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The Power to Decide How You Feel


The process of managing this weather is called metacognition. Metacognition (which technically means “thinking about thinking”) is the act of experiencing your emotions consciously, separating them from your behavior, and refusing to be controlled by them. Metacognition begins with understanding that emotions are signals to your conscious brain that something is going on that requires your attention and action. That’s all they are. Your conscious brain, if you choose to use it, gets to decide how you will respond to them.

Everyone—even the most privileged among us—has life conditions they would like to change. As the early sixth-century Roman philosopher Boethius put it, “One has abundant riches, but is shamed by his ignoble birth. Another is conspicuous for his nobility, but through the embarrassments of poverty would prefer to be obscure. A third, richly endowed with both, laments the loneliness of an unwedded life.”

Sometimes it’s possible to change your circumstances. If you hate your job, you can usually look for a new one. If you are in a bad relationship, you can try to improve it, or leave it. But sometimes it isn’t practical or even possible. Maybe you hate the weather where you live, but you have family there and a good job, so leaving wouldn’t make sense. Maybe you have been diagnosed with a chronic illness for which there are no promising treatment options. Perhaps your romantic partner has left you against your wishes and cannot be persuaded otherwise. Maybe there is something you don’t like about your body that isn’t possible to change. Maybe you are even in prison.

Here, metacognition comes to the rescue. Between the conditions around you and your response to them is a space to think and make decisions. In this space, you have freedom. You can choose to try remodeling the world, or you can start by changing your reaction to it.

Changing how you experience your negative emotions can be much easier than changing your physical reality, even if it seems unnatural. Your emotions can seem out of your control at the best of times, and even more so during a crisis—which is exactly when managing them would give you the greatest benefit.

That can be blamed in part on biology. Negative emotions such as anger and fear activate the amygdala, which increases vigilance toward threats and improves your ability to detect and avoid danger. In other words, stress makes you fight, flee, or freeze—not think, “What would a prudent reaction be at this moment? Let’s consider the options.”

This makes good evolutionary sense: half a million years ago, taking time to manage your emotions would have made you a tiger’s lunch. In the modern world, however, stress and anxiety are usually chronic, not episodic. Odds are, you no longer need your amygdala to help you outrun the tiger without asking your conscious brain’s permission. Instead, you use it to handle the nonlethal problems that pester you all day long. Your work is stressing you out, for example, or you aren’t getting along with your spouse. Even if you don’t have tigers to outrun, you can’t relax in your cave, because these ordinary things are bothering you.

No surprise, then, that chronic stress often leads to maladaptive coping mechanisms in modern life. These include the misuse of drugs and alcohol, rumination on the sources of stress, self-harm, and self-blaming. These responses don’t just fail to provide long-term relief; they can further compound your problems through addiction, depression, and increased anxiety. What these coping techniques do is try to change the outside world—at least as you perceive it. People who misuse alcohol often say that a few drinks turn off the day’s anxieties like a switch; problems (temporarily) are less threatening.

Metacognition offers a much better, healthier, and more permanent solution. Consider the emotions that your circumstances are stimulating in you. Observe them as if they’re happening to someone else, and accept them. Write them down to make sure they are completely conscious. Then consider how you can choose reactions not based on your negative emotions, but rather based on the outcomes you prefer in your life.

For example, let’s imagine you have a job that is really bringing you down. Let’s say you are bored and stressed, and your boss isn’t competent. You come home every day tired and frustrated, and you wind up drinking too much and watching a lot of dumb television to distract your mind. Tomorrow, try a new tactic. During the day, take a few minutes every hour or so, and ask, “How am I feeling?” Jot it down. Then after work, journal your experiences and feelings over the course of the day. Also write down how you responded to these feelings, and which responses were more and less constructive.

Do this for two weeks, and you will find you are feeling more in control and acting in more productive ways. You will also be able to start seeing how you can manage your outside environment better, perhaps making a timeline to update your résumé and asking a few people for job market advice, and then you might actually start looking for something new.

