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The study of emotions was once considered the ultimate “soft” science, but now it is among the hottest areas of academics. (Thinkstock)

The study of emotions was once considered the ultimate “soft” science, but now it is among the hottest areas of academics.


Making sense of the science behind emotions Add to ...

It was once considered the ultimate “soft” science, sidelined as a lesser cousin to cognitive research, but the study of emotion – and how it affects everything from rates of violence to economic productivity to evolutionary success – is now among the hottest areas of academics.

Perhaps a bit too hot. The proliferation of headlines on the science of emotion (a random sample: “Emotion affects political tolerance, UNL professor finds;” “Fake smile in a mirror makes you buy what you try on;” “For hospital patients, feelings are facts”) can elicit another, unintended, feeling – confusion.

To help make sense of the sweeping research out there, and close the gap between those studying emotion and the rest of us, Yale University’s June Gruber has launched a YouTube series called Experts in Emotion. The series includes interviews with a Who’s Who in the field – including cognition expert Steven Pinker and happiness guru Dan Gilbert. It started as a resource for her psychology students, but Ms. Gruber hopes the series will shed light on what one of her colleagues describes as feelings’ “exciting, mysterious, powerful influence on us.”

Why turn to YouTube?

The science of emotion is still a relatively young field. And so there are a lot of exciting new findings emerging every day in scientists’ laboratories. What both the public and the scientists needed was to build a bridge to better connect them. We all have a curiosity about what makes us happy, why we cry or laugh. ... There’s so much both sides can gain from speaking to one another.

Why is understanding how feelings work so important?Emotions keep us alive. They are critical to our survival and evolution as a species. Fear, for example, tells us there is something threatening in the environment and alerts us to withdraw or stay vigilant. Fear keeps us safe. We wouldn’t be the humans we are today without emotions. Period. We gain so much by understanding our emotions better.

One of the videos in your series has Facebook engineering director Arturo Bejar discussing social media. He’s an interesting inclusion, given how emotionally fraught the Internet can be.

Understanding how we experience emotions online, and how we communicate them to others, is a brave new world. We are only beginning to scratch the surface. My colleagues and I are currently probing one of these mysteries in collaboration with Facebook. Our project is to understand the role of happiness and the social connections we form online with people all over the world.

You look at another surprising aspect of happiness.

Yes, work I’m doing with two colleagues (Iris Mauss of UC Berkeley and Maya Tamir of Boston College) looks at how too much happiness, or happiness experienced in the wrong context, can actually be harmful. It can lead you to take risks, perform more poorly in competitive situations and even predict negative mental health outcomes such as depression or bipolar disorder.

In her video, Ms. Mauss also discusses how striving for happiness makes it harder to achieve. Is there a way out of that?Flexibility. Acceptance. Adapting how we regulate our emotions. Greater awareness of what will make us happy. These things have one thing in common: They avoid the direct pursuit of happiness and instead lead people to make changes in their habits and their activities.

What’s the payoff of raising the profile of our emotional lives on a social and political level?

Emotions are fundamentally social. We experience our richest emotions with others, and even in large groups. Emotions can quickly catch on like waves and flow from one individual to the next, and I would hope as a society we can move toward cultivating pro-social emotions like gratitude and compassion and watch their contagion unfold. One approach to this is by increasing emotional awareness about them.

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