What Is Emotional Sea Level?
An unfortunate, uniquely American idea is that one can – in fact, should – be ceaselessly happy.
This idea is at odds with our evolutionary past. Happiness, from an evolutionary perspective, is the brief, positive feeling we experience upon the completion of a task, receiving an award, flirting with the opposite sex and so on. We enjoy this feeling, but it is fleeting, so we are inspired to keep engaging in behaviors that will bring it back. These behaviors also tend to be pro-survival, so we are “wired” one might say, to seek happiness, find it, feel it, lose it, and seek it again, and as we do so, we tend to survive and procreate. Conversely, one who feels no joy when, say, receiving a material reward or wooing a potential mate, won’t be inspired to seek out such experiences in the future. That person is likely to fail to survive, or at least fail to reproduce, which means the same thing from an evolutionary perspective – either way, his or her genes are “selected out.”
Dr. Weil’s personal opinion is that the neutral position on the mood spectrum – what he calls emotional sea level – is not happiness but rather contentment. From this perspective, it is possible to accept life in its totality, both the good and the bad, and know that everything is all right, just as it should be, including you and your place in the world. Surprisingly, this acceptance does not breed passivity. He has found that he is most effective at creating positive change when in this state – energy normally employed to ward off frustration at opposition or fear of failure is instead channeled precisely where it needs to go. As he says, “from the moments I’ve been able to be there, I am sure that’s where I want to be more of the time.”
In his view, it’s normal, healthy and productive to leave this state on occasion and experience a variable range of moods and emotions, both positive and negative. It may be normal, healthy, and even productive to experience mild to moderate depression from time to time as part of the variable emotional spectrum, but it is not normal or healthy to get stuck in that mode or to suffer major depression.
The problem, then, is not that we have failed to be endlessly blissful. Instead, it is that the set point of emotional variability in our society has become displaced too far into the negative zone. Too many of us are sad and discontented too much of the time.
It makes no sense to cultivate constant happiness. But it is very wise to cultivate contentment and calm serenity as the neutral midpoint of emotional variability. It is also desirable and important to develop greater flexibility of emotional responsiveness to both the positive and negative aspects of life and the world.