Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Peacefulness and well-being

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Peacefulness and well-being:
What are peaceful emotions and how do they affect well-being?

Overview[edit | edit source]

"Peace" has been a timeless greeting that was spoken by iconic figures of the past, and is a much sort after ideal state for the human family around the world. A profound and desired feeling that most long for after a hard day's work, or it can be thought of as a sense of peace one feels when engaged in enjoying life's simple pleasures free of disturbances and where one can find complete calm and tranquility therein, but what is a peaceful emotion to begin with?

Figure 1. Symbol of peace.

This chapter discusses [which?] two theories that explain how an individual reaches a state of experiencing peaceful emotions. It will also briefly discuss the brain structures that are involved in experiencing the unconscious and conscious awareness of emotions. Finally, it will investigate the effects of positive psychology behind feelings of peaceful emotions on well-being, and briefly suggest where future research could investigate further to better understand subjective emotional experiences.

Focus questions:

  • What is a peaceful emotion?
  • What are some relevant theories that apply?
  • What role does the brain play in creating a peaceful emotion?
  • What are the effects of peaceful emotions on well-being?

What is a peaceful emotion?[edit | edit source]

Emotions in general are coordinated interactive neural communications that takes place in the subcortical and cortical areas in the brain that produce subjective representations of emotions known as feelings (Fox, 2008).  Experiencing feelings of peace is associated with positive terms such as serenity, harmony, happiness, freedom and love (Sarrica, 2007; as cited in Cohrs et al., 2013).  In addition, Cohrs et al. (2013) has suggested that feelings of being at peace reflect positive emotions that can contribute to overall well-being (Sarrica, 2007; as cited in Cohrs et al., 2013). Peace is said to be a reflection of a positive human experience and generally individuals find value in peaceful harmony which contributes to life satisfaction (Floody, 2012; as cited in Cohrs, et al., 2013).  When you are at peace you feel relatively relaxed, and safe in your environment, this activates the soothing effect of your parasympathetic nervous system, producing a calm and relaxed feeling in the mind and body, which re-establishes homeostatic balance (Diamond & Cribbet, 2013).  

Theories[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Self-actualisation theory[edit | edit source]

Theoretical frameworks attempt to explain complex psychological phenomena; Self-actualisation theory articulates that humans have a tendency towards the motivation to fulfill physiological needs, that are at the bottom of a hierarchy, and then progress upwards, to fulfill psychological needs which rest further up the top of a hierarchy to reach the pinnacle, which is self-actualisation (Rouse & A, 2004). Self-actualisation is the process of fulfilling one's potential (Rouse & A, 2004), and operates from a biological need to a cognitive need (Frame,1996; as cited in Rouse & A, 2004). ). Other characteristics of self-actualisation include self-awareness, a sense of freedom and autonomy, spontaneity, trust, creativity, a need for privacy and solitude and a capacity to form deep interpersonal relationships (Corey, 2013).

Maslow suggested that once basic needs were met, an individual is motivated to satisfy higher order needs like esteem needs, (the need to feel competent) and move forward towards self-actualization and becoming a fully functioning individual (Corey, 2013). Before one can experience higher order needs, one must satisfy their physiological, safety and belongingness needs first (Corey, 2013).

Figure 2. Maslow's hierarchy of needs model.

The needs are sequenced as follows:

  • Self-actualisation: (Morality, creativity, achieving full potential)
  • Self-esteem: (Need to feel competent)
  • Belongingness needs: (Relationships, love, and to be loved)
  • Safety needs: (Shelter, protection from danger)
  • Physiological needs: (Food, water, sleep)

Maslow defined these needs as goal states that motivate and drive people to increase and reduce tension (Maddi, 1977; Maslow, 1970; as cited in Rouse, & A, 2004). Fulfilling one's Psychological/Physiological needs can facilitate the experience of feeling at ease, feeling at peace as it brings both mind and body to a homeostatic balance (Chinky, 2014).

