Human beings are creatures of habit. Often working on an automatic pilot in response to various triggers that we come across throughout the day. And whilst these triggers could include walking past a cafe selling tasty treats, or the sound alert on our phone, they can also come from within our mind, even in the absence of any external prompt. More specifically, these habit triggers can arise from our emotional state.
Driving behaviour with emotion
Our emotions are incredible drivers of our behaviour. Usually without us even realising. Throughout the day our mind is in a state of continual emotional flux. We have a background mood state which ebbs and flows. This is then interspersed with emotional peaks and troughs which are often caused by events which happen to us momentarily - for example when we receive some good or bad news over email or social messenger.
Negative state dominate
And, as you might expect from an evolutionary perspective, it is our negative emotions which are especially powerful in driving our behaviour. This includes those emotions which are considered to be more “basic”, such as fear, anxiety or anger. But equally important are other negative states of mind that we all experience from time to time, perhaps even many times a day. States like boredom, tiredness, loneliness, feeling powerless, indecisive, dissatisfied, confused, inferior, discouraged or a bit lost.
Often when you fall into one of these negative states of mind, your brain tries to come up with ways to “solve” them. To bring you back to a more positive baseline. And one trick it has up its sleeve to do this is to get you to do something that creates a “reward”. Some pleasurable experience that makes you feel better.
And this is why feeling low can trigger habitual behaviours. Because your brain knows from experience (it’s a habit after all) that when you carry out that particular behaviour, you get a reward of some kind.
Rewards don’t have to be tangible
This concept of a “reward” doesn’t just necessarily mean food, money, or something tangible. It can mean many different things. And what is rewarding to one person may differ from the next. Less obvious types of reward can be social rewards, such as being thanked or complemented by a colleague for something you have done. Feeding your brain with the kind of information that it finds interesting (via a conversation, book, magazine or website for example), or even doing something that helps create a sense of personal self-achievement (e.g. running a personal best).
All of these examples (and there are many others) provide your brain with a satisfying “reward”, linked to activation of the dopamine system, which provides you with that much needed pick me up to help recover your mood - to remove the pain.
Automatic patterns of behaviour
But because habits are automatically triggered and carried out without much involvement of our frontal “thinking” lobe, we don’t always notice these patterns of behaviour, these links between our changing emotional state and our behavioural choices. And whilst some of these choices are good for our health, well-being or career success, others are more destructive to us. Well known examples include people eating more than they should when they are sad, or people gambling when they are bored. But everyone has their equivalent, however big or small.
Boosting awareness of your emotion-driven habits
So over the next week or so, try and be more aware of how your emotions are driving the habitual behaviours of your life. Maybe even create yourself a chart where you list the emotions in one column and then write notes next to each one when you find yourself doing a habitual behaviour to try and “solve” the emotion. Then why not give the behaviour a mark out of 10 according to whether it is good for you and your career, or not.
In other words, take the behaviour off automatic pilot for a moment and back in the hands of your frontal lobe to evaluate what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what consequences (good and bad) is it having on your life. You can, therefore, start to see where you have habits that you might want to redesign.
And whilst you can’t always change the emotional triggers (we are all human after all), you can perhaps start to can change any behaviours that might be mapped onto your different triggers.
Slowly weeding out the bad ones.
And steadily replacing them with better alternatives.