It has been shown in a growing body of recent research that social exclusion and rejection activate similar patterns in the brain as physical pain. Social exclusion is like a slap in your face. This is a real thing: You subject someone even to a small slight or rejection, and not only do they experience pain, they also become more vulnerable to such pain in the future, and their emotional state is pushed towards vengefulness and envy—even increasing the propensity towards physical aggression.[i]
The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. This is the fourth post in a series on six forms of inequality. In the green box to the right, you can find the links to the full series.
If we zoom in yet another step on the intimate and embodied processes of inequality, we find that human lives are lived in profoundly unequal emotional surroundings.
Some of us wake up relatively carefree many mornings and experience positive rewards as the results of our actions, while others live out their lives in considerably more painful and impoverished inner landscapes. This is a form of inequality: emotional inequality.
And, as the network sociologists Fowler and Christakis have famously shown, such emotions are collective goods, as for instance happiness and life satisfaction cluster in networks of people.[ii] If your friend is happier, so are you more likely to be.
This is probably because of different mechanisms: that happy people make others happier, that people who are doing better generally are happier and have the luxury of choosing friends and partners who are also doing well (while subtly excluding the less fortunate), and that other life factors make people cluster together into happy and unhappy segments of society.
In The Listening Society, I labored to show that people—and other living creatures—are in different subjective “states” at every moment of our lives. To be alive is to feel like something: stable wellbeing, or nagging discomfort, or nightmarish valleys, or even spiritual and blissful heights of subjective experience. Such states are very volatile; they can change from moment to moment, but some people certainly live in higher states than others.
The totality of our experience is never quite “neutral”. Imagine the great difference, in terms of real-life outcomes, between people who live their lives in lower states and people who live in higher ones.
Would such emotional workings not be the very foundation of equality and inequality? Is not the aim of all struggles for equality, after all, to guarantee that people can live rich and wonderful inner lives, rather than impoverished and suffocating ones?
What could be a greater privilege than having a fundamental sense of “okay-ness”, even a sense of meaning, enchantment and wonder, throughout one’s life? And what could be a greater injustice done to us than having our lives filled with embitterment, resentment, self-hatred—or even sheer existential terror?
I also argued in The Listening Society that “subjective states” are more fundamental than emotions. But this, of course, doesn’t mean emotions don’t matter. In an earlier post I argued that freedom is always related to emotions, consciously felt or lying dormant in the background but still steering our everyday actions and interactions. Society, in this view, is a vast, interconnected fabric of suffering and bliss, pulsating and reverberating with multitudes upon multitudes of lived experiences. Can this fabric be consciously and actively developed? Yes, it can.[iii]
It is the goal of political metamodernism to extend compassion, or at least solidarity, to this whole fabric of hurt and bliss, to society in its complex entirety, to the co-emergent inner worlds of countless millions.
Let’s take a look at how emotions are unevenly and unfairly distributed among human organisms (and non-human animals). If a person is happier and more energetic, this plays out in every aspect of her life. The happy person has an easier time getting things done since the reward feedback loops are more functional. This means she will be able to produce better results for herself as well as others, which means she will be more respected and gain greater recognition, attain a better self-image and thereby boosting her sense of meaning and happiness.
Conversely, the sad and depressed person doesn’t get emotional rewards for performing tasks, which wrecks the positive behavioral feedback loops. In fact, she gets emotional punishment for most of the things she does, which makes it so much harder to make an effort to change her situation.
This very easily leads to anxiety, fear, shame, embarrassment and self-hatred—which paralyzes her and makes her strivings seem futile. And she is less fun to be around, which in turn makes her lonelier.
These proposed mechanisms are of course simplifications, but they are firmly established in behavioral science. You also have lots of folks who are very active and productive but still struggle with feelings of anxiety and lacking meaning; consider the many empty treadmills that bourgeois life can put us through.
But the point is that emotional hurt and lower states do have great costs over a lifespan. It has been shown, for instance, that bad parenting can knock 20 years off your life expectancy.[iv]
Here’s another example. In an influential 2013 book called Scarcity, the behavioral economists Mullainathan and Shafir presented ample evidence of a “scarcity mindset”. Poverty taxes cognitive resources and causes self-control failure. We literally become dumber and make more short-sighted decisions when we are poor or under economic stress: we eat less healthy, invest less intelligently and we even score lower on IQ tests. When we feel like crap, we get stuck in a scarcity mindset. This is a form of emotional inequality.
On the flipside, you can see how affluent populations tend to develop higher value memes and postmaterialist (non-consumerist, environmentalist, etc.) values over time, as has been the case in e.g. the Nordic countries. You feel good, you space out, you have the time to contemplate life, and so forth.
