Browsing the archives for the emotion tag.
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What Really Messed-Up Thinking Looks Like

Handling negative emotions


The following are not my actual thoughts, I’m happy to say. However, they do demonstrate the different kinds of broken ideas. Each of them could be repaired.

So I know this post is going to suck1, but … wait, you must already be thinking I’m a complete idiot if I say my post is going to suck2. No, no, I shouldn’t be telling myself I know what you’re thinking3! And I shouldn’t say “shouldn’t!” Oh man, I did it again, I’m such a dork4! No, hold on, I can’t call myself a dork in my own post, that’s awful, that ruins the entire post. 5 It ruins the entire site6! And if this site sucks, my entire life sucks7! And this post is making me sick, which means it must suck8. Writing like this ruins all of my posts9. People may tell me they like my posts sometimes, but that’s just because they pity me10. If I didn’t suck, people would always leave comments11. I think I’ll go eat dirt12.


1 Fortune telling
2 Mind reading
3 Should statement
4 Labeling
5 All-or-nothing thinking
6 Magnification/minimization
7 Overgeneralization
8 Emotional reasoning
9 Mental filtering
10 Disqualifying the positive
11 Personalization
12 Actually, this isn’t a broken idea, because there’s nothing unrealistic about deciding to eat dirt if you really want to. However, I think personally I’ll pass.

Photo by Freekz0r

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Book Review: Jenefer Robinson’s Deeper Than Reason


DeeperThanReasonJenefer Robinson’s Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art is one of the most insightful and useful books I’ve ever read about emotions, writing, and music–but it’s also sometimes dry and argumentative, and deals with examples mostly 100 years old or older despite having been written in the past decade.

In the book, Robinson puts forward an idea of how emotions work that is based on detailed and conscientious delving into the philosophy and especially the psychology of emotions. Her conclusions are consistent with all the psychological research I’ve come across and more that she cites, and they go a long way toward describing how emotions develop, arise, change, are understood, and affect our lives. As though that weren’t enough, she then goes into the pivotal role emotion plays in how we react to stories (she deals with novels specifically) and music of all kinds. She describes emotion convincingly as a process and makes intelligent and (for writers and musicians) practical observations on how the arts can engage us through emotional development.

The book is written in an academic style, and as a philosopher, it’s apparently Robinson’s job to describe in detail and then argue apart other people’s theories about the subjects she’s examining. These argumentative sections (and they make up a good chunk of the book) were not helpful to me: I’m not very interested in hearing a theory that I don’t agree with and then hearing it dismantled with great care and thoroughness. Other readers may be; as for me, there were some parts of the book I skipped once I realized what she was doing. Fortunately, she lays out carefully what she’s going to discuss in each section, so I was able to fairly easily figure out what to read and what not to.

Dry arguments or not, on the whole I would say the book is one of the most useful possible things you can read if you are a serious writer or musician, if you’re seeking a deeper understanding of emotions, or if you want to better understand why we connect so deeply with some novels, films, stories, and music (and to some extent other arts).

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How and Why Music Changes Mood

States of mind


In other posts, especially Letting Your Environment Help You, I’ve talked about using music to help mood and concentration. Music can help to sometimes (not always) ease us out of bad moods and into good ones, provide relief or relaxation, energize us, distract us when we’re too wrapped up in non-constructive thoughts, help block out distractions, and even help create a flow state.

Why do we react to music?
Even understanding some of the things music can do for us, I’ve wondered for a long time why it is we as human beings react to music. After all, music is just sounds: pitches, rhythms, timbres, alone and in combination, often not even including any specific or clear information. Why should vibrations in the air create such strong reactions inside our electrical and chemical brains?

In her insightful (though sometimes dry) book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, philosopher Jenefer Robinson sheds some light on this subject, and helps explain what it is about music that we connect with and why we react so strongly to it. In a word, this thing is emotion.

