Chris Croft's Personal Blog

December 18, 2010

The perceived pay-offs of negative emotions

Filed under: Assertiveness, Happiness — chriscroft @ 10:40 am

A while ago went to a really interesting talk on happiness, given by Shane Mulhall of The School of Economic Science.

The main thrust was that we cover up our problems with things like drinking, shopping, comparing and competing, striving for power and control, belittling others, etc, and that rather than cover up our problems we should confront them and remove them.

So the first step is to stop covering up – stop things like the above (which fall into physical pursuits and mental strategies, both of which lead nowhere because they can never be satisfied, and even if you could satisfy them you’d then only be bored!) and think about what it is that really makes you unhappy, deep down. Maybe it’s feeling inferior, maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s not knowing where you’re going, maybe it’s the person you live with, whatever it might be.

The next thing they said was that you can’t force there to be more happiness, you have to remove the unhappiness, like removing storm clouds and letting the sun through. The happiness is there all the time, it’s just covered up by unhappiness, which doesn’t have to be there all the time. Interesting!

So, once you’ve identified what’s making you unhappy, you have to let it go. Apparently we hold on to things that make us unhappy because we think there is some happiness to be gained from them (and in the short term there might be). Once you realise that it’s only going to bring you pain it’s much easier to get rid of something.

For example, think of grieving over a pet that has died. What happiness does this bring us? Why do we do it? Assuming we do choose to do it, which is of course a big question! But according to Shane Mulhall we do choose it, because we get some sort of pay off, maybe to show ourselves that we did really love the pet? Maybe also the consolation we get from others? But once we realise that these are unconstructive and that it’s pretty much a negative emotion we can maybe reduce it or remove it completely. By the way I’m not trying to belittle bereavement of people or pets in any way, but this might help a person to cope with it without it affecting their lives too adversely.

It would have been easier to take negative emotions like worry, regret, anger or jealousy – you can those yourself – but it’s interesting that even something like grief can be examined from the point of view of why we cling on to it when it makes us unhappy.

Linked to this, they said that there is no unhappiness (or fear) in the present, only in the past and the future. There’s looking back with sadness, and there’s fearing the future, but if you can live in the present then you can beat these negative emotions.

These are pretty deep subjects, but I thought you might find them thought provoking and helpful, so there they are. By the way, you can get a CD of the talk I went to for £8 from http://www.practicalphilosophy.ie/lectures.php I think it’s a bargain.

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