Tag Archives: Emotions

A human connection through layers of brown packing tape

A couple of years ago, I was involved in the communication around the TED talent search in Amsterdam. Part of TED’s search to have the best speakers, several candidates auditioned for a place at the stage of TED.

By far my favourite candidate was Max Zorn, a German-Dutch street artist. As an artist, he likes to be mysterious. He does few interviews. There are no pictures of him online. He typically wears sun glasses; during his talk he also wore a hat to be sure he remained incognito. Despite or maybe because of the mystery, he is one of my favourite artists – and the only one of which I personally own a work.

Max Zorn works with an uncommon material: brown packing tape.

He puts layers and layers of tape on each other, and the image becomes visible through the contrast between the different number of layers and the light that passes through to them. Light has to behind for it to be effective – see here the painting that hangs proudly in my room.

 

This is the image by day, without light (and with a bit of a mirror effect of the glass…). Nothing too exciting, right?

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But this is the image by night, with the light on:

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In my interpretation, the couple exchanges a look that can mean many different things. Every time I see the picture, I see another element, and come up with another possible story about what it means. Most of the times, I see connection and intimacy. But from time to time, it can also mean love, or lust, or disappointment, or submission, or a battle for power…

And all these emotions are expressed just with three materials – brown packing time, glass, and light.

 

One final image, also taken from the retro style that is very much present in his work (for more, check his website and his shop)

Crosslines

Inside Out: our emotions make use who we are

What would happen if our emotions would just disappear? Are we able to regulate our behaviour if we wouldn’t be able to feel joy or sadness anymore?

Those questions form the main idea behind the recent Disney-Pixar movie Inside Out. The movie finds a simple solution to represent the complexity of human emotions. The emotions of the main character, the 11-year-old Riley, are steered in her head by five personas: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. They are represented by coloured characters, jointly managing her actions. Mostly they act in concordance, but sometimes there are conflicts between emotions wanting Riley to feel differently.

Riley's emotions Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, and Sadness.

Riley’s emotions Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, and Sadness.

For Riley, a happy and positive girl, the energetic personality of Joy is the dominant emotion. Joy doesn’t refrain from bossing around the other four emotions as she deems fit to make Riley feel joyful. Beyond determining how Riley feels, the emotions also serve as administrators of her memory. Every day, they collect her memories (in the form of the colourful balls at the back of the image, and associated with one of the emotions), before they are shipped off to her long-term memory.

Inside Out shows the complexity of interacting emotions, but also demonstrates how our emotions make us who we are. When Riley and her family move from her beloved Minnesota to a small and dirty house in San Francisco, she becomes unhappy. And when Joy and Sadness get lost, Riley is unable to feel these emotions.

Riley’s personality flattens as the remaining emotions Fear, Disgust and Anger are made responsible to administer her behaviour. With a less rich variation in emotions – and no positive emotions – Riley becomes a more grey personality, and the entire tone of the movie changes.

Emotions makes us who we are. Without Joy and Sadness, Riley is not herself anymore. Riley’s inability to communicate with her parents and her schoolmates also demonstrates how important emotions are to make individuals function in a social group. In a way, Riley becomes like a psychopath unable to have feelings. It’s true that psychopaths can commit the most heinous crimes, precisely because of their inability to feel remorse (small parenthesis: it appears that CEOs are more likely than a typical person to have characteristics of psychopaths – it increases the chance of success in business).

Beyond demonstrating the importance of positive emotions that positive psychologists are so interested in, the movie also very visually shows how people and their emotions interact. One of the most interesting scenes in the movie is a family dinner, where it shows Riley’s three remaining emotions, but also how all five emotions in her father’s and mother’s head steer the interaction.

As a human being it happens so often that we interact with someone – our partner, a family member, a friend or a colleague – whose reaction we don’t understand. Rather than wondering why they behave as erratically as they do, we could try to image five contrary emotions in their heads, attempting to find an emotional ‘correct’ response. Inside Out’s visual representation of the complexity of emotions does not only make a nice film for children and adults, but also helps us imagine how other people could feel.

Food & happiness I: comfort and ‘ritual’ foods make you happy

In Italy, where I spent two years of live and left a large part of my heart, food is larger than life. Friendships are broken and wars our fought over what’s the best way to make a parmigiana, a tiramisu, or what sauce to have with a type of pasta.

When I lived in Perugia, I spent quite some time with a great American guy called Alex (we even spent two months in a double room and even had fun together). He was a great cook and very much benefitted from the lessons of our housemate Ulderico. But the main reason I’m mentioning Alex and Ulderico that it is from them that I picked up the habit to say that I’m “fat and happy” (or grasso e felice) after a particularly satisfying meal.

There’s little debate about the fact that food can make you fat. But can it make you happy? I certainly believe so. In this, I think one can distinguish between ‘comfort food’ and ‘ritual foods’, by lack of a better term.

Comfort food

‘Comfort food’ is what you eat when you’re in a bad mood and need consolation. I mostly associate this with thinks like ice cream or chocolate, or also salty fat foods as fries or crisps. Believe it or not, but there is even scientific evidence that there really is a positive effect of these kind of food products on negative emotions.