How can music cause emotional reactions?
It’s weird that music, which doesn’t have facial expressions or neurochemistry or a body, should be able to not only express emotions, but to evoke emotions in those who hear it … but this starts to seem less weird as we think about the many tools music has at its disposal. It can mimic or suggest the sounds that people make in different emotional states, like laughter, shouting, sobbing, sighs, and many other human noises. It can use rhythm to suggest movement or body states, evoking strong or irregular heartbeats, marching, gliding, and bowing. It can make harmony and dissonance (that is, unharmonic sounds) by putting specific combinations of pitches together whose waveforms either fit together or conflict. It can provide a rhythm for us to fall into. It can create effects that stimulate emotional responses directly, like crashes to create sudden surprise or fear, or soft rhythmic sounds to evoke calm. It can create expectations from what we know about music, for instance when we can tell a song is building up to a big finish, and it can tap into memories and associations, reminding us of people, times, or situations long past. It can get loud or soft suddenly or slowly, be played sharply or smoothly, use instruments that wail or bray or sing or thud or rasp, yearn upward or drag downward …

Well, I’m sure you get the idea, even though that doesn’t come near listing all of the devices music can use to evoke emotion in us. The point is that music has an awe-inspiring range of ways to call out emotional reactions in us and to channel those reactions into a complex emotional experience with its own shape and path. It’s emotional experiences that are a large part of what makes music almost universally enjoyable to us human creatures (although music has some other attractions too: intellectual, cultural, poetic, social, and so on). And it’s also those emotional experiences that make music a tool we can consciously use to change mood.

How can we use music as a tool?
If we think of music as a sort of designed emotional experience and realize that not only do different people react to different musical experiences differently, but that the same person reacts differently to the same music at different times, then we begin to have an idea of what kinds of decisions we can make that will help us use music as a tool. The essential questions to ask ourselves are

1. What kind of emotional influence would be most helpful to me right now? (here we’re referring to all the things I mentioned that music could do at the beginning of this article, and more) and
2. What kind of music is likely to give me that experience, given the mood I’m in?

The second question is a trickier one. It’s easier to answer if you have more musical choices at hand, and also easier to answer if you’re used to thinking about how you’re reacting to music (that’s mindfulness again, which I mention in a number of other articles), but often the best way to answer it is to explore. You may want to poll friends, jot down notes about musical experiences you’ve had, flip through radio stations, try out various songs from your music library until you happen to hit one that works, or build Pandora stations to fit different mood needs. (I talk about the free Pandora service in this post.)

Regardless, consider when and how music may have helped you in the past, and look at your life to see if it can’t be used deliberately to help you even more in the future.

Photo by RossinaBossioB


How emotions work

States of mind


From Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

How exactly do emotions work? From a scientific point of view the answers to this question are still in the works, but research over the last couple of decades has given us a much clearer sense of how they emerge. In her 2005 book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, Jenefer Robinson digs deep into various theories of emotions and into the neurological and psychological findings that can help us figure this question out and offers a model for understanding the important pieces. Her basic model, added to research and analysis from other sources, is what drives this post. There’s a lot of research still to be done, though, so consider the information here to be more of a glimpse at the best insights we currently have about emotion instead of something complete and set in stone. Even taking it tentatively, though, Robinson’s model gives us some seriously useful information.

The gut reaction
Emotions start (Robinson argues) with a gut reaction to something: a face, a sound, an idea, a conclusion, or even some change within our bodies. She calls these reactions “non-cognitive appraisals,” whereas I think for our purposes here, “gut reaction” works just as well, but it’s helpful to realize from that term that these reactions themselves aren’t anything we think through: they happen in hardly any time at all, automatically. That doesn’t mean the whole process of having an emotion is automatic, though, as we’ll see.

The high road and the low road
There are two paths our brain can take to get us to a gut reaction, the high road and the low road. The high road is about what you’d expect: we see or hear (or taste or feel or smell or think or remember) something, we figure out what it means to us, and then we react emotionally. For instance, while driving toward our house we might see blue lights up ahead, realize that they are probably coming  from a police car, and begin to feel worried that something bad has happened.


The low road is a bit more surprising (unless you’ve read my post How to overcome specific fears and anxieties or another source with some of the same information): it still starts with some kind of sensory information, like a sight or sound, but in this case the amygdalae (a primitive part of the brain that we have on both the left and right side) flag it as something that has been associated with a powerful emotion or traumatic event in the past and sets off our gut emotional reaction before we even recognize what the thing is. For instance, if a person has been in an explosion caused by natural gas, the person may experience terror when smelling gas even before realizing that it’s a smell, or what the smell might be. Our brains seem to have evolved this trick of firing up emergency systems first and asking question later in order to help get us away from life-threatening situations as quickly as possible.

