We Really Only Ever Experience One Emotion
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After a longer meditation session the other day, a simple thought came to mind: every emotion we experience—fear, surprise, worry, courage, and happiness included—are really just one emotion: excitement.
We look to what we’re experiencing to explain why our mind is agitated in some way, and that informs how we think about our excitement. If your mind is excited because of an argument with your partner, you label that excitement as anger. If your mind is excited because you’re about to open a gift, you label that excitement as anticipation. If your mind is excited because you’re about to give a speech in front of 300 people, you might label that excitement as fear.
These feelings can turn on a dime when circumstances change. Your anger becomes compassion when your partner suddenly realizes they’re wrong about an argument, and offers to pour you a glass of wine. Your anticipation turns to frustration once you realize you’ve been gifted a vacuum cleaner, instead of the iPad Pro you’ve been hinting at for months. Your anxiety turns to triumph when your talk gets a standing ovation.
This is a simple idea, but one with practical implications. Let’s go back to that example of giving a speech. If you’re nervous, one of the best ways to help your performance is to relabel your anxiety as excitement. A recent study conducted by Alison Wood Brooks at the Harvard Business School found that this idea really works in practice. In her study, Brooks asked participants who were about to give a high-pressure speech to think of their anxiety as excitement. What she discovered was remarkable: participants who did this were seen as more persuasive, competent, and confident when they spoke, compared to those participants who anxiously told themselves to calm down.
This idea works in other circumstances. If you get scared when a plane hits turbulence, find ways to get excited about the wild ride. If you’re nervous before an exam, re-categorize that emotion as your mind getting excited about you finishing the course. If your mind is annoyed because one bad thing keeps following another, relabel your frustration as amusement, and imagine yourself starring in a comedy, not a tragedy.
This same idea also works if you have a meditation practice, something I write about often on this site. The easiest (and often best) time to meditate is immediately after you wake up. There’s a reason for that: your mind hasn’t yet gotten excited by what’s happening that day.
If you’re going through something negative, don’t let your mind feel fearful, anxious, or angry. Instead, reframe those feelings as excitement, and construct a positive story of your own.
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