So there’s been this hypothesis organizing my life for a while now, and it goes like this: emotionalism leads to poor decision-making and illogical behavior, which will erode happiness and contentment.

One of the nice things about having a romantic partner and business partner in one is that it’s easy to mutually develop theories about how the world does and should work, reflect and magnify them amongst yourselves, and then have the comfortable assurance of already having argued out the points of interest, while knowing someone else agrees with you- all before facing the outside world.  This solipsistic approach to theorizing has been, to date, a boon.  It could also, I suppose, lead to errors of judgement.  It’s like confusing your facebook feed, full of friends who agree with you and the echo-box of your own opinions, with the broader world.

So Daniel and I have started to gently remind (reprimand?) each other with phrases like “You’re thinking emotionally,” or “That would be no more than an emotional decision.”

Love isn’t an emotion, contentment or general happiness aren’t emotions.  Those are states.  These are emotions:  excitement, lust, mania, sadness, shame, embarrassment, and fear.  Emotions are practically chemical (or they are only chemical.)*  But they come, and go in a healthy manner if you don’t give them too much credit.  It’s nice to feel the first three emotions-  but they aren’t great for making decisions or even for creativity.  It’s not nice to feel the latter four emotions, and they’re also not great for decisions or creating.

What about brilliant creative types who create a body of work, and then kill themselves-  is the one without the other impossible?  I’m reading Infinite Jest right now and thinking about Alexander McQueen. There are plenty of equally brilliant and prolific people who live to die of natural causes.   The question I’d always ask is-  is the creative work possible because they’ve harnessed and controlled their emotions?  Does the suicide happen when the emotions get out of control?

The general idea of emotional control is hardly popular these days.  It’s much more popular to admit helplessness and take a drug.  Or, emotional control is associated with emotional repression.  Repression and control are different.  Repression is non-acknowledgement.  Control is acknowledgement, and doing something about it if it needs to be done.  Emotions are neon signs to be read.

It makes me think of the famous marshmallow experiment, that’s been in the news much of late, because the author has been doing follow-up studies with the subjects now after some decades. His theory is that delaying gratification leads to general better life outcomes.  Delayed gratification is just one aspect of general emotional control, but no doubt subjects who exhibit this trait also do better on other markers-  emotional compartmentalization, logical tracking of the source of emotions, separation of emotions from decision making, and so on.

After I wrote the first draft of this post, I handed it to Daniel to read.  His comment was along the lines of “you’ve written it like everyone wants the same outcome. Change that.” So, I removed about half of the piece and started rewriting.  But this question lingers-  doesn’t everyone want to be happy, in the sense of generally content? Or, do some people really prefer the highs and lows?  Have they never experienced genuine well-being?

I’m reminded of a book I read a few years ago – The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.  It attempts to classify how people prioritize moral values. {These are called moral foundations in the book, and are the sometimes competing principles of Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation.  Read more here.}

I found those moral foundations and that book fascinating because it did an excellent job of exploring and documenting why different people or cultures seem to worry about different moral principles.  I wonder if something similar could be done for emotional states.  Because moral foundations are no more than a broader cultural attempt to provide the greatest well-being for the people. Morals function on the group level where emotions function on the individual.

 

*I’m aware that there’s been some studies aiming to classify love and contentment as no more than chemical states too.  However, for the purposes of English language conversation, it’s easier to think of them as separate and different from higher-and-lower-frequency emotions.  We have limited words to use for this sort of thing- state, emotion, feeling –  so we have to use them frugally.
**This is an excellent book on emotional control – You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay.

 

Posted by:brook delorme

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