Thinking your way to a better life

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

Essentially, Davidson argues, our brains — and therefore, our personalities — are hybrids of our genes and our environment.

"We can't do anything about our genes per se," he says. "We're all born with a complement of DNA that's just not possible to change. But our brains are constantly being shaped by the forces around us, and we can take more responsibility for the optimal shaping of our brains by engaging in certain, deliberate behaviors."

The extent to which certain genes are expressed, he notes, is largely affected by our environment — whether it's stressful or safe, perilous or nurturing.

"The decades-old neuroscience dogma that the adult brain is essentially fixed in form and function is wrong," he writes.

The final chapter is devoted to specific exercises for adjusting your emotional style — rewiring your brain, if you will.

To change your outlook: Write down one positive characteristic of yourself and one of someone you regularly interact with. Do this three times a day.

For social intuition: To enhance your sensitivity to vocal cues of emotion, when you are in a public place such as a subway, a busy coffee shop, a store or an airport terminal, close your eyes and pay attention to the voices around you. Tune into specific voices; focus not on the intent but on the tone of voice. Describe to yourself what that tone conveys: serenity, joy, anxiety, stress, etc.

"One of the central messages of the book is that different things work differently for different people," he says. "I encourage people to try things, to have an inquisitive curiosity and a playful attitude to see what works."

Different strokes for different folks, emotional diversity, we get all that. But we have to know: Is there one person who embodies a truly enviable emotional style?

"The Dalai Lama," Davidson replies, without skipping a beat. "He is someone who I believe has extraordinary resilience, who recovers very quickly from adversity. He has a very positive outlook, in that he is able to maintain very high levels of positive emotion across time. He has extraordinary social intuition — he's able to pick up on nonverbal cues of others in uncanny ways.

"Self-awareness: He is intimately in tune with what's going on inside himself. He has tremendous awareness of context so that he can behave in ways that are appropriate to any given context. He has an enormous capacity to control his attention. On every one of the six emotional styles, he is an extreme end point."

And he's probably delightful at cocktail parties.

Emotional style in relationships

How do different emotional styles play out in relationships? We asked Richard J. Davidson if mismatched emotional wiring spelled doom for a couple.

"I think that there are marriages that work with people who have very different emotional styles that complement one another — if they can find ways to work together," he says. "For example, if one member of a couple is highly socially intuitive and the other member is not, the highly social one could be the designated member of the pair who enables their social network and who makes social arrangements for the family, whereas the one who's not very socially intuitive takes care of the house, manages their finances and so forth.

"Basically what we're talking about is an optimal division of labor," he says. "In order for a successful relationship to work, it's important that each member contribute in different ways. If two people have identical emotional styles, it actually may lead them to want to take responsibility for the same things. And that may not be optimal either."

— H.S.