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January 29th, 2021
There seems to be a subtle fantasy wafting about present culture that imagines a life with very few if any negative emotions. Such fantasies draw inspiration, perhaps from the ecstatic images of other people who cherry pick their own photos and expressions so that it’s always the best aesthetic. It’s an understandable decision, but the mass effects are perhaps a bit more subtle. Or perhaps this fantasy of a life devoid of darkness draws its inspiration from the serenity that we see in Buddhists or others who have made a long practice of training the mind. It can be rather depressing to listen to someone wonder aloud about this issue:
Why can’t I just be happy?
Do I have to live with this anxiety and this depression forever?
There’s an underlying assumption these these sorts of sad questions that’s worth dredging up. They function on a premise of either/or and assume that if a way to jump the emotional fence can be finally discovered than one would land exclusively and permanently in a life of positive emotions. But the grass always seems greener, when in reality there’s bright spots on either side of the fence.
The fundamental lesson that is missing from these disheartened perspectives is that emotions exist for particular uses, and the key is understanding those uses and knowing how to exploit emotions to fulfill those uses.
An easy example that perhaps isn’t so touchy is simple impatience. Being impatient for a particular stock in the market to go up is a recipe for misery. Pinning one’s hope and a sense of well being to something that can fluctuate so radically on a moment to moment basis is simply disaster. We don’t have any control over stocks, and this lack of agency is key.
Being impatient about one’s progress on a particular project however…. can be a very useful.
What we often fail to realize is that emotions can reorganized and redirected in a kind of plug-n-play fashion. If someone pisses you off to the point where you feel as though you’ll explode, well then that’s an excellent time to go hit the gym and do a workout. Instead of ‘taking it out’ on the source of the anger, take it out on a punching bag, or breaking a personal best.
Pervasive negative emotions like depression and anxiety are quite a bit more tricky because at the point of being pervasive such emotions have a bit of the upper hand against clear and productive thinking, not to mention even fuzzier concepts like will power and motivation.
As a default catch-all the best assumption to make in the presence of negative emotion is that something needs to be done. Anxiety is, in some sense aimless motivation. With a lot of energy and no direction to expend that energy it becomes rather uncomfortable, and we call it anxiety. Depression in many cases likely points at a larger more circumspect problem, but again to generalize here is maybe even a bit dangerous.
It’s even possible that such negative emotions are…a bit of a habit, to be frank. Thought perpetuates like thought, and negative self-talk only strengthens the neuronal firing patterns that enable it in the first place. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that a good deal of emotional and mental difficulty might simply be bad habit, in a similar way to how a bad diet can lead to extreme conditions like diabetes or heart failure.
Appropriately, the default advice is still fairly appropriate. Doing something different is perhaps the only thing that has a chance of getting a wedge into the juggernaught of a bad habit. Be it a new exercise routine or trying out meditation.
What’s most important is that such emotions never go away, and they need not go away. All that needs to change is our relationship to such emotions. When in the thick of it, in the heat of an emotion it can seem as though it’s impossible to renegotiate a relationship with something as embedded as a pervasive emotion. But with time and consistent, dedicated effort, we can breath space in-between the emotions we have and our experience of them. And once there’s room to shed a little light, then it’s far easier to figure out exactly what to do with an emotion, how it can be useful, regardless of how positive or negative it is.