Self-determination theory[edit | edit source]

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a macro-theory of motivation which suggests that humans have a natural tendency to be intrinsically motivated by assimilating external regulations into self-regulations that facilitate personal psychological growth, social integration and well-being (Deci & Ryan, 2002; as cited in Nikou & Economides, 2017). The three basic psychological needs are competence, relatedness and autonomy. It is hypothesized that these three needs are evolved features of human nature which serve towards successful outcomes of adaptive tasks (Deci & Ryan, 2000). When an individual applies their effort towards producing, or succeeding at a task, positive feelings serve as a reward for that achievement (Sheldon & Schuler, 2011). Satisfying basic need for competence, relatedness and autonomy is related to positive outcomes and facilitates the end goal of becoming more behaviourally autonomous and self-regulating (Ryan & Deci, 2008; as cited in Sheldon & Schuler, 2011).  These changes bring about psychological well-being and enhance growth potential (Sheldon & Schuler, 2011).  This finding has also been seen across multiple cultures, and in multiple age groups and also in experimental manipulations of need-satisfaction and deprivation (Ryan & Deci, 2008; Sheldon, 2004; as cited in Sheldon & Schuler, 2011).

Figure 3. Self determination theory model.

The three components of Self-Determination are as follows:

  • Autonomy: Correspond to feelings of independence, the freedom to choose and a motivator towards the most autonomous type of extrinsic motivation that is called integrated regulation where behaviour becomes internalized and adopted into personal values and beliefs (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
  • Competence: Can be defined as one’s perceived self-belief in the ability to perform well in an activity, or feeling effective in one’s behaviour (Sheldon & Schuler, 2011).
  • Relatedness: Are related to relationships with important others, connections, and closeness (Sheldon & Schuler, 2011).

Studies have shown that personal goal achievement (self-concordant goals) that is in line with the authentic self, or personality characteristics, better represent deeper, implicit motivations and predicts increased need-satisfaction which leads to well-being (Sheldon & Schuler, 2011). Is it any wonder then when an individual feels satisfied that they are inclined to feel a sense of, peace of mind…..

The emotional brain[edit | edit source]

Emotions in general are thought to be a result of unconscious processing going on in brain systems that evolved for human survival and are also connected to homeostatic regulation of the body (Burkitt, 2019). Neuroscience understands human emotions as being generated by neural systems in the brain that produce bodily responses (Burkitt, 2019).

Subcortical brain[edit | edit source]

The subcortical brain, largely associated with emotions such as hunger, thirst, anger, anxiety, pleasure, desire, reward and wanting, communicates in conjunction with other cortical structures in the brain to produce both emotions and motivation (Reeve, 2018). Emotions at large contain several components like action, thoughts, feelings and bodily changes (fox, 2008). From a biological perspective, emotions are thought to be a range of results provided by nature that enticed our ancestors to pass on their genes to the succeeding generation for survival (Fox, 2008). Other studies suggest that emotions are socially constructed by our individual life experiences and cultural exposure that give meaning to our social world (Fox, 2008). In addition to these perspectives, the scientific investigation assumes that emotions are a result of bodily reactions to some type of environmental stimulus (James, 1884; as cited in Fox, 2008).

Cognitive appraisal of the significance of certain objects is suggested to be a precursor to an emotional response (Fox, 2008). The idea behind this concept is the degree of evaluation an individual will place on an environmental stimulus will determine the emotion that is experienced (Fox, 2008). For example, the Greek philosopher Aristotle once wrote, that anger was an ‘impulse’ that was a result from an evaluation by an individual who had been insulted in some way (Fox, 2008). By and large, it can be said that emotions are short lived, multidimensional, subjective feelings that are purposeful, and expressive experiences (Reeve, 2018).  The neural activity in the brain instigates and coordinates the emotional reactions that are feeling, purposeful, bodily- reactions to life’s significant events and are largely responsible for emotional responses (Reeve, 2018).

Figure 4. Image of the human brain.