Even though the gut reaction is immediate and automatic, it can come down the high road as the result of thinking. For instance, I might spend hours going over my small business’s accounts before having the sudden realization that my accountant is stealing from me. As soon as I’ve had that realization, I’m likely to have a gut reaction (for instance of anger at the accountant, or fear of what will happen to my business, or happiness that I have found the reason for the cash flow problems, or even a combination) that’s automatic in the sense of reacting immediately to a thought that has been a long time coming.

Emotion is a process, not an unchanging state
But if we have that gut reaction, that doesn’t mean that we’re stuck in the corresponding emotion: instead, it seems to make the most sense to think about the emotion being a process that develops in several different ways at once, started by that gut reaction but subject to all kinds of changes. An emotion develops through:

  • Body chemistry:An emotion will spur a physiological reaction through chemicals like dopamine (associated with pleasure), adrenaline (associated with fear and anger), seratonin (associated with serenity), oxytocin (associated with feelings of love), cortisol (associated with stress), and so on. These chemicals have a lot to do with the physical feelings emotions create, like butterflies in the stomach or a thrill of delight, and they also tend to sustain whatever emotion we’re having.
  • Thinking (cognition): Once we start having an emotion, we tend to think about it and monitor our surroundings. For instance, we might see flashing blue lights and initially feel anxiety, thinking they’re from police cars, then round a corner and discover that they’re lights from a party a neighbor is having on their lawn.
  • Body language: It won’t be news to you that happiness can make you smile and depression can make you slump, but it’s more surprising to realize that smiling can make you happy and slumping can make you more depressed. Fascinatingly, our own expressions, posture, and maybe even tone of voice can stimulate the same body chemistry that the corresponding emotion would create. Smiling can make us feel happier, and sitting up straight can help us feel more alert and positive.
  • Being ready for action: Certain emotions tend to prime our bodies to be ready in certain ways: to focus our attention in a certain way or to be ready to move quickly. An example of this is flinching away at a sudden loud noise: our body is ready to act before we can even come up with a plan of how to act.

Different emotions at the same time?
These pieces of the emotional puzzle all go forward when we’re experiencing an emotion, and while they can work at the same time and in similar directions, they can also be out of synch or in conflict with each other. When that happens, they begin to influence each other, so that they tend to converge over time. For instance, if I am thinking something about something that makes me happy and my body is putting out oxytocin, but I decide to frown and turn my attention to things that upset me, the oxytocin will be cut off and replaced with other chemicals, my brain will conjure up memories of things that upset me, and my body will more and more begin to reflect the bad mood I’m creating.

It can be especially confusing to experience emotions that are out of synch. In the blue lights example, once I realize that it’s a party and not a crime scene, I may immediately feel intellectually better about the situation but still be feeling anxiety beneath that, because our thinking can change directions more quickly than our body chemistry. Fortunately, if we keep our thinking in the channel of the new emotion, our body chemistry will soon catch up.

Simple words for complex feelings
To make sense of emotions, we have a wide variety of labels for different ones, especially in English: terror, awe, euphoria, ennui, indignation, fury, and so on. When trying to reflect on how we’re feeling now or how we felt a while back, we tend to try to characterize our emotions to fit these available labels (although we also have emotion-charged memories that may give us more detail), and therefore tend to talk about emotions in a simpler way than we experience them. For instance, in the blue lights example, we might say “I was worried when I saw blue lights, but when I saw it was just a party, I was relieved.” This doesn’t capture that temporary conflict of thinking and body chemistry, nor the subtle details–perhaps the initial worry was mixed with indignation that a crime was happening in our neighborhood or guilt at something we ourselves had done; maybe the relief that the blue lights meant just a party was mixed at different times with irritation at the likely amount of noise, excitement that we might be invited to the party, and/or surprise that the neighbors thought blue lights were decorative. To put it another way, our emotions are not simple, exclusive states, but instead an evolving process that can include parallel and conflicting pieces that are hard to easily summarize in words. Fortunately, we have poets, artists, musicians, and others to help us communicate about emotions without resorting to simple summaries.

How idea repair can help drive emotion
A last note: in posts on idea repair, I’ve talked about thinking causing emotions. In light of this article, that idea may seem oversimplified, but to put things in perspective, idea repair is the process of thinking and directing attention that begins immediately after we have that initial gut reaction. Idea repair can’t directly affect the gut reaction (although over time it might train habits that will change initial reactions), but modifying our thinking is probably the most powerful single thing we can do to turn an emotion in a positive direction once an emotional process begins.

Police lights photo by Sven Cipido.


