The Most Important Question In Psychology

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

People seek from others those things which they do not believe they possess themselves. In the realm of emotions, this causes plenty of problems. People lacking self-respect find the respect they receive from others to be of the utmost importance. People lacking self-love will go to the earth’s ends to feel someone else’s love for them. Those who feel ugliest will work the hardest to become other’s ideas of beauty.

Sadly, these are all illusions. To illustrate this fact, I ask the reader to finish this paragraph and then take a moment to perform the activity described herein. Close your eyes and think of a time when you felt outraged. As you envision that moment, allow yourself to feel the same anger. Before it gets out of control, change the vision instead to another moment when you felt loved. As before, allow yourself to feel that same feeling of love wash over you. Now take a moment to do this exercise before continuing.

If you did the exercise, you could visualize someone in your mind’s eye who angered you and someone else who made you feel loved. Upon opening your eyes, it should have been apparent that neither of those people was present. Yet, you felt the emotions of anger and love. This simple exercise should demonstrate that emotions are NOT external, nor are they derived from external sources. Every one of us is a well of emotion, which we choose to draw from based on our experiences and the lessons we learned growing up. Yet the fact remains that no one has ever “made us feel” anything. Everything we feel is due to a choice we have made, either in the present or in the past (e.g., a learned or mimicked emotional response to situational events).

In the exercise above, the first person imagined did not “make you feel angry.” The anger was likely due to a learned response or choice made in the past, a choice based on your belief that anger is the best emotion during such situations. For most people, emotions are rarely chosen during adulthood, having already been selected during childhood. The same holds for the loving scenario you envisioned. If you watch children, you can even see them practicing future emotional responses to situations. Unfortunately, these practice sessions often end up becoming engrained responses for the remainder of one’s life.

There are many problems with this method of emotional selection. Foremost is that children rarely have a correct perception of the world, having grown up with fairy tales, magic, and supernatural home invaders like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. Secondly, few adults are qualified to teach children the correct emotional responses to situations. Most adults are victims of the same childhood emotional responses they unwittingly inflict upon their children. The only recourse is to correct this problem in adulthood, a correction few adults appear willing to make. At least, that is, until the price of past emotional responses becomes too high a burden due to adult consequences of divorce, job loss, incarceration, bankruptcy, and more.

Now that we have thoroughly established that no one imposes emotional responses on anyone else and all emotions arise from within ourselves, only one question remains: What will you do with this information? Knowing at a conscious level that we can decide our feelings puts us back in the driver’s seat. Since we are driving our emotional vehicle, the question becomes, where do we want to go? Do we want to visit Misery Manor? Perhaps swing by Happiness Hill? A trip down Lover’s Lane?

Once you understand this simple fact, life becomes simultaneously more simple and more complicated. It is a straightforward premise to understand. However, the complexity comes because this simple fact opposes a lifetime of experience. We tell ourselves stories like:

  • “The only way I can get my kids to clean their room (or employees to work harder) is to yell at them until I’m red in the face!”

  • “If I drive such-and-such a car, live in such-and-such a house, have such-and-such a body, and/or make such-and-such dollars per year, THEN I will be loved/respected/envied/admired!”

  • “No one will love/trust/respect/save/etc. me if they ever found out about X.”

  • “You can’t let anyone disrespect you. If one person disrespects me, no one will ever respect me!”

  • “I would tell my husband/employees/friends/etc. how much they mean to me, but then that would make me vulnerable because they would see how much power they have over me.”

The list goes on and is very easy to write. Feel free to add in your own self-isms you find running through your inner dialogue to explain those times of high emotions we all experience. In the end, these are little more than rationalizations and justifications. The truth remains that we still select how we want to feel at every moment of every day. Even studies of severely depressed people have demonstrated that depression, while very physical and treatable with drugs, begins with our thoughts. Depression drugs are merely braces meant to allow a person some relief while they change their inner dialogue (thus resulting in more permanent physical changes too).

One of the world’s problems is that most people have either forgotten or never knew that we choose our emotions. Some of you may take umbrage to what I’ve written above, despite the scientific research and personal experiences (both mine and your own) backing it up. You may already be composing your retorts to leave in the comment section, including a litany of examples demonstrating how and why I am wrong. We finally arrive at the most important question in psychology.

Would you rather be happy, or right?

Remember this question. The next time you feel depressed, angry, upset, or otherwise inappropriately and undesirably emotional, you will undoubtedly manufacture a rationalization to explain your feelings. So the question is, “Do you want to be happy instead, or right about “why” you should feel this way?” We both know you chose, even if during childhood, to feel a certain way in certain circumstances. It’s time to make a new choice. How do you want to feel right now? What new emotion will you bring to these situations? Sometimes negative feelings are wholly warranted. I would have difficulty being joyful while homeless, in prison, or tortured. I have ended abusive friendships, professional relationships, and romances. If you don’t like negative emotion-inducing situations, what will you change in your life to prevent them from recurring? Will you change friends, spouses, jobs, neighborhoods, churches, etc.? Will you stop shopping too much, go back to school to finish your degree, or take up a new hobby? If the negative emotion is appropriate but unwanted, then its time to choose a new situation.

Everyone deserves love and respect. The truth, though, is that these sentiments come from loving and respecting ourselves. Love and respect come from within and are gifts we can furnish to no one but ourselves. We can’t fix anyone else, but we can heal ourselves. We can’t fill anyone else’s heart with the love they deserve and need, but we can fill our own hearts. And once you become the personality you choose to be and feel the emotions you choose to feel, perhaps you will take a few moments to teach a child what you have practiced and learned.