Life Lesson: Emotions are the essential dimension of the human experience and happiness lies in mastering this dimension.
A few weeks ago I ran a 3 day retreat at the intersection of Happiness and Leadership for 25 senior commanders in the US military. Here are 3 life-changing lessons learned…
1. Emotion is the currency of human interaction.
My friend Louis keeps a stack of flashcards.
Whenever he encounters a short, powerful idea he writes it on a card and adds it to the stack. He reviews a handful of cards every day. One card he shared with me said:
“The world is an energy mirror.”
After this weekend I’ve come to fully appreciate that phrase. In fact, I’m convinced emotional energy is the sort of “hidden dimension” of life.
Think of fish swimming in water (bit cliché, I know). Are they aware that they are in “the water”? I think not. One day an eagle sweeps over the water, grabs the fish and soars into the air, the fish somehow squirms out of the talons and falls back into the river.
And this fish is suddenly aware that he’s been surrounded by this clear, wet stuff the whole time.
Once you become aware of emotional energy you realize it permeates every interaction. It’s the water we humans swim in. What’s more – you can master it – you can learn to use it for yourself and for others.
We teach about emotional contagion. Emotions are transmitted from person to person via mirror neurons in less than a second. This transmission is even more rapid when there is a leader or clear emotional outlier in the room. The leader (even if informal role) will set the emotional weather for the group. Further, the group will tend to rise or fall to the level of the most outstanding emotional energy level of a person in the group.
More and more I recognize the importance of setting the emotional tone. For the most part, everyone is either an energizer or de-energizer in an interaction. (Hint if you aim for neutral you’re going to be a de-energizer). A great rule is the 10% rule. I aim to raise the energy level by 10% in every interaction I enter into. If you’re a speaker, teacher, or leader then this rule applies tenfold. Your energy will either fill the room or be a black hole that sucks all of it out.
Going back to the opening quote – “the world is an energy mirror”. Well, what is it mirroring? Your emotional energy!
We don’t see the world as it is but as we are. The world we believe in becomes the world we live it. Our internal mental/emotional state works with the external world to co-create our reality.
So if we want more out of life, we have to cultivate the sort of emotional energy we want reflected back to us by others and the world. We need to be a mindful of the emotional water we’re swimming in and become a positive “emotional contagion”.
Our true presence, with positive emotion, is the greatest gift we can give to the world and to those around us.
And that’s why I’m convinced that what I call “full range emotional mastery” is the key to an extraordinary life (as a leader, as a doer, as a person). That takes me to lesson #2…
2. To be extraordinary you must develop “full range emotional mastery”.
I was watching a public speaking seminar and the teacher said “remember, don’t shoot a canon at a rabbit… It’ll work, but there won’t be any rabbit when you’re done.”
The problem is most of us haven’t developed the emotional muscles to become a “canon”.
This is what I mean when I say full range emotional mastery. It’s the ability to manage one’s own emotional energy. This means, when the time is right, being able to bring it up to 11 out of 10. Now, importantly, this doesn’t mean you should be bouncing off the walls 11/10 all the time. That would make you a f--king insane person.
Rather it means having the capacity to access the full range of emotional affect and energy. Here’s a diagram. Think of positive affect and negative affect on opposite ends of on axis and high energy and low energy on the other.
High energy and positive affect equates to enthusiasm or joy whereas low energy positive affect equates to serenity or relaxation. High energy negative affect corresponds to rage and low energy negative affect corresponds to sadness or depression.
My point is that even when we’re in a pretty good place (e.g. not pissed off or depressed) most of us exist in a rather small band of emotion. As you can see in my beautiful and professionally done illustration, even for those with a strong meditation practice – we often center in on slightly positive, attentiveness. My one objection to most traditional meditation practices is that they can leave us rather underdeveloped on the upper ranges of high energy (like a great singer who struggles to hit the high notes).
So why do I bother getting into all the detail on full range emotional mastery?
Well – I’m convinced this can unlock so much in life. And I don’t just mean in the context of being “successful” or being liked. I mean in the ability to authentically reach people and bring out the best in ourselves and others.
Saturday night I had 25 top military commanders in my training room.
Try to imagine how this would look. Hold it in your mind’s eye.
Now imagine this – they’re jumping up and down. They’re cheering, high fiving, hugging, and the most badass, macho dude – a 6’4” sergeant major fireman’s carries his buddy out of the room laughing. They’re about to blow the roof off a place!
That was the sight at the end of my training on emotional intelligence. And – perhaps arrogantly – I believe this training is so impactful because, for a bunch of military leaders, that’s probably the first time in a while that a lot of these folks got such an intense experience of high energy, positive emotion. And perhaps even the first time ever they got it at work.