Improving Motivation Through Better Memory and Learning



Learning and memory can be essential in self-motivation. Why? Well, consider two examples.

Let’s say a man, Scott, has trouble with being late, and he’s trying to change his habits to always be on time or a little early. Scott has three children, all in school, with various afterschool activities. Sometimes they take the bus home, but sometimes Scott needs to pick them up, while sometimes his wife, Selena, does. Sometimes activities get changed at the last minute.

So Scott might get much better at paying attention to what he’s doing before leaving to go somewhere, and he might start setting aside extra travel time in case of delays, but if his daughter shouts “We have an extra soccer practice tonight, so you have to pick me up” as she’s leaving for school in the morning and Scott doesn’t remember this fact, then his other preparations are useless, and his daughter will be left standing in front of a deserted, locked school until someone catches Scott’s mistake.

To take a different kind of example: let’s say Lisa wants to become much more organized at her job (she’s an architect). She attends a special training seminar on organization for architects, with all kinds of wonderful information–but she’s distracted during the seminar by a very sick man sitting next to her, and so while she scribbles down a lot of notes, the information doesn’t sink in. When she looks back later, her notes aren’t of much help: she wasn’t really understanding the material when she wrote it down, so she’s not going to suddenly understand it from looking at her own notes later. She has a vague recollection that the system seemed to be exactly what she needed and involved a lot of colored folders, but that’s it. The system never gets implemented and Lisa continues to spend hours every week trying to find documents she needs.

So if learning and memory are important to self-motivation, how do we improve them?  There are a few important facts to keep in mind.

Make sure you understand as you’re learning
We don’t remember things like a video recorder: our brain breaks up everything see, hear, touch, etc. into a lot of separate kinds of information and store it all over the brain, bringing it together as needed. That means that if you don’t learn something when it’s presented to you, you usually won’t be able to learn it by trying to recall the details. Effective learning requires focus at the time you’re learning.

We learn better when information has meaning
The more meaning and connections information has for us, the easier it is to remember. As an example, many top chess players can look at a chess board mid-game and instantly memorize the location of every single piece on the board. In one study, chess players with this ability were able to remember layouts set up from actual games beautifully, but were much poorer at being able to remember layouts where pieces were just set randomly around the board. The actual game layouts were meaningful to them: a possible threat to the queen here, mutually protective knights there, and so on. Random game layouts didn’t have these meanings, so they couldn’t “chunk” the information (that is, bind up many pieces of information into a single “chunk” that can be recalled as one piece), which was what was enabling them to memorize so much information so well (I’m trying to help both myself and my readers chunk concepts from posts when I use subheadings, like in this article). More meaning connections to a piece of information also gives you more possible ways to remember it when you need to.

Emotion is a powerful force in memory
We learn things better when we have emotional associations with them. Have you ever used your own personal information, or a family member’s, when making up a password? Those kinds of passwords are much easier to remember than random passwords, because our lives and those of family members have much more meaning to us than random information. (Unfortunately, such passwords are also usually easier for other people to guess.) In the same way, experiences that are powerfully joyful or frightening or that are emotionally charged in some other way tend to be very memorable. If you run out of your house while it’s on fire, you’re liable to remember that in much greater detail than if you run out of the house to get to the hardware store before it closes. (Although this is also because we tend to remember unusual things better than everyday things.)

To really learn something, start using it immediately
When learning how to do something, one of the strongest possible ways to fix it in memory is to start using it. This serves several purposes: it provides a lot more neural connections for the information; it allows you to experiment and apply the information while it’s still fresh in your memory; and it helps turn up any misunderstandings or gaps in knowledge that need to be filled in while you’re still close to the source of the original information.

One way to start using knowledge immediately is to write, talk, or teach about it. If you find out something you think will be especially useful in your life, you might consider calling up a friend and telling them about what you’ve learned, or blogging or writing a journal entry about it. This forces you to use the information in a way that creates more connections and helps you see exactly how well you’ve understood it, at the same time that you’re doing other people a service by passing it on.

Come back to the same information several times to fix it in memory
Getting information to permanently take up residence in long-term memory usually requires revisiting it several times, with perhaps a few hours to a few days between repetitions. If you make notes about something you want to learn, you can leave yourself two reminders to come back to it two more times, just to review. You can also use the write, talk, or teach approaches at timed intervals. The same amount of study spread over a day or a few days or a week seems to be much more effective than taken all at once.

