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William James (1842-1910) American philosopher and psychologist of Pragmatism and functional psychology at Harvard. The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.

William James (1842-1910)

William James (1842-1910) about the time he wrote on emotions

 

What Is an Emotion (1884) wrote: (p. 198)

A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices.

As a rule we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use.

There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.

The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.

Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.

Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.

The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.

The stream of thought flows on; but most of its segments fall into the bottomless abyss of oblivion. Of some, no memory survives the instant of their passage. Of others, it is confined to a few moments, hours or days. Others, again, leave vestiges which are indestructible, and by means of which they may be recalled as long as life endures.

“There is no more valuable precept in moral education than this, as all who have experienced know: if we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must assiduously, and in the first instance cold-bloodedly, go through the outward motions of those contrary dispositions we prefer to cultivate. The reward of persistency will infallibly come, in the fading out of the sullenness or depression, and the advent of real cheerfulness and kindliness in their stead.”

 

COMMENTS on William James

Having experimented with this method many times I found that it worked only when I could maintain my consciousness upon the intended affect but that when something became interesting my mind went to that thing and was distracted away from the attempt at personal control and never returned until much later at some random and remote time.

So I developed an additional technique. It was possible to remind myself to re-attend to the intended self-controlling behavior by having triggers to remind myself to do the self-controlled action. For example: When I go through a particular door I remember to do some particular things. I habitually apply this technique when about to close a door which I know will lock itself, as when leaving home or closing my car’s door, I place the keys in my right hand against the outside door knob before closing the door and lately as a backup plan, placing my foot just inside the door and looking at the keys to verify to myself that I have the keys placed against the door knob. That is a bit of overkill but I have been doing it as an experiment with variations for months. The only problem, so far, has been when someone comes out the door after me, because they may close the door before I can get back to it and apply my routine.

Another application of that method, which I used for decades, was when entering my coffee shop to pre-condition my emotions. I had discovered many years ago, about 1963, when meeting my longtime friends that if I was in a bad mood that they didn’t enjoy my company nor I theirs. So, perhaps after reading some William James, I applied the technique quoted above of consciously moving my demeanor into a more pleasant configuration. I would do this for a block or so when walking toward the door and by the time I arrived I was in a better mood, at least on the outside. Unfortunately, the mood was superficial and my overall sour mood would reappear unless someone else happened to generate a particularly good conversation. That frequently happened and I became addicted to that coffee shop.

A better method which took several years to surface but which worked even better than artificially manipulating my own emotions was, as I approached my destination, to think of some topic which my friends would be interested in which was relatively cheery. Then instead of trying to be cheerful myself I would try to make my friends feel better. The reason this worked better was because I could remember to do it and it was self re-enforcing. Everyone was happier and I wasn’t so gloomy as I might have been and certainly not as morose as I had been only a half hour earlier. In fact this last year several times people mentioned to me what a pleasant fellow I was and quite often when people departed they would thank me for providing them with such an interesting and pleasant conversation. I am not making that up.

Anyway, as far as I was concerned there was a strange blowback, actually an inverted blowback, because that term usually refers to getting the evil you send out coming back to injure you, the original provider, and I was intending a positive message and the blowback should have been positive but it wasn’t. What actually happened is more like the old cliché, “Give an inch and they will take a mile.” If you are too friendly, then people expect you to yield to them in every particular. If when they interrupt you in the middle of a sentence you always hesitate and let them continue, it soon trains them to interrupt when any damn thing enters their consciousness. When this happens in a conversation with several people present a person who permits these kinds of stupid interruptions out of politeness will soon be unable to complete a thought without interruption and sometime even a sentence. I had a friend until recently who was the sweetest kindest man you could ever hope to encounter. He literally wouldn’t hurt a fly and wouldn’t defend himself, in the slightest, even if attacked by a tiny old invalid. He was murdered by a miniature old lady even though he could have hurried away. But he didn’t.

My case was not nearly so extreme, just verbal abuse and not being beaten with a steel rod, but it was caused by the same type of being entirely too pleasant. Controlling our own emotions is also controlling the emotions and behavior of those around us and thus it forms all our habits and our future being.

We must defend ourselves from small abuses or they will grow larger.

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