For the past six weeks, I have been taking a course called “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrationality.” There is something about the title that immediately captured my attention. I am so often baffled by the things human beings do. Things that are seemingly irrational and counter-intuitive. The course put a lot of that into context and explained some interesting things. I kept meaning to write about different topics the course covered: lying, choices, motivation, and on and on, but here I am after finishing the last week of video lectures and writing about Emotion.
(As an aside, I took the course through Coursera, an online education site that allows you to sign up for courses taught by professors at major universities for free! My course was taught by a Duke University professor of Behavioral Economics and Psychology, Dan Ariely, and I have to say I was impressed by the content and enjoyed it a lot. In addition to the material, it was a fascinating process noticing my I-Need-to-Do-Well self coming forward, feeling great joy (well, maybe not great joy, but definitely some level of joy or validation) from getting 100% on the first quiz, and then deciding not to take any more quizzes, not to do the reading and not to write the paper. I was determined to go into a learning environment that could be purely about enjoyment/learning and not about performance. I was shocked, but not surprised how hard it was. The thing that helped me let go and try it this way was this graphic on the course webpage showing where the more than 30K participants are from…yes, 30 thousand people! 10K in the U.S., 51 in Nigeria, 51 in Kazakhstan, 287 in Czech Republic and on and on. I am but a drop in the bucket and no one cares how much I do or do not participate. Freedom from everyone but myself!)
So, back to emotions. The professor starts his first lecture of the unit on emotions explaining that emotions are really our core, our most ancient self. Yes, we know that, even if we often forget it. His two following points about emotions are not surprising either:
- When they arise, they take over
- They are more short-lived than we think
That brought up a few thoughts for me.
When they arise, they take over: Yes, makes sense. Crimes of passion, unsafe sex, freaking out in a disaster. Logic out. It also makes sense that they are more short-lived than we think they will be. Apparently, studies show that people always assume that emotional states will last longer than they end up lasting. Like in a divorce…people predict they will be miserable for a long time, but turns out that feeling goes away faster than they thought. Or, in a new love. People predict the great feelings will last for a long time, but they also fade out fairly quickly. It’s kind of like we go back to our set-point. That place where we usually hover. (This New York Times article about happiness looks at that idea of a set point. If you read it, ignore the researcher’s comment about life coaches being light weight! We’re not trying to be academic and precise. We’re trying to support individuals in an authentic and yes, imperfect way.)
That all makes sense to me up to a point. I think while the actual emotions probably do fade more quickly than we think, I feel like many of us are left with something else: a shadow emotion or something like that. An emotion that may not be active, but that is there influencing how we live our lives. And that shadow emotion can stay with us for a long long time and dictate how we live our lives. What I’m curious about is whether it is an emotion that didn’t get fully expressed and that’s why it stays, or is it that the memory of the intensity of the emotion is so strong that on some deep level we will do anything not to experience it again. Maybe it depends. Maybe it’s something else.
What I do know is that it that feels like many of us are ruled by our deepest most primal emotions to one degree or another. Not the ones that are flaring up now, but these shadow emotions that stand in the way. They’re so deep and core that often we don’t even really know what they are, which makes them harder to deal with.
The thing that really strikes me here, and I think bares repeating is how powerful emotions are. How in a non-emotional state we can and would make a whole series of decisions about certain things, while in an emotional state that all goes out the window and we make completely different decisions. Are we ever in a completely non-emotional state? I suppose that is the deeper question.