How this all works in real life
So for instance, if you were writing an article on how memory applies to willpower, you might start out with some examples that people could easily envision, to give meaning to the idea that memory applies to self-motivation. You might even make those examples a little emotionally loaded, with a stranded child here, anxiety about a sick person there … actually, that sounds like it might work. Remind me to write something like that sometime!

And if you want to make the best possible use of this article, you might glance over it to make sure you understand everything, asking yourself questions about each of the major points and seeing how well you can answer them. You might then go blog about it, tell a friend about it, try to summarize the main points in a quick written outline, or go use this information to learn something else. Reviewing it twice over the next couple of days would give it the strongest chance of sticking around.

For more information on how memory works, along with other useful information about how the brain operates, I highly recommend John Medina’s book Brain Rules, which provided some of the information for this entry.

Photo by clappstar.


How to Stop Having a Bad Day

Handling negative emotions


Wednesday’s post talked about what it means to have a bad day and how that kind of day can often be turned around, even in really difficult circumstances, by changing our thinking. Today’s post goes into some practical approaches for using our thoughts to improve our mood on all levels. Here are some specific strategies.

Idea repair: Our emotions are profoundly influenced by what we tell ourselves. If we’re coming up with thoughts that are misleading and destructive, we can break through that interference and feel relief quickly with idea repair.

Emotional antidotes: Emotions tend to keep themselves going, while going out of our way to think of things that make us happy or inspire compassion or love tends to counteract negative thoughts.

Mindfulness meditation: Meditation can relieve stress and give us more emotional resilience. If you haven’t tried mindfulness meditation and want to, you might take a class or look up materials by Jon Kabat Zinn.

Music: Music can be a direct path to emotional responses. Listening to exactly the right kind of music can turn your mood around quickly and powerfully.

Changing the environment: Opening the curtains, going to a place you enjoy, sitting in a garden … anything that tends to make you happier or to remind you of what’s good in the world can get you out of a negative mental rut.

Writing things down: Problems are easier to deal with if they’re clear instead of vague anxieties. Listing things that are bothering you or that you need to do can create clarity and a sense of purpose in place of general stress. More generally, writing freely about your thoughts can accomplish the same thing when you’ve got a bad mood going on and are not sure why.

Talking things out: Like writing, talking things out with a friend who’s a good listener can help clarify the situation and relieve stress.

Changing facial expressions: As silly as it sounds, research seems to show that changing our expressions–especially smiling–can help change our mood on a chemical level.

Working with a good therapist: If anxiety, stress, or bad moods come up for you a lot more than you’d like, a good therapist can make all the difference. Unfortunately, a lot of people associate therapy with mental illness, but it’s clear from recent research that psychology has a lot to say about how even an entirely healthy person can become happier and more effective in the world, and there are some therapists who are very good at helping make that happen.

Photo by Today is a good day (again)

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Having a Bad Day? Here’s Why

States of mind


“I’m having a bad day.”
“Everything’s just going wrong lately.”
“I’m having a run of bad luck.”

Ever say (or think) things like that? Our brains are wired to perceive patterns, and our moods are designed to keep themselves going, so it’s not surprising that when things go wrong, we sometimes assume more things will go wrong just because of what I half-seriously call “the basic cussedness of the Universe.”

The thing is, one thing going wrong doesn’t necessarily increase the likelihood of anything else going wrong, with a couple of exceptions I’ll get to in a moment. If we roll a die and get three ones in a row, what’s the chance that we’ll get a fourth one? One in six. The chances of rolling a one, unless the die is rigged, are always one in six, no matter what has happened before and no matter what comes after. In the same way, generally speaking, running out of gas in the morning doesn’t increase the chance of spilling coffee on yourself in the afternoon. Except …

There are two exceptions, situations that can genuinely create an environment for “bad luck.” One is outside circumstances that are influencing your life in a lot of ways at once. For instance, if there are rumors at your workplace of a new round of layoffs, a lot of your coworkers (not to mention you yourself) might be feeling anxious or irritable or defensive, and that makes it more likely that unpleasant things will happen, like someone not getting something you need done on time, or arguments in the hallway over logo placement.