The sixteen brain structures that are associated with emotional motivation are as follows:

  • Amygdala: Meaning almond shape, plays a role in conditional learning response and the representation of value in objects of the environment (Pessoa, 2010), including both rewards and threats (Reeve, 2018).  This structure is richly interconnected with both cortical and subcortical structures (Petrovich, Canteras, & Swanson, 2001; Young, Scannell, Burns, & Blakemore, 1994; as cited in Pessoa, 2010). Damage to this area of the brain shows indications of neutral expression, lack of emotional response and a willingness to approach fearful stimuli (Reeve, 2018).
  • Reticular formation: A cluster of neurons in the brain stem that is responsible for arousing the brain and instigating alertness by ascending nerve impulse upward towards the brain, as well as projecting downward impulses to regulate the body, promoting appropriate action (Reeve, 2018).
  • Basal ganglia: The basal ganglia are involved in various aspects of the psychomotor behaviour, lesions to this area of the brain lead to various disorders that range from hypokinetic to hyperkinetic dysfunctions such as, Parkinson's disease (Parent & Hazrati, 1994).
  • Hypothalamus: The hypothalamus is at the core of the stress responses systems of the brain (Muller et al., 2018), and also regulates the endocrine and autonomic systems to cope with environmental stressors by activating arousal at the sympathetic nervous system and recovery regulation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (Reeve, 2018). In addition, the hypothalamus regulates a range of biological functions such as, eating and drinking, as well as being responsive to natural rewards from the environment (Reeve, 2018)
  • Striatum and Nucleus accumbens: These brain structures represent reward pathways and from an evolutionary point of view, presumably evolved to mediate an individual’s response to natural rewards, such as food, mating and social interaction (Nestler, 2002). These structures respond to reward stimulus and through them, one learns to approach pleasurable experiences from the environment (Reeve, 2018).
  • Ventral Tegmental Area: This structure relates to the production and projections of dopamine release which are critical components of a reward circuit in the brain (Lou et al., 2011)

Cortical brain[edit | edit source]

  • Isular cortex: Consists of two halves, the posterior insular monitors and is aware of bodily changes, the anterior insula monitors and evaluates subjective feelings that arise from these bodily states (Reeve, 2018).
  • Prefrontal cortex: PFC is a collection of interconnected neocortical areas that sends and receives projections from virtually all cortical sensory systems, motor systems, and many subcortical structures (Miller & Cohen, 2001). It is important for ‘top-down’ processing and for when behaviour must be guided and for formulating intentions, as well as setting goals and the means to achieve them (Miller & Cohen, 2001). Right prefrontal cortex generates negative (avoid) emotions, whereas the left prefrontal cortex generates positive (approach) emotions and is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system activity that promotes calm, positive effect (Reeve, 2018).
  • Orbitfrontal cortex: Is involved in motivational rewards and punishment reinforcers such as pleasant and painful touch, smell, taste and by more abstract reinforcers like in winning or losing money, and in order to formulate preferences (Rolls, 2004).
  • Ventromedial prefrontal cortex: The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) has been widely recognized to play a critical role in successful emotional decision-making (Clark et al., 2008). Individuals with damage to the vmPFC commonly display poor judgement, socially inappropriate behaviour and impulsivity (Damasio, 1994; Berlin et al., 2004; as cited in Clark et al., 2008), as demonstrated in part by a well-studied single cases like Phineas Gage. [1].
  • Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: Evaluates the learned emotional value of events in the environment and decides on possible courses of action to take, it also contributes towards inhibitory behaviour (Self-control) during decision making in pursuit of long term goals (Reeve, 2018).
  • Anterior cingulate cortex: Part of the brain that instigates choice, or preference evaluations from specific processing modules for sensory, motor, cognitive and emotional information, it also acts by influencing activity in other brain regions and modulating cognitive, motor, endocrine and intuitive responses to reduce conflicts, or tensions (Bush et al., 2000)

When contemplating on positive emotions such as a ‘peaceful emotion,’ one can see from the above-mentioned structures, how the brain plays a pivotal role in all emotional and motivational experiences. Thus far, our understanding of how the brain works to produce these subjective feelings and many other cognitions largely remains a phenomenon (Passingham et al., 2013).

