Here’s something that’s disturbing about humans: when it comes to our most strongly held opinions, the more strongly they’re held, the less likely there’s anything of substance underneath. Especially when they’re based on how we feel…
We’re evolved animals, and pretty much everything we experience intrinsically, is (or was, at some point) a feature. Feelings give us useful information about our environment, and stimulate us to act rapidly when we need to. Fear, for example, is great for reminding us that bears are not our friends. Likewise, we’re primed to be of use to the “tribe”, and are rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction when we do something that we “feel” is meaningful or useful (e.g., when we accomplish something). This is why we feel more content with work that we’re good at, or that provides us with opportunities for effective interaction and accomplishment, and are dissatisfied when our work is dull, repetitive, or unrelated to a worthwhile outcome – we find this very frustrating.
These “features” mean that, for most things, we’re only one-layer deep. Consciousness is a very thin veneer over unconscious systems, most of which evolved for efficiency and speed (see here, for example). Despite its limitations, however, consciousness wants to be in charge, so it makes up nice stories to explain why you made that choice (when, in reality, it was an automatic choice made by an automatic (unconscious) system). As much as we’d like to believe these fictions, they remain fictions – we’re just really good at self-delusion.
Beliefs, especially those attached to strong emotions, are the natural end-point of these fictions. Generally, we make decisions based on two groups of feelings: feeling “bad”, and not feeling “good”. When we feel “bad” we want that feeling to go away, and when we don’t feel “good” we want the “good” feeling. Our actions in seeking out this change in mood are not profound, they’re usually reactionary, overly simplistic, and seldom good for us in the long run. But they often achieve the desired result (i.e., feeling more or less of something), and are, therefore reinforcing. This makes most of our beliefs nothing more than strongly reinforced assumptions. Worse, because they “feel right”, there’s very little motivation to question them.
The danger comes when we trust our strongly held beliefs, and use them as the basis for our interactions with the world; doing so stops us from looking below the single layer and determining whether there’s anything of real substance underneath. It’s genuinely hard to look below the surface, because, for most of us, the act of looking is distressing (i.e., it makes us feel uncomfortable). Rather than experiencing the distress for what it is (effectively a system error), we’re more likely to interpret the discomfort as something being wrong. If this discomfort arises because someone questioned our beliefs, then it’s usually interpreted as an attack, and it’s a lot easier to direct the (usual) angry response outwards and blame someone else for the system error: instead of questioning my own defaults, I’m blaming you for making me feel uncomfortable – which makes you “bad” and reinforces my assumption that my belief is “good”. This is how we can bolt our self-construct to our beliefs, which, in turn, sit on very thin ice.
Having our self-construct formed on top of very shaky foundations doesn’t do us any favours: we’re unlikely to question our beliefs, no matter how thinly developed they might be; we’re more likely to attack others when our beliefs are questioned; and we’re extremely vulnerable to disillusionment if we find, for some reason, that we can no longer sustain our thin veneer of self. Feeling something does not make it right, true, or important – the stronger the feeling, and the beliefs that attach themselves to it, the more we should question – because the assumption that the perceived depth of a feeling makes a belief “right” is ironic: the stronger the feeling, the greater the chance that there is, in fact, no depth to the thinking attached to the belief. This isn’t a great structure on which to base our entire self construct.
Education is the obvious way in which we can learn to question our own lack of profundity, but it’s not infallible. The preponderance of antivaxxers with university degrees is disturbing proof that an education does not always teach us how to question our assumptions. What we’re really after is to learn the skill of metacognition: the ability to observe that we are having thoughts and feelings, and to make informed decisions independent of those thoughts or feelings. Metacognition is another way of describing mindfulness – not just the ability to be present, but the ability to notice the various distractions whilst being present, and then to choose more effective actions that align with our actual values (not just our preferences and defaults).
Metacognition is a lot easier when we’re calm, so that our myriad survival systems aren’t restricting access to higher brain functions. Stress makes it hard to obtain or maintain objectivity – an irony for modern humans who need more objectivity under stress and are very rarely able to access it. The constant feeling of dissatisfaction for many people (despite living comfortable, relatively luxurious lives) is usually the result of a set of beliefs that simply aren’t realistic, achievable, or sustainable (something that exacerbates our stress). We simply can’t be happy all the time, we will often feel uncomfortable, and the things that we hope will “fill the void” (stuff, usually) just don’t. Just learning how to slow down a bit and take a few breaths when we’re stressed is a big help (no matter how trite it sounds); it makes it easier to realise that our current state is simply an extension of our current feeling, and that that feeling is both transitory, and not nearly as important as it feels.
For this year, rather than attempting to make yourself feel better by adding more unrealistic expectations to your existing pile (see here), how about resolving to start questioning your assumptions. When you notice yourself acting based on a belief or beliefs, and especially when you find yourself angrily defending those actions, how about stopping and having a look at what’s going on. Is there actual depth to your assumptions, or are they just based on a feeling? Instead, do you need to take the time to learn more, read more widely, or talk with people who don’t just reinforce your existing views?