A Belgian-UK team of researchers lead by Lukas Van Oudenhove from Leuven University studied the interaction between fatty acids in the stomach and neural signals in the brain. In the small-scale experiment, the researchers induced negative emotions via exposing the participants to sad music and pictures of sad faces. Then, some of the participants’ brain activity was scanned while receiving a fatty acid infusion in their stomach – akin to eating fatty ‘comfort food’ like macaroni with cheese. Compared with a control group, the participants that had ‘eaten’ the fat food displayed a weaker emotional response to the sad images.

‘Ritual foods’

Another Dutch study I came across studied the emotions that arose in 42 students eating various sweet and salty snacks. Positive emotions as ‘satisfaction’, ‘enjoyment’ and ‘desire’ were most prevalent, whilst a range of negative emotions hardly appeared. This, and other studies, suggest there is a relation between food and happiness.

I’m inclined to believe that this partly due to what I’d call ‘ritual foods’. I’d hypothesise that the strongest effect would occur when something we eat is associated with a strong experience and that we link to a story or a ritual. Let me give some examples of ‘ritual foods’ that I enjoy myself:

  • a freshly ground coffee, put with high pressure through a good machine. Taste, smell, colour, all factors together. I get ecstatic part by the caffeine and part by the idea of the coffee. You should see me with a great brew from Aksum in Brussels or sipping freshly ground coffee from my own machine. Jokingly, I’ve even created a personality for my machine, referring to it as a ‘her’…
  • home made pesto. When I have freshly made pesto – basil leaves, oil, garlic and pine tree nuts, that’s all – it’s so enjoyable I finish until the last drop of the pot.
  • less on the ecstatic level, but on a more day-to-day enjoyment: my breakfast. Yoghurt, cereal and fruit and taking the time to enjoy it with a newspaper, magazine or TED talk at the side.

There’s a lot more to say about food and happiness. Think about the way foods are marketed as happiness-inducing or the happiness that one can find in the act of cooking. We’ll get their next week. In the mean time, you’ll have to console yourself with some comfort food.

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How much happiness does an omelette with tomatoes bring?

The power of negative emotions – and two other lessons of the Foro Bienestar

I just came back from two weeks in Mexico. During these weeks, I fled the Brussels grey, rain and cold to replace it by the occasional Mexico City grey, the jungle rain, and Pacific coast warmth. Moreover, I spent a couple of days at the Foro Bienestar (International Forum of Well-Being and Development) in Guadalajara, where I was invited to speak. In the next two weeks, I’ll offer some thoughts about my own presentation on happiness and public policy and about the question ‘why are Mexicans so happy’ that was the leitmotiv of the conference. However, today I wanted to share some insights about the main points that I took home from the conference. Are you ready? Here we go!

Don’t forget the power of negative emotions

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Speaking of negative emotions: this slide by Stefano Bartolini (University of Siena) shows the problem of social comparisons and happiness very well.

Most of the speakers were academics and the good thing about academics, contrary to some happiness consultants, is that they don’t allow themselves to be carried away by their enthusiasm so much that they forget that being happy all the time is not possible and not desirable. Negative emotions are a necessary counterweight to positive ones. In a simple metaphor: feelings are a mountainous landscape. Without the valleys of anger, frustrations and anxiety, the happy peaks of joy, tranquility and exaltation would not be happy peaks but part of a plain.

Robert Biswas-Diener, often labelled as a positive psychologist, brought this forward most prominently. Answering his own question ‘how happy should an individual be?’, he suggested that the ideal rate of positive and negative emotions might be positive 80% of the time and 20% negative of the time. Being happy all the time does not do justice to real and important feelings as guilt, grief and anger. For instance, as he also discusses in his book ‘The Upside of your Dark Side‘, guilt can motivate us to work harder and accomplish more than we ever could do if we’d be simply content with everything.

Measuring happiness is very, very simple and very, very, complex

A large part of the conference was dedicated to one simple question: how do you measure happiness? It is clear that there are many ways to do so: the World Happiness Database at the Erasmus University Rotterdam knows 963 different methodologies, said Jan Ott.

But professor John Helliwell, one of the authors of the UN World Happiness Report, explained these can be summarised in a couple of simple ways. One way is to ask people how happy they are in a specific moment. This can be happiness in the ‘now’, to grasp a person’s feelings most accurately, or a moment like ‘yesterday’ or even longer ago, to prevent that events limited in time have a major influence. Such a question can be answered very quickly, without a lot of thinking. A second way is to ask a more reflective question, asking how satisfied you are with your life as a whole. Questions asking about positive or negative emotions typically give more random and diverse answers.

The debate is open on happiness as a policy objective

Picture from the opening session. Source: La Jornada de Jalisco.

Picture from the opening session. Source: La Jornada de Jalisco.

In my opinion, it should be obvious that governments would aim to increase quality of life and well-being – happiness if you want – especially where incomes increase and poverty reduces. Still, using insights about happiness and well-being in public policy is quite scarce: another research to welcome that Jalisco, the region where Guadalajara is located, is facing the challenge. Meik Wiking, from the Danish Happiness Research Institute, identified that taking happiness as a political goal is a trend. But there is also a counter-trend: skepticism about government efforts to formulate happiness policy objectives.

Professor Bruno Frey strongly advanced the argument that with happiness as a policy objective, there would be major incentives to governments to manipulate data, for instance by excluding people with lower happiness and by  falsification of indicators. In a high-level debate – the Tyson vs Ali of  happiness researchers – he was taken on by professor Helliwell, who thought these risks could be reduced as methodologies will be tweaked over time and that manipulation could be constrained in a democratic society.