Our diet determines a large part of our existence. Not just physically. Is it possible to improve our lives changing the emotional diet: the thoughts we often have, the books that we read, the friends that we meet… For today I selected materials from here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Cultural aspects of emotional diet
I have a very strange perspective on emotional diet as a cultural phenomenon. As a young scientist, I used to work with scientists all over the world. My mother tongues are English, Hebrew, and Russian, and I also know several other languages to a lesser degree. People often change their behavior as they switch languages, so the native language is important to understand the cultural background. Studies show, for example, a Japanese speaker might bow when speaking over the phone, but only when he speaks Japanese.
In Russia, as a scientist, you are expected to attack and criticize everybody in other teams, but not on your own team. If you do not attack the alternative theories, this means you do not believe in your own. People can argue a lot and still be friends. In Israel, you are expected to voice your opinion, good or bad, but then to strive to some consensus within minutes. In America, you are expected to be positive and polite for as long as possible. However, if attacked and criticized, it is considered to be an act of hostility and no ammunition is spared.
Which emotional diet is better? Studies show that in spite of all challenges, Israel has lower stress levels than the US and Russia.
Stress and control
We get stressed when we need to control the situation. Our emotions are important for our survival, and stress is the way of our body to mobilize its resources. Control requires considerable focus, so when in control we are always somewhat stressed.
Dealing with open hostility requires a huge degree of control, as we need to consider several tactics and choose the most promising tactics for our success. Mastering our own self-talk and communication to produce positive thoughts and language requires a lesser degree of control. At least we need to deal with fewer factors. Open communication does not require a lot of control, it requires trust and familiarity. People who live in a small country have much more trust and familiarity then people who live in huge countries. This is probably an issue of having common friends and shared memories.
Stay out of social networks
Social networks tend to be huge and are characterized by low familiarity or trust. Quite often we do not know if we speak to a person or a robot. If we speak to a person, we cannot pass the emotional background: text messages and emojis tend to be very limiting. There is very little feedback, as we do not really know what the other people are doing when they send us their emails.
While real connections often serve to soothe us and allow us to support each other, the social networks are focused on bragging rights and filter bubble. Basically, if we have some precious experience or attack a common enemy, this will generate the maximal response. As a result, social networks increase stress and decrease satisfaction. Multiple studies link social networks with depression. Except for marketing gains, very little good comes from social networks. Other media is more balanced.
We play all sorts of games, which usually involve some degree of control and violence, yet the games are usually good for us. Most games develop strategical thinking, coordination, and teamwork. The games that succeed are built to trigger pleasure centers in our brain. Most studies do not find any correlation between violent behavior in the game and in real life. This means that no matter how violent and complex is our in-game activity, we treat it as childish fun. This can even be monitored on fMRI. We treat gameplay approximately the same way as animal cubs playing and pretending to be hunting. Also, we do not have to pretend when playing. We can be 100% percent real and authentic, verbal and informal – like if we were in the safety net of our own family.
Why literature is special
While we view social networks as an extension of our lives, and gaming as fun, literature is somewhere in-between. We choose what literature we want to read and we are very particular about it. Reading on average 3000wpm, I have to be very careful what to read, as at that speed I can hardly filter what I read. People who read slowly, often filter too much, and basically, the process of reading is time-intensive. While the new media is somewhere in the”uncanny valley”, and we treat it as semi-real and filter very effectively, the literature can pass under our reality filtering. Our critical thinking might simply never trigger when we read, either because we read too fast or because we read too slow.
Negativity in literature
In literature negativity is subtle. It tends to be dressed in stories, arguments, and facts. When there is criticism it tends to be convincing. Some literature is intended to be controversial, like satirical writing and dark humor. If we do not read about recent history and current events including politics and finances, we are not very good citizens and cannot navigate democracy effectively. But if we do read about that, we might get dark and cynical.
Clearly [for me], the controversial reading should not be the main dish in our information diet, since it is too spicy. We can read neutral scientific articles, escapist science fiction or feel-good stories. This is not the tricky part.
Where do we find self-improvement literature? It is typically something else in disguise. The author is a scientist trying to show his latest discovery, a preacher asking you to live a better life, a salesman selling his product, a teacher explaining to you about yourself and more. Probably he is all of the above. Some aspects should be addressed scientifically with fact-checking, some should be addressed morally for the values of the person and his motives, and some should be tried to see if they help in real life. Often we can internalize the position of the author and discuss with that imaginary author figure like with a real person. With people, we tend to be critical as a part of our nature.
Toxic and helpful people
In real life, people are complex. Sometimes they tend to be helpful, insightful and empathetic, and then they can become toxic in another environment. If the person is primarily toxic, we probably know how to keep our guards. However, when we see the toxic elements of otherwise great human being, we cannot help being confused. Since all media is written by people, let us see why certain people become toxic.
Addicted to criticism
We want to reduce the amount of control to feel less stressed. Then when we do not like something, we immediately talk about it. As we criticize someone we often reduce the status of that person with respect to our own. We feel better about ourselves this way. After all, we are not that stupid to do something like that… Being criticized also has its perks, as we can renounce responsibility. I tried my best, failed, now I can stop trying… Then, there is a wave of righteous anger, which is emotionally intoxicating. This is game families often play. Spouses criticize each other, parents criticize children… All of us occasionally criticize ourselves in the self-talk. For some reason [I do not know the evolutionary motivation], this can get addictive.
Accepting criticism is hard. We can get resentful, or give up responsibility. The right response would include keeping the defense mechanisms in check and addressing various aspects of the criticism: the actual things that need to be done, the emotional background of the event, the critic’s perspective. Then we should look for alternative solutions and devise an action plan. The correct response is rarely our automatic response unless we trained this specifically for years. Probably we need to distance ourselves from the criticism for a while before we can respond to it properly.
Self-criticism should be less tolerated. Being hard on yourself does not make you a better person. Possibly being empathic to yourself is a better position. This can be improved using visualization and positive self-talk. We should not internalize people as role models in their worst moments but in their best moments and roles. Quite often we disappoint ourselves not because we do not try hard, but because our original expectations are not realistic.
Having a grudge is an awful barrier. At some point, we suppress and stop noticing the stuff we disagree with and our world becomes poorer. Alternatively, we might be drawn into an argument we do not need, and it will rob us of our time and inner peace. Typically there is very little justification for that. If we are disgusted or frightened by a certain behavior or feel that we had enough we can usually get a timeout. When we feel we were left-out or robbed of something, bitterness will not help and acceptance is the proper approach. Envy can be toxic, and it may drive you to ask yourself very uneasy questions. This is not the place to discuss handling grudges, but there are certainly several viable and more effective alternative.
In the case of trouble, you can always go back to your values. What makes you tick? Which truths define you? So you faile, but at least you tried, right? Mindfulness is more than meditation, it is the awe that we feel when seeing the things that transcend us, big and small. As a part of our emotional diet, we should probably travel or meditate, or listen to music and experience awe.