Dec 072008

I call it a secret but, honestly, it’s not really a secret. I’m going to talk about the secret to emotional happiness, where you can enjoy a state of…joy for long stretches, often in spite of things that might make many people sad, angry, depressed, etc. Here it is:

1. You can decide that you want to be emotionally happy. You have to be dedicated to this because there are other goals that can interfere with your goal to be happy. Honestly, sometimes it’s not easy to be happy.

2. Emotions can be guided. Many people consider emotions to be something that happens TO them. Others hold beliefs that your emotions are set in stone and are the only authentic part of you, and thus should not be altered. Truth is, you can guide your emotions, if you believe you can and you want to.

3. You may consider emotions to be reactions to situations or things.

4. However, you are never reacting to “reality” itself, but rather what events and things mean to you. We tend to commit the Mind Projection Fallacy and assume that there is something about the event or situation that is anger-inducing, rather than anger being a reaction to our own expectations and meanings. Truth is, there is no anger or anything inducing anger or sadness “out there”. Show me anger or sadness or wonder or any emotion in the world. Point to it. Each emotion has some common causes. For example, anger usually occurs out of fear, broken expectations and/or hurt. Hurt is the most common. There is also anger out of frustration.

5. Among the ways to guide your emotions, recognizing that your emotions are your reactions to the meanings you create out of situations is one of the most powerful.

6. The way I take advantage of this process is by changing what events/situations mean to me, while still remaining accurate and truthful. To do this, I have developed a great deal of awareness of my moment-to-moment thoughts, feelings, etc. I learn quickly that I am not happy and seek ways to become happy.

Example: If I tell someone, “you look fat”, they can take that I am judging them, insulting them, I dislike them and I’m implying they are unworthy of love. If I tell a different person that they look fat, they can accept that without defensiveness and completely ignore me because they have their own opinion about whether they are fat. Or the second person may say, “you are right, I am a little overweight”, because they do not attach negative connotations with the word “fat”. Do you see what I mean? Two different people attribute different meanings to the same exact stimuli (“you look fat”) and react differently. They’re both “right” and “true”, however the second person is likely to be happier than the first, in spite of what the first person might consider an insult.

This mostly takes practice. Make a commitment that you will choose to be happy today, no matter what. Then, pay attention to your emotions. If you start to feel anything other than happiness, ask yourself what you can do to help yourself become happy. If someone is walking or driving really slowly in front of you and you feel yourself getting frustrated, ask yourself why? Your anger or frustration won’t change the world, hell, the only person it’ll affect is you and it’ll just make you not-happy. So…why be angry in the first place?

Well, good luck and be happy!

Nov 182008

There’s fascinating data out there suggesting that you don’t actually have most of the emotions you feel you do. You have a response in your body and later call that response an emotion. This is called the Singer-Schachter theory of emotion. I’ve written about an experiment about it here. In the same blog entry, I talked about Tim Ferriss‘ reattribution of certain physiological states. In my memory, there’s two he does, the first is about eustress (positive stress that helps you grow) vs distress (negative stress that weakens you), and the second is when he’s fidgety before a big dance competition. Most people would look at his behaviour think about how we’d be feeling in that situation and say that he’s nervous, but he asserts that he’s not nervous, he’s excited. And he’s perfectly right, because if I recall correctly both nervousness and excitement feel the same way, but I’ve been trained to act, think and feel a certain way about each that’s very different. If I attribute my physiological state to nervousness, I’m supposed to be worried, however if I attribute it to excitement, I’m suppose to be happy and at my best.

Steve Pavlina recently did the same sort of thing in a recent blog entry called Fanatical About Growth. He wrote:

The goals that interest me most are the ones that cause me to say to myself, “Wow… I’m really not sure if I’m cut out for this. This looks pretty damned tough. I’m going to have to push myself to a whole new level in order to make it to the end. I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to pull this off.”

But then I think to myself, “What if I fail? No big deal. At least I’ll know where my limits are. But what if I succeed? How awesome would that be? I’d gain an incredible new reference experience for the rest of my life. I’d have an amazing experience to share with others. And what new challenges might I tackle beyond this one?” That’s the kind of thinking that excites me.

I find this interesting because if I was in the same position, I’d have very different self-talk. It would be more along the lines of, “What if I can’t do it? What if I don’t measure up? What if I’m not good enough? I’m not sure I can handle that.” Notice, oddly enough, my self-talk isn’t specific, it’s universal about all of me rather than, say my level of self-discipline, and it doesn’t include anything about being able to improve things, as if failing this once means that’s the end of the game and that’s only as good as I can ever be. That’s the epitome of taking it personally. Additionally, I wanted to point out that I asked “what if I don’t measure up? What if I’m not good enough?” while Pavlina said “I’ll know where my limits are.”

According to Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, at the bottom of every one of your fears is that you can’t handle what life throws at you, or what you throw at yourself. In the above example, Steve Pavlina has turned a physiological state of arousal into an exciting challenge. I might have seen it as a fear of the unknown, but he sees it as excitement and discovering and mapping out new territory.

I’ve been exposed to a new theory of what emotions might be. They may be a way to size up a situation or a problem quickly, formulate the problem and then try to solve it. However, you can obviously size up things differently and your emotional gut reaction might be different from the one that you might choose consciously. So, I suggest you question your initial gut assumptions and sizing up of a situation, perhaps you will find that what you interpret as a fear or failure or a fear of the unknown into excitement over discovery or exploring new territory, knowing that as you explore, the territory actually grows bigger and there’s more to explore.

What I want to emphasize with all of this is that your emotions are not just your emotions and they’re not all-knowing and always “right”, you can have some conscious control over them. You can see things not as fear inducing, but as exciting, and they’re both “right”. I would choose exciting because that is simply more empowering for me. I hope this helps, and I’d really appreciate your thoughts in the comments to let me know someone’s reading. :-p