The Role of Cognitive Appraisal in Happiness

First, two processes need to be distinguished. One is the discriminating, on a perceptual basis, between a threatening occurrence or person, and a neutral occurrence or person. This is a function of the ventral vagal system. I would like to call this ventral discrimination. If there is a sympathetic shift, this discrimination will be biased toward perceiving hostility or threat and responding defensively.

The second process is cognitive appraisal. This is how a person's conscious thoughts evaluate a situation or person from the point of view of safe or dangerous, good or bad. The entire field of cognitive therapy is based on the premise that human emotional suffering is based solely on cognitive misappraisal.

Everyday observation suggests that indeed, a great deal of unnecessary suffering takes place from maladaptive defensiveness that is based on an exaggerated feeling of threat. The question arises whether this arises from from a miscalibration of the ventral discrimination system, or a cognitive mistake. Well, in fact, both may be present, inasmuch as the two may be the same thing as experienced one in the 'body' and one in the 'mind'. From a Reich and Lowen point of view, cognitive distortions are the mind's way of trying to understand actual bad feelings.

For a dysphoric person, deliberately 'thinking positively' may achieve some technical improvement in accurate assessment of the outside world, just as artillerymen may close in on a target by mechanically correcting from their misses. But contact with others is always a moving target. Relations do not improve, and the pessimistic outlook remains compelling because it provides coherence to the painful feelings that remain in the body.

Admittedly, it is posiible at times to block these feelings from the mind. The allure of cognitive appraisal is that it is dissociative, that is, it can produce a positive feeling in the mind apart from what is happening in the body, and in the world. This can decrease stress somewhat if the threat is small or temporary, or the individual has the ability to overcome it. There is a folk saying, "don't sweat the small stuff." Sweat refers to turning on the sympathetic fight or flight system, which clearly is maladaptive for lesser social threats. Cognitive re-appraisal clearly has some role in mature ego functioning.

But major bad feelings in the body must be dealt with through the body. To try to dissociate these away is a betrayal of the body, and simply doesn't work. Cognitive distortions will become increasingly troublesome because the body and emotion will not be silent, even if frequently they are not heard for what they are. Attempting to combat pleasurelessness, depression, and anxiety solely through cognitive re-appraisal becomes a farce.

Also real hostilities and threats to integrity exist. A social norm that dictates a 'positive appraisal' of one's life may work in part for the privileged, but is cruel for the socially and personally repressed. Bodywork should put both good feelings and good autonomic discrimination in place, and distortion of reality will become a minor issue.