Emotions are built and not built-in

The view from my desk 🙂

After much anticipation, we have moved and are settling into a very comfortable, spacious home in a beautiful setting – what’s next? Once the newness wears off, it’s easy to fall into routine, boredom and petty frustrations. The brilliant writer, David Foster Wallace wrote:

An average day, …go to your challenging job, …work hard …at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper …unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack …because, … you have to get up the next day and do it all again…you remember there’s no food at home… so now …you have to drive to the store. …the traffic is bad so getting to the store takes way longer than it should. When you finally get there, it is crowded, because … it’s the time of day when ..other people with jobs …squeeze in some grocery shopping. The store is hideously …lit …with soul-killing music… but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the…confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and …..maneuver..…through all these other tired, hurried people … eventually you get …your …supplies, except now…there aren’t enough check-out lanes open … The line is incredibly long, which is infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us. Finally it’s your turn, you pay …, and you get told to “have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your … cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, …through the crowded, …parking lot, and then …drive…home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic.”

This is where the work of choosing comes in. Frustration gives us a chance to think. We must make the choice of what to pay attention to – otherwise we will be miserable. We feel as though all these annoyances are happening to us and it is deeply, personally unfair. The default setting is to automatically focus on life’s boring and difficult parts. But it can be otherwise: the drivers around me may have a more difficult story… everyone in the checkout-line is just as bored and frustrated. When we become aware of our thoughts, we realize we can think differently.

Freedom involves awareness and discipline. The alternative is unconsciousness and the gnawing sense of having had, and lost, something. It’s unimaginably hard to stay conscious and aware.

But our emotions do not have to dictate our thoughts, they are not even hardwired into our brains. So how do they happen? Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett, a Psychology Professor at Northeastern University, after decades of emotion research has concluded that:

Emotions are guesses the brain constructs… We have more control over those guesses than we think… Based on past experiences the brain predicts your experience of the world. Predictions help us to make sense of the world in a quick and efficient way… if we change the ingredients (the brain) uses to make emotions, then you can transform your emotional life… We have the capacity to turn down … our emotional suffering … by learning how to construct our experiences differently.” She likens it to learning how to drive, first mentally taxing, but eventually it’s automatic.

Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is coloured by such impressions.”- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

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