Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-ups—playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits so that the pretence of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest.
Now, the moment you realise ‘Here I am, dressing up as Christ,’ it is extremely likely that you will see at once some way in which at that very moment the pretence could be made less of a pretence and more of a reality. You will find several things going on in your mind which would not be going on there if you were really a son of God. Well, stop them. Or you may realise that, instead of saying your prayers, you ought to be downstairs writing a letter, or helping your wife to wash- up. Well, go and do it.
From C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
With his typical clarity and insight, C. S. Lewis drew back the curtain on practical ways to build a stronger Christian character. But the principle he outlined applies to many aspects of life, and how to build a happier life more generally.
If we were to distill this advice into its basic form it would be something like, “If you are fearful, act brave, if you are impatient, act patiently, if you are chronically unhappy, act happy” and so forth.
Some people think this is a matter of ‘fake it till you make it.’ Perhaps there is some truth to that perspective. But that view also has the error of placing the emphasis on feelings being the true measure of what is false and what is real. For example, if one acts with patience, but feels impatient, is that ‘faking it?’ Why are the feelings of impatience accorded more status than the behavior of acting with patience? In other words, if you act patiently while feeling impatient is that faking it, or being patient?
Let’s look at another example. If you stand up to an unpleasant boss who is a bully, but you feel fearful when doing so, why should this be considered “fake” assertiveness?
If I do not feel kind, but behave with kindness and sacrifice my time/energy, to benefit my neighbor, why should this be considered “fake” kindness?
Actions matter more than feelings.
As a general rule, actions mold feelings. It is not instantaneous, it is a process. Most people have the experience of being upset with their spouse just before leaving for some social event. Driving to the event both spouses decide to behave more kindly to one another, although each is still upset with the other. By the time they arrive at the event the conflict is largely diffused. Why? Because each of them behaved in a way that led their feelings to change.
Researchers have known this for a long time. I think our grandparents knew it even before the researchers. Even so, let me give you some examples from research.
A study done at Northwestern University showed that having people slouch in their chairs caused to drop. Having people sit up straight in their chairs caused mood to become elevated. "By sitting straight -- you'll smile. Slumping you'll scowl. Body position alters the brain.“It appears to have direct biological effects on hormone levels, on cortisol levels, testosterone levels and that's the remarkable thing,” says Reinecke. It's called embodied cognition. Repeated studies have shown a change in brain chemistry is triggered by changes in body position."
Psychology Today had an interesting article on this topic wherein they noted that: “Each time you smile, you throw a little feel-good party in your brain. The act of smiling activates neural messaging that benefits your health and happiness. For starters, smiling activates the release of neuropeptides that work toward fighting off stress. Neuropeptides are tiny molecules that allow neurons to communicate. They facilitate messaging to the whole body when we are happy, sad, angry, depressed, or excited. The feel-good neurotransmitters — dopamine, endorphins and serotonin — are all released when a smile flashes across your face as well.”
Feelings are important, but they must not take a preeminent position in your life. Behave in the way you wish to feel, and more often than not you will eventually find your feelings following along like a puppy learning to follow its master’s lead. Not perfectly, not as quickly as you or I would like, but little by little learning to conform to the path chosen by the master.
The response to this advice is often “Hold on. That’s a lot easier said than done.”
If that is your reaction, then we agree. It is much easier said than done.
On the other hand, it is a lot easier to try this approach, and eventually get better at it, than to live life having your feelings control your behavior. That is a recipe for frequent conflict and unhappiness. I’ve seen this too many times to count.
Feelings, when given control of behavior, become tyrants. Feelings may lead you to avoid those things you should do, that would be good for you, and are good for others around you. Feelings may also lead you to do those things you should not do, which can pretty quickly build into regret and grief.
The key to making the most of emotion, creating a life where emotions enrich your experiences rather than control your experiences, is to develop the coping skills and strategies for responding to emotion. A wild horse becomes an asset when it learns to take a bit and bridle and allow a rider on it’s back.
Coping skills are the bit and bridle for your feelings, allowing you to take control. Next week I will discuss some easy coping skills that anyone can use to gain better control over the influence of emotions. Once these are consistently put to use, life becomes increasingly happier and more fulfilling.
So my challenge is for you to pick one emotion that seems to get the best of you time and again. Spend the next week behaving in a way that is the direct opposite to that which the emotion is pushing you. Do that just once a day to start with and see if you begin to have more control over the emotion by the end of the week.
Let me know how this works out. It’s tough, especially at first, but I’ve not met anyone who cannot start to gain more control if they persist. And that is definitely a start to a happier life.