Emotional Inequality in a Nutshell

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.