The second exception is more interesting, because it’s probably the most common cause of bad days, and it’s also under our control: our own state of mind. If we’re looking for bad things to happen, then we tend to be less attentive to the things we would need to do in our lives to make good things happen, and we tend to take bad things harder when they do occur. For instance, if I’m in a bad mood and showing it while walking down the street, an old friend who’s pretty sure he recognizes me may decide not to say “hi” on the chance that he’s wrong, or just because he doesn’t want to start a conversation with someone who looks so irritated at the moment. If I belatedly see the old friend walking away, I could get upset that I had been passed by. Yet seeing that old friend might otherwise have been the best thing to happen to me that day.

And so it goes.

Feeling like we’re in a rut, in a streak of bad luck, has at least two major components: the chemicals in our brain, which influence our mood (our neurochemistry) and our thoughts, the running commentary we’re giving ourselves on our own lives (cognition). Both of these things influence each other: for instance, low levels of serotonin in the brain can encourage anxious or depressive thoughts, while improving mood through thinking happier thoughts seems to increase serotonin levels. (If you want the real nitty gritty details, see, for instance, “How to Increase Serotonin in the Human Brain Without Drugs” on the National Institutes of Health Web site .)

What this means is that while we don’t have direct control over our brain chemistry, since we do have some direct control over our own thoughts, we can shift from having a bad day to having a good one just through changing our thinking. This is not an empty gesture, a simple “have a nice day” bumper sticker: this is the kind of shift you feel in your gut, when you go from feeling as though something nasty is right around the corner to feeling like all is right with the world. Outside of situations that are truly terrible, like the death of someone close to you (that kind of thing is another whole subject), that sense of joy and things going right is always available to us, just under the surface, waiting to be tapped.

Friday, I’ll be following up with a post on what specific steps we can take to stop having a bad day and start having a good one.

Photo by, ironically, Today is a good day

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The difference between pleasure and happiness

States of mind

Among my current reading material is The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, in which Howard Cutler interviews the Dalai Lama on the subject of human happiness and comes away with some profound information to pass along.

Although ... there is such a thing as TOO happy.

Although ... there is such a thing as TOO happy.

For anyone who may be tempted to stop reading now on the idea that happiness isn’t important to studying how we successfully motivate ourselves, stick with me for a moment or two! (Anyway, it’s a short post.) In the same way that a discontented workforce gets much less done than a contented group of workers, a discontented mind has a much harder time staying on task than a content mind. There’s much more to say about happiness and its powerful effect on self-motivation, but we’ll leave that for other posts.

So if we do want to pursue happiness, whether for its own sake or to support stronger motivation and willpower, it’s important that we distinguish between happiness and pleasure. This is the distinction that the Dalai Lama makes in the book I mention above, and it’s both a meaningful and a practical distinction.

Pleasure is by definition a short-term thing. We can get pleasure from enjoying an activity, enjoying someone’s company, from food, from sex, from success, or from a wide variety of other sources. Happiness, by contrast, is a lasting state that most often is achieved through positive, constructive actions. While it’s not impossible for someone to feel genuinely happy about doing something destructive or cruel, this is the exception instead of the rule, and anyway we’re not saying that making ourselves happy is a flawless approach to living a compassionate or ethical or commendable life. What we can say is that constructive decisions tend to lead to greater happiness, and destructive decisions tend to lead to decreased happiness.

In terms of helping immediate motivation, we can harness this connection whenever we’re concerned that we’re not acting in accordance with our goals and priorities–that is, when our motivation is failing–by asking ourselves “Will this contribute to my happiness?” There are many things we might point to that can bring pleasure but not happiness (though thankfully, there are also many that bring both). By asking ourselves this question, we can put these actions in perspective so that we see what we’re doing to ourselves over a bit of a longer period of time. Having that clear view of how our choices affect our lives can be invaluable, because our worst choices are made when our judgment is clouded.

Photo by Niffty..


Antidotes to bad moods and negative emotions

Handling negative emotions

I’ve talked recently about how emotions can amplify themselves, an effect called “mood congruity.” This phenomenon is like an overzealous lunchlady, who sees a spoonful of mushy peas on your plate and keeps serving you more and more on the assumption that you must obviously love peas. In that post, I talked about the way purposely bringing up thoughts and memories associated with a better mood can help stop the lunchlady, effectively moving us forward in the lunchline to the mashed potatoes or Jell-O.

Buddhist thought offers a more refined version of this idea, the equivalent of trading in our mushy peas for whatever is least like mushy peas on the entire menu. In a book called Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, this approach is called “emotional antidotes,” and it’s backed up by good science.

