I’ve talked recently about how emotions can amplify themselves, an effect called “mood congruity.” This phenomenon is like an overzealous lunchlady, who sees a spoonful of mushy peas on your plate and keeps serving you more and more on the assumption that you must obviously love peas. In that post, I talked about the way purposely bringing up thoughts and memories associated with a better mood can help stop the lunchlady, effectively moving us forward in the lunchline to the mashed potatoes or Jell-O.
Buddhist thought offers a more refined version of this idea, the equivalent of trading in our mushy peas for whatever is least like mushy peas on the entire menu. In a book called Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, this approach is called “emotional antidotes,” and it’s backed up by good science.
The idea behind emotional antidotes is that for each negative emotion, there is an opposite emotion that can be used to dissolve or extinguish the negative one. For instance, have you ever tried administering puppies to someone who’s in a bad mood (assuming they don’t hate puppies, in which case they may be a lost cause)? Science shows us that puppies are inimical to sour moods. This does not mean that the opposite of depression is puppies, although if you have to take away the wrong idea from this post, that’s at least a wrong idea that has some utility.
What specific emotions are antidotes to others? (I’ll depart in some details from the Buddhist model here, partly since emotions as seen through the lens of classical Buddhist thought are not quite the same ones we tend to think of in the West.)
As a prime example, love extinguishes anger–and don’t think I’m getting all touchy-feely on you here. Love is a specific emotion that I’d bet good money you can identify, and most of us can find something that, if we think about it a little, will give rise to feelings of love in us. (As an example, it’s very easy for me to conjure up feelings of love by remembering things about my son.) Anger is not compatible with love: we have only one brain, and that brain will be awash with a specific set of brain chemicals at a any given time. The chemicals that support anger (like adrenaline) are not the same as the chemicals that support love (like oxytocin). Summoning up feelings of love changes our brain chemistry and also harnesses mood congruity to increase those feelings of love, as thinking about one memory that inspires love tends to remind us of other memories that inspire love. Feeling angry and want to change it? Remind yourself of what you love.
Similarly, taking pleasure in things we admire about other people can help defeat jealousy; thinking about things that that excite us can help defeat depression; thinking of things that make us confident or at peace can help defeat anxiety; and so on.
There’s also a panacea of a sort, an antidote to all negative emotions, which is to recognize their emptiness. This is very much like the basic idea behind idea repair: negative emotions very often (though not always!) are based on ideas that are misleading or false, or that assume too much, such as “There’s no way I can learn all this” or “Everybody in the room must think I’m an idiot.” Since we can’t read minds, and since even if we could other people’s thoughts about us do not define us, any anxiety or distress or overindulgence in Doritos that may arise from believing everyone else in the room thinks one is a idiot is acting on an empty, fake, false idea. When we really examine what we’re telling ourselves about what happens to us, often negative feelings evaporate as we examine them in greater depth.
Either way, whether we use specific emotions as antidotes or poke the balloons of our negative emotions until they pop, greater self-understanding or positive feelings can be consciously used as a tool to break up bad moods and negative emotions. And if this doesn’t work, there are always puppies.
Photo by Andybear.