How do we decide what to do next?
|Up or down?
When I have a break in my schedule, I often find myself asking, in effect, “What do I feel like doing?” In other words, I instinctively check my emotional motives. “What seems appealing right now?”
We live in a culture that encourages this. “Follow your passion.” “If it feels good, do it.”
The problem is that on a lazy afternoon what many people feel like doing is switching on the television, aimlessly surfing the net, or reading the news. And this is just fine, especially if afterwards we think “That was great. I feel relaxed and refreshed now.”
The problem is, we often don’t. What feels appealing in the moment isn’t necessarily the thing that will be most enjoyable to be doing, or most satisfying to have done. Immediate appeal is often governed more by our laziness, our cognitive fuzziness, our indecisiveness, or our fear of failure than by our passions.
When we experience unpleasant emotional states the situation becomes worse. The emotions, taken together, are a behavioural guidance system, prompting us toward activities that, in the primitive environments in which they evolved, would be a good idea. If you’re afraid of it, run the other way. If you’re angry, attack. If you’re depressed, withdraw to recover.
In a modern environment, these emotional prompts – we might call them temptations – often point in the wrong direction.
Let’s take depression as an example. When depressed, many people feel an instinctive urge to stay home, preferably in bed, accomplishing little and avoiding social contact. But if they give in to these temptations, they tend only to feel worse. And if we take a nondepressed person and make them behave in this way, their mood seems to drop.
Whether we are depressed or not, many of us notice that our temptations are poor guides. The upcoming exam makes me anxious, so I’ll do anything to avoid studying. The work project feels overwhelming, so I’ll dither around on trivia. Cleaning the house seems dull, so I’ll watch just one more YouTube cat video.
But what’s the alternative? Some people imagine that the only other possibility is to guide one’s behaviour based on the expectations of others. I’ll have to “behave responsibly” or “conform.” And sure enough, sometimes we have to do this. The government declares that our taxes are due on a certain date, so we’d best get them done.
A more valuable alternative to temptation is aspiration. What would we like our ideal self to be doing?
If I was the person I strive to be, what would I do next? This is somewhat akin to the idea of “What would (insert religious figure here) do?” but is just a bit more differentiated: “What would a slightly more inspiring or effective version of ME do?” Perhaps Moses would ascend a mountain looking for tablets, but an ideal version of me would clean out that bathroom cabinet.
One of the most difficult aspects of overcoming depression is learning to over-ride the temptations that it whispers in your ear. “Just lie here another few minutes, close those curtains, unplug that phone, cancel that social event, switch on that TV.” The whispering can get so loud that it’s difficult to think of alternatives. “If I didn’t do that, I can’t think of anything else I feel like doing – and I don’t know what I should do apart from that.”
The strategy, and it always feels quite artificial to use it, is to imagine a nondepressed and somewhat more energetic version of yourself and ask what they would be doing. This usually points the way forward. Sometimes they would be doing something that is obviously out of reach. “They’d be training for the marathon.” But if they were starting from our present position, maybe they’d get dressed and walk to the store.
If we’re not depressed, it’s slightly easier. I’d be writing my next blog post. I’d be starting a load of laundry. I’d be replying to my friend’s email.
Once we know the answer, however, the temptation is to run a check for emotional appeal. “Hmm. Laundry. Nope, doesn’t seem like fun.” The right course won’t usually feel instinctively right or appealing. It doesn’t become tempting just by thinking of it. We’ll have to tolerate the flat, colourless drudgery of putting things in the washing machine. And gradually our emotions will begin to shift to a more active, satisfying state. We'll have less in our in-basket, a longer list of accomplishments, and our leisure time in the hammock will be spent relaxing rather than cringing at the things we are avoiding.
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