In this essay, I propose a system to help understand our emotional nature, and use it correctly to gauge decisions and options that empower you to be more of who you are.
In a hurry? Read the digest version.
In a previous article, I discussed that the basis of all desires is to be who you are.
Now, that seems obvious, dosn’t it? I mean, who doesn’t want to be who he/she is?
But in reality, a lot of us make decisions that are not inline with Who-We-Are. We desire things, actions, experience, and relationships that not only fail to allow us to be Who-We-Are, but they actually make us to be less so.
For example, I used to hang out with some people I didn’t feel comfortable with. They were not the type of people with whom I “felt myself.” Why did I keep their company? Because they were musicians, and I thought that being friends with them was good for me. They were not mean or unfriendly, don’t get me wrong. But did I trust them, or enjoy their company? Sadly, the answer is no — and it wasn’t their fault.
Most people do many things that they believe they should. But it always leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. It somehow doesn’t add up, but you continue to tell yourself that that is something you should do. It usually is to achieve some ulterior goals — to be accepted or to make money or to be prepared for future.
Two Schools of Thoughts
It gets even more confusing because some of these poor-aftertaste acts nevertheless feel somewhat good while you’re doing them. It’s often after the act is finished that you seem to notice your true reaction to what you just did. Some schools of thoughts advocate, therefore, that one must not use their feelings as the basis of their decisions. Don’t follow your feelings, because they are untrustworthy.
On the other hand, other schools advocate “follow your bliss.” All you need to do is to follow your good feelings. Do whatever feels good to you. That sounds wonderfully simple and easy, but doesn’t that get us in trouble with the aforementioned feel-good-now-but-bad-later scenarios?
Two Levels of Feelings
Both sides have good points, but it turns out, the truth is a bit more complex.
It appears that there are two levels to our feelings. For example, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “gut feeling.” A gut feeling usually refers to a deep and strong feeling. But what makes a feeling a gut feeling?
I know that at least with me, these two levels of feelings are physically felt in two different locations. They don’t call the deeper one “gut feeling” for nothing — as I do feel them in my abdomen area. On the other hand, non-gut feeling is something I feel in mostly in my head.
The description of shallow vs. deep seems apt here, as they do have different levels of impacts. For the sake of discussion, l’m going to simply assign them levels:
- Level 1 feeling: temporary, immediate, felt in my mind or in my head
- Level 2 “gut” feeling: persistent, slow, felt in my stomach
Problems with Established Approaches
What confused me with the notion of using any feelings as basis of judgment is that there seems to be conflicting evidences. “Follow your bliss” sounded too impulsive to be true all the time. Does that mean we should eat whatever food we want, whenever we want, because it tastes good? Or sit around watching TV all day, because it’s entertaining? No, I don’t consider that to be “bliss,” at least for myself. But I can’t deny that the idea sounds good to me.
Plus, the things I considered worthwhile in life always challenged me deeply. They felt fulfilling, but sometimes they don’t feel that great while I was doing it. I went though some very hard times while recording my 1st rock album, for example. Similarly, I wondered about people who run marathon or triathlon — challenges that are so great that they can physically hurt you. Weight lifting isn’t a walk in the park, either. You are challenging your muscles to the point of breaking a little, so it can grow back stronger. But the process involves pain and discomfort.
All growth involves some level of strain. All worthwhile pursuits involve challenges. But is that bliss?
On the other hand, ignoring our feelings all together and doing what we should do all the time was what got me in trouble with too much emphasis on results and not enough on the path. I was constantly sacrificing here and now for my future, never having fun, never feeling fulfilled — and the future remained squarely that: a future. It never became today. I couldn’t sustain myself with this approach, as I was constantly running out of fuel. I’ve been enjoying myself much better since I stopped doing everything I should and I focused on things I want.
Which Feelings Do We Trust?
Understanding the basis of all desires was the one unlocked this conundrum.
Our deepest desire is to be Who-We-Are. From our core identity flows our values — values, which when adhered, feel good to us. To be exact, living in line with our values, which allows us to be more of Who-We-Are, produces positive level 2 feeling. I would now call this Satisfaction. “Follow your bliss” was not such a bad advise after all — for actions that allow us to be who we are leave a deeper sense of fulfillment and relief afterward, even when it produces level 1 discomfort during the act itself. So in that sense “don’t follow our feeling” was also a good advise. If you seek immediate gratifications of positive level 1 feelings — which I would now call Pleasure — you risk acting against your values, and the result is you are more distant from who you are.
To sum it up, actions that get us closer to Who-We-Are always feel Satisfying to us, but not necessarily Pleasurable. To pursue Satisfaction, you may have to challenge yourself, face your fears, push through resistance, even feel momentary discomfort and pain. Some Satisfying actions are or can be Pleasurable, don’t get me wrong. Pleasure can be largely influenced by our conditioned reaction to certain stimuli or experience. In the other words, it’s possible to rescript some experience to feel like Pleasure, even when it doesn’t feel that way initially. For example, I understand that for people who challenge themselves physically — such as weight-lifters and marathoners — their physical strain may feel pleasurable.
But this much is clear: not all Pleasurable acts are Satisfying. There are many exciting, fun activities in life that provide you momentary bliss but leave you farther away from who you are.
It turns out that both schools of thoughts were right, and they weren’t contradicting. “Follow your bliss” and “Don’t follow your feeling” were referring to a different level of feelings on our emotional spectrum.
Combined, it can be summarized like this: Follow your Satisfaction, not Pleasure.
The key to fulfilling life is to seek and pursue Satisfying acts. Look for a good aftertaste, activities and pursuits that make you feel good about them afterward. These are the acts that get you closer to who you are, the ones inline with your values. Avoid impulsively following Pleasures, no matter how Pleasurable they are. For they can lead you farther away from who you are and your values.
Knowing this principle will empower you to live a satisfying, fulfilling life no matter where you are. For in any situations there is a potential to act in a way inline with your values. Satisfaction and happiness are always among your options. And now you know how to see it and choose it. Every time.