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Review of Brené Brown’s “Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience”

Review by Donald Officer

“What lies in store for you if you follow your heart and allow yourself to be all you can be, fearlessly?”

                                                                                                                                     – Anita Moorjani

Dr. Brené Brown is no stranger to deep research, powerful presentations or candid discussions on the subject of human emotions. I counted nine bestsellers she has written, co-authored or edited and it seems to me there may have been more, so prominent her titles have become on newsstands and in bookstores for many years. Nonetheless, considering the scope of Atlas of the Heart how could any writer approaching this topic be anything but daunted!

And that’s only the start of the challenge Brown takes on. Her awesome visualization of a complete emotional map compels the imagination. Compare her with the explorer-cartographers of the age of discovery approaching unexplored coastlines and continents lying before them full of both menace and mystery. Those lands extended the promise of fabulous riches but also the risk of fearful outcomes.  Science itself now stands before unplumbed realms of human emotion much as a would-be leader scanning the horizon for signposts leading to genuine gratitude.

If the challenge seems immeasurable to neuroscientists or leaders, so must it seem even to a social science polymath like qualitative researcher Brené Brown, a social worker by training, a pioneer scholar in the study of shame and a versatile facilitator by nature. Just as serious students of the brain are now considering, she also appreciates how both dynamic and foundational our emotional lives must be. But it seems the earliest explorers of our inner territories may have misidentified many early landmarks. Likewise, it was hard for earlier generations to finally accept that there really were no canals on Mars although it was exciting to think there were.

So how does a sharp-eyed observer like Dr. Brown navigate around uncharted or deceptively marked features. Cautiously but enthusiastically is the short answer. In Atlas of the Heart, she describes how clusters of related emotions may be found in compatible enclaves within a complex landscape. Take gratitude (which is what we usually do in these posts) and note that the author has situated this emotion at the center of a cluster she identifies as appreciation. Like other emotions Brown places in the gratitude cluster, readers will recognize that sentiments affiliated or intertwined with gratitude certainly do more than occupy adjacent pigeonholes.

Brown affixes the appreciation cluster with a key atlas signifier: “Places We Go When Life is Good.” Within that locale lie acknowledgment at one end and purpose at the other. Unlike more transient though not unimportant feelings, gratitude abides. Happiness, joy, calm, contentment or relief, while welcome, often pass quickly as new worries emerge. Joy is typically fleeting or so we are told and tend to believe. Sometimes we are reluctant to link gratitude with joy. The author recognizes the bittersweet tang of foreboding joy which reins in some of the spontaneity of uninhibited expression. Brené Brown points out that this foreboding can lead us back to gratitude rejuvenating the recollection. I would add that this touch of anxiety may also awaken a tinge of excitement like a scary ride at the carnival or that breathless thrill before taking center stage. 

The new research which is alluded to if not the main focus in Atlas of the Heart brings up some cantankerous puzzles to replace old vexations like the now recognized as artificial separation of thought from feeling. Local or organizational culture always plays a role in categorizing emotion, though no person’s perceived experiences could possibly be the same as another’s given what we now can trace about ways emotions develop. Persistence of antiquated generalizations about hiring still lead managers to believe a candidate is automatically “not a good fit.” Such pronouncements often reflect unconscious or hidden bias and lost opportunities.

Very well, but hold on, the new science implies that all the filters of biology, experience, self, society and culture help create the specific emotions anyone will experience coming out of the neural tangle we inherit. How then can a leader be authentically grateful for what probably is not what his or her colleague intends in exactly the same way?  You and I both experience and probably identify the color blue as pretty much the same for all practical purposes. However, the feelings and those subtle differentiations in perception surrounding blueness make my blue in some measurable ways distinctive from yours. Then there’s the added emotional difference (the actual heartfelt input). And what is true blue, if anything at all, in the mind of say, a horse?

More likely, much that matters can be shared despite the terra incognita in every heart’s map. We depend on common enough reference points even while recognizing key distinctions. This book is directed at any reader properly equipped as an emotional being. To leaders who would be truly grateful for instance, the issues of individuality and inclusiveness might complicate organizational life while also offering opportunities they might never have dreamed of. Atlas of the Heart enters that shared work life where appreciation needs room to grow. We could use an atlas of the heart for that purpose and maybe also as a dictionary of common feeling.

 

Donald Officer, MA
The Gratitude Connection

Social science writer, blogger and coach/facilitator. The Intention Coach

What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection columns and International Institute for Learning Sr. Vice-President, Judith Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.

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