In my last column, I discussed accurate thinking, an essential mental health skill. In this column I continue my discussion of mental health 101 with a brief summary of the ground rules for effective behavior and emotion management.
Behavior: The Marshmallow Test
You're four. A friendly psychologist places a marshmallow on the table in front of you and says: "You can eat the marshmallow now, but if you wait until I get back, I'll give you two marshmallows." Then he leaves the room. What will you do?
The curse of humanity--or at least one of them, in addition to hemorrhoids, the awareness of death, and reality shows--is that our brains are built for short-term calculations while our lives, we hope, will be long-term. Immediate rewards delight and entice us more than distant ones, even if those delayed rewards are objectively larger.
The same law also works in reverse: our common response to pain is to try to stop it immediately, even if the price for rapid relief is renewed, prolonged suffering in the future.
This, it turns out, is the constituent equation of behavioral conduct: those who cannot tolerate acute temporarily discomfort now condemn themselves to chronic suffering later. Avoiding and escaping acute discomfort in the name of quick relief, both of which appear to be solutions in the short term, actually lead to greater, chronic suffering later.
Two quick examples:
One. You fight with your wife and the conflict is stressful. A few shots of vodka will ease your mind quite rapidly. So, the next time an argument erupts, you drink again. In the short term you have solved your stress problem. But skip forward two years; what do we have? You're an alcoholic, and the conflict with your wife is not resolved, but intensified.
Two. A spider frightens you, and so you turn and run. Removing yourself from contact with the spider is followed, immediately, by a reduction in fear. Such relief is experienced as a reward ('negative reinforcement' in professional terms). So, next time you come upon a spider, you quickly take your exit. So far so good; but skip two years ahead: you are still afraid of spiders; and the fear has gradually increased over time, spreading like ripples in a lake after a stone was thrown in. Over time, escape and avoidance tend to result in intensified fears. Those who begin by avoiding one particular spider at one particular place will end up avoiding all spiders at all places, and before long, they may be avoiding any place where a spider could be, or where the thought of a spider may come up. They become, in other words, imprisoned by the avoidance they thought was their liberator.
Thus it turns out that in order to behave well, to move successfully in the world, one must teach oneself to endure short-term discomfort, because that is the price of long-term health. The principle is simple: don’t hasten to avoid or escape discomfort; instead, embrace it, explore it, learn how to navigate the terrain. This ability will in turn set you up for a healthy future in the long term.
On some level, then, hell is not the alternative to heaven, but the ticket price to get there.
If we return to our aforementioned spider hater, for example, we can see that for him to overcome his fear, he’d do best to commit himself to regular appointments with spiders. Hang with the spiders, and, lo and behold, a kind of three-part miracle will take place:
- First, the fear will diminish, because our nervous system is built on the principle of habituation, by which excitation decreases after repeated exposure to the same stimulus. With habituation comes the gradual disappearance of fear (because fear depends on nervous system excitation).
- Second, every time he meets a spider and stays and endures, our frightened spider hater will grow psychologically stronger (becuase he's faced his fear) and receive more evidence of his ability to cope. This is good, becuase the evidence tends to win out in the end.
- Third, spending time with spiders will improve his skills and abilities in that context, just as spending time with infants will improve one's babysitting skills and confidence. Once we're skilled in handling something, we have less reason to worry about it.
Moreover, it turns out in this context that contrary to common belief, what caused a problem originally is not what maintains it presently. Our spider guy may have encountered a spider years ago and suffered his initial scare. But his current fear cannot be explained by that event alone. After all, that spider is no longer here, and the man himself is different in very substantive ways. No, his current fear is maintained not by spiders, but by his chronic avoidance of them. Avoidance, effective at reducing fear in the short term, has morphed over the long term into the very thing that maintains his fears. O, what a tangled web we weave....
