I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately: Can we choose our emotions? Can we, as the little art piece (above) that I picked up at the discount store directs, Choose Joy?
More and more I’m starting to believe we can. And there are studies that are starting to suggest the same.
The Invisibilia podcast (NPR) has a segment on Emotions that discusses just that (part 1, part 2; I can’t remember which part addresses it more directly but both parts are interesting). The idea that our emotions are much more under our control—much more of a choice—than we’ve ever believed. That we do, in fact, choose our emotions, whether we know it or not.
Mel Robbins (TED Talker on The 5 Second Rule), in fact, believes that the emotions we fall into most easily are largely habit, and can be changed. I can’t find a direct link to her expressing that idea, but I’m 90% sure she’s said it, and regardless, I believe it. Our brains love habits, including habitual emotions. If we’re used to feeling defeated, we immediately go to defeat when something bad happens. But the good news is, she (and I) believe we can change that.
Then, too, there are new studies that suggest our gut is much more responsible for our moods than our brains are. The enteric nervous system (the gut), or “the second brain,” contains 100 million neurons, “more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system. … A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut.” The foods we eat—and, I’ll point out, we choose what we eat—play a big role in determining our moods.
What does this mean? Well, I can tell you that when I eat sugar (hello, Halloween candy!), I can get depressed. What’s more, when I eat sugar (or drink alcohol, which is also sugar) I don’t sleep as well, which means the next day I’m sleep-deprived, which also contributes to an unsavory mood. Everything is connected. There are many people talking about this—some of them with other controversial ideas, so it’s important to maintain critical thinking. But my own experience suggests that food affects moods, and I think more study is warranted.
I find the ideas compelling—and hopeful. If my emotions are under my control, to at least some extent, then I get to choose. This comes with a responsibility and accountability; I don’t get to just claim victimhood and give up. If I’m in a mood and I let it continue, then that’s on me. We tend to cling to our bad moods—I do it too, sometimes—because it’s easier to feel bad than to do what we need to to do fix whatever ails us.
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding these ideas. Much more research needs to be done, but whether that will happen is somewhat doubtful. For one thing, we want pills, not hard work. For another thing, the multi-billion-dollar depression industry doesn’t want us to believe we can heal ourselves. And, people do like to cling to their misery. Don’t shoot me. You know it’s true.
To clarify: It’s not just about saying “I’m going to be happy now instead of angry!” —although that’s definitely part of it. It’s also a commitment to choosing actions and behaviors that affect our moods. Sugar can lead to depression and poor sleep, so I choose to eat less sugar. Exercise has been proven to be as effective as anti-depressants (plus it feels so good … afterward!), so I am choosing daily exercise. I know that having a tidy house makes me feel more calm and peaceful, so I try to keep it clean. Reviewing my list of Values and Beliefs every morning helps me stay focused on what matters in my life, which helps me feel connected to my purpose and self, which helps me feel happy. Everything is connected. Every choice we make throughout the day can contribute to our wellbeing. It’s a matter of recognizing that, and making for better choices.
I said it’s about choices; I didn’t say it wasn’t work. It’s work, but it’s worth it. To change our lives, we have to get a little uncomfortable. To change our lives a lot, we have to get a lot uncomfortable.
So these days, I am working to learn to change my habits, to choose my actions and behaviors that affect my moods, to choose my emotions, to Choose Joy. I believe we can do it. It may not be easy but I think it’s worth a try.
P.S. As of today I’m working to get back into daily blogging. Working to flex the writing muscles, as well as the vulnerability muscles that come from posting something before it’s perfect. I hope you’ll check in again.