Take a moment to think about your feelings

This post is also available in Dutch.

It’s hard to predict how we might feel in the future, but doing so is really important when it comes to making decisions. Fortunately, it is possible to learn how to more accurately predict the way you might feel.

6757406163_702a9040ce_bReally thinking about what you’re feeling can help you make better decisions.
 Judy van der Velden (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Six months ago I joined a gym. Despite working out twice a week, I still haven’t learned to realize how much I enjoy going to the gym. Whenever I’m on the train going home from work, it’s hard for me to imagine enjoying a 90 minute workout. I just don’t feel like it. In spite of how I feel, I still make myself go, and guess what? After working out, I always feel great. So why is it that even after 6 months I still haven’t learned to appreciate the things I enjoy doing?

Predicting your own feelings – a difficult task
My inability to correctly predict my own feelings is a structural defect of my brain – a so-called bias. Predicting your own feelings is affected by biases, like when I’m sitting in the train and thinking about how I won’t enjoy my workout.

Another example is at the end of a relationship. Just after a breakup, it’s hard to imagine you’ll ever feel as happy as you did before. Still, if all goes well, you’ll always be able to bounce back. It’s easier to foresee such a recovery for other people than for yourself. We always tend to overestimate the impact a breakup will have on ourselves. This is called an impact bias.

Sex without a condom
Another example is the hot-cold empathy gap. This term was introduced by George Lowenstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the US. Lowenstein wondered why smart people occasionally make foolish decisions. For example: Why do otherwise intelligent college students sometimes have sex without a condom?

His answer: when you are calm, or in a ‘cold state,’ you think and act rationally. But in an excited or ‘hot’ state your visceral drives take over. Nevertheless, even when we’re cold, it is still really difficult to predict what you’ll do when you’re hot. So even when a student responsibly puts a condom in his pocket, there’s still a likelihood that in the heat of the moment, they might not actually manage to put it on.

Observe your own mind
Impact bias and the empathy gap are symptoms of the same issue. Your current state of mind (meaning your thoughts and feelings) feels like the only state your mind is ever in. You don’t really consider your future self and how he or she will feel.

What can we do about this? According to a team of US researchers mindfulness-meditation may be the solution. An important component of mindfulness is the calm observation of your own mind. “How am I feeling right now? What am I thinking about?” This type if meditation teaches you that your emotions are temporary and manageable.

There is some evidence that mindfulness increases with age. Still, it’s a good idea to actively work on this skill. Being more aware of your own mind helps you make better predictions about how you will feel in the future, which helps you make better choices both at the gym… and in the bedroom.

This blog was written by Jeroen.

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