Effects of peaceful emotions on well-being[edit | edit source]

'"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose that response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."' (Viktor E. Frankl)

A sense of peace and relative calm in one’s life is what one ultimately strives for to achieve homeostatic stability both physiologically and psychologically (Diamond & Cribbet, 2013). A sense of peace is said to be an important condition, as well as a reflection, of positive human experience, associated with positive psychology (Chors et al., 2013). Positive psychology is concerned with positive human experiences such as happiness, hope and optimism, fulfilment, positive relationships, and more generally with what makes life worth living (e.g., Linley, Joseph, Harrington, & Wood, 2006; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000a). In general, individuals tend to find more value in harmony and report higher levels of satisfaction (Floody, 2012; as cited in Chors et al., 2013).

Feelings of being content and safe are associated with feelings of calm and are notably linked to oxytocin and opiate systems (Richardson et al., 2016). Oxytocin and opioids are associated more specifically with seeking, reward, play/pleasure and care (Richardson et al., 2016) and can contribute to positive effects. Positive effect has been characterised as being happy and content and can provide one with positive energy, and interest in pleasurable activities (Salsman et al., 2014). Experiencing positive emotions such as peace, joy and contentment represses autonomic arousal, signal approach and safety, and enable individuals to engage with their environment positively (Kobau, 2011). Positive psychology focuses on positive experiences and emotions and, in particular, on well-being and happiness (Chors et al., 2013). Sound mental health and emotional well-being are a fundamental component to quality of life and enable an individual to cope with life’s stresses and challenges, as well as work productively in the environment (Coyle et al., 2014).

The World Health Organisation shows that poor mental health is a leading cause of disability worldwide (Murray et al., 2012; as cited in Coyle et al., 2014). This has led to the implementation of useful interventions that can enhance psychological well-being like, Reappraisal which involves changing the meaning of a certain situation, or changing negative emotions to more productive and positive ones (Reeve, 2018). Similarly, in the book titled, ‘The Biology of belief’ Doctor Bruce Lipton suggests a concept he has entitled, the belief effect, Similar to a placebo effect, which describes the amazing ability for the body/mind to heal itself from the mere belief that it can (Lipton, 2005). Furthermore, other research highlights the importance of supportive, empowering relationships which addresses emotional needs and contribute towards physical health and well-being (Coyle et al., 2014).

Figure 5. Peaceful view of the sunset

Useful interventions[edit | edit source]

Cross-sectional, experimental, and longitudinal research has demonstrated that positive emotions are associated with numerous benefits related to psychological resilience and well-being (Kobau, 2011).  Some effective strategies that can improve your outlook positively, including your well-being, are;

  • 'The gratitude visit’ exercise. This exercise is aimed at expressing gratitude to those individuals who have made a significant impact on your life in one way or another. The exercise aims to write to the individual in question, a brief but heartfelt letter of thanks. Next, you are to arrange a time where you go to visit them and read this letter to them in person, then share your feelings about its content.  Showing gratitude is said to promote happy and satisfying emotions that decrease depressive type feelings (Seligman, 2011).
  • ‘The three blessings’ exercise.  This exercise involves journaling your daily experiences. At the end of the day, you are to write down three things that went well for you and why they went well for you.  For example, ‘today my friend surprised me with cooking for me my favourite dish.’ Why did this happen? ‘Because my friend cares about me and knows how much I love her cooking.’ Writing about positive events that happen in your life are said to alleviate negative mood, and navigates one from focusing on what is not going right in life to what is going right (Seligman, 2011).
  • Smiling. Studies suggest that smiling is a common nonverbal signal used in communication among humans (Kraut, & Johnston, 1979). The emotional expression view suggests that a smile is the major component of a facial display that is associated with, and is also caused by feelings of happiness and joy (Kraut & Johnston, 1979). It has been observed that individuals usually smile more in the presence of others than when they are alone (Mackey, 1976; Leventhal & mace, 1970; as cited in Kraut & Johnston, 1979). In addition, social smiling is said to produce pleasant, positive emotions to the one who smiles (Kraut & Johnston, 1979). Furthermore, Thornton, (1943), first documented that smiling individuals tend to be rated higher in kindness, honesty, and sense of humour than individuals with neutral expressions (Wang et al., 2015). Other studies that have been conducted on smiling/laughter have found that adults who act happy (broad smile; hearty laugh) for a minute a day are likely to elevate their mood, as well as reduce stress-hormones in their system (Neuhoff & Schaeffer, 2002).

