Thursday, 7 July 2016

Taming Destructive Emotions

Just lately, humanity’s dark side seems in the ascendant. The murder of a Labour MP, a killing spree in a gay nightclub in Orlando, the rise of racism in the UK, and more suicide bombing has poisoned an already damp and unsettled summer.

Each of these has political components, yes, but each is also a reflection of allowing destructive emotions to go unchecked. If humanity really wants a better future, these emotions will have to be tamed.

Destructive emotions are “those emotions that are harmful to those and others.” (From Daniel Goleman’s Destructive Emotions, p. 53). They include things like uncontrolled depression, anxiety, anger, envy, jealously, rage. I’d also include personality traits like narcissism and psychopathy. There are a number of possible ways of tackling them:

1. Better childcare. Quite a lot of research shows that people who have experienced severe trauma in their childhoods are prone not only to aggression but a whole host of problems like depression, anxiety, obesity, alcoholism and addictive behaviour. Poor nutrition also contributes to increased aggression and destructive moods and so, I suspect, does a sedentary, screen-based lifestyle. Avoiding a ‘toxic childhood’ could mean avoiding destructive emotions in later life.

2. External Interventions. Human behaviour has been modified through external interventions for a long time now. These include drugs, surgery and more recently things like implants, cortical stimulation therapy and lasers. More radical voices call for the gene editing, arguing that we might be able to modify human beings to be less prone to destructive impulses.

I have reservations with this approach. Firstly, many past interventions have proven to be undesirable, including things like forced lobotomies, electroshock therapy for ‘curing’ homosexuality and mind control experiments. And the sorry history of eugenics should make us pause before messing about with human embryos.

Secondly, it’s possible that our virtues are so tied up with our vices that you can’t remove one without removing the other. For example, wouldn’t a human that’s been ‘edited’ to be less aggressive also be more docile and easily led?

Despite this, the breakneck advance of neuroscience and biotechnology will mean the development of a suite of techniques for manipulating human emotions and perhaps, human nature.

3. Inner transformation. Various esoteric traditions since at least the time of Pythagoras have claimed that it is possible to transform the human personality for the better via spiritual disciplines like meditation and yoga, or via ‘inner technologies’ like psychedelic drugs. This is relevant because the techniques are claimed to reduce things like anger, fear and hate and increase compassion.

My personal experience with meditation persuades me that the idea of ‘inner transformation’ needs to be taken seriously, but I also think that we need far more evidence to determine its truth.

4. Creating a nurturing society. Currently, our culture is almost manically focussed on the pursuit of economic growth and the pursuit of material and technological progress at the expense of anything else. These values need to be questioned, because the lifestyles many of us lead are making us sick, and our frantic work is destroying the environment on which we depend.

Even worse is the cultural norm of dog-eat-dog, economic competitiveness. This is worrying because people tend to conform to the expectations a culture places on them. Oliver James has cited evidence that more people than previously exhibit what he calls the ‘dark triad’ of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and even psychopathy.

He suggests that these destructive attributes are thriving in our competition and performance obsessed institutions. When you add to this ballooning numbers of people suffering from depression and social anxiety, it’s clear that our current culture seems a long way from promoting wellbeing.

I’d like to end on an optimistic note. In the Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker provides evidence that violence has been declining through our recent history. This suggests to me that, while we might never completely free ourselves of destructive emotions, that it is at least possible to reduce them. Alot depends upon a cultural willingness to actually tackle them.