A month ago, I wanted to get a few items from Amazon. Before I knew it, I’d spent two hours and several hundred dollars on things that I didn’t need.
A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from an angry subscriber who went on to insult my ideas, writing style and wanted to know why I’d been sending him my newsletter. Before I could stop myself, I’d fired back an unsavoury e-mail telling him what I thought of his attack and proof of him subscribing voluntarily.
A few days ago, I got stressed at work, like really stressed. So I found myself parked in front of Blanche’s cake shop, buying a few slices of her cheese pound cake. Before I knew it, I’d devoured it in seconds.
How many times have we found ourselves in these situations? We know what we are doing is wrong and not right for us but we continue to do it anyway.
We lack the self-control to stop ourselves. Also, what makes it worse is that we feel guilty for acting weakly and judge ourselves harshly.
I knew I shouldn’t have binged on the cake. I knew I shouldn’t reply to an angry e-mail or fritter away my money on things that were not needed.
And yet I succumbed to all my desires and felt terrible afterwards.
We all like to believe that our rational mind is in control. But the reality is that, it is not.
The reason often comes out second best to our emotional triggers. These ingrained and hidden feelings are more powerful than we think, like dormant volcanoes waiting to erupt.
The Elephant, rider
Jonathan David Haidt is a world-renowned social psychologist. He found that gut feelings (like disgust in his experiment) influence our reason much more than the other way around for his dissertation. He would later come up with the now-famous analogy of the Elephant and the Rider.
The Elephant, for Haidt, is the mind’s many automatic, involuntary processes (emotional triggers); the Rider is the mind’s controlled, voluntary processes(rational).
He didn’t choose a horse, as riders mostly can handle a horse. However, an elephant is intelligent but hard to control, especially when it wants to act in a way that the rider disagrees with.
Most of the time, the elephant is obedient, but if something triggers it, there is no way anyone can control it.
The elephant in Haidt’s example is our brain’s limbic system which controls our emotions. Its mission for us is to survive, produce offspring and win in the natural selection game.
Nothing else matters to it. That’s why competition, prestige and our basic needs are wired into our emotions as desires.
Our emotional brains are ancient. But they help us survive and ride through our evolutionary journey. In contrast, the rational brain is the newer one preoccupied with logic, reason, imagination, creativity etc., – all the ingredients for the good life.
To live a life of contentment (as I keep professing) is not high on the elephant’s priority list. So when it comes to direct competition between the emotional mind to preserve survival or the rational mind to pursue happiness. Emotions win nearly every time.
Haidt writes, “we continue to strive, all the while doing things that help us win at the game of life. Always wanting more than we have, we run and run and run, like hamsters on a wheel”.
Little wonder that many of us are stuck on the ‘hedonic treadmill,’ chasing our desires when our emotions are invoked.
So, what can we do to overcome the Elephant’s emotional desires?
a) Recognise that it is always the journey that matters and not the destination.
We are goal-setting machines, and without knowing it, we quickly replace an achieved goal with another to satiate the elephant’s hunger for instant gratification.
However, the rider has the ability to think strategically, plan and think beyond the moment. So when we align both the elephant and rider, then we can create a long-term plan with milestones in between to celebrate.
“Here’s the trick with reinforcement: it works best when it comes seconds—not minutes or hours—after the behaviour,” writes Haidt. The elephant “feels pleasure whenever it takes a step in the right direction”.
Looking back at the half-marathon I ran in 2014; it wasn’t when I crossed the finish line that I felt this sudden onset of contentment. Instead, I felt only a brief moment of excitement.
Still, it was the same kind of excitement I felt during different stages of my training; the first 10k I finished, the long Sunday runs, the ice baths afterwards and the buzz of completing my weekly training schedule.
b) Create an environment for the elephant where both its needs and that of the rider are more closely aligned
Haidt says, “Life is about training and educating the elephant and the rider and getting them to work together in harmony”.
The environment we need to create should include the below ingredients:
• We should have adequate health and income. In other words, we do not have to worry about whether to die or starve. That way, we don’t find ourselves in stressful situations where our sympathetic nervous system is triggered.
• We must strive to have some semblance of control over our lives and not be at the mercy of other people and others’ circumstances. Reflection and planning ahead go a long way to ensure that that happens.
• We must build a trusting social environment around ourselves where friends and family support us. Many studies have already proved that connection with people is the foundation of human well-being.
We can overcome our emotional obstacles when we finally accept that we can’t always control the elephant in us and instead create the right environment for the elephant not to act out.
What emotional triggers do you struggle with, and how could you remove them from your life?
I’m starting with the obvious. I’m avoiding the cake shop.