective-take. That is, try actively, once a day at least, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to try and see the world from their point of view, and to empathize with them.
For pride, take pride in little steps along the way. That is, don’t set a goal and only feel proud when you get there. Take pride in your steps along the way, and allow yourself to feel that.
Emotions are contagious ... if you can begin to show these emotions, others will catch them. That is, if I’m feeling compassionate, and I see you’re having a rough day, I may do something to help you, which will then make you feel grateful to me and help me back. It becomes a reinforcing chain.