Mind Over Mood

  • 5 mins read

Mind Over Mood: 3 Paths to Better Decisions

“Our decision-making capacities are not simply “wired in,” following some evolutionary design. Choosing wisely is a learned skill, which, like any other skill, can be improved with experience.”
Reid Hastie and Robyn M. Dawes,”Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making” (SAGE Publications, 2009)
Psychologists, neuroscientists, economists and Buddhism scholars are shedding new light on how we make decisions:
We make the best choices when we acknowledge our emotions.
In Western civilization, we’re taught that the best decisions are based on logic and reason. Businesses favor data analysis – hard numbers – over any subjective input colored by emotions.
Most decisions, however, are heavily influenced by emotions, often without our awareness. The brain is prone to making errors and succumbing to biases, no matter how much data we may have. It doesn’t matter if we’re determining major corporate strategies or considering minor purchases. Without emotional influences, we’d be incapable of making any decisions.
Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, confirmed this theory when working with “Elliot,” a brain-damaged patient who was unable to process emotions. While Elliot’s IQ and mental functioning remained intact, his inability to feel emotion rendered him incapable of making any decisions.

A Self-Awareness Formula

If you want to refine your decision-making skills, you must become more aware of your:

  1. Emotions and moods
  2. Physical state
  3. Social systems and group dynamics

1. Emotions and Moods
Avoid repressing your emotions, no matter how “right” or “wrong” they appear to be. Instead, become more aware of them – and learn to manage them so you can make smarter choices.
Studies of stock traders reveal that their level of success depends on two factors: self-awareness and the ability to identify emotional biases. Sentient traders make better investments. Studies of other professionals support this finding.
Even if you’re unaware of your underlying emotions, your decisions reflect their inherent influence. Increasing your emotional awareness helps you achieve greater balance and form more reasoned decisions.

Your Mood Thermostat

Think about the last time someone at work offered feedback on your mood. Did you make adjustments, moving toward a middle ground?
Emotional awareness functions as a mood-management system, granting full access to logic and feelings. Just as your home thermostat keeps temperatures within sensible limits, turning on your emotional thermostat allows you to monitor your internal climate.
Become more emotionally fluent by actively soliciting feedback. Ask yourself how you feel, and become mindful of your moods.

Mindful Meditation

Buddhist monks practice “mindfulness,” continuously noting – but not judging – their emotions. Studies show they have highly developed emotional thermostats. When confronted with negative emotions, they immediately note them and recalibrate their responses. They effectively balance their emotions when making decisions.
A 2011 Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging study revealed that even novice meditators enjoy an increase in the brain’s grey matter, which regulates emotions.
Learn to spot, label and understand your emotions by becoming more mindful (with or without meditation). Practice detaching from your feelings and observing them without judgment. You’ll eventually learn to separate biases and distortions from the decision-making process.
2. Physical State
“In a recent study of parole decisions in Israel, the key factor that determined whether or not a judge granted parole was not the gender of the prisoner, their ethnicity, or even the severity of their crime, but whether or not the judge had eaten recently. If a prisoner came before a judge whose blood sugar was low in advance of his ten o’clock mid-morning snack of a sandwich or a piece of fruit, it was terrible timing. At such times, the accused had hardly any chance of getting parole – pretty much 0 percent.”
Noreena Hertz,”Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World” (HarperBusiness, 2013)
Your physical state has a profound impact on decision-making. A compromised state can drive you to be impulsive and impatient. Before making any decisions, take a physical inventory. Are you:

  • Functioning on adequate sleep?
  • Hungry or thirsty?
  • Stressed?
  • Experiencing fear?
  • Physically fatigued?

Conduct regular self-audits. Note how you feel before making a decision.
3. Social Systems and Group Dynamics
“If we are to make smarter decisions in our personal lives, we have to make sure that we are not unwittingly surrounding ourselves only with people like us.”
– Hertz
Group dynamics and social systems influence the quality of our decisions.
If your social network is limited, the information flow may be too narrow. Your perception of a “majority opinion” will be skewed by insufficient data.
Smarter decision-making requires exposure to diversity. If you want to develop new ideas and solve problems, break away from conventional thinking, and seek out alternative views.
Don’t dismiss contrarian attitudes. Conformity can be a major trap when you’re trying to make a sound decision.

Managing Your Decision Docket

“It’s always easy to look back at other people’s errors and say how foolish they were. It’s a much harder thing to be in the situation yourself and avoid the same mistakes.”
Zachary Shore,”Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions” (Bloomsbury USA, 2009)
Research shows we make around 10,000 decisions a day, most of them trivial and unconscious. Better decisions – the ones that really count – rely on awareness of our moods, emotions and social influences.
Take some time to assess the impact of your emotions, physical well-being and social influences on your decision-making process.

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