Sunday, June 1, 2008

Why should you control your desires and emotions

When I think about human mind there are two separate sets of aspects that I am interested in. One set concerns thoughts and related process that are within your conscious control and the other is the set of emotions and desires that are not normally within your conscious control. My hypothesis is that a person will be able to lead a happier and more successful life if the conscious/thinking part of his mind is in control over all his thoughts, emotions and desires. Let us see.

There is a small ambiguity here in that I am taking about a "you" and a "your mind" here. The "you" I am going to talk about will represent the part of your mind that is concerned with the first set mentioned above. It might look funny because under this notation "you" is a subset of "your mind". Leaving aside the play of words let us take a look at the issue I would like to discuss.

Any discussion on mind and its processes would inevitably touch a lot of different areas that I am not very clear about and these are discussions primarily to get my ideas clear on the subject. There are several interesting related questions like What is mind? What is matter? How is mind related to brain? What defines "I"? Is "I" different from "my mind"? How do you define consciousness? What is ultimate happiness? What is the objective of life? - that are still not very clear to me. However I think the topic under discussion is more related to practical aspects of getting in control over your emotions and desires than the epistemological aspects of these questions.

Every person has both sets of processes within his mind. Processes that are within his conscious control and processes that are not. Any thought or action resulting from a thought where the thinking part of his mind dictates the thought or action and where the person is fully conscious of the thought or action constitutes the first set of process.

Let us look at a simple example for a process that is within a persons control. Consider myself typing this article. My mind is framing the sentences that I am going to write and then this thought invokes the necessary mechanical processes in my hand to get it into typing. This is a process that is within my control. I have to decide to think about the next sentence and then I have to think about the ways of phrasing the idea into a good sentence. Once the sentence is formed I will to have my fingers type them in. These are processes controlled consciously by the thinking organ that my mind is.

There is now a second set of processes in human mind that are not quite within the conscious control of the thinking organ. Simple examples would be emotions like sadness, anger, happiness. Desires form another class of processes in human mind that act as root causes for further thoughts, emotions and actions. Habits, memories, recollections etc are another classes where the conscious being does not really play a role.

Why did we try to classify these processes as those that are within the control of your conscious being and those that are not? The objective is to find a way for a person to be more in conscious control over his life, his actions, his thoughts, his emotions and his desires. Why does he have to be more in control? Again, to be more in control over one's life will give the person an ability to chart out a fairly predictable life and allows him to increase the probability of him achieving his goals in life.

So the premise on which we are going to build the discussion is that people would be able to increase the probability of achieving their goals in life (and that they would have goals in life) if they are able to control their actions. Yet another assumption is that achieving happiness in life is a common goal for every man and the goals in life mentioned above includes this common goal also.

All of our physical actions are dictated by our mind - either consciously or not consciously. I type - because I want to. I sit late - because I want to. I quit my job - because I wanted to. I sneeze automatically - because of an itch. My eyes well up automatically - when I become sad. I smile automatically - when I become happy. These are small examples of how our consciousness dictates our conscious actions while the rest of the mind outside of our consciousness dictates the remaining actions.

Whenever a person comes upon a situation where he has to take some action there would be two different forces working in his mind. One would be the thinking conscious part of his mind and the other would be the part constituted by his emotions, desires and memories. The stronger of these two parts would take control over the situation and biases the decision making. A person who has more control for his conscious mind would take conscious decisions whereas the opposite kind would take more impulsive/habit oriented decisions.

If our actions are controlled by our consciousness then we can base these actions on a logical framework where we can weigh the causes and effects and decide for or against taking the action. If instead our actions are not controlled by our consciousness then they will not be based on a logical framework, rather they would be based on habits and impulses and their root causes would be emotions, desires and memories and they may or may not align with the rational choice under the given circumstances.

