Thinking your way to a better life

Thinking your way to a better life (Luciano Lozano, Getty photo illustration / April 24, 2012)

"Life's slings and arrows" is Harvard-educated neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson's phrase for the events we spend our days ducking, sometimes unsuccessfully.

Losing out on that promotion. Getting dumped. Navigating a cocktail party of boors (or bores). The stuff that conspires to keep us in a foul mood, despite our best intentions.

And Davidson argues that our response to such events — and even to full-on tragedies, such as the death of a loved one — is as much a part of our identity as our fingerprints.

"Each of us is a color-wheel combination of the resilience, outlook, social intuition, self-awareness, context and attention dimensions of emotional style," he writes in his new book, "The Emotional Life of Your Brain" (Hudson Street Press), "a unique blend that describes how you perceive the world and react to it, how you engage with others and how you navigate the obstacle course of life."

Unlike our fingerprints, though, our emotional style can be altered. "We have the power," Davidson contends, "to live our lives and train our brains in ways that will shift where we fall on each of the six dimensions of emotional style."

That may sound more like your yoga instructor than a guy who has spent the past three decades studying brain chemistry. But study brain chemistry he does, which makes his findings all the more compelling. (And he did spend three months during graduate school in India and Sri Lanka studying meditation, therefore he's entitled to sound a little like a yogi.)

So, the six dimensions. Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, identifies them as such, based on activity he has identified in specific brain circuits:

Resilience: How slowly or quickly you recover from adversity.

Outlook: How long you are able to sustain positive emotion.

Social intuition: How adept you are at picking up social signals from the people around you.

Self-awareness: How well you perceive bodily feelings that reflect emotions.

Sensitivity to context: How good you are at regulating your emotional responses to take into account the social context you find yourself in.

Attention: How sharp and clear your focus is.

The book offers exercises to help assess your emotional style, mostly from true-or-false statements. ("When I go to a museum or attend a concert, the first few minutes are really enjoyable, but it doesn't last." "Often, when someone asks me why I am so angry or sad, I respond or think to myself, 'But I'm not!'")

Answers yield a score that places you on a spectrum for each of the six dimensions. Scoring 1 in resilience, for example, means "fast to recover"; a 10 indicates "slow to recover."

"There's no single optimal emotional style," Davidson said. "Emotional diversity is crucial for the successful operation of society. It's good, for example, that we have people who prefer to interact with machines over people.

"Neither end of the spectrum is necessarily better or worse than its opposite."

Still, he contends, certain emotional styles make it harder to lead a meaningful, productive life. Which inspires both the bad news and the good news from the book. A person who is self-opaque in the self-awareness department, puzzled in the social intuition department and unfocused in the attention department will likely struggle at dinner parties. (Bad news.) But, according to his findings, the brain is malleable enough to kick your scores up or down each spectrum a few notches, paving the way for future social success. (Good news!)

"It's best to regard your emotional well-being as a skill that can be trained," he says. "In many ways, it's no different than learning to play the violin. If you practice, you'll get better."