Our Emotions Play an Essential Role in our Decision Making and Actions. It Takes More than Willpower to Exercise Self-Discipline.

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all” — Aristotle

In the American Psychological Association's 2018 Annual Survey on Stress, people cited “lack of willpower” as the No. 1 barrier to implementing changes that would improve their lives.

The classical approach to decision making is predicated on the belief that our reason should control our lives and that we must therefore learn to silence our emotions. Overall, emotions are seen as negatively influencing our conduct, since they interfere with rational decision making. This view is precisely the one that encourages us to feel bad about things that make us feel good.

The failure of willpower alone

It took me decades to understand that "willpower and logic" are not the only tools at our disposal to resist short-term temptations and ensure our long-term success. In fact, most of our behaviors are dictated by feelings and emotions - not by willpower and rational thought - however unclear that may seem.

Willpower is doomed to failure when our decision to change a behavior is based on willpower alone. Acknowledging intellectually that we need to change our behavior, such as losing 30 pounds or running five miles before breakfast, does not change our behavior. To activate our willpower, we must work with our emotions, not against them. Unless we engage in a behavior that makes us feel good, we will not act and will eventually exhaust our willpower. Clearly, without cooperation between the "heart" and the "head", we won't get anywhere. This connection is called emotional intelligence (EQ). It does not occur naturally, but it can be learned and nurtured, notably through mindfulness. This topic will be the subject of a future blog post.

When our two brains cooperate

The workings of our minds are based on a delicate interplay between two entities that determine the way we think: the "heart", represented by the right (emotional) brain, which operates "effortlessly" on the basis of subconscious values and beliefs that influence our "gut reactions", while the "head", represented by the left (thinking) brain requires a conscious effort of objective reflection to either support or refute decisions.

The cooperation between our two brains is essential, even if they sometimes oppose each other. Our Emotional Brain generates the emotions that drive us to act, while our Thinking Brain suggests the direction of that action. The key word here is "suggests". Although the Thinking Brain has limited control over the stubborn Emotional Brain, it can influence it. By spotting early signals of latent emotional tension, the Thinking Brain can direct behavior by calling for a time-out to ponder. As Kahneman points out in his groundbreaking book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which refers to the Emotional Brain as System 1, automatic, fast, intuitive, and emotional, and the Thinking Brain as System 2, laborious, slow, deliberate, and logical: "The way to block the errors that come from System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2.”

In his book Descartes' Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes the mechanism by which emotions determine our behaviors and decisions and contends that rationality requires emotional input. To illustrate his point, he tells the story of his patient Elliott.

Elliott was a brilliant, successful and happily married businessman. Tragically, doctors discovered a brain tumor that had to be removed. He underwent neurosurgery and lost a part of his brain - the orbitofrontal cortex - a region of the frontal lobes involved in emotions. As a result, he became a true Mr. Spock, incapable of feeling any emotions. The theory is that the development of perfect rationality leads to optimized decision making, but the opposite happened. Once Elliott stopped feeling emotions, he also quit making good decisions. The problem was not a loss of intelligence - he was still in the 97th percentile for IQ - but rather a shutdown of all emotional drive. It robbed him of the ability to judge the value of one thing over another. He struggled with time management, scheduling and prioritizing tasks. As a result of his poor decisions, he lost his wife, his job and his savings. It appears that our emotions are not only valuable tools for decision making they are also essential.

Solving the problem of procrastination, and so much more

We tend to overlook the reality that most of our behaviors are dictated by feelings, not sheer willpower, discipline, information, or logic. Therefore, to change our behavior, it is imperative that we identify our emotional needs and address them. Take the example of procrastination, a problem we may face during this pandemic marked by loneliness and isolation. It is an emotional problem. The problem is not about trying to avoid work, but rather about trying to avoid negative emotions.

What can we do about it? Connect to your why.

To activate our willpower, we need to remind ourselves of the reasons for our efforts and put our hearts into them. Once we are clear on our purpose, our feelings will evolve from being a source of frustration and confusion to one of wisdom and guidance.

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