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What you see is what you do

Happiness and unhappiness, in all its forms, determines how we see the world - ourselves, others and our environment – this is why it is so powerful…

In the following few posts, I’m going to talk about how happiness is a problem. But before going there, I want to briefly review where we’ve got to so far and say a bit more about our emotions and moods and how we see the world.

In the first post, I gave a little bit of background to why I started thinking about happiness in the first place, and why I think it's important. I believe we need to stop thinking so much about what makes us happy and start asking what happiness is for. In the second post, I provided an initial answer to that question: I claimed the function of happiness and unhappiness, in all its forms, is to motivate us to predictably meet our needs for survival and connection.

In the following two posts, I expanded on this a bit, looking in more detail at our social and predictive nature. In the third post, I showed that our positive and negative emotions – which together make up what I call Surface Happiness – motivate us to meet our needs for connection and survival. In the fourth post, I showed that our positive and negative moods – which together make up what I call Underlying Happiness – motivate us to meet our needs both now and in the foreseeable future.

In this post, I want to say a little bit more about why this focus on our emotions and moods – on Surface Happiness and Underlying Happiness – is important. I believe our emotions and moods matter because they are literally how we see the world – ourselves, others, and our environment. In other words, our affective states are a form of perception, much like our other senses – of sight, touch, taste, etc. How we feel and how we see reality is the same thing.

Not only do we see the world through our emotions and moods, we feel it.

We experience our affective states in our body: physiological changes (hearts racing, guts churning); facial expressions (frowning, smiling); and behavioural tendencies (moving towards, turning away). Largely unconsciously and automatically, we see the world in an embodied way – not just recognizing it on a cognitive level, but simultaneously responding and adapting to it with our bodies. For example: a dangerous situation makes us want to fight, flee or freeze; meeting a loved one makes us widen our attention and open our posture towards them; having low energy makes us slow down and narrow our focus; and so on. In all these examples, we see the world through how it feels.

Although we often think of positive and negative emotions in this way – such as fear, disgust, pleasure, etc. – our moods have a much greater impact on how we see reality. The problem is we typically don’t realise what mood we’re in. In contrast to short, discrete bursts of emotion, our moods have a pervasive impact on what we pay attention to, how we think, and what emotions we are disposed to feel. So much so that we typically think we are simply seeing and thinking about the world as it is (“Life is hard!” or “Life is beautiful!”). This is not true: we are always seeing reality through the lens of whatever mood we are in.

There is an asymmetry here in how we tend to think about ourselves, and our own version of reality, and how we think other people. We can often read the mood of another person within moments of meeting them – it may be written on their face, the way they talk, or how they hold their body. Sometimes we see ourselves in this way, perhaps after catching our facial expression in the mirror after a long day at work, or noticing how slowly we’re walking up the stairs. But, most of the time, we don’t.

Of course, there are times when we do realise what mood we’re in, and they are mostly when we realise we’re seeing things incorrectly. We might worry about something that’s very unlikely to occur; feel angry by someone’s actions even though they didn’t know any better; and so on.

However, even at these times, our moods and emotions still tend to tell us something about the world: our affective states tell us about what is possible. The thing we are worrying about might just happen; the person we are angry at could’ve known better if they had paid more attention; and so on. Even if these judgements are relatively inaccurate representations of how things are, they nonetheless have some grounding in reality. This, along with their embodied nature, is why they are so hard to ignore.

One last thing: this connection to reality – no matter how small – is often enough for us to reasonably respond and adapt to what our moods are telling us. As an analogy, consider the early evolution of the eye. Way back in our evolutionary history, we used to have eyes that were much more like pinhole cameras than the lens-based eyes we have now. These eyes would’ve provided us with a much less accurate view of reality. Nonetheless, they still would’ve been beneficial to us – more so than not having them at all. Sure, we may have ran (or swam) away from shadows that represented no real threat. But, we also would have run away from shadows that really did represent something dangerous. Each shadow was a possible predator or prey, and that small possibility was often enough to act upon. Now, we can say the same for our moods. They may sometimes only tell us a tiny part of reality – something that may only just be possible. We can, however, get away with acting on this way of seeing reality for quite some time without realising how much of world we have failed to see.

So where does all this leave us? I have claimed that Surface Happiness and Underlying Happiness determine how we see the world – ourselves, others and our environment. Our moods, in particular, present us with a compelling picture of reality, one that we typically – and quite understandably – act upon. We do not tend to stop and think that things only seem this way because of the mood we are in. This is how what we see becomes what we do. It is why happiness and unhappiness, in all its forms, is such a powerful force in our lives.

3 suggestions for further reading:

  • Michael Brady: Emotional Insight

  • Antonio Damasio: Descartes’ Error

  • Jesse Prinz: Gut Reactions

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