By: T. Franklin Murphy | June 2013
We can't force emotions to comply with our demands. We must take a subtle approach.
Happiness is the new frontier. I’m sure throughout human history people have enjoyed pleasurable moments; but now we seek unrelenting joy. This is something new, quite different from the puritan work ethic, or the ascetic lifestyle found in most early religions. We now claim entitled to a complete absence of sorrow. Since this is an abnormal emotional response to an unpredictable world, many have resorted to forceful controlling of emotions. Manipulating, controlling and burying feelings to create a positive experience, isn’t effective. Healthy emotional management requires more than simply eliminating discomfort and magnifying the positive. Each emotion has a purpose. If we eliminate—or attempt to eliminate—entire ranges of emotions, we obscure the intended emotional guidance. Emotions provide an evolutionary advantage. They alert dangers and push toward rewards. Blindly manipulating emotions—because they don’t feel good—is hazardous. Without honoring the purpose of discomforting emotions, we confuse the biological guidance system.
Emotions are physical—a biologically inherited hardware, activated by experience. The shots of emotions surging through the body are responding to a complex mixture of nature and nurture. Culture strongly imprints programming, merging the biological hardware with cultural expectations. However, the emotional guidance system isn’t perfect. Emotions react to faulty beliefs. Erroneous biases distort perception and activate felt responses. We fear the harmless and sorrow over the blessing. The context of experience changes, and previously appropriate emotions misdirect with new circumstances. Healthy living demands we mindfully respond to experience, not haphazardly following emotional guides, but acknowledging an emotional push, examine appropriateness, and then respond.
Although emotions are imperfect guides, they aren’t random. Emotions flare for a reason. An event triggers a response; the event can be internal—a thought, a memory—or external—an argument or an injury. Typically, the emotional reaction is from a combination of the external event, and internal connections tied to that event. The jolt from a shadow is easily traced, but some fears have unclear causes. We feel robust emotions, igniting a powerful response, but only have a vague gist of the underlying cause. In other words, we are emotionally stirred but don't know why. Instead of living with the unknown, we create theories and gather justifying facts to explain an overwhelming emotion.
Arousal is an automatic and unconscious process; we may never know the real cause. Externalizing causes for heightened emotions by affixing blame, conceals personal contributions from important self-examination. The blame game has some legitimate grounds. Partners say and do stupid things. We can easily identify their stumblings as vital factors for our misery. However, most healthy change within our control requires personal adjustments; the external causes are unpredictable and difficult to mold, leaving us vulnerable to future arousal. When we change our contribution to the problems, we can limit reoccurrences and soften responses.
"Typically, the emotional reaction is from a combination of the external event, and internal connections tied to that event."
Mindfully examining felt emotions illuminates missed internal causes. Occasionally, we discover pernicious past events that have altered the feeling experience of the present. Emotions remember the past, current discussions have connections to previous disquieting arguments, easily arousing our system with certain phrases and words (or expressions0, flooding the present with emotion, interfering with the current communications and blocking resolutions. By identifying these connections, we can effectively challenge the arousal instead of blindly externalizing the cause. These discoveries don’t immediately change future arousals but help to calm our souls when the emotions surface, preventing harsh reactions that damage important relationships.
When mindful, we are more likely to respond compassionately—instead of defensively—during emotional arousal. By examining complexity, we see emotions in their strength and weakness. Knowing that emotional responses also include the past, we can separate from the critical jabs of emotion and act more appropriately, moving towards important goals. Mutual understanding of past influences on each other allows partners to actively work together with intense emotions instead of being alienated by the stabs of anger, jealousy and shame.
How we respond to emotions shapes experience. The actions following emotional arousal can hinder progression towards intentions. An emotional accusation may damage future intimacy. Our fear, anger or sadness when uninhibited destroys the closeness we desire. A general understanding of emotions allows deeper examination—a curious exploration.
Until we understand the building blocks behind emotion, we limit our effectiveness to adapt and change emotional experiences. We can’t simply proclaim, "I am going to be happy" and force our bodies to feel happy. Attempts to force feelings create a disconnection between the body and mind. Our body warns based on internal wisdom from the past but when our mind rejects the message, we create conflict, numbing the mind for reception of future messages. Forcing happiness is an unhealthy adaptation to this difficult life full of emotion.
By examining reactionary emotions, accompanying thoughts and behaviors, we find healthy alternatives to the destructive patterns ruining our lives. The emotional intelligence to live an effective life is within reach. We can be happy without ignoring experience and disconnecting from felt emotion. Healthier choices create better futures. Healthier thoughts diminish anxiety, guilt, and sadness while simultaneously encouraging more peace, joy and compassion. This is the path to happiness. Gently directing our lives to create better futures. We welcome happiness; not force it.