There is good reason to believe this principle of a scarcity mindset extends well beyond economic decision-making and that it is equally valid in other areas of life: love, dating (where dating coaches also warn of a destructive scarcity mindset, using the exact same term), social recognition, making one’s opinions and values heard, and so forth. So inequality of any kind likely produces emotions and general mindsets that steer our many decisions and hence our lives. Inner states and emotions are at the center of how inequality is reproduced across all of its dimensions.
Our streams of thought, our very streams of consciousness, look very different from each other, often steered by emotions. How evenly is shame distributed in the population? What about fear and self-hatred? Frustration and bitterness?
Even if all of us experience these emotions, there are large segments of the population whose very lives are run by these. And how many of us get to feel satisfied, proud and stimulated on a daily basis? And when the insecure, the nervous and the grief-stricken encounter the laid-back, the comfortable, the happy—what are all other, more superficial, forms of equality ultimately worth? How much easier is it not to dominate, exploit and manipulate the emotionally impoverished? On the other hand, what is more empowering than peace of mind? More empowering than a heart in love with life itself?
Whereas all of these emotions of course emerge in larger contexts, in our living conditions and social-psychological circumstances as well as in our personal biological and genetic constitutions, it is not impossible to directly influence and steer the emotional development of human beings.
Even if our emotions are products of economic, social and physiological inequalities, there are, roughly speaking, two forms of services that can be offered: 1) the eliciting and boosting of positive emotions and 2) the support towards successfully coping with, integrating and transmuting negative emotions.
In a listening society, the deeper welfare of the future, we can and should create institutions and structures that work against emotional inequality—not, of course, by making the happy miserable to even out the playing field, but by strengthening our psyches so as to deal with difficult emotions. We should offer good emotional support, training and services to all citizens from the day they are born until their dying breath. If you care about the real, fundamental equality and dignity of humans, no other conclusion is possible or justifiable.
Some of the possible political measures that have been mentioned above, under social and physiological inequality, feed into the struggle for emotional equality. For instance, again, we can affect emotions by developing body postures and body language, by training social and emotional intelligence, by making sure good meditation practices are taught, and by making healthy food more available—for instance, intake of vegetables has been shown to protect against depression, as has physical exercise.
But emotions can be targeted even more directly. For example, all children could be offered simple forms of counseling during their school years, which would help many of them from being taken over by destructive emotions during their early lives and onwards. Schools could use exercises of “positive psychology”, and the general framework of schooling could be designed to elicit more positive emotions. We could have greater possibilities for adults to take a year off and work on their emotional issues and concerns, with places of rest and recluse. And people could be trained to better manage conflicts and rejections, which severely affect our emotional wellbeing and development. At the national level, we could start measuring the prevalence of different emotions and present public statistics to guide public discourse.
The issue here is not to pan out all the solutions—thousands are possible, with so many social technologies that must be invented, implemented, evaluated and refined; and the sky is the limit. The issue here is only to raise awareness of the question of emotional inequality so that the political discussion can begin, and so that it can enter the political agenda.
Even if all emotions are, in some cosmic last instance, “okay”, we really shouldn’t wish for ourselves or our fellow citizens to be trapped by fear, shame, guilt, aggression and envy. Such emotions exacerbate inequalities and suffering in more ways than we could hope to name or think of.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.
[i]. Weir, K., 2012. “The Pain of Social Rejection”. American Psychological Association: Monitor of Psychology, vol. 43(4).
[ii]. See Fowler, J. H., Christakis, N. A., 2008. Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal—a study in which 4739 individuals were followed from 1983 to 2003.
[iii]. An important aspect of this—which I leave out in this discussion—has to do with using technology to develop the states of human beings. Consider the following quote from a report on an “Effective Altruism” event in San Francisco:
“I got to talk to people from the Qualia Research Institute, who point out that everyone else is missing something big: the hedonic treadmill. People have a certain baseline amount of happiness. Fix their problems, and they’ll be happy for a while, then go back to baseline. The only solution is to hack consciousness directly, to figure out what exactly happiness is—unpack what we’re looking for when we describe some mental states as having higher positive valence than others—and then add that on to every other mental state directly. This isn’t quite the dreaded wireheading, the widely-feared technology that will make everyone so doped up on techno-super-heroin (or direct electrical stimulation of the brain’s pleasure centers) that they never do anything else. It’s a rewiring of the brain that creates a ‘perpetual but varied bliss’ that ‘reengineers the network of transition probabilities between emotions’ while retaining the capability to do economically useful work.”
See: Alexander, S., 2017. “Fear and Loathing at Effective Altruism Global 2017”, published online 16th of August at Slate Star Codex. (www.slatestarcodex.com)
[iv]. There is even a documentary film, produced by James Redford, Resilience (2017) which lays all of this out in detail.