consciousness science

Advice on Feelings, Willpower and Living in the Moment

Willpower and Feelings

Conscious life is the interplay between willpower and feelings. Your willpower is the conscious "you" which is constantly deciding what to do or to think next. Willpower always acts in the context of your feelings. Your feelings provide information, based on experience, about the relative merits of the choices that you have at each moment. The experience that feelings come from includes your own personal experience, the experience of your ancestors (encoded in the genes that specify the design of your brain), and also the "wisdom" of your parents, absorbed in your childhood, by some means not completely understood.

Which is most in charge? Your willpower, or your feelings?


Constraint and Accountability

Willpower is more constrained by feelings in the long-term than in the short-term. For example, consider a diet. A diet is an exercise in willpower, and involves ignoring feelings of hunger. A diet of one meal is easy. A diet of one day is not too hard. A diet that lasts a year is almost impossible.

Diets are a favourite subject of New Year's resolutions. But New Year's resolutions don't last very well, and they almost always fail before the next New Year comes.

If we can understand both how and why feelings constrain willpower, we can understand the false assumptions that motivate our persistent attempts to "control" our own behaviour beyond the limits that it wants to be controlled.

Feelings constrain willpower, but they don't do so just to limit willpower, they act to hold willpower accountable. Feelings constitute advice about what is probably the best thing to do next. Willpower always has the freedom to ignore the advice, but, and this is the big "but", it is held accountable for any decision to ignore that advice.

This accountability comes into play if the consequences of a decision go all wrong. If willpower made a decision against feelings, and that decision was a bad decision, then willpower must be held accountable for that failure. If the decision was made with rather than against feelings, then it is the feelings themselves that will be held responsible.

The accountability is why "you" (your willpower) must "listen to your feelings". Not because they are always right (though sometimes they are more right than you might expect), but because "you" will be held accountable for any decision "you" make which ignores those feelings.

On the bright side, if a decision goes right, and the result is better than would have been expected without the decision, then your willpower will be credited with a "reward". The reward causes the strategy that willpower used to make the decision to become (at least partly) incorporated into your feelings, so that next time the same decision can be made more easily. The reward also allows willpower to have less "slack", i.e. a temporarily greater freedom to make more decisions against feelings (to see if there is "more where that came from").

Living in the Moment

What does it mean to "live in the moment"? Your willpower is held accountable for acting with or against your feelings, at the moment the decision is made. This is the critical concept of the "moment".

There is a tendency for the "will" to adopt a life strategy that is independent of the variations that occur in feelings from one time to another. If feelings did not change much, or only changed very slowly, then the "moment" would not matter, and instead of "living in the moment", we could just "live". But, for any number of reasons, feelings do change from moment to moment. For some people they change more than for others, and perhaps it is this group of people who have more reason to take the kind of advice being given here.

A simple example of a feeling that changes is hunger. We feel hungry before we eat. After we have eaten, we might not feel hungry at all. A decision to diet may be based on feelings about the consequences of being too fat, and these feelings may be relatively constant. But the constant feelings in favour of the diet are in conflict with the varying feelings of hunger, which leads to the on-again off-again nature of the diet.

The primary error, of not living in the moment, is to act as if your willpower is held accountable for feelings at some moment other than the moment that a decision is being made. If might seem reasonable to account for future feelings, especially as many of our feelings are themselves feelings about expectations of the future, but this is not how the system works.

How the system does work is that you are expected to make decisions now about the future, in the context of the feelings that you have now about the future, not in the context of the feelings that you might expect to have when that future comes.

Example: The Diet

So how does this apply to a diet?

So what is the correct "living in the moment" approach? The correct approach is to have feelings about the desirability of not being overweight, and to have feelings of hunger when you are hungry, and to only ever expect to make decisions in the context of the feelings you have at the times those decisions are being made. So:

If we could somehow "even out" our feelings, then they would become more constant, and we could avoid the requirement to live in the moment, and our life strategies would become simpler. But our feelings cannot be forcibly evened out, because they are what they are when they are. If you are on an attempted diet, it might seem more "rational" to feel bad about over-eating before you do it, but the cruel torture of the diet is that most of the bad feelings come after the eating, when it is apparently too late.

There is, however, always a next time. You can't decide now to keep to your diet next time, but if your allow yourself to feel badly about over-eating on one occasion, these bad feelings will persist, and they will reduce your enthusiasm for eating too much in the future. It may be that the diet "yo-yo" cannot be completely suppressed, but if you allow yourself to feel your feelings at all times, then those feelings will persist enough that the yo-yo will flatten itself a little. Exactly how much will flatten itself? Probably enough to achieve a somewhat stable equilibrium – knowing that at each moment you are making a decision consistent with the feelings that you have at that moment. You may or may not lose weight, but your weight concerns will probably have some effect on your eating habits, and, what is important, you will not be constantly bouncing back and forth between "beating yourself up" about not being on a diet when you think you should be and "indulging" yourself by breaking a diet that you are supposedly on.

Another Example: Procrastination

Procrastination is another of those problems that can be "cured" by the application of willpower. As in the case of dieting, it involves interactions between feelings at different times – before, during and after performing a task that has to be done by some deadline – and there is an assumption that decisions at one time can or should be made in the context of feelings experienced at a different time:

The "living in the moment" solution is to respond to your feelings at all times. Before the task is started, allow yourself to feel anxiety about the possibility of not completing it in time. As this anxiety mounts, at some point the path of least resistance to your feelings is to start doing something about the task. However, do not assume that starting the task means that you will immediately complete it. Let your anxiety drive you to start doing it, but if stress (or plain exhaustion) builds up to the point where you do not wish to continue, then listen to your feelings and stop. Eventually, at some later time, anxiety will build up again, and you will be driven to start again. The very fact of allowing yourself not to complete tasks in one go will take some of the edge off the feelings that you have about not wanting to start in the first place.

And if, after all that, you still don't complete the task on time, allow yourself to feel how badly you feel about the fact that you didn't complete it on time, and how you feel about the consequences of that failure. You will find that those feelings will create a natural motivation to do better next time such a task comes up.

General Application

The principles explained with these two examples can be applied to other problems of the kind where the solution appears to be the application of willpower. Typical symptoms of such problems are:

The "solution" to such problems is not to attempt to "control" behaviour at one time based on a decision made at some earlier time, but rather to treat the problem within each moment as a decision as to what behaviour is most compatible with the feelings you are having at that moment. Use of willpower should be limited to those situations where your conscious "self" has strong reason to believe that your feelings are wrong about something, and therefore should be ignored temporarily.

Some Metaphors