This article first appeared on Happify.com.
Elliot was a married man with an important job. When he had a small tumor cut from the cortex of his brain, his I.Q. remained the same, but he lost all emotions. As a result, he couldn’t hang onto his job, nor decide what to have for lunch.
In Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes the part of the brain that Elliot lost as crucial for integrating emotions into decision-making. Without it, patients can deliberate about the pros and cons of a red pen over a blue pen for hours without coming to a decision. Or they may act with the cold and calculated indifference of psychopaths.
This stands in stark contrast to Plato’s veneration of humans as rational creatures. Research now shows that even the decisions that we believe to have been made by conscious thought were actually initiated in our subconscious minds where emotions reside. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the split-second decisions of the “primitive” brain that guide our behaviors, even when we think we have rationally thought the situation through.
So, it’s essential to pay close attention to our emotions. By staying clear of the negative and extreme emotions that make us act in ways we may regret, and developing the positive emotions that allow us to connect with others in kindness and empathy, we can build our pathways to happiness.
Listen to Your Thoughts
Our thoughts are the window to our beliefs—and beliefs are the connective link between our experiences and the emotions that emerge. Mindfulness practices are excellent in allowing us to listen in to our stream of inner chatter without getting caught up in it. This distance lets us notice the negative or extreme statements that emerge over again and understand the biased beliefs we may carry. (New to mindfulness? Check out our Meditation for Beginners animation.)
Challenge Negative Beliefs
Biased beliefs that are fear-based and overly negative lead to extreme emotions that make us act in self-defeating ways. The good news is, we can challenge these beliefs, since they are simply the result of our efforts to function under given conditions. When conditions change, the same beliefs may no longer serve us well. A childhood belief of low capability may have helped us deal with the comments of a critical parent, in order to win their approval. However, this can negatively impact our relationships and performance in later life. By questioning our beliefs and asking ourselves: “Are they true?” and “Are they helpful?”, we can own our attitude and take conscious decisions.
Offer Alternate Beliefs
Okay, so this isn’t always easy. After all, long-held beliefs ground us and help us understand our place in the universe. When letting go of biased beliefs, we need to replace them with positive and balanced ones that help bring out the best in us. In the case of low confidence, we can remind ourselves of our successes and build a positive log of our achievements in order to calm the voice of the inner critic before it gains traction. Through a consistent practice of opening up our vision and savoring the events and comments that tie in with our new beliefs, we can nurture them and empower ourselves with positive emotions that allow us to create a world of possibility.
An old Cherokee legend talks of the two wolves of the heart—the wolf of fear that feeds off negative emotions, and the wolf of love that grows with positive ones. They co-exist in order to protect us from our enemies and nurture our bonds with our own tribe, respectively. Our negative emotions have helped us survive and gotten us this far. However, in today’s global world, where we all exist as a single tribe, facing the most critical period in our history, it is positive emotions that will get us through.