The Politics of Well-being and Ecstasy

“In medieval Britain … it was considered positive to have an ecstatic vision of Christ or the New Jerusalem, while in contemporary Britain such an experience might more often be deemed pathological.”

Jules Evans is a Fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions. He writes:

What Use is the History of Emotions?

The history of the emotions can often seem a rather niche field. I sometimes receive incredulous looks when I say I work at a centre dedicated to this research: “The history of emotions? What the hell is that?” But the field is actually not just academically interesting, but practically useful, for psychologists, policy makers, and ordinary people.

The foundational idea is that our emotions are biological responses filtered through beliefs, judgements and values. This is the cognitive theory of the emotions, first put forward by Stoics and Buddhists over two thousand years ago, and more recently championed by constructivists like Robert Solomon, Martha Nussbaum (Nussbaum, 2001), and Lisa Feldman Barrett (Barrett, 2017).

Because our emotions are constructed by beliefs, values and language, different cultures at different times have different emotional vocabularies and different inner landscapes. Certain emotions might be recognized as normal and healthy in some cultures, while in other cultures may be considered unhealthy or even non-existent. In medieval Britain, for example, it was considered positive to have an ecstatic vision of Christ or the New Jerusalem, while in contemporary Britain such an experience might more often be deemed pathological. Aspects of a society’s emotional culture which are considered somehow natural and ahistorical might turn out to be recent developments – the British are known for their ‘stiff upper lip’ yet, as Thomas Dixon has shown, before the Victorian era, we were famously weepy (Dixon, 2015).

The practical value of studying the history of the emotions, then, is threefold. Firstly, it can increase a person’s ‘emodiversity’, extending their vocabulary for their feelings and helping them realize how rich and varied humanity’s emotional palette has been over time (Watt-Smith, 2018). Secondly, it can teach us ideas and practices for emotional healing and development from different eras and traditions – such as practices from ancient Greece or 12th century Tibet (Evans, 2012). Thirdly, it can help us analyse and challenge emotional attitudes in culture and politics, and to object if one overly-narrow model of emotional health is imposed onto the messy variety of human experience and claimed to be universal (Davies, 2015) …”

Read more here.

The Politics of Well-being and Ecstasy
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