Boethius, it turns out, was a master of this, and in circumstances much worse than yours or mine. He wrote the words quoted previously from a prison cell while awaiting execution in 524, after being accused of conspiracy against the Ostrogothic King Theodoric—a crime of which he was likely not guilty, but for which he was ultimately executed. Boethius could not change his unfair circumstances. However, he could and did change his attitude toward them. “So true is it that nothing is wretched, but thinking makes it so,” he wrote, “and conversely every lot is happy if borne with equanimity.”

Metacognition requires practice, especially if you haven’t ever thought about it before. There are four practical ways to get started.

When you experience intense emotion, simply observe your feelings. The Buddha taught his followers that to manage emotions, one must observe them as if they were happening to someone else. In this way, one can understand them consciously and let them pass away naturally instead of allowing them to turn into something destructive. Try this yourself when, for example, you have a strong disagreement with your partner or a friend and are feeling angry. Sit quietly and think about the feelings you are experiencing. Observe the anger as if it were happening to someone else. Then say to yourself, “I am not this anger. It will not manage me or make my decisions for me.” This will leave you calmer and more empowered.

Journal your emotions. You may have noticed that when you are upset, if you write about what you are feeling, you immediately feel better. Journaling is in fact one of the best ways to achieve metacognition, because it forces you to translate inchoate feelings into specific thoughts. This in turn creates emotional knowledge and regulation, which provide a sense of control. Recent research shows this clearly. In one study, college students who were assigned structured self-reflective journaling were better able to understand and regulate their feelings about school.

For example, if you are feeling frantic about all the things you need to do, without metacognition there is no way to organize the problem in your mind. On a busy day, start with your coffee and calmly make a list of the things you need to do, in order of importance. You will feel much more in control, and you will also have the presence of mind to decide which things get done today, which you will leave until tomorrow, and which you might even decide to do…never.

As another example, say you are in a relationship that is souring against your wishes. Don’t use a confrontational reaction right off the bat. Instead, take a few days to record what is happening as accurately as possible, as well as your reaction to it. Write down different ways you might react constructively, based on different possible responses from the other person. You will find that you are calmer and better able to cope with the situation, even if it feels unfixable.

Keep a database of positive memories, not just negative ones. Mood and memory exist in a feedback loop: bad memories lead to bad feelings, which lead you to reconstruct bad memories. However, if you purposely conjure up happier memories, you can interrupt this doom loop. Researchers have shown that asking people to think of happy things from their past can improve their mood. You can reap similar benefits in a systematic way by keeping a journal of happy memories and reviewing it when you feel down or out of control.

Look for meaning and learning in the hard parts of life. Every life contains authentic bad memories. We’re not suggesting that you try to reconstruct a past that expunges them or makes them rosy. In some cases, that would be impossible—they are just too painful. Furthermore, some terrible memories can lead us to learning and progress or keep us from repeating mistakes.

Try methodically to see how such painful memories help you learn and grow. Scholars have shown that when people reflect on difficult experiences with the explicit goal of finding meaning and improving themselves, they tend to give better advice, make better decisions, and solve problems more effectively.

In your journal, reserve a section for painful experiences, writing them down right afterward. Leave two lines below each entry. After one month, return to the journal and write in the first blank line what you learned from that bad experience in the intervening period. After six months, fill in the second line with the positives that ultimately came from it. You will be amazed at how this exercise changes your perspective on your past.

For example, say you are passed over for a promotion at work. You are understandably disappointed and hurt, and you want to either vent about it to friends or put it out of your mind. Before you do either of those things, write down “Passed over for promotion” in your journal, with the date. In a month, go back to it, and record something constructive that you learned, such as “I mostly got over the disappointment after only about five days.” Then, after six months, go back and write down something beneficial, such as “I started looking for a new job, and found one I like better.”

When it comes to our emotions, most of us have more power than we think. We don’t have to be managed by our feelings. We don’t have to hope that tomorrow will be a happy day so we can enjoy our lives, or dread our negative feelings because they will make our happiness impossible. How our emotions affect us, and our reaction to them, can be our decision.

Arthur C. Brooks is the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. Oprah Winfrey is a global media leader and philanthropist. This essay is adapted from their new book, “Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier,” which will be published on Sept. 12 by Portfolio.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.