“Your emotions are the slaves to your thoughts, and you are the slave to your emotions.”
“The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.”
Emotional pain is no match for heavy doses of pleasure.
This article is Part 4 of a series of articles detailing how to use the “counterbalance strategy” to increase happiness and achieve self-mastery. Part 3 of the series discussed how to offset fear with audacity and included a story that is continued below. Click here to review Part 3.
Damaging Emotion: Pain (Sadness, Despair, Dejection, Loneliness, Guilt, *Apathy)
After graduating from high school in Spokane, WA, I moved all the way across the country to Pennsylvania to study and wrestle at Franklin & Marshall college. On paper, enrolling in F&M was the best decision for my future, but in my head and my heart, it hurt like hell. I was only 18 years old and I was moving 3,000 miles away from everything I’ve ever known. Before then, I had never been anywhere outside of the Pacific Northwest. A few days after I arrived on campus, a real heaviness set into my life. I was extremely homesick. The culture on the East Coast was very different and there were no familiar faces or places to ground me mentally. I forgot how to enjoy life and started feeling like my purpose of living was getting through the next day. Everything started to suffer, including my schoolwork. The ultimate low point came half way through the first semester when midterm grades were handed out. My GPA was a dismal 1.2.
After midterms, I was informed that I was at risk of losing my academic scholarship and being suspended from the wrestling team. This was a real wake up call. I decided to force the pain out of my life by actively changing my attitude and behavior. Over the course of the next few weeks, I started getting involved in various campus activities and hanging out with other students and wrestlers as much as possible. I did my schoolwork at crowded libraries and coffee shops, and forced myself to engage with people I didn’t know. I also started watching bits and pieces of my favorite comedies throughout the day and before bed. In short, I found ways to enjoy life more and improve self-confidence by consciously changing my physiology and interacting with other people. Eventually, I regained my upbeat outlook on life and adapted to my new surroundings. By the end of the semester, I had riased my GPA to 4.0.
Emotional pain includes feelings of suffering, sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, rejection, and regret. People who experience these damaging emotions for a long enough time will eventually sink into a mental state called apathy. *Apathy is defined as the suppression of all emotions, and it is the first step towards existing rather than living. Understand: it is better to feel pain and take steps to counteract it than it is to feel nothing at all. The problem is that the average person does not know how to get over his emotional pain. This keeps him from fully developing his relationships and prevents him from completely fulfilling his purpose in life. The first step to overcoming this kind of pain is to recognize it and take responsibility for ridding it from you life. The next step is to actively and consistently change your physiology and behavior in ways that will help you increase happiness and generate confidence.
Counterattack: Cheerfulness and Connection (Pleasure, Joy, Happiness, Humor, Touch)
Without knowing it at the time, I counteracted my emotional pain in college with healthy doses of connection and cheerfulness. In life, when you’re sad and lonely, your gut response will be to reach out to other people like family members and friends for support. Follow your gut. Connecting with people is exactly what you need to do to keep yourself from falling into a state of depression. The problem is that your brain will tell you that you just need some time alone to figure things out, or that you don’t have the energy to talk with or be around other people right now. There are several reasons why your brain gives you this false information. First, your stress hormones (i.e. cortisol, epinephrine, and adrenaline) are imbalanced. These hormonal imbalances cause mood swings and feelings of being emotionally drained. Second, feel-good neurotransmitters in your brain, like dopamine and serotonin, are depleted. The good news is that you can rebalance your hormones and ramp up these neurotransmitters by forcing yourself to be cheerful and interact with others.
The quickest way to increase happiness is to feign happiness. As soon as you start feeling a sense of despair in your life, pretend to be the happiest person in the world. Just ask yourself, what would I do right now if I just won the lottery, or how would I act if all of my dreams come true. Try to remember how you acted in the past when you were the happiest you’ve ever been. What did you do? Did you smile, laugh, dance around, pump your fist in the air, yell out “Yes!” and call ten friends to tell them about it? Whatever you did, do it now. It’s okay if it feels false at first. Upbeat motion will eventually create upbeat emotion. Drag your body through the gestures of enjoyment and your body will start to find ways to enjoy life more.
