Happiness – an argument for emotion over reason

Happiness – an argument for emotion over reason

About a week ago I provided ten tips for overcoming worry one of which referred to using emotion-focused coping rather than solution-focused techniques. At some point I’ll probably write more about this but for now, I want to continue the focus on emotions in a slightly different way. As a psychologist I’m often helping people manage their emotions but I’m also often reminding them that emotions are not always bad. We live in a society that seems to respect logical and rational thinking more than emotions and although there’s much good in that we do need to be careful we don’t throw out the baby with the bath-water.

In a recent column by one of Australia’s leading economic commentators, Ross Gittins, I was reminded of one of many important functions played by human emotions. Among other things, he wrote about a very famous neuropsychology case study in which a man’s brain was damaged such that he was no longer able to experience emotions. In many ways he became a perfectly rational man, supposedly able to make just the right decisions in various situations.

Apparently, he became exceptionally good at listing a range of options and then fully weighing up all the possible consequences, pros and cons, which might eventuate. For many of us, this would seem to be a desirable way to be but there was just one problem – he frequently struggled to make a definitive decision. He would just go on and on weighing the pros and cons forever.

What can we learn from this? The lesson is that although it’s important to use logic and clear thinking to assess potential consequences, good and bad, we also need to make decisions and our decisions are rarely, if ever, going to be perfect. Accordingly, we need something to motivate us to make reasonable choices and that something is often our emotions.

Irrational decision making is not always good but the reality is, we are emotional animals and as Gittins reminded me, motivation comes from emotion. And if motivation is a good thing then emotion must be good, too. As any advertiser will tell you “reason leads to conclusions; emotion leads to action”.

But the reason for referring to this is not to spark your interest in economic decision making but to invite you to consider that there’s a pretty good chance that something similar is going on when it comes to happiness.

Logic and good decision making are vitally important but, they’ll only get us so far in the happiness game. In addition, I suggest, we need to learn to understand and appreciate all the various imperfections that go along with all the various human emotions (good and bad). If action leads to happiness then we can learn to use emotions to lead to action (which will then take us to happiness).