It’s easy to think of ourselves as trapped by emotions or ideas, but it’s interesting–and extremely useful, I would say–for us to remember that willpower comes down to making good choices, and that making good choices comes down to our state of mind, because at least in theory, we can get into an excellent state of mind with only a few moments notice.
Today’s post isn’t about the how of changing our emotional states, which is covered in many other articles on this site, such as “How Preparation Enables Stronger Willpower,” “How to Stop Having a Bad Day,” “Antidotes to bad moods and negative emotions,” and especially “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.” Instead it’s about the what and the why: what does it mean to change our state of mind, and why is that important?
What makes up a state of mind?
State of mind has a number of components, including things like alertness that aren’t entirely under our immediate control. For instance, if I haven’t slept all night, I’m going to have noticeably less power over my ability to focus and think clearly.
But the key elements of our states of mind, attention and mood, are things we can influence. If our attention is set on the most beneficial subject available to us, and if we have brought our emotions into balance, then we’re generally in a calm, open state that allows us to make good choices.
For example, if I have the choice of washing the dishes or watching TV, and if I’ve resolved that it’s important to wash the dishes, then there are a lot of things that could affect my state of mind to make it hard to stick to my resolution. For instance, if I were depressed or angry, I might be having trouble caring about things like whether or not my dishes were done. If I were telling myself what I’d be “missing” if I didn’t watch TV or that I “should be able to have a break after the day I’ve had,” then I would be pointing my attention at things that would tend to prevent me from making good choices.
How we change our state of mind
Emotional states feel very difficult to shake sometimes, but in truth if our attention changes focus, our emotions can follow suit within just a minute or two. Changes of emotion aren’t immediate, though: a lot of our experience of emotions is physiological, and while our brain chemistry changes constantly, it takes a small amount of time for the chemicals to shift, as compared to our near-instantaneous changes of attention or thought, which involve sending electrical impulses through our brains.
So let’s say I walk through the door upset, distracted, preoccupied with wanting to watch TV, and telling myself that doing the dishes is self-punishment. Under those conditions, the dishes probably won’t get done unless I have a strongly-ingrained habit or something changes. But if I have enough time and attention to spare, along with the awareness of what I really want, I can change my state of mind. First I let go of unhelpful thoughts like “I’m going to miss the new episode of my favorite show!” and “I shouldn’t have to do dishes after my long day at work.” Then I will want to bring my attention to any subject that’s helpful, like remembering what it was like getting up the other morning to a gleaming clean kitchen. I’ll also want to use whatever techniques I have available, like breathing exercises, meditation, or music, to help me calm down, focus, and cheer up.
Under these circumstances, it’s possible for a completely different state of mind to surface, one in which I’m happy to be doing the dishes because that’s the exact right thing for me to be doing at the moment. If other kinds of thoughts get in the way of my experiencing that mood, I would need to deal with those individually, for instance by using idea repair.
We’re not always successful (at least, I’m not) at getting into a positive state of mind, but the important takeaway here is realizing that a positive state of mind is nearly always available, however uncomfortable or unhappy or cussed we may feel. The trick is to get better and better at seeking it out.
Photo once again by Stuck in Customs