By Jeffrey M. Bowen
Do emotions control our decisions? At times they can. My first reaction to many situations is how I feel about it. I think this is only human.
Neuroscientists and other experts agree that perceptions, reactions and motivation are shaped by our emotional presets. When exposed to certain situations repetitively, we experience emotions that become habitual predispositions.
In high school I was fortunate to compete in many speech contests. Having an audience and getting positive reinforcement produced a memorable emotional high. Accordingly, I chose a career that depended on public speaking. Standing before a group, I always felt an adrenaline rush, but never fear.
On the other hand, years ago, a long period of river flooding caused a massive bridge on the Thruway to collapse without warning, drowning several families. I get a creepy feeling every time we cross that bridge.
When emotions galvanize action and are purposeful, they can be quite productive. Anger, for instance, can prompt us to join a political campaign, while love may nurture caring and forgiveness. The problem is that fears driven by negative experiences leave lasting emotional scars.
In his current best seller, “Factfulness,” Dr. Hans Rosling stunningly documents how instant news coverage sets off alarm bells. Journalists and activists typically focus on bad news. Even though reported violent crimes in this country have declined by about 6 million since 1990, the media mission to report worst-case scenarios makes us feel just the opposite.
We don’t stop to think that natural disasters, plane crashes, murders, nuclear leaks and terrorism explain only a tiny proportion of deaths annually, compared to causes dominated by diseases, infections and strokes. We confuse imminent danger with paralyzing fear.
Of course bad things happen out there, but in recent years virtually every indicator of our social, economic, physical and psychological health has dramatically improved.
Our depressing insistence that the “world is going to hell in a hand basket” stems from the fact that we persist in remaining ignorant, misremembering the past, or clinging to outdated knowledge in a world that is changing much faster than we realize. I live in the present, but my data biases are anchored in the 1950s and '60s.
We should face the reality that emotions are a big feature of life. Excessive fear can be muted by applying strategies of mindfulness and intelligence. When we realize that how we feel is more about us than anyone else, we can change the dynamic. On balance, we live in a world that is improving all the time. Let’s feel good about it.
Jeffrey Bowen, Ph.D., is a retired school superintendent and education research director. He lives in Delevan.