Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Choosing How to Feel

We humans are endowed with a dual nature, capable of both responding emotionally to what we experience and also reasoning about it. These two ways of interacting with the world around us are not separate functions of the brain, neatly divided between, say, the left and right hemispheres. Rather, the entire brain is involved in any type of “thinking” we do.

Thus, as we apply reasoning to trying to understand or solve a problem, we have feelings about both the process itself and the conclusions we draw.

As an example, let’s say you’re thinking about buying a new car. If you decide to do it, you might feel pleasure, excitement, or (if you don’t need it or can’t afford it), guilt. If you decide not to buy it, you might feel regret, relief (at saving the money you might have spent), or aggravation (at having wasted your time). But before, during, and after you engage in the reasoning process, you will feel something.

Similarly, as we respond emotionally to our environment, we’re constantly thinking about how we feel. Prodded by joy, sorrow, affection, rage, pride, or guilt, we generally look around outside ourselves to see what’s causing us to feel that way. Here’s one area where we often tend to take a wrong turn. It’s natural but erroneous to assume that because we feel a certain way, some outside factor is “causing” us to feel that way.

As often as not, what stimulates an emotional feeling is internal. A person who was abused as a child, for example, may be filled with rage and resentment. He or she may constantly look for (and therefore find) things to be enraged and resentful about. A person who once experienced terror or chronic fear may feel threatened by people and situations that are really harmless. The biochemistry of the body also has a huge influence on how we view the world, as when a woman experiencing post-partum depression feels sadness and despair—a situation that can be disastrous if the woman has never been told how hormones can affect her feelings.

When our emotions are stimulated by outside factors, many people don’t realize they have a choice about how to respond. In the first moments after a feeling is triggered by some outside event, we may react instinctively; for all the moments after that, however, we have choices we can make.

For example, let’s say someone cuts you off while driving. You’re angry—that’s automatic. However, from that moment on, once your reasoning process is engaged, you can choose. Concerned about others, you might get the license number of the reckless driver. Remembering an incident when being upset affected your own driving, you may choose to withhold judgment. Or—making the choice all too many do on the nation’s highways—you may choose to stoke your anger into rage and act aggressively to the one who cut you off or other drivers. From the first moment after the initial stimulus that prompted anger, you’re responsible for how you deal with it.

We also have choices about our prevailing moods and attitudes—whether to be, or continue to be, habitually optimistic or pessimistic, tolerant or hostile, agreeable or angry, calm or excitable. Some of these tendencies are controlled by our genes—but once we become aware of them, we can modify them.

It takes work—both emotional and intellectual—to really understand how we feel and why. Most of us in America have the freedom to choose whether to be happy. However, I believe that whether or not we choose to do this work is more than a personal matter—it’s also a moral choice, since our attitudes and emotions directly impact the lives of everyone around us.

If you happen to be interested in the subject of this little meditation, stay tuned for the next installment, “The Role of Negative Emotions in a Positive Life.” For the rest of you, please bear with me—we’ll get back to talking politics again soon!


Sue said...

You raise some good points, Jane. Particularly about our responsibility for our responses to our emotions. Look forward to seeing your next installment.

Six said...

Nice little diversion from the political debate... but I do wonder what you mean by 'MOST Americans have the freedom to choose whether to be happy'? Are you implying that there are some Americans who do not have the freedom to choose to be happy? I suppose you are talking about severely mentally ill - surely you are not making some sort of political statement...?

Citizen Jane said...

Lol. No, Six, there's no subliminal suggestion intended here. I meant that, literally, most people have the opportunity to be happy in America, barring insurmountable obstacles, such as mental illness, chronic pain, or other very unfortunate circumstances. This is in contrast to, say, most people in Chad or most women in extremist Muslim theocracies.

Sue said...

There you go getting political, Jane. Most people anywhere have the ability to choose their state of mind, i.e., their response to their life situations. Look, for example, at the people of Haiti which is one of the poorest places on earth. Haitians are happy people not because they have "things" but because they value what they have -- family, life, shelter, a bit of food, etc. and consider everything a gift to be appreciated and enjoyed. Even people in prison can choose happiness: as one English poet put it: "Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage . . . If I have freedom in my love and in my soul am free, angels alone that dwell above enjoy such liberty,"

Six said...

I actually have to side with Jane on this one...