Thoughts on penitence, sin, and positive and negative emotions from psychologist Jeffrey Froh, who researches gratitude and positive psychology. He is the author, with Giacomo Bono, of Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character.
The Table: How do you practice penitence during Lent?
Froh: For this Lenten season, I’m trying to more fully live the commandments. So to do a better job at keeping Sunday holy, I’m going to refrain from using the computer, internet, going shopping, and engaging in household chores, such as banking. Instead, I’m going to focus exclusively on spending time with my family, friends, nature, and God. I practice penitence by doing an examination of conscience before going to confession. I find this to be very helpful in identifying my sins.
The Table: How does the identification of sin factor into our psychological well-being or mental health? Another way to pose it: how does the examination of conscience (or Ignatian examen) make us “happier”?
Froh: For me, examining my conscience makes me happier because I learn about my behaviors that are drawing me farther away from Christ. This gives me an opportunity to change what I’m doing so that I’m more in-line with His commandments and thus more likely to live a life that is pleasing to Him.
The Table: As a psychologist researching the positive emotions (and how those make us happier!), how do you think of emotions associated with Lent: e.g., penitence, remorse, guilt. Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann speaks of the “Bright Sadness” of Lent. How do those sorts of emotions factor in our psychological and spiritual well-being?
Froh: I think we should watch how far we take it. In other words, it’s fine, and totally healthy, to feel remorseful for something we did that was wrong. Our emotions exist for a reason: they give us feedback about our current state of affairs and circumstances, thus directing our subsequent behaviors and life stories. So feeling remorseful is a signal that we messed up, and if we want to rid ourselves of it, we should make things right and try our hardest to avoid acting like that in the future. (We could also just change how we think about our wrongdoing to not feel guilty anymore. While we’ll feel better temporarily, we’ll make little to no progress if we do this in terms of psychological and spiritual development.)Taking it to the extreme, however, and feeling guilty for an act is something we should watch out for. Guilt is born of the thoughts “What I did is no good, and I’m no good for doing it!”. This kind of global self-rating will bring us a ton of shame, not to mention depression and a host of other negative emotions. If our goal this Lenten season is to grow closer to God and appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice for us, it’s in our best interest to keep our guilt at bay and instead feel remorseful. This less intense negative emotion will increase our chances of going to confession and seeking God’s forgiveness because the draining power of guilt will paralyze us and keep us in the comfortable confines of our own homes stewing in our negative, self-defeating thoughts, not in God’s home feeling his love, where our souls need us to be.