Emotional nutrition. Last night, I thought about the power we have over what we feed our emotions. Here is the backstory.

Last Night’s Emotional Nutrition

TRIUMPH. She had decided that deafness would not define her future. From the ashes of losing the life she’d always imagined, she would rebuild something different.

I watched America’s Got Talent – which is exactly what it sounds like, a talent competition. The last contestant, Mandy Harvey, lost her hearing as a young adult. She re-trained herself to play the violin and to sing without auditory feedback. During her pre-performance interview, this is what she said.

“Whatever happens, I feel good because I showed up.” She went on to perform an original song called “Try.” When the judges asked her about its meaning, she spoke about accepting that her life would not the be the one that she had always imagined. She spoke about losing her dreams. Ms. Harvey said that she actively made a decision to build something different instead of focusing only on the loss. She chose to try.

The audience cried. I cried.  I felt grateful, motivated, humbled, and deeply connected to the best part of humanity.

The Alternative Emotional Nutrition

Compare this reaction to the way I may have felt if I had watched the news for an hour.

The news currently contains about six topics. If you watch for the pattern, you can predict what will be on the news each evening without ever watching it. For Arizona, one can reasonably expect that:

  • There will be political coverage of something upsetting and controversial that will cause fear about the nation’s survival.
  • There was a terrorist attack or bombing somewhere.
  • A murder occurred—often at a house, with a homicide/suicide combination.
  • There was a hit-and-run accident or someone drove the wrong way on the freeway.
  • There was a fire.
  • A case of either child abuse or animal abuse occurred and was discussed in graphic detail.

And there we have it, ladies and gentleman–murder, fire, accidents, abuse, terrorism and politics. Now how do you feel compared to the way you felt when you read the first paragraph of this article?

At a logical level, we understand that the news is statistically inaccurate, such that it covers only the OUTLIERS of what happens in humanity—the 1% or 5% of everything that is wrong with the world. At an emotional level, we perceive that these events are much more common than they actually are. Thus, the consumption builds a sense of underlying anxiety – the world is a dangerous place and it’s just a matter of time before something bad happens to us.

Could something bad happen? Absolutely. Statistically speaking, I’m not any more special than the next person. Having said that, we all fall victim to a common logical fallacy called the availability heuristic.

The Availability Heuristic

This is a rule of thumb that we use as a cognitive short-cut to derive truth. We perceive the frequency or prevalence of an occurrence based on how quickly we identify examples of it. For example, when seat belts in cars became popular, people argued against them by citing 3 examples of people who would have been “cut in half” by wearing them in an accident. The opponents of seat belts ignored the statistics and focused on the personal examples they had encountered.  The faster and more numerous our examples, the more we assume truth without statistical evidence. Thus, if we hear negative information all day via news or conversations with others, our brains quickly draw from these examples to determine if the world is a safe place. The swift retrieval of multiple negative examples creates our truth that the world is scary.

The consequences of this “truth” emotional nutrition include:

  • Sleep disruption
  • Increased worry or anxiety
  • Distraction
  • Energy-sucking conversations with other people about the negative information
  • Losing energy to act on what we can control because we’ve just wasted it on things outside of our control.

Occasionally, people will argue – “but I need to know what’s going on in the world.” Unless you are living under a rock, literally, you can get the basic information by scanning the headlines for 5 minutes. This strategy provides the information without the emotional distress caused by reading or viewing all of the details. Furthermore, if you are around more than 5 people each day, you will hear someone else talking about the “big” news, thus giving you the option of remaining aware of the headlines while reducing your personal consumption.

Choosing Emotional Nutrition

Your choice. Which will you consume? The examples of human triumph or the examples of destruction? What will you focus on? How do you want to view the world? What information will you allow into your mind?

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. Neither wolf wants to back down or give quarter. They are equally strong and equally dominating. The frightening thing is that either of them can win.” 

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”