Do our emotions rule us or do we control them? Do the emotions produced by others rule us unintentionally? Are we victims of our story or the authors?

I’ve come to believe that our quality of life is driven by a positive viewpoint, created through intentional positivity in each and every day. How our emotions and those of the people around us can contribute to that positivity or rob us of it is essential to understand.

The Raw Power of Emotion

My mind often returns to a presentation I witnessed not too long ago by an author and speaker named Joel Zeff. A Midwestern resident with an outward persona and pedigree much like my own, Zeff uses humor and improvisation with his audiences to drive home the point that emotions abound outside of conscious thought. Zeff asks members of his audience to join him on stage and act out emotions that he assigns them. A group of four, selected randomly, transition from anger to love, to worry and then to happiness with ease at his prompting. The volunteers quickly come to life, thinking on their feet and viscerally engaging with the “moment” at hand to reveal their interpretations of the emotion assigned to them. They “relive” emotions and recreate them before our eyes through his suggestion.

The changes in mood this exercise causes throughout the room are incredible to witness. As the volunteers instantaneously “create” the emotions they are assigned, the audience immediately empathizes, experiencing for themselves the emotions they are witnessing in the volunteers. This group experience of emotion occurs naturally, a function of the “mirror neurons” in our brains. We reflect the emotions we witness like a mirror reflects light.

Changing the Temperature

The lesson learned from Zeff’s experiment is clear. We can and do change the atmosphere with the emotions we emit into our living space and we are profoundly, energetically affected by the thoughts and feelings we bring to any given situation. Zeff’s role-play awakens us to the power of the emotions we regularly encounter from ourselves and others. The lightning-fast transition between these emotions highlights how completely our mood can and does swing due to the influence of others.

Have you ever felt the virtual temperature of the room change when people carrying their respective attitudes come on the scene? For instance, the laughter in a room of children that instantly reverts to fear or worry when an adult arrives to discipline them for making noise? Such discipline apparently is delivered in an effort to provide a life lesson that fear is the proper emotion when an adult is in their company. Fear, which engenders some strange notion that they are earning their way into adulthood by tamping down their natural joy.

We all learn to police our emotions as we grow. Men in particular are trained to deny these emotions, even though the chemicals that create them flow freely regardless of conscious denial. Our emotions, completely separate from our brain, have memory! We relive the emotional past, on cue, when events similar to those that sparked the original emotion are presented. The neural chemistry harkens and the same juices that flowed the first time, flow again and we can be haunted or elated by this past chemistry recurring.  Past emotional experiences are ‘imprinted’ in our emotional memory.

It only takes 1/1,000 of a second for certain emotions to form in our being. Which emotional chemicals would you guess form more quickly, the emotions for fear or joy? You got it, fear trumps joy on the speed chart!! Knowing this, how can we help the positive emotions win?

Recognize Their Role

In order to harness the power of our emotions, we must “acknowledge” them. We must recognize them and choose either to give them power (in the case of joy, happiness, or love), or to deny their hold on us (in the case of fear, anger, or hatred). It’s just like the Native American proverb that speaks of the “two wolves” inside each of us, one full of darkness, one full of light. Which wolf is strongest? The answer is always “the one we feed.”

If we acknowledge the awesome power of our emotions in our lives, we can make a conscious decision whether to give in to the habits formed in our emotional memory or to make another choice. Instead of meeting the noisy children with annoyance or anger, perhaps we can choose to join in the fun. Instead of allowing the fear that surrounds us to guide our decisions, we can choose to set it aside and respond with peace.

Which Wolf Do You Feed?

A little bit of neuroscience goes a long way. Zeff’s roleplay reveals the awesome power of emotions and their split second capacity to shift in us. Recognizing their capacity to “rule” our lives is essential to re-wiring our neurochemistry. I, for one, try to form habits that feed the light wolf!

Joel Zeff’s work reveals the power of our emotions and their ripple effect on our environment. What kind of ripples do you want to create?