BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 2016
The natural feeling responses to experience give both wisdom and limiting bias. As cognitive creatures, we need to examine what we are feeling, how we interpret that feeling, and determine the utility of our natural inclinations.
Emotions get a bad rap. The survival purpose of internal affects is frequently ignored, touting positive feelings as wonderful and negative feelings as an illness in need of a cure. Our misguided relationship with internal reactions to life invites rascal manipulations of experience directed at the single purpose of enhancing present moment joy. Emotions (a derivative of feeling states) have a purpose, constructed from culture, feeling and experience they motivate action. Effectively harnessing emotions to act appropriately creates well-being. Ignoring the complexity and acting blindly invites chaos.
We store experiences in explicit and implicit memories. The experience doesn’t stand alone; the individualized interpretation gives meaning and the surrounding environment and emotion creates context, all the elements gives importance or indifference to an event. These exposures create the lens from which we see the present. We naturally feel life through the biases of the past. It must be this way to refine and expedite responses. We need a foundation to interpret and predict the importance of new encounters, and then wisely engage. This process is largely subconscious.
Evaluations would be meaningless without knowledge to weigh the importance of perceived factors. Our predictions would be chaotic shots in the dark. When experiencing the present, we raid memory banks, identify associations and the body responds with pleasure or displeasure; the feelings 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 experiences coloring the present—drawing from the past has amazing survival benefits. The fluffy brown thing is recognized as a bear with sharp claws and long teeth. Our mind detects small associations, alerting to danger and our bodies 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 still 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 their survival, they became lunch; much more impactful than failing to notice the ripe berries growing near the stream. Dangerous elements (or presumed dangerous elements) over-ride pleasure—usually.
Our mind detects small associations, alerting to danger and our bodies respond quickly and efficiently.
Current research confirms that a large percentage of our meandering thoughts dwell on negativity. The positivity movement encourages policing our thoughts for negativity, and immediately combating the rogue 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 to this, connecting optimism and well-being; but the jubilee must be tempered. Some negative thoughts, focused on possible dangers, is protective. Avoiding a single catastrophe may help avoid years of painful recovery.
During a difficult period of my life, I moved to a small apartment, living alone for the first time in my life. 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 relaxing neutral 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 predicting unfavorable outcomes.
Abandoning any critical, discomforting or self-revealing thoughts diminishes wisdom. Purposely diverting our eyes from the lion and focusing on the sweet berries only provides a moment of peace, quickly followed by sheer terror. My discomfort with the color of the apartment walls may seem trivial but directing attention from a giant feline is not. “Stop worrying about being eaten and enjoy the fruit of the vine,” creates vulnerability to real dangers.
Some negative thoughts stem from internal warning and are necessary to avoid dangers by motivating meaningful change to create safeguards against future threats. Dangers exist and constantly threaten physical and emotional well-being. If not addressed, the consequences may swoop down and destroy the quality of our lives. There must be balance. Constant ruminations of devastations destroy peace in the present. Anxious romantic attachment, constantly haunted by the possibility of infidelity, interferes with intimacy and sabotages connections.
Negative thoughts without functional purpose paralyze. These habits of thought must be combated. These ruminations undermine peace, topple the joys 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.
These ruminations undermine peace, topple the joys of success, and destroy satisfying relationships. The ugly side of negative thinking increases anxiety, induces depression, and invites helplessness.
Well-being is a delicate balance between grateful enjoyment and attentive cautiousness. Perhaps it’s not the negative thoughts as much as our relationship to the negative thoughts that needs combatting. Constantly forcing positive thoughts, straddled by Life-is-Wonderful dogma, the villain of reality intrudes on our pretty picture. But our ignorance doesn’t save us from the ravishes of ignored dangers that strike revenge, rewarding our over-sight with painful consequences. 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 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. Our well-being benefits from pleasurable activities and positive thoughts. But those thoughts must be 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 our thoughts for productivity. Our thinking is much more complex than simply positive and negative. 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 loosened our emotional bond to it. Beware of self-critical thoughts, they rarely motivate, ruminating on personal flaws spawn helplessness, depressing the soul. These dangerous ruminations can spoil relationships, dampen hope, and self-fulfill; extinguish these scourges of well-being.
Sometimes we need the hope offered by positivity, other times a healthy skeptic. By loosening the relationship with our thoughts, we can examine, challenge and reject them; or, conversely, befriend them, heed their wisdom, and respond with constructive action, by painting those annoying yellows and pinks to a relaxing, soft Kilim Beige.