Six scientifically proven ways to control your emotions
Anchors serve a useful purpose. But you wouldn’t want to be tied to one as it sunk to the bottom of the sea.
Kites are fun to fly. But they require wind to lift off the ground.
Emotions can be like anchors and kites: The low ones can drag us down and drown us. The high ones are often dependent on sources outside ourselves.
In either case, we often have little control over where they take us. It’s like we’re tied to both, and external circumstances determine whether we are dragged down or are lifted up.
But what if instead of being tied to the anchor, we could be steering the ship, using the rudder and sails to navigate the wind and waves? What if instead of being the kite waiting for the wind, we could be the wind and blow at will?
To master our lives and achieve our goals, one of the most powerful skills we can develop is the ability to consciously generate positive emotions at will.
Daniel Goleman’s research on Emotional Intelligence has been highly-popularized. But most of the focus is on how it can be used in our relationships. Specifically, these are empathy, or the ability to read and feel the emotions of others, and social skills such as proficiency in managing relationships and building networks, and an ability to find common ground and build rapport.
But there are three other aspects of Emotional Intelligence, which are equally as important, if not more so than the social aspects:
- Self-Awareness: The ability to recognize and understand personal moods and emotions and drives, as well as their effect on others.
- Self-Regulation: The ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods and adapt to changing circumstances.
- Internal Motivation: A passion to work for internal reasons that go beyond money and status — which are external rewards.
In short, together these are the ability to feel when we’re tugged by the anchor or the kite, and to be able to detach ourselves from them to generate the mood of our choosing.
In other words, rather than our emotions being caused by external forces, we can choose to cause the emotions we want.
Here are six scientifically-proven ways to do so:
My personal experience is that nothing helps me deal with stress, worry, discouragement, and negativity more than meditation.
The research backs up my personal experience. A 2012 study showed that “meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress.”
Fascinatingly, this effect was demonstrated in subjects not just during meditation sessions, but in the normal course of their daily lives. As Traci Pedersen in PsychCentral reported,
“The subjects were able to focus their attention and greatly reduce their emotional reactions. And over an eight-week period, the participants retained this ability. Even when they were not engaged in a meditative state, their emotional responses were subdued, and they experienced more compassion for others when faced with disturbing images.”
Research by Barbara Frederickson has shown that people who meditate daily experience more positive emotions that those who do not. Furthermore, three months after her experiment, subjects who meditated daily continued to display increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness.
I know of no other habit that will give you greater ability to control your emotions than daily meditation.
2. Fake it ’til you make it
The research on the positive effects of smiling is astounding.
A 30-year study at UC Berkeley, analyzing the smiles of students in yearbooks, found that people with the widest smiles in their yearbook photo experienced higher levels of happiness and well-being throughout their lives, had longer-lasting and more fulfilling marriages, and were more inspiring to others.
A study at Wayne State University examined the baseball card photos of Major League players in 1952 and discovered that the span of a player’s smile could predict the span of his life.
British researchers concluded that one smile can equal the brain-stimulating effect as up to 2,000 chocolate bars, and that smiling can be as stimulating as receiving up to 16,000 Pounds Sterling in cash (almost $27,000 in US dollars).
It’s also well-documented that smiling has therapeutic effects, including reducing stress hormone levels and increasing health and mood-enhancing hormone levels and lowering blood pressure.
But here’s where it gets really interesting: As research on the “facial feedback hypothesis” has shown, fake smiles have the same effect on our brains as real smiles. As one study showed, “smiling during brief stressors can help to reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response, regardless of whether a person actually feels happy.”
Feeling that tug of the anchor? Simply smile — even a big, fake smile — and you’ll rise to the surface.
3. Think positive thoughts
It’s just common sense that thinking positive thoughts when we’re feeling low can impact our emotions.
Science is now proving that not only can positive thinking alter our moods, it can also rewire our brains.
“Brain changes can be generated by pure mental activity…Something as seemingly insubstantial as thought has the ability to act back on the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in a way that can lead to recovery from mental illness and perhaps to a greater capacity for empathy and compassion.”
Researcher Barbara Frederickson has developed what she calls the “broaden and build” theory, based on her findings that “positive emotions broaden your sense of possibilities and open your mind, which in turn allows you to build new skills and resources that can provide value in other areas of your life,” as James Clear explained it.
Michael Otto, a professor of psychology at Boston University, says,
“The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong. Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect.”
But research is also showing that the benefits of exercise are not just short-term. As James Blumenthal, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Duke University, says,
“There’s good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people. And people who were active and stopped tend to be more depressed than those who maintain or initiate an exercise program.”
University of Bristol researchers found that people who exercise on work days are more productive, happier and suffer less stress than on non-gym days.
5. Listen to uplifting music
“Music unquestionably affects our emotions…Music also can be an effective coping strategy. We can listen to music that elicits emotions we want to feel in a given moment. If we feel lazy and unmotivated, maybe a playlist of uptempo, energetic songs would be a helpful way to change our mood. It could be interesting to create playlists based on various emotions so they’re within reach as desired.”
This is where your personal “Inspirational Library” is critical.
6. Perform anonymous acts of service
In 2010, a study of 4,500 American adults entitled “Do Good Live Well” found that forty-one percent of Americans volunteered an average of 100 hours a year. Of those who volunteered, 68 percent reported that it made them feel physically healthier; 89 percent that it “has improved my sense of well-bring” (e.g., happiness) and 73 percent that it “lowered my stress levels.”
Mark Snyder, a psychologist and head of the Center for the Study of the Individual and Society at the University of Minnesota, says,
“People who volunteer tend to have higher self-esteem, psychological well-being, and happiness. All of these things go up as their feelings of social connectedness goes up, which in reality, it does. It also improves their health and even their longevity.”
Untie yourself from the anchor of low emotions. Stop waiting for the wind of externally-induced high emotions. Use these six strategies to control your emotions and stay perpetually positive and happy.