Emotions get a bad wrap. The survival purpose of emotions is frequently ignored, touting positive emotions as wonderful and negative emotions as an illness in need of a cure. Our misguided relationship with emotion invites cognitive manipulations with the sole purpose of present moment joy. Emotions have a purpose, enmeshed with experience and choice. Effectively harnessing emotions creates well-being. Ignoring the inner stirrings invites chaos.
We store experiences coupled with individualized interpretations and emotions, drawing upon these memories to give meaning to new experience. We naturally experience life through the biases of the past. It must be this way. We need a foundation to interpret complex encounters, sift through the meaning and wisely engage. This process is largely subconscious. Evaluations would be meaningless without a base of knowledge to weigh the importance of the factors. When experiencing the present, we raid memory banks, identify associations and evoke old emotions; emotions from the past flood neural pathways, assigning meaning, and motivating action. A small sound, sight or smell triggers buried memories that activate biological responses. Utilizing the past, we artfully create a coherent story around the present.
There’s nothing dysfunctional about memories coloring the present—it has amazing survival benefits. We detect small associations, alerting to danger and we respond quickly and efficiently. Startled by a shadow our heart rate elevates, vision narrows, and cognitive thinking slows. We jump to action, prepared to defend, escape or attack. The shadow may be nothing. But with incomplete information, we prepare for battle—or escape.
Some evolutionists suggest we attune to danger more than opportunity. It makes sense, as far as survival is concerned. For example, if our ancestors failed to notice a hungry lion, preoccupied with the hunt, the slight overlook may significantly impact the consequence seriously their survival, they became lunch; much more impactful than failing to notice the buffalo while attuned to the approaching lion. Dangerous elements (or presumed dangerous elements) over-ride pleasure—usually.
Current research confirms a large percentage of meandering thoughts dwell on negativity. The positivity movement suggests policing our thoughts for negativity, and immediately combating the rascal thoughts with something more positive, such as gratitude. Negative thoughts, as the thinking goes, are cancerous and must be crushed before they spoil a good day. There’s supporting evidence connecting optimism to well-being; but jubilee must be tempered. Some negative thoughts, focused on possible dangers, is protective. Avoiding a single catastrophe may provide years of painful recovery.
During a difficult time, I moved into a small apartment. The apartment perfectly matched my needs—affordability in a great location. I excitedly told a friend about my find, adding, on a side note, the single drawback—bright yellow and pink interior walls. I was sharply chastised for being so negative. Perhaps I was negative, discounting the lucky find, but the critical response surprised me. Ultimately, my dislike of the interior colors motivated a day of painting—a peaceful cream color. Eliminating negative thoughts just because they’re negative misses the point. Being in tune with likes and dislikes is essential to self-knowledge. Self-protection requires considering unfavorable outcomes. Abandoning any critical, discomforting or self-revealing thoughts diminishes wisdom. Focusing thought energy on dissatisfying colors seems trivial, but directing attention to the attack from a giant feline is not. “Stop worrying about being eaten and enjoy the beautiful Savannah sunshine,” creates vulnerability to real dangers.
Some negative thoughts are necessary to avoid dangers, to motivate meaningful change, or to create safeguards against unseen future surprises. Dangers constantly threaten physical and emotional well-being. If not addressed, consequences may significantly impact the quality of our lives. There must be balance. Constant ruminations of unavoidable devastation destroy peace in the present. Anxious romantic attachment, constantly haunted by the possibility of infidelity, interferes with intimacy and eventually destroys the relationship. Negative thoughts without functional purpose paralyze. These habits of negativity must be combated. These thoughts undermine peace, topple the enjoyment of success, and destroy satisfying relationships. The ugly side of negative thinking increases anxiety, induces depression, and invites helplessness. When negativity suffocates experience, the excitement of new experience is crippled with fear. Novel and unpredictable become too much and we lash out with defensiveness or run for protection.
Well-being is a delicate balance between grateful enjoyment and attentiveness to possible dangers. Perhaps it’s not the negative thoughts as much as our relationship to the negative thoughts. Constantly forcing positive thoughts, straddled by Life-is-Wonderful dogma, the villain (reality) intrudes on our pretty picture, striking revenge for our ignorance and rewarding our over-sight with a painful consequence. We must heed legitimate warnings. Negative thoughts are not problematic. It’s how we respond to them. Stories, thoughts, explanation of events will constantly stream through consciousness. Our relationship to those streams of thought can either disrupt or enrich our lives.
When bombarded with depressing thoughts, we must compassionately remind ourselves that the thoughts are just words; they may or may not be true; they may or may not be helpful. The world is full of hungry lions, ready to lunge at the unsuspecting victim; we mustn’t delightfully ignore credible warnings. With a little common sense, we avoid most the life-endangering hazards. Well-being benefits from pleasurable activities and positive thoughts tempered with cautious and wise preparation to avoid life-disrupting events. New opportunities must be mindfully examined for rewards as well as possible perils. Swindlers love the gleeful dreamer.
We must analyze thoughts for productivity, more complex then simply sorting into positive and negative categories. We must dig a little deeper, identifying which thoughts are helpful and which are disruptive. Examine thoughts by asking, “Is this thought helpful? Does it lead to positive action?” If the thought doesn’t motivate, leave it alone. The unhelpful thought may return but we’ve lightened our relationship to it. Beware of self-critical thoughts, they rarely motivate, ruminating on personal flaws spawn helplessness, depressing the soul. These dangerous ruminations spoil relationships, dampen hope, and become self-fulfilling prophesies; extinguish these scourges of well-being.
Sometimes we need the hope of positivity, other times a healthy skepticism, and other times a healthy proclamation of displeasure to initiate change or establish a boundary. By loosening the relationship with our thoughts, we can examine, challenge and reject them; or, conversely, heed their wisdom, and respond with appropriate action.