The idea behind emotional antidotes is that for each negative emotion, there is an opposite emotion that can be used to dissolve or extinguish the negative one. For instance, have you ever tried administering puppies to someone who’s in a bad mood (assuming they don’t hate puppies, in which case they may be a lost cause)? Science shows us that puppies are inimical to sour moods. This does not mean that the opposite of depression is puppies, although if you have to take away the wrong idea from this post, that’s at least a wrong idea that has some utility.


What specific emotions are antidotes to others? (I’ll depart in some details from the Buddhist model here, partly since emotions as seen through the lens of classical Buddhist thought are not quite the same ones we tend to think of in the West.)

As a prime example, love extinguishes anger–and don’t think I’m getting all touchy-feely on you here. Love is a specific emotion that I’d bet good money you can identify, and most of us can find something that, if we think about it a little, will give rise to feelings of love in us. (As an example, it’s very easy for me to conjure up feelings of love by remembering things about my son.) Anger is not compatible with love: we have only one brain, and that brain will be awash with a specific set of brain chemicals at a any given time. The chemicals that support anger (like adrenaline) are not the same as the chemicals that support love (like oxytocin). Summoning up feelings of love changes our brain chemistry and also harnesses mood congruity to increase those feelings of love, as thinking about one memory that inspires love tends to remind us of other memories that inspire love. Feeling angry and want to change it? Remind yourself of what you love.

Similarly, taking pleasure in things we admire about other people can help defeat jealousy; thinking about things that that excite us can help defeat depression; thinking of things that make us confident or at peace can help defeat anxiety; and so on.

There’s also a panacea of a sort, an antidote to all negative emotions, which is to recognize their emptiness. This is very much like the basic idea behind idea repair: negative emotions very often (though not always!) are based on ideas that are misleading or false, or that assume too much, such as “There’s no way I can learn all this” or “Everybody in the room must think I’m an idiot.” Since we can’t read minds, and since even if we could other people’s thoughts about us do not define us, any anxiety or distress or overindulgence in Doritos that may arise from believing everyone else in the room thinks one is a idiot is acting on an empty, fake, false idea. When we really examine what we’re telling ourselves about what happens to us, often negative feelings evaporate as we examine them in greater depth.

Either way, whether we use specific emotions as antidotes or poke the balloons of our negative emotions until they pop, greater self-understanding or positive feelings can be consciously used as a tool to break up bad moods and negative emotions. And if this doesn’t work, there are always puppies.

Photo by Andybear.


How to get a song out of your head (and other seemingly impossible mental feats)

States of mind

At first, I was just going to write a short post about how to get a song out of your head, even though I knew it wasn’t really on topic for this site, because I thought it might be useful. As it turns out, though, it is on-topic. But first, the advice.


Recently I’ve had trouble with songs sticking in my head, most recently and horrifically “I’ve Never Been to Me” (from watching the beginning of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert–is that really you, Elrond???). Fortunately, by experimenting I found two ways I can successfully banish them. The first way is to listen to a very different kind of music for maybe half an hour or so. The second, which for me works even better, is to improvise a song in “la la la” fashion, taking care not to sing predictably. That might be more useful for musicians than for other people, but I suspect it’s worth trying regardless of your musical background.

If neither of those work for you, there are some very good additional suggestions at and .

But what does getting a song out of your head have to do with self-motivation? Only this: it makes the point that we have much more control over our mental environment than we might at first believe. Over the past fifteen years or so, I’ve gradually come to realize how much more is possible for an individual human being to do than we generally recognize. Le Ton Beau de Marot, a huge, strange book in English about the translation of a single Medieval French poem, demonstrated to me how much more could be done with language than I suspected; learning about Non-Violent Communication and Formal Consensus demonstrated to me how very much more often people with different points of view can find a peaceful accommodation than we generally believe; and my self-motivation research has demonstrated to me how much influence we can have over our own moods, perspectives, and habits than I would have imagined–everything from feeling happier by fake-smiling (try it: our brains are wired such that it actually works) to idea repair, to changing our attitudes with our body language (which is well-described in The Definitive Book of Body Language).

I’m trying not to be too Panglossian or inspirational, but there is a meaningful fact here: it appears most people are unaware of how much power they can bring to bear in influencing their own moods, ideas, and habits. It may be worthwhile to sometimes ask ourselves what kinds of assumptions we’re making about our own minds, and whether some of those assumptions would be better off banished to the limbo where I sent “I’ve Never Been to Me.”

Photo by Cayusa

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