The Sine Curve of Emotion and the World of Deeper Feeling (#787)

Last night the family went to see my youngest daughter shine in a magnificent (obviously) musical performance. This morning she came into the kitchen with a sad face on and said “When you’re in a show and it ends, it’s really sad.”

Before I even had the chance to comment, her face brightened as she said “Are we still going to the pumpkin patch today?” and began making the case for our getting the largest pumpkin in Neill family history. About an hour later, when my wife joined us for coffee and hot cocoa, the journey from happy to sad to happy was repeated in roughly the same sequence.

I call this phenomenon the “sine curve of emotion”, as the rise and fall or our moods and emotions tend to go up and down with the consistency and predictability of a mathematical equation.

Of course, whereas a traditional sine curve looks something like this:

our emotional sine curve tends to look a bit more like this:

As a culture, we have a tendency to become as obsessive about explaining and tracking these highs and lows as market traders and investors are with tracking the stock market. And as with the markets, we continue to hope against hope that if only we can discover and master some secret magic formula, we will be able to prop the sine curve up at the top so that we can sustain longer and longer highs and avoid those nasty lows.

There are a couple of different ways we attempt to do this. The first is to try and master the art of positive thinking. Because at some level we recognize that our emotions follow our thoughts, we try to control our thoughts to master our emotions. The problem with this strategy is that thought doesn’t seem to lend itself to control over time, and nearly everybody experiences a backlash from this “fake it ’til you make it” ind of approach.

The resultant artificially altered curve tends to wind up looking something like this:

We are able to maintain a positive emotional state for an extended period of time, but like an olympic power lifter attempting to set a new world record, when our attention flags for even a second the whole thing comes crashing down to the ground with a bang.

Weight Lifter

The second way we try to avoid the ups and downs of the emotional sine curve is to completely deaden ourselves to our emotions, attempting to stay at a comfortable “5” on a scale from 1 to 10. For a time, this detached apathy can be a relief from the crazy up and down ride of the sine curve, and we can easily confuse it with peace of mind.  The difference is, peace of mind actually feels good – the apathy of detachment doesn’t feel like much of anything.


Fortunately, there is some good news coming – a pot of gold hidden underneath this emotional rainbow. For at all times, independent from circumstances or even the roller coaster of thought and emotion, there is a world of deeper feeling available to us.

While we sometimes give these feelings emotional labels, like gratitude, humility, awe, peace, joy, and bliss, what sets them apart is their unconditionality – their consistent presence through time, regardless of how things are going in our lives. They are the constant backdrop against which our emotional life unfolds – the space out of which our thoughts and emotions arise and back into which they dissolve.

For me, it seems this world of deeper feeling is a part of our birthright – the simple feeling of being and aliveness we were born with, uncontaminated by the wild imaginings of our personal thinking. And the moment my thoughts settle, regardless of where I happen to be on the emotional sine curve, these deeper feelings rise up closer and closer to the surface until they break through into my consciousness.

I often think of these deeper feelings in terms of water – a river that flows with peace and well-being; a well of being which we can always dip into and never runs dry; an ocean of consciousness that surrounds me at all times.



As I live with a deeper awareness of this world of deeper feeling, the ups and downs of the emotional sine curve matter less and less to me. I don’t have to worry about whether I am happy or sad in any given moment, knowing that whatever my thoughts and emotions happen to be doing at the time, I can inevitably find a deeper feeling that allows me to fully experience my emotional highs and lows without any need to change or control them.

Because I’m no longer messing with my emotions, they become surprisingly less messy. Normal service is resumed, and I experience my natural ups and downs without the accompanying story and drama. I’m less hypnotized by my highs or frightened by my lows. In short, I’m able to live my life free from the craving to control my experience by attempting to control the universe of circumstance or the constellation of thought and emotion.

Does this mean I wouldn’t feel sad when my “show” ends?

Not at all. It just means that for the most part, I’m able to experience that sadness without the fear that it will turn into depression or has any significance beyond the temporary reality of the moment.

And when my daughter experiences that sadness, I don’t need to rescue her or make it better. I get to just love her and enjoy her company. And in that moment, we both fall into the embrace of the world of deeper feeling which surround us…

With love,

Related Articles

The Ultimate Happiness Variable (#877)

The other day, I woke up feeling incredibly sad. In times past, when it still seemed to me like having a “negative emotion” was problematic, that feeling would have launched me into a search for what was wrong in my life and an even more enthusiastic search into my collection of self-help and psychology books for a solution that would eliminate the feeling of sadness and then eventually help me to upgrade my life to a point where I wouldn’t ever have to feel that sad feeling again…

Three Pieces of Good News (that sound like bad news), part one

When I talk with people about my seven year battle with suicidal depression nearly three decades ago, I often describe it like this: “It was the best thing that ever happened to me, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.” It doesn’t feel right to call it “a gift”, because I would never purposefully give it to my children or anyone else I cared about, and yet I am incredibly grateful for what I’ve learned, who I’ve become, and who I’ve been able to help at least partially because I went through it.

Emotional Weather (#969)

Almost 25 years ago, I had a conversation with a friend who had been struggling with anger and behavioral issues at around the same time as I was going through my own struggles with depression. We had both come out the other side of our personal emotional infernos, and I was intensely curious to compare notes and find out what he had found most useful in his own quest for happiness and at least a modicum of inner peace…

Beyond Control (#844)

When it comes to success, coaching, personal development, and even most therapies I have come across, the most popular game in town is “getting control”. People feel out of control of their thoughts, emotions, moods, relationships, finances, and lives, so they read and listen and study and practice in hopes that with enough hard work, they can go from feeling out of control to in control…