Ever since I became a psychology student, I have noticed a disconcerting gap between what one learns in the typical psychology course or textbook and what most people expect psychology to impart to the average thinking, feeling human being. To anyone who has experienced sadness, despair, anger, woe, fear, regret, frustration, or anxiety (which is everyone), psychology would seem to be the place to go for everyday answers. After all, the self-help sections of most bookstores are saturated with tomes for the layman outlining how to heal emotional pain and be happy: How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, by Dale Carnegie, Overcoming Anxiety for Dummies, by Laura L. Smith and Charles H. Elliott, Being Happy, by Andrew Matthews, or How to Stop Being So Evil. (I made that last one up. No one would ever buy it, because no one really thinks they are evil. But it would make a great gift.)

The insights and personal experiences of self-help authors are without a doubt precious resources for others in pain. However, many of these books are based on little solid research. Psychology is a science built on facts, not opinions. Although intuition and reflection are unique, indispensable guides to conjecture in this exploration of the inner world, experimental research has the awesome potential to determine what approaches to emotional pain and suffering really help people and, in particular, who they help. My insights may benefit people just like me, but one solution does not always fit all.

So, what does the science of psychology have to say about emotional well-being? What have I learned in class that helps me feel happy and not sad?

Unfortunately, very little. I have learned a great deal about emotional disorders, individual differences in emotion, the development of emotional temperament in children, and emotions in the brain. However, none of these topics came with any postscript on how I might use them to improve my own normal emotional life.

There are two main reasons for this paucity of practical guidance. First, current research on emotion is focused almost entirely on biology. The genes, neurotransmitters, and brain structures associated with emotions were given center stage at the recent annual symposium on emotion hosted by the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I attend school. In the clinical area, emotional pain and suffering is largely considered a biological malfunction or medical disease. The biological perspective on emotion and disease model of emotional pain inevitably lend themselves exclusively to biological solutions. Unfortunately, I am not talking about a healthy diet and exercise, which incidentally have been linked to emotional health and happiness. Instead, electric shock and chemical substances are the frequent remedies of choice, and they are not always reserved for those who are very, very, very sad and afraid.

Another reason for the lack of immediate, daily applications of emotion research is that the everyday boy or girl looking for happiness and healing is not the primary audience of psychological research. Researchers make their living by impressing their peers and the people who pay them. Funding for emotion research often comes from organizations focused on the biological or disease model and pharmaceutical companies, who encourage those perspectives. Those few researchers who reach out to the public to share new ideas and important findings usually do so on their own time, at their own professional risk. Emotion research, therefore, is not usually intended for immediate public consumption.

When researchers do reach out, they do so primarily through books. Books really are the conduit between true science and the average emotional human. The only problem is that these treasures often end up lost in the self-help section amid a sea of works written with less science, more intuition. To find balance, one must search carefully. Some things to look for include reference sections or bibliographies in the back of the book. A book based on scientific research will undoubtedly need to cite other sources. The credentials of the author are also important, not just whether they have a degree but where they got it. John Gray, for example, author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, received his degree from Columbia Pacific University, a mail-order diploma mill that was closed down by the California Attorney General's Office in 2001. Not surprisingly then, Gray's emphasis on gender stereotypes has been contradicted by psychological research. Erina MacGeorge of Purdue University, for example, revealed only a minor 2-3% difference in men and women's comforting skills. Finally, the introduction or first few paragraphs in each chapter should allude to psychological experiments or research studies. Books that make no reference to research are just professional opinions.

Good advice on how to be happy and resolve emotional pain is most likely to be found in the nexus of psychology and self-help, the intersection of science and intuition. Psychological research allows intuitions and opinions to be checked against reality. Intuitions do not always hold up. On the other hand, we can learn a lot from the intuitions of people who have themselves suffered or watched other people suffer and found a way to develop happiness. As a graduate student who has been on both sides, finding ways to unite the two is my mission as a researcher.

Author's Bio: 

Lisa Lindeman is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is completing an individualized graduate major with her primary emphasis on the relationship between thought and emotion. Lisa received her BA in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1999. She has maintained an online journal since 1996 at EmotionToolkit.com.