In Part I, we reviewed how feeling in control has a direct correlation to both emotional and physical health. This explains why we generally seek to be in control our life, our partner, our friends and our environment. This is referred to as “external control.” We also reviewed how being over-controlling lowers happiness level and the happiness level of those around us. We then began to examine how taking responsibility for our own happiness was an antidote to being over-controlling and ended with two “tests” to determine how over-controlling you are. In Part II, we explore why taking personal responsibility for our happiness mitigates the tendency to be over-controlling and, hence, increases our level of happiness.
In simple terms, when you take personal responsibility for your own happiness, you take what is referred to as “internal control.” That is, control over your thoughts and feelings. Once you control your thoughts and feelings, you’ll discover that you don’t need to exercise much external control. In other words, controlling your thoughts and feelings lowers your desire and/or need to control other people and circumstances. But how do you gain that internal control?
There are two main ways you can gain internal control. Specifically, emotional regulation and leading a healthy lifestyle.
The term “emotional regulation” includes 4 tactics. The first is learning simple emotional regulation tactics. This includes avoiding situation likely to evoke unwanted or negative emotions. For example, if you know a particular co-worker gets on your nerves, then avoid running into this person as much as possible while at the office. Obviously this is an avoidance tactic. Of course, sometimes we can’t avoid these types of situations like, for example, spending time with family members we don’t particularly like during the holidays. In this case, you can label your emotions. This is self-explanatory. That is, just tell yourself what emotion you are experiencing. Studies show that merely labeling your emotions lowers their intensity. This is different from, and should not be confusing with, discussing or analyzing your emotions which raise their intensity. For example, if you and friend are stuck in a traffic jam and getting increasingly frustrated, tell yourself that you are frustrated but do not discuss it with your friend nor analyze why you are feeling frustrated. The third tactic is called attention deployment. That is, turning your attention to things that evoke positive thoughts or away from negative thoughts. This seems similar to situational avoidance. The difference is that you use attention deployment when you haven’t been able to avoid the situation or person and the emotion has already been triggered. In this case, it is important not to engage in self-serving biases in order to make yourself feel good. Self-serving biases involves taking credit for successes and blaming others or bad luck for failures. For example, if you win a tennis match, you tell yourself that you did so because you are such a good player, but if you lose the game you blame it on bad line calls, uncomfortable shoes or improperly stringed racket. While this can make you feel good in the moment, studies show that it will work against you in the long run. Nor is it advisable to suppress your emotions. Finally, you can practice cognitive reappraisal which means putting things in perspective. For example, if your relationship just ended, tell yourself that you have family and friends who love you and will support you; that there are other women/men who will find you attractive and will want to date you; etc. In other words, if you don’t like what you see, change the way you’re looking at it.
It is also important not to suppress your emotions. Merely suppressing the emotion doesn’t make it go away. In fact, your limbic system gets and stays activated even if you suppress your emotions. Suppressing emotions also takes effort and brain capacity that would be better used focusing on the task at hand. Finally, people around you will sense that you are suppressing your emotions and their blood pressure actually increases as a result. Of course, this does not give you the liberty to express your feelings at any time to anyone. But it is important to know that suppressing your emotions will not make you feel happier. From a spiritual point of view, what we resist persists.
The second main way one can gain internal control is by leading a healthy lifestyle, a main topic of discussion at the beginning of every new year as we make a number of promises to ourselves to get in shape by working out and eating better. There are 3 aspects to a healthy lifestyle. Not surprisingly, they are: 1) eating right; 2) moving more; and 3) sleeping better. There are an almost infinite number of studies, scientific and otherwise, that show how important each of these aspects is to keeping our emotional and physical stress levels as low as possible. For an excellent overview, I recommend Tom Rath’s Eat,Move, Sleep.
Furthermore, you multiply the positive effects of the two main ways to gain internal control by exercising self-compassion. Listen to that little voice in your head constantly berating you. Become aware of it and replace it with what you would tell your best friend or, if you have a pet, how you talk to your pet. There is a world of difference between these two voices. Be kind and gentle with and to yourself, particularly when the going gets tough. Remember that every one, no matter how famous or “successful” they are or appear to be, struggles, has self-doubts and experiences frustration.
So why does the ability to regulate emotions enhance happiness levels? First, retaining control over your feelings means that you retain the keys to your happiness rather than abdicating them to external circumstances or other people. It also fulfills the desire for personal mastery since, by taking internal control, you are developing mastery over your own mind. Finally, it allows you to react in a more mature way to other people such that they are more likely to like and cooperate with you.
In Part III, we’ll discuss how distrusting others lowers your happiness levels and we’ll conclude this series with Part IV where we’ll discuss how distrusting life also lowers your happiness levels. Of course, we’ll discuss antidotes to both.
I look forward to your comments and, as always, I remain in love,