I have to admit that leading this part of the training was profound for me. And that experience was what led to this essay. It was an aha moment – if I can cultivate my own full range emotional mastery I can transmit it to others. I can use it mindfully to help others flourish.
So can you. So can all of us.
These upper range emotional states can seem phony or too self-help-y but I believe that having ready access to them is part of being a fully developed human being. Emotional mastery is not just some stoic Zen master always in perfect composure. It’s being able to skillfully access the incredibly wide array of energies and emotions available to the human consciousness.
That’s what makes life extraordinary.
I’m adding to my daily meditation and mind training practice – what I call one round of emotional HIIT. HIIT stands for high intensity interval training in the fitness world. Think of running a sprint versus jogging.
This inspired my mental training model. Emotional HIIT is where I spend about 1-2 minutes in the far right upper quadrant of high energy, highly positive emotion (I try to go to 11/10).
This is also a great skill to use if you’re worn out or feeling down. Basically, it’s all in the physiology. It is maybe 20% mental and 80% physical. You can’t just snap your fingers and change your state.
It’s all in your facial expression, posture, breathing, and movement. Here’s what I do. I try to “act out” feeling super energized and excited. I think of how I would greet someone I love who I haven’t seen in years. I smile wide. I pretend to laugh. I throw my arms out in excitement. I jump up and down. I go crazy for about 1 minute.
What you’ll be surprised to find is that your mind won’t know that your body is pretending. If you can master your physiology, you can master the full range of emotional energy.
3. Sharing suffering is the path to connection.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote - “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
On Saturday of the retreat we taught about the nature of suffering and dualism. We shared the ~3000 year old lesson of the “second arrow”.
Say I’m walking along and all the sudden I get an arrow in my right arm.
“AHHHHHHHH” I scream out.
Who did this? Why did they do this to me? Why me?
I have to figure out who did this. I have to get revenge. I call the police and every day I bother them about the investigation. But the detectives can’t figure it out. Every day I yell at them and ask them to do more.
I decide I’m going to figure it out myself. I spend years searching and can’t get an answer. I swear I will not stop until I get revenge. I ignore my wife, my kids, my passions until they all fade away.
Eventually I decide there is no answer. So I give up. But every time I touch my right arm. Or I drive past the spot where it happened I’m filled with anger and righteous outrage.
Now – here’s the thing about all my suffering. There was the first arrow sticking out of my arm. Yes – a lot of pain and suffering there.
But the next ten years of anger, resentment, and suffering represent the second arrow — the arrow I stuck in myself.
Suffering is inherent in the human experience. But by our personalizing it, holding onto it, and failing to accept it, we get hit with a second arrow in the same spot.
After sharing this teaching, we pushed our leaders to go deep in small groups. They shared old wounds, second arrows, and pain they were holding on to. We asked them –
“What can you let go of?”
After the exercise, the most jacked, macho, firefighter and top commander said almost with tears in his eyes “I can’t believe I just shared that with my boss”.
This process of reflection and sharing seemed to open up a feeling of sacredness and intimacy within the group.
As I think about groups of the closest, most bonded people – it seems the most powerful bonding moments were times sharing suffering. Maybe it was a hard loss as a team, maybe it was talking girl troubles with one of the guys, or maybe just going through some bullsh*t together. Maybe this part of the reason that units in the military that see combat together immediately become so close.
“A joy shared is doubled – a sorrow shared is halved”. One of the most profound paths to connecting deeply with both those we love, and even just those we interact with regularly, is to share suffering.
And if we see the suffering that others are holding onto – often below the surface – it will give us much more grace in dealing with difficult people.
Tara Brach gives the analogy that you’re out in the woods and you’re approached by a snarling, vicarious, growling dog. How do you feel?
Then you look down and see a piece of glass sticking out of the dog’s paw. Now how do you feel?
The truth is that every human being is like this dog. We all have second arrows of suffering we’re holding onto. And if we can see that in one another, we find shared suffering is the common ground of humanity.
It is never my suffering or your suffering. It is our suffering.
This essay was a little bit (lot a bit) longer than I would have liked. But I hope – as always – that the lessons I try to pull from my personal experience will serve you as you walk the path of happiness.
Suffering is universal. And by sharing our suffering we more deeply touch the truth of interconnection and common humanity’s. Everyone is suffering – even the “worst of us” are like this growling dog with glass in his paw.
The world is an energy mirror – emotions are instantly transmitted from person to person. And the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and to others is to cultivate our ability to spill our positive emotions on others by our wholehearted presence. But make no mistake – it takes the work of mental training to develop this capacity for full range emotional mastery.
As always - wishing you energy, positive emotion, and happiness. Your happiness nerd,
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