Current research from the fields of neurology, behavioral economics, and cognitive psychology is showing us that — contrary to what we’ve been told — emotions actually help us make decisions.
The old wives’ tale is that we make decisions by ignoring our emotions and using only our rational faculties. Thinking was long-supposed to be better or smarter than feeling, but the truth is coming out. As we’re learning more about the brain, emotions are no longer seen as the opposite of rationality. Instead, science is helping us understand (finally) that the so-called rational aspects of our brains aren’t able to hold enough conflicting information in working memory to organize a complex decision. Instead, our emotions help us attach value, meaning, and weight to information. Emotions help us separate the wheat from the chaff, identify valid or important information, and make decisions.
Without our emotions, we can’t organize or attach value to conflicting information; we just stand around looking confused. Without our emotions, we’re actually incapable of making deep and multifaceted decisions.
But what about really bad decisions?
Good question. As your emotions help you think right now, you may be recalling multiple images of highly emotional people making highly questionable decisions. The comments sections on far too many websites these days are perfect examples, where people aren’t talking about the story; rather, they’re ranting and flaming about ideas that the story has triggered in them. They’re not being informed by their emotions; they’re acting as the unwitting puppets of their emotions, and it’s painful to witness.
We see unhealthy and irrational emotional behavior all over the web, every day. In many cases, other commenters will chime in and try to calm down the ranters, but the topic and the actual story get lost in the turmoil, and we see the worst examples of emotions influencing people’s decisions. In many people’s hands, emotions are truly ugly things, and they do lead to irrationality.
But that’s not the fault of the emotions. Emotions are an integral part of our capacity to think and experience the world, and just like any other part of human nature, they can be used for good or ill. Emotions are not rational or irrational: Emotions are simply data; you are the interpreter of those data, and your behavior determines whether the outcome is rational or not.
Because emotions stand at the center of our decision-making processes, we simply have to become smarter about how we use them. Here are some ideas:
In The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, I focus on what emotions mean, what they do, and what they’re for. This helps you embrace emotions as that part of your intelligence that can help you make good decisions. Here are some simple steps to help you connect with your emotions.
Understand that emotions are not the opposite of rationality; in fact, you can’t be rational without your emotions. Welcome your emotions and embrace the inevitable: you can’t be rational without your emotions. If you set up a hierarchy inside your psyche, where your rationality gets the throne while your emotions are forced into the dungeon, you will be less decisive, less resourceful, less resilient, and less intelligent. And sadly, your emotions will probably band together to violently depose your intellect (yeow!). No hierarchies! Welcome and embrace your emotions as the partners of your intellect.
Focus your intellectual abilities and your linguistic skills on your emotions (instead of lording over them): learn what they are, what they’re for, how they arise, and how they differ. For instance, fear is a momentary intuition that keeps you safe from harm, while anxiety is a repetitive, tension-producing state that actually reduces your intuition, your readiness, your intelligence, and your well-being. If you call both of them fear, you’ll not only be wrong, you’ll be unsafe. Learn what your emotions are!
Go forward as an emotionally intelligent person who is neither the puppet of emotions nor their strict overlord. The old, tired paradigm, where emotions were the opposite of rationality is untrue. Similarly, the even older and more tired paradigm, where emotions were the opposite of spirituality, is also untrue. Emotions are irreplaceable and absolutely necessary in the healthy and competent human brain. Our intellectual and spiritual capacities are important, but they are by no means more important than our emotions. Emotions are necessary!
Realize that our ridiculous training in the realm of emotions is the culprit in turning emotions into problems. Here’s just one example: Anger is about honor, protection, and the maintenance of your self-image (and the self-image of others). If you were never taught that, you may mistakenly take the power inside anger and try to attack someone with it. But that’s not what anger is for. If you attack people with your anger, your shame will come forward because you screwed up! Your emotions know what they’re for, even if you don’t.
Every emotion has a specific and vital message for you, and each emotion lends you a specific skill or ability. Turning toward your emotions and placing them on the same footing as your rationality (because neither is higher or better than the other) will give you access to some of the most amazing and decisive aspects of human intelligence. Your emotions help you make decisions. You can help them by learning their language.