Is There Something to Be Done Here? What to Do About Emotion.

emotion“…why do most people spend so much time working and doing housework when they could be engaging in leisure activities? And, perhaps more importantly, why do other people struggle to maintain steady employment and clean living conditions? The answers have a profound impact on the mental and physical health of individuals, as well as our survival as a species.” *

A smartphone application helped researchers track the moods and activities of 30,000 people. What they found was that people in good moods were more likely to do useful but not necessarily pleasant activities (e.g., housework, other work) within a few hours of reporting their mood, while people in bad moods were more likely to engage in a pleasant leisure activity (e.g., sports, hanging out with friends). The suggestion here is that people use activity to regulate their emotions – and that when people feel good they are thinking more about future well-being, while the more bummed out among us do things to feel better now.

Couple of things here. First, not everyone goes out to play when they feel crummy. Lots of folks I know** prefer to lay low. Well, okay. Maybe they aren’t exactly doing housework or work-work when they take a mental health day at home. Maybe some are, as the study suggests, doing a pleasant leisure activity because they feel bad and want to feel better; e.g., binge-watching HBO, with a big bowl of ice cream or chips close at hand. Yes indeed, there is a study to show that we eat healthier when we feel good than when we do not. Although, maybe you think we didn’t exactly need a study to tell us that.

And does anyone else see a chicken/egg issue here? What if the activity chosen to deal with the bad mood is contributing to the bad mood in the first place. That can happen. Avoiding work, due to work stress, can make the work suffer, feeding the stress associated with it, leading to more avoidance, more stress, and more feeling bad. Same for any kind of binging to dull emotional pain. So, for example, people who binge eat typically feel very bad after an episode of binging, leading them to binge eat all the more. Solutions that create problems can run in the happy direction too. I have heard it said that, because happy people give more, it is not a good idea to negotiate when you are flying high emotionally because you might give away the store.

All of this makes it not that hard to understand why so many people try to make the emotions just go away. But then they feel dreadfully empty inside, something I hear over and over again. And decision-making gets really hard when we don’t know what we feel about the thing we are trying to decide. Now, it’s true, our responses to emotions can make a mess of things, if we are not paying attention. So let’s just slow down, pay attention – and ask this question: Is there something to be done here that will make me feel good in both the short and long term?

Sometimes the answer is ‘Yes but not right now’, or ‘Yes but not by me’. And sometimes you have already done what needs to be done, or there never was anything for you to do at all – in which case the answer might be to do nothing but breathe. Three luxurious breaths. Belly out on the in-breath. Belly in on the out-breath. And if you don’t know the answer to the question, then experiment. Try something and keep an eye on the consequences, to use or correct for next time around. The emotions are our friends. They provide information to guide and enrich our lives, once we learn to put our responses to them under our more conscious control. Practice, practice, practice, and see what happens.

To work on this or something else, would love to hear from you:

Email:  Madelaine Weiss

* Maxime Taquet et al. “Hedonism and the choice of everyday activities.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1519998113

**Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.

Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.

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