BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 2016 (edited 2018)
Sometimes emotions mislead, pushing us to act immediately at the expense of a richer future.
The volume of conflicting advice for living healthy is overwhelming. Experts always face antagonists arguing a different view. The well-being field is flooded. The mass of information can be managed; but demands skeptical examination for reliability. After spending several decades in the fitness industry, I discovered the motivation to produce most fitness products isn't the fitness of clients but sales. The happiness market is no different. People don’t buy books, rush to motivational conferences, or spend precious resources unless the product excites their emotions. The producers, therefore, seek popularity instead of effectiveness.
Over the last century, happiness has become the goal, shifting from more traditional ethical living to "just make me happy." Previously, happiness was a beneficial consequence that accompanied living a constructive life. We now consume products because they promise happiness, not because of underlying goodness—to self or others. Suppliers fill the shelves, aisles and web pages with products that promise happiness. Instead of spending money conducting experiments for effectiveness, producers channel money to market profitability, "Will consumers spend money, believing this product will make them happy?"
Often life benefiting behaviors take time to marinate before blooming into greater well-being. The patient follower must courageously cling to wisdom while persisting with difficult new actions, long before the blessings are received. We are easily distracted, misled by promises of ease and give in to the tempting images of instant success.
In our demand for independence, confused by mass data and deceptive authority, we rely on feelings to guide. Emotions have pitfalls. They don't perfectly guide. Many actions produce pleasant sensations in the present while creating long-term damage, while other actions cause discomfort in the present but bless in the long-term.
Misinterpreted meanings extracted from these positive and negative feelings direct us down erroneous paths.
We desire a flawless internal guidance system and marketers ruthlessly take advantage. Opportunistic well-being specialist sell philosophies to fit our desires, tantalizing our wants while failing to provide for our needs. The consumers readily gobble up the hollow promises that demand little; 19.99 + shipping and handling and your life will be better.
"Life benefiting behaviors take time to marinate before blooming into greater well-being."
Changing behavioral trajectories requires effort (a Lot of it); we must face the stubbornness of engrained habits and protective thinking. Adjusting course demands persistently forcing different actions than our inclinations. This doesn’t feel good, demanding exhausting mental effort. We must challenge the justifying thoughts, suggesting all is well. This process also doesn’t feel good; resisting chemical dependencies doesn’t feel good; listening to corrective advice doesn’t feel good; sacrificing the present for better futures doesn’t feel good—at least at first. But eventually, as new behaviors prove their worth and we recognize the benefits, the work loses its laborious nature and we feel more vigorous in the implementation, eventually making new habits . Soon the forced action becomes habit.
We shouldn’t ignore feelings that push for one action over another. Feelings offer insights into learned connections between past and present. We don’t necessarily need an in-depth Freudian examination but by bringing consciousness to the associations, we can examine faulty or wise internal urgings. Once we recognize the obnoxious mounting of feelings, we can search for meaning (both internal and external), seeking connections between the present trigger and the past that gives life to the trigger.
Sometimes the emotional markers from the past are hidden; fruitless searches frustrate, and lead to false conclusions. In these cases, answers remain a mystery and we must accept the disruptions. Our challenge is then to act different than internal powers dictate, choosing more constructive paths—action with purposeful ends.
We want to feel good—the pleasure principle. Our emotions are an ancient guiding system that was passed on because of survival benefits. The world, however, has rapidly changed—biological evolution can’t keep pace with social evolution. We exist in a complex world that outpaces the evolution of these biological guiding systems. Our cognitive apparatus is also an inadequate guide to expertly navigate the complexities.
We absorb learning from surroundings, gathering skills and knowledge to competitively survive. But we must reach beyond survival, also developing habits and behaviors that consider the future; not simply pleasure in the moment. Increasing complexity of industrial and digital revolutions doesn’t render emotions obsolete but does place increasing demand on utilizing both our powers--emotions and cognitions.
We must be skeptical of new ideas; slow to abandon proven behaviors for attractive shortcuts. Look a little deeper. Look for evidence. Ask a few questions. Are there confirming studies? Who conducted the studies? Where did the idea come from? Is the idea all-encompassing ignoring complexity? Slowing down to investigate, asking a few questions, may save us from many unneeded hurts. We are human; we occasionally will be duped. Upon first contact, we may like an idea because it sounds right (it feels good), but with further examination and a few probing questions, we often discover the error, avoid wasting time and then can pursue a more productive course.