Choose Your Feelings
How attitude shapes our feelings.
Posted Dec 24, 2017
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” —Rumi
A prominent view in psychology is that our emotional lives are shaped by our values and judgments (Solomon, 2007). The judgmental aspect of emotion suggests that our emotions are not entirely beyond our control. They do not just happen to us; we are responsible for them. Our inability to control emotion relates to our limits controlling our beliefs and thoughts.
Emotions typically occur with appraisals (evaluations) of events that tell us how significant the events are in relation to our goals. A person’s emotional experience typically results from a subjective interpretation of an event, rather than from the event itself. Different individuals can appraise the same event differently. For example, grief about someone’s death represents a judgment about that person’s importance to the person. For a joke to be funny, it has to be perceived as such by someone. When there is no evaluation/judgment, there is no emotion.
An emotion is a special kind of thinking about what we make of an event. Emotions provide us with cognitive access to our judgments and goals. For example, happiness tells we are doing well, and fear warns us of danger. Anger provides information about the violation of one’s rights. Sometimes the beliefs involved may not be accurate. Some mental illnesses may be characterized by chronically dysfunctional appraisals. For example, depressed individuals tend to believe that they have no power over events in their own lives (Beck 2008). With repeated activation (rehearsal), the negative beliefs acquire a stronger habitual thought pattern that over time is more easily accessed by stressful life events.
We interpret everything we see or hear in terms of our habitual thinking or prior experience. As we go about our day-to-day lives, we tell a story about reality, and these stories shape our beliefs. For example, using brain scanners to monitor the minds of wine drinkers, researchers found that people given two identical red wines got more pleasure from tasting the one that they were told cost more (Plassmann et al., 2008). The author concludes that the pleasantness of consuming a product depends on more than the product’s intrinsic properties, such as flavor in the case of wine. The brain also relies on certain beliefs, such as the notion that expensive wines probably will taste better. People have general beliefs that cheaper wines are of lower quality, and that translates into expectations about how the wine tastes.
Our ability to manage the flow of thought and emotion contributes to our happiness (Wright, 2017). We create paradise or hell in our own minds. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,“ says Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
By habitually practicing a new attitude, we can foster a new feeling or overcome a pathological emotion (e.g., anger). So the absence of preconceptions (biases or points of view) moves us toward a truer view of the world (Wright, 2017). This cannot be accomplished simply by an act of will, by wanting them to go away. Such fundamental change can take years to accomplish.
In essence, the purpose of therapy is to transfer patients' awareness from stimulus and emotion to stimulus, judgment, and emotion. The person learns to view their automatic thoughts from a distance and question their validity (Gross, 2014).
In short, we can liberate ourselves from destructive emotions, such as anger and disappointment, by developing a capacity to choose how to interpret and evaluate the situation (when angry, take the other person’s perspective). By exerting free will, a person expands his or her options and freedom.
Beck, A.T. (2008). The evolution of the cognitive model of depression and its neurobiological correlates. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 969-977.
Gross J.J (2014). Handbook of Emotion Regulation. 2nd ed. New York: Guilford Press.
Plassmann, H., O'Doherty, J., Shiv, B., & Rangel, A. (2008). Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA),105(3), 1050–1054.
Solomon, R.C. (2007). True to our feelings: What our emotions are really telling us. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wright R. (2017). Why Buddhism Is True? New York: Simon & Schuster