Asymmetric emotions

[A] discovery of psychology is that the emotions are asymmetric, with the negative more powerful and long lasting than the positive. Schopenhauer also understood this: ‘the weakness of wellbeing and happiness, in contrast to the strength of pain’. The positive emotions are capricious day-trippers, but the negative emotions are imperialists – determined to invade, overwhelm, occupy and subjugate. And the key to imperialism is to get the natives to do your dirty work. Think of how anger possesses the entire being, feeding itself in every possible way, forcing the intelligence to create justifications and the memory to resurrect ancient grievances. Whereas the positive emotions are butterflies that flit through, alight briefly and fly off. And there is an equivalent imbalance in the eye of the beholder. We tend to forget favours quickly, but remember dirty tricks forever. This is one of the problems of marriage – it takes a huge amount of good behaviour to make up for one slip. It is easy to sin but a bitch to atone. Jonathan Haidt extends the principle to finance and gambling by explaining that the pleasure of gaining a sum of money is less intense than the pain of losing the same amount. Bad is always stronger than good. But Shakespeare was on to this long ago: “Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues we write in water”.

This explains why anxiety and depression can so easily become chronic. They occupy the mind and convince it to support the feelings with negative thoughts. The psychologist Aaron Beck identified an unholy trinity of views common to many depressives: “I’m no good”; “The world is bleak”; “My future is hopeless”. And supporting this trinity of general views is a quartet of negative reactions to specific situations:

  • personalization (blaming yourself for accidents or bad luck);
  • overgeneralization (believing yourself to be always the victim of terrible events);
  • magnification (exaggerating adverse effects); and
  • arbitrary inference (drawing negative conclusions without evidence).

Beck then developed Cognitive Therapy, which trains sufferers to identify such thoughts, write them down and classify them as bullying by one of the Gang of Four – psychology’s version of the Buddhist and Freudian techniques for achieving transformation by understanding.

Michael Foley: The Age of Absurdity p.60-61

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