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Tuesday 3 May 2011

Emotions in Three Times

Think of something you might do.  Anything at all.  Go to a movie, poke yourself in the eye, gamble at the casino, whatever.

We can imagine how we would feel during three periods relative to that event:

  • Beforehand
  • During the event
  • Afterward

Now take all the spectra of emotional experience and reduce them to a single dimension:  Pleasant or unpleasant.  And classify how you would feel in each of the three periods relative to different things you might do.

We can all think of situations where all three would be positive.  Having a great meal with a good friend:  We look forward to it, we enjoy it while it’s happening, and we’re glad we did it.  Positive, positive, positive.  We have no difficulty getting ourselves to do these things.

How about hitting your thumb with a hammer?  We wouldn’t look forward to it, it would hurt to do it, and we’d regret it afterward.  Negative, negative, negative.  And in fact we don’t generally do things like this on purpose.  They’re easy to discard as options for a Saturday afternoon.

But there are many behaviours that switch from positive to negative.  Think of addictive behaviours (and substitute your favourite addiction for the examples here):  drinking, gambling, obsessive games of computer solitaire, TV-watching, endless internet surfing, staying at home in bed.

During the anticipatory period we feel the attraction of the behaviour.  “I’ll just turn on the TV for a little bit.”  “Just one little drink.”  Positive.

While we’re doing it, we might enjoy the experience or we might feel more neutral.  “This is okay, but a bit boring.  Why am I doing this?”  Positive, negative, or neutral.

Afterward, we experience regret.  “There’s another evening wasted.”  “This hangover is awful.”  Negative.

Then there are behaviours that switch from negative to positive.  These might (or might not) include completing the tax form, going to the gym, getting out of bed, calling up friends to organize an activity, working on a renovation project, or phoning your aunt.

During the anticipatory period, you don’t really want to do them.  “I’d rather just lie here a little longer.”  “I hate the thought of reviewing my receipts.”  There is a sense of repulsion from the task.  Negative.

During the task you may like it or not, but it usually isn’t as repulsive as the anticipatory period.  “Actually, learning to ski isn’t that bad.”  “Ok, I’m actually getting some of this blog written.”  Positive, neutral, or a little negative.

Afterward, there is a sense of satisfaction.  “That was actually great.”  “I’m glad that’s done with.”  “I feel better having gone to the gym.”  Positive.

Um, okay; so what?  The question, of course, if how to govern our decisions in situations where the emotional reactions shift from positive to negative, or from negative to positive.

The answer?  If we decide based on how we will feel afterward, we’ll generally be happier.  Our taxes will be done, we’ll be more fit, we will have organized social events with our friends, we will complete projects, we will eat right.

If we act based on our anticipatory emotions, our temptations if you will, we will find that we get little done and spend our lives in unsatisfying activity.  We’ll drink too much, exercise too little, and get nothing done.

In my own life, some of my best experiences have involved hiking in the coastal mountains of British Columbia.  But when the alarm clock goes off at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, do I really want to go?  Never.  I’m much more tempted to roll over and go back to sleep.  “Why did I say I’d do this?  I must be crazy.”  If I obeyed my temptation I would miss out on hiking, on skiing, on mornings generally, on the satisfaction of getting my taxes out the door, on being even moderately fit, and on virtually everything I now feel satisfied to have done.

During my clients’ depressions, the situation gets worse.  Anticipatory enjoyment vanishes altogether, and the temptations to avoid, neglect, or put off become much more powerful.  Their enjoyment during events, and their satisfaction afterward, are also muted.  Only with time, practice, and repetition does the old enjoyment return, and the anticipation (“Maybe it would be fun to meet up with Carol”) tends to take even longer.

My usual recommendation:  Base your decisions mostly on how you will feel to have done something – or how your old self would have felt to have done it.  Occasionally, base your actions on how you will feel simply to do something – how you will feel during.  But, as much as you can, ignore temptation altogether.  It’s a lousy guide.

Is this simply a soulless injunction to be responsible, to ignore our feelings and obey the demands and expectations of others?  To be responsible little soldiers and deny ourselves any pleasures?

Absolutely not.  During and After last longer than Before.  This is a recipe for enjoying life more, not less.  It’s how to be a successful hedonist – and without fouling up your life.

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