Other useful techniques[edit | edit source]

To promote peaceful emotions these practices are recommended.

  • Yoga practice is said to promote enhanced mood and well-being, personal growth and development, stress relief, and enhanced bodily awareness and physical functioning (Belling, 2001; as cited in Kidd & Eatough, 2017). In addition, a qualitative exploration into yoga for chronic pain management found that participants were able to re-frame their experience of living with pain through increased bodily awareness that came through their yoga practice (Tul, Unruh, & Dick, 2011; as cited in Kidd & Eatough, 2017).
  • Prayer itself has been associated with good health, quality of life, and lower levels of psychological distress in healthy people (Levine et al., 2008). In addition, several studies have suggested that a prayer said for gratification purposes is said to have a positive association with psychological well-being, and also correlated positively with measures of self-esteem, optimism, and a feeling of having meaning in life (You & Yoo, 2016).
  • Tai chi is a type of low impact mind-body exercise that has been practiced for centuries for health and fitness and appears to improve mood (Wang et al., 2010). Studies suggest that Tai Chi may be associated with improvements in psychological well-being including reducing stress, anxiety, depression and mood disturbance, and increased self-esteem (Wang et al., 2010).
Figure 5. Worshipers peacefully praying.

By achieving overall well-being, this could facilitate one to experience calm and peace as it fulfills a Psychological, cognitive need of feeling at ease (Chinky, 2014).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Writing this book chapter brings to mind a memory of my late father. Baba was a man of not too many words, but his actions spoke volumes. One bitterly, cold winter's morning when we were enjoying our morning coffee together on the balcony, it started to snow. Without saying a word, Baba rose from the chair he was sitting on and made his way, with great effort (given he had muscular dystrophy) towards a place where he would be exposed to the snow falling down on his person. He raised both his head and arms towards the heavens and closed his eyes, enjoying nature's free gift of pure joy and pleasure. Was he experiencing a peaceful emotion? Knowing Baba, I bet he was.

Figure 6. Peaceful view from Baba's balcony of snow falling in winter of 2000.

To reiterate, a peaceful emotion can be described as a complex interplay of neural communications between the subcortical and cortical brain structures. Satisfying both physiological and psychological needs can serve to bring both the mind and body to homeostatic balance which could produce a sense of calm and peace. When an individual is satisfied and at relative peace, this could foster positive feelings and overall well-being to occur. Many interventions such as, tai chi exercises, prayer, journaling and even smiling are some techniques that are implemented to generate positive mood and facilitate for peaceful emotional feelings to occur.

Future research could look towards investigating the role personality plays in how different individuals perceive and experience emotions in order to better understand this complex phenomenon.

A take-home message from the author of this book chapter to help inspire peaceful emotions is, the next time you go out, offer each other greetings of peace and don’t forget to smile.

See also[edit | edit source]

  • Awe and well-being - How does experiencing awe influence our well-being? (Book chapter, 2017)
  • Flourishing - What is flourishing and how can it happen? (Book chapter, 2018)
  • Mindfulness and flow - What is the relationship between mindfulness and flow? (Book chapter, 2018)
  • Yoga and mood disorders - How can yoga help deal with mood disorders? (Book chapter, 2018)

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External links[edit | edit source]