Become an Emotion Scientist in 2023

Marc Brackett, Ph.D.
3 min readDec 31, 2022
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Co-authored with Robin Stern, PhD

Do you know what’s interesting about New Year’s resolutions? We make them and break them every year. How many of us have made and broken the same resolutions year after year?

Are we all crazy? Of course not. Resolutions are built on the best intentions. Moving towards what we want for ourselves and others with intention keeps us hopeful and optimistic and enhances our relationships.

Each January, many of us say, “I can, and I will do this.” We commit to changing our bad habits, learning a new skill, or becoming a better person. Sometimes we even succeed.

Our challenge to you is to be more of an emotion scientist in 2023. What do we mean by that? As you have been learning (or can learn now) from using the HowWeFeel App or from reading Permission To Feel, emotions affect nearly everything we do. And because they matter for everything we do and for everyone we interact with, it is important to treat them with care, to approach them as compassionate scientists.

When we train educators in RULER, our Center’s evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning that’s now in over 4,000 schools, we ask them to consider the difference between treating emotions scientifically versus judgmentally. We ask them what it looks like to be an emotion scientist versus an emotion judge. And we hear things like:

Emotion scientists are curious, inquisitive, and analytical. They are active listeners and focus on facts. They ask people how they’re feeling and really want to know the answer. They listen well and pay careful attention to others’ words and actions. They think long and hard about their own emotions too, always seeking to better understand their own emotional lives. They attempt and evaluate different ways of handling their emotions through trial and error.

Emotion judges are critical, reactionary, and make quick assumptions. They do not spend time reflecting on their own emotions or how they deal with them. They also are more interested in judging other people’s feelings than learning how they feel. Or, worse, they may tell them how they are feeling. They also base their judgments on limited information.

Consider this example. When someone yells or stomps or knocks something over, we may assume they are angry because those are “angry behaviors.” When someone cries, we assume they are sad. But really, there is no such thing as an angry or a sad behavior. The same behavior interpreted as anger or sadness could be an expression of passion about a cause, frustration over a blocked goal, or disappointment over unmet expectations. As emotion scientists, we seek to know the story behind the behavior, in order to find the emotion underlying the behavior. We are curious. We want to really see and understand. And it’s not always easy.

We often “see” someone else’s emotions as a reflection of our own emotions. We are biased by our own emotional experiences and personal histories, and we make judgments based on these biases. We think, “I felt angry when that same situation happened to me, so that person must feel angry too. Being an emotion scientist means heightening our awareness of our own subjectivity and the limitations of our views, so we can see others’ emotions objectively.

One of the things we’re continuously trying to get better at is pausing to observe, to ask questions, to really understand our own and others’ emotions — without making value judgments and without forming opinions about whether our feelings are justified or beneficial. It’s amazing how much we learn by just listening.

Can you challenge yourself to be more of an emotion scientist in 2023? How might you benefit from adopting this mindset? How might the people you live and work with benefit?

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Marc Brackett, Ph.D.

Director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence; Professor, Yale Child Study Center; Author of: Permission To Feel; www.marcbrackett.com