The Power of Emotions
There’s this misconception that emotions only interfere with decision-making.
To an extent, that’s true. Humans are not rational agents. Just ask any macroeconomist trying to predict the future. Our brains justify our actions long after we’ve already made them. And emotions trail right behind those actions, whether it’s joy, guilt, or suffering.
It doesn’t stop there. Look at the list of cognitive biases, and you might believe humans took a wrong turn somewhere in the evolutionary timeline.
But if humans are mostly irrational creatures, how can emotions help with decision-making?
Man’s pride, greed, and lust fill the great halls of fiction.
Resentful humans have colored history with blood.
The great tragedy of humanity seems to be that we’re too emotional, closer to the worms than angels.
Emotions then must interfere with decision-making. Where’s the misconception?
The misconception comes when people begin to believe interference is all emotions can do; that emotions are an outdated and broken model, unable to cope with the modern day stresses of the world.
I’m here to tell you that’s not the case. Emotions can give you the advantage to not only survive in this world but excel in it.
Your ancestors fought hard for those emotions. All those organisms that died contributed to the person you are today. And while some of those adaptations may not always be useful, it would be silly to think they’re never advantageous.
Being part of an unbroken chain of organisms comes with its perks.
You can give your emotional system the update it needs to survive.
And if you’re good enough, what it needs to thrive.
Your emotions can serve as a guiding post for the actions you should take.
The world is complicated. It’s ambiguous. And it is filled with peril. You cannot predict it. And you cannot change what has already happened. Those two limitations shaped us. Because of those limitations and some biological luck, our emotional system gives us an advantage no other species on the planet has in equal measure. Because unlike other organisms, our emotions help us learn from our past mistakes and prepare us for future ones.
“I am the captain of my soul”
So you can’t suppress your emotions. That’s a dead end.
But you can observe them from a distance, and with time and effort, steer them, regulate them, and even use them to your advantage.
Let me show you.
“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
- Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning
Earlier this year, I got a permanent ringing in my ears somewhere in the 15,000Hz to the 20,000Hz range. The doctors aren’t sure where it came from. Possibly from antibiotics. Possibly from something else.
I couldn’t sleep because the noise never stopped. It was loud enough that it would wake me up at night. After two months of living with the ringing, I started having sleeping problems.
I averaged about 4 to 5 hours of sleep a night for about 10 weeks. I couldn’t take naps either — I’d wake up a couple seconds into it.
I was also dealing with something similar to dizziness. Every time I walked, my perception of the world would be off, as if my brain was struggling to pinpoint where my eyes were headed.
It was disorientating.
Driving was an effort.
Walking was an effort.
Three months into it, I started to lose my mind.
And then the obsessive thoughts began. These were words and phrases that repeated in my head from the moment I woke up till I fell asleep.
They never stopped in their intensity.
I could not rationalize with them.
I couldn’t stop thinking about them.
Each thought carried an overwhelming sense of shame.
I started to struggle with reading. Words would mix up in their location.
I struggled to listen. I couldn’t stay focused long enough to draw meaning from sentences. I stopped listening to podcasts.
I struggled to speak. I would say words in the wrong order. I forgot one of my dog’s names for a while.
For the first time, I saw the everlasting darkness of the world.
I grew resentful.
This is an emotional state we call suffering.
It’s an emotional state because it doesn’t live outside of you. It’s within you.
What do you do with it?
You certainly can’t avoid it. There’s a cost to being human and it’s suffering.
It is a part of our evolutionary heritage. And it is a tremendous gift.
Naturally then, you should accept this gift. You should accept your suffering.
And then, this is the key. When you accept it, you transform it. You become an alchemist of this world, and your soul, the conduit between suffering and meaning.
The beautiful thing about suffering is it demands an answer from you. You can’t hide from it. You can’t push it away. You can’t destroy it. Suffering is a precursor to transformation. It is the foundation of the greatest of triumphs. It is the winter that moves you, the thirst that drives you, the darkness that pushes you towards the light.
Suffering seems to be a consequence of living in an unfair world. It is a strong emotion because it had to be to make a difference. It’s difficult to control because life is difficult to control. You need something that can match that force of life.
Life is filled with many sorrows. It’s no wonder we look at Hell as towards the Earth, Heaven ever farther away.
You can’t always choose what happens to you. But you can choose your reaction. And it starts with accepting your suffering. You have to accept it. If you don’t, it stays as suffering. And suffering in of itself is not useful if it does not lead to anything. Suffering is only the guide — it is not the human.
Suffering is why a man quits the 9–5 job he dislikes; why the boy who loses his mother travels. It’s why we still wander the Earth looking for God. Because suffering dares us to create a better life for ourselves. It dares us to reach out to Heaven.
To me, it is the greatest of all the emotions, because it alone has the potential for the greatest transformation.
In evolutionary terms, you can look at suffering as a kind of pressure for an organism to change, internally or externally.
If you can accept your suffering, you can begin to transform it. Then it is no longer suffering. It’s meaning.
My experiences gave my life a richer meaning. I saw the preciousness of life — the darkness made the light that much brighter.
I grew closer to people, closer to my family, closer to humanity. My problems didn’t all go away, but I don’t suffer as much anymore.
Suffering guides you towards greatness.
“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
- Anne Frank, The Diary of A Young Girl
Gratitude is the sister of Suffering. Gratitude does not demand anything of you. It only sits in quiet contemplation.
Slow down for a moment..
Just this moment.
Look around. Look around for a bit.
Something moves, off in the distance.
Do you see it? This is life. This is grace.
This is an emotion you can create.
Gratitude is the moment before thirst is quenched, the pause before the money is accepted, the place when you find out your child has been saved.
And gratitude is endless. It is an endless stream.
Every time you reach for gratitude, something about you changes, on a biochemical level. The neurons in your brain alter slightly. Life moves a little.
You keep doing it. The world becomes brighter.
You can access this at any time.
The first couple of times, when you reach into the stream, you find the water slipping through your hands. You drink a little. Little by little then, you quench your thirst.
You become better. Months pass. Your brain has fundamentally changed in a way that sees’s the world as more positive. Your sense of well-being increases.
You begin to see more opportunities in life. Every moment becomes a quiet blessing, a silent prayer.
Your hands overflow and the gratitude you’ve gathered pours, now not just in your life, but all around.
It pours, it pours.
Evolution doesn’t particularly care if you hijack it this way.
At least I don’t think it does.
Gratitude seems to be the fabric that binds acts of compassion together. And it is unlimited in its reserves.
But that’s not all it can be.
There’s no cost to gratitude, except a moment of your time. And you always have to give that away.
Imagine a place where the world is constantly compassionate towards you. That’s what gratitude does. It paints the world that way.
I practice gratitude three times a day. It was difficult to do at first.
All I ever saw was the hardship of life.
But when you practice gratitude, something remarkable happens.
You begin to see more solutions. Every hardship begins to reveal itself as an opportunity and suddenly, the possible number of choices you can make opens up.
You no longer focus strictly on what’s not possible. You begin to focus on what you can do.
Why does this happen? It’s because you become more optimistic.
Optimistic people see more solutions than constantly pessimistic people.
So build your reality in a way you see fit.
Gratitude is the emotion you can be most selfish with, the most giving towards yourself.
So paint your world. Make it brighter. There’s plenty of paint left.