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David Goggins
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Bryan Cranston
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Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Two Steps to Improve Your Emotional Life

There are two things that people want to be able to do to improve their emotional life.

There are two things that people want to be able to do to improve their emotional life.  You want to be able to choose what you become emotional about and when you become emotional. That’s number one.


And the second is you want to be able to choose how you act when you are emotional.  Well nature didn’t want you to do either.  So it didn’t give you any tools.  So if you’re going to learn how to do this, it’s going to be hard work and it isn’t going to be the kind of learning like learning to ride a bicycle.

Once you learn to ride a bicycle you can stay off it for ten years and get right back on it and ride.  What I’m going to tell you now, if you don’t do every day, you’ll fall off.  You got to practice it all the time.  It’s like being a concert pianist.  It doesn’t stick unless you practice it.

So, let’s take problem number one.  Having more choice about what you become emotional about.  And that’s the only reason we want that is because sometimes we become emotional about things that we don’t think merit becoming emotional.  Or we act in a way that we don’t approve of afterwards.  That’s the number two problem.

The first step is to keep a diary of when you become emotional.  Now you won’t know in advance but you’ll surely know when it’s over that you just had an emotional episode.  Write it down in detail.  Do this for a month.  Then go through it and look for what are the themes that are causing your emotions.  If it isn’t apparent to you, get a friend to look at it, but it should be very apparent to you when you read through this diary.

And you should be able to identify three or four redundant things that have again and again getting you to act emotionally.  Now the ones where you think you responded emotionally and there was no reason to be emotional, draw a red circle around them.

Now how many of those have the same theme?  Now you’re equipped, you know what the triggers are.  Now when you’re about to enter a situation, think.  Is this likely to trigger one of my themes?  If so, what can I do?  Can I calm my mind?  Do a full-body scan?  Do meditation?  Did I not get much sleep last night, so I’m likely to go off?  Maybe I better postpone this meeting ‘cause it’s going to have one of my hot triggers.

Or am I in pretty good shape, and I’m prepared and I know what might be coming right down the road.  That’s step one on problem one.  Step two is harder.  And it is to increase the gap between impulse and action.  The way this works, an emotion episode begin with an appraisal that something is triggering your emotion that’s based on your previous life experience that’s stored in what I call your emotional alert database.

This diary is trying to find out what’s in that database.  But this appraisal mechanism is continually scanning wherever you are, looking for any of these triggers.  And it’s incredibly fast and not always accurate.  The moment it clicks on something an impulse arises.  That impulse if it gets to the circuitry in your brain for a particular emotion it’ll set off emotion in your expression, in your voice, your posture, your words, but there is a – it takes time for the impulse to get translated into action.

You want to lengthen that time so you can spot the impulse arising before you act.  This is not easy.  For some people it’s a lot easier than for others because they normally have a very slow rise time and others I call the attack dogs.  They have almost instant, very little delay between impulse and action, but strangely enough the only thing that seems to stretch that out is a contemplative practice called Mindfulness and it takes a minimum of about 20 minutes a day and at least four days a week if you want to try it.

And it’ll take about six months to start to have an effect and then it’ll only continue if you continue to do it.  And you won’t always spot the impulse, but sometimes you’ll have the wonderful feeling of being able to tell I’m about to get angry.  I think I ****.  I’ll let it go; I’ll let that just go right by me.  It won’t happen all the time, but sometimes.

So here are the two techniques.  One, the trigger diary to find out what’s in your emotional alert database.  Number two, spreading the time gap between impulse and action.  Now we’re ready to move to the second and somewhat easier step.

How do I become aware of the fact that I’m acting emotionally when I am?  There are two things that can ring the bell and let me know that I’m doing it.  One is pay close attention to the other person’s facial expressions ‘cause they are the recipient of your emotions and if you watch their face you will get – you can’t see your own face; they see it, but you can see their face and you can tell how they’re reacting, and you can say, “Oh, my God.  They’re starting to look very disappointed; what am I doing that’s so disappointing them?  How am I acting?”

It’s one source.  The second source: the changes within your body, changes in your musculature, in your respiration, in your sweating, in the temperature of the different parts of your body, they are different we found for different emotions.  The problem is we pay no attention to them.

The exercise of making expressions or being a little Stanislavski actor, recalling past emotional experiences, trying to relive them and focus on what those sensations are.  We’ve got to bring the sensations that are unique to each emotion into consciousness.  So you’ll start to feel it while you’re experiencing it.

Those are the two steps.  It’s a lot easier for you to learn how to be more attentive to other people than to learn how to have any choice about what you become emotional about and to learn to have choice and knowledge of when you’re becoming emotional, but it’s a good goal and if you succeed you’ll like yourself better and others will like you better.

In Their Own Words is recorded at Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

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  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

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Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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