And what about the four-year-old sitting alone in front of the marshmallow? A series of famous experiments by the psychologist Walter Mischel showed that while many children chose the immediate reward, some children resisted and waited, mostly through distracting and entertaining themselves until the researcher returned, and were awarded two marshmallows.
Years later, Mischel returned, found the original participants, now high school students, and compared those who waited to those who didn't. The result: the marshmallow test predicted future success quite well, even compared with tests of intelligence. Those who can tolerate short-term discomfort are more likely to have long-term success and mental health.
Emotions: The barking dog test
Question: What are emotions and what is their purpose?
Answer: Emotions are data. They provide important clues about what is happening around and within us.
Psychological studies in recent years indicate that many if not most of our mental problems are the result of incorrect emotional conduct. Such incorrect conduct tends to manifest in one of two basic mistakes.
The first is the mistake of denial and refusal: I feel something, but I'm not willing or able to accept and 'house' the feeling, so I deny it, supress it, forbid it to myself, and turn away from it.
Avoidance of negative feelings is not altogether senseless as a strategy. The tendency is a part of our internal architecture; but it has a dark side. One of the Laws of our psychic space is that if you refuse to go somewhere, you are already there.
Example: You have to make an important speech in front of a crowd. Before you go on stage you say to yourself: "I should not feel anxious; if I get anxious I’ll screw up, fail, and be shamed. I can’t allow anxiety in." In this situation, one thing is clear: you are already stressed, anxious, and scared. Emotional denail is a mistake, therefore, because it does not work.
Moreover, the very effort to deny and avoid a feeling, in addition to being ineffective, also exhausts and wastes your energy, thus reducing your ability to deploy stress management techniques that may actually work.
The second common mistake in handling emotions is blind obedience, by which we tell ourselves that whatever we feel is the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth and should therefore guide our actions. "I feel it is so, therefore it is so," we tell ourselves. "I'm afraid, so I must be in danger, and therefore I must run." In fact, of course, many things that feel scary are not dangerous at all (scary movies; airplanes), while other things that feel safe are actually dangerous (French fries). To understand further the problem with blind emotional obedience, here is a thought experiment: Suppose you're walking with your child down a street and are suddenly confronted by a growling dog. Fear will rise in you, and with it the dictate: 'run away!' Do you drop the boy and flee? And if not, why not? The answer is, in part, that emotions (such as fear) are only one factor in the overall process of decision-making. In this case, you have considerations other than the emotional input to factor into your decision. For example, your values (not abandoning a child), your life experience (I know that dog; it barks but is a coward), common sense (this is a relatively small dog; I can scare it off if it comes to that) and your goals (I’m going to get my kid to his dentist appointment come hell or high water). All these “consultants” participate in your internal management team discussion; they contribute information and perspectives that can improve your final, executive decision. At times, the emotional input is best overruled by other considerations.
In sum, the proper conduct in the terrain of emotions is to neither deny nor obey.
Instead, the most useful way to deal with tough emotions is acceptance. Accept the presence of your emotion as you would that of the weather. It makes no sense to look out the window on a rainy day and say: "It can’t be raining." Clearly it can, because it is. It’s better to accept the reality of the situation (it is raining) and look for the best way to respond to that reality ("Dude, can I borrow your umbrella?").
Acceptance in this context does not mean obedience. It's raining, but that does not mean you have to get wet, or cancel all your plans.
Emotions are good consultants, but they are lousy executives. You are (within important, but not self-negating, limits) the executive of your life. Instead of acting on an emotion mechanically, automatically and often therefore foolishly, it is better to convene your trusty management team of consultants (your goals, your values, experience, logic, etcetera), listen to everyone (not just the loudmouths) and then synthesize the information and make a considered executive decision about your path.
In sum, I have argued here that, in general, learning how to correctly manage your thinking, behavior and emotions may improve and protect your overall mental health. The more you practice thinking accurately, tolerating short-term discomfort, and accepting your emotions, the more likely you'll be to think, act and feel better.