Physiology Instructs Psychology
The way you move and hold your body controls the way you think and feel. Most people accept that their attitudes can be used to control their behaviors. If a person is happy, he is more likely to hold the elevator door open for a stranger running towards it. If that person is pissed off, he is more likely to hide behind the side of the elevator door and click the “close” button as rapidly as possible. In other words, emotions can influence motivation and influence action. What many people fail to realize is that their behavior, or physiology, can control their attitudes and emotions.
Try the following experiment: think of something painful that happened to you in the past. Think of something that really hurt you emotionally. As you’re thinking about that thing, stand up tall, stick out your chest, look up to the sky, take a deep breath in, and put a huge, toothy smile on your face. Try to stay in that negative place as you stand their smiling up to the heavens. Now, try the reverse. Think of the happiest or most pleasurable moment of your life. As you do, sit down in a chair, slump forward, frown, clench your jaw, ball up your fists, and look down. Play around with this until you consciously notice your physiology affecting your psychology.
Smiling is a method of mind control. Numerous scientific studies have shown that you can change your emotional state simply by adjusting the physiology of your face. Experiments published in the scientific journal Neuroimage found that when a person smiles, whether it’s real or fake, she contracts her facial muscles in a way that slightly distorts the shape of the facial bones. This slight distortion leads to an increase in blood flow into the frontal lobes of her brain, which increases the release of dopamine. Other studies have shown that one person’s smile can spontaneously induce the release of dopamine in another person’s brain. This is why smiling at a complete stranger will often cause him or her to automatically smile back. A smile is a powerful way to positively influence other people’s physiology and emotions, as well as your own.
Laughter is smiling on steroids. You can increase happiness and boost vitality simply by watching a sit-com, a funny movie, or a humorous YouTube clip. Laughing initiates a wide array of positive physiological responses in your body. One scientific study showed that hearty laughter relieves physical tension and stress for up to 45 minutes. Extended bouts of laughter dramatically increases dopamine levels and triggers the release of endorphins, which temporarily relieves pain and enhances your overall sense of wellbeing. Laughing also increases the activity of your immune system and decreases the levels of stress hormones in your body. Laughter is both contagious and attractive. Sociology experiments show that people spontaneously migrate to the sound of laughter while their brain activity automatically shifts to a relaxed and playful state of anticipation.
Physiology Feeds On Physiology
When you’re in the pits, the most important thing you can do to counteract pain and increase happiness is force yourself to engage with other people. Your physiology feeds on the physiology of others. This is why it’s so important to surround yourself with positive people while eliminating negative people from your life. Everyone produces physiological factors such as pheromones that can be transferred from person to person with or without physical touch. Women collectively regulate their hormone cycles by living together and men boost each other’s testosterone levels within minutes of hanging out together. One person with high dopamine levels can initiate the release of dopamine in other people’s brains just by talking to them. And simply giving someone a hug can reduce your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and stimulate nerve activity throughout your body. In fact, hugs are now being used professionally as a form of physical therapy.
Anger, fear, and pain can be countered. You may not be able to stop feeling damaging emotions cold turkey, but you can cut them out of your life using the counterbalance strategy. First, recognize and name the negative emotion you are feeling. Use the emotion as a whistle signaling you to counter it with the appropriate response. Then, apply the counterbalance strategy by offsetting the negative emotion with positive emotions and productive actions. If you feel angry, recognize the feeling as your body’s way of telling you to bunker down and reflect. If you feel afraid, acknowledge the feeling as your body’s way of telling you to take action and prepare. Commanding your emotions in this way will help you build mental toughness and maintain a state of self-mastery.