A rational action is the optimal action taken after analyzing the pros and cons of the possible alternatives. If we were to assume a generally applicable rational framework then all rational actions should lead to optimal solutions given the situations, issues and criteria. This would mean that such an action would be superior or at least of equal quality to an action based out on habits or impulses. This should mean that rational actions should be better than the latter set based on emotions, desires and memories.

A person who is more in control over his desires and emotions would be able to rein in these aspects of his mind and allow his reasoning to take charge and make decisions for or against possible actions. This would make sure that the percentage of impulsive actions would be fewer and the person would behave according to the rational framework mentioned above.

I don't think it will be possible for a person to bring the whole domain of his mind into his complete consciousness, but as the percentage of actions under his conscious control increases the person would start to act more rationally than otherwise. If people were to start taking actions rationally as discussed above and if we are to assume a generally applicable rational framework, then, a lot of problems faced by the human race like communal tensions, religious conflicts, international conflicts and most importantly general crime would start to diminish.

When we look at a more personal level, rational actions should allow the person to be more efficient in whatever he is doing. As was mentioned above it would also increase the probability of success in the endeavors since the actions are more tuned towards the outcome than otherwise.

We have looked at a cause perspective to see why controlling desires and emotions are beneficial. It can be shown that this control would be good from a result perspective also.

Irrespective of how much you control your own actions there would still be too many un-controllable external factors that will decide the final outcome of your individual action or the outcome of a circumstance. Now if you do not have control over your emotions then you will end up being depressed when circumstances turn bad or when actions don't lead to successes. There is also a corollary i.e. you will not be ecstatic when circumstances turn good or when actions lead to successes. Now by the elimination of ups and downs you will effectively increase your average productivity by increasing predictability.

I should however warn that a total control over emotions are desires would lead to a mechanistic world. Now emotions and desires are what makes humans humans. Without them we would just be machines. Emotions and desires give the flavor to life that has made the world what it is now. Since a total elimination of desires and emotions is practically outside of the reach of humanity we really don't have to worry about such a scenario

Rather, given the advantage of being able to solve some of the most acrid problems faced by humanity this is something that most people should strive to achieve. Moreover, being in control over your emotions and desires would also mean that you can decide whether to yield to an emotion or desire according to your need. So you could decide to be happy (or for that matter be in any positive emotional state like passion, affection) whenever you want and wherever you want.


  1. hmm, this really got me thinking, and it's a bit clearer to me now than a few days back. You have a point. When I thought about this, this is somewhat similar to what the Gita preaches --

  2. Nishkama Karma as mentioned talks about actions without emotions - yes, but it also talks about actions without "expectations, motives, or thinking about its outcomes". But what I am talking about here is actions with motives and with proper thought on outcomes. Just that you would not be affected by the outcomes of your actions (or inaction) if you are in control over your desires and emotions.

  3. Not exactly, the correct interpretation of the text (i checked with my in-house expert:)) is - you do your duty without attachment to the goal;
    Actions should definitely be directed towards a goal - otherwise they are meaningless, but then, the actor shouldn't be unduly attached to the goals.
    So, essentially the same idea you have explained here.

  4. I was going to say about the risk of going totally mechanical in life with a complete control over emotions. But then you have written about that.

    Still, I cant get myself to agree with dictating each and every action,it is somehow like keeping a remote control to your mind, in your mind. Agreed you have total power over your emotions, and it'd show results in whatever you want to achieve.

    Only question is, is that what everyone really wants? Giving up a big part of your natural way of letting things out makes a huge difference. And losing that somehow seems like a huge loss of your self.

  5. @Ms Cris, But what is your real self? Why do you say that the unpredictable and uncontrollable aspects introduced by your emotions are part of the self? Should they be? Aren't they not akin to the noise in communication signals. Do you say that noise introduces beauty to the communication?

    What did you mean by the natural way of letting things out? Why is it that you say that control over your emotions is not natural? Humans learn a lot of physical activity after birth. For example - writing in meaningful symbols, talking using meaningful sounds. These are activities that are results from controlling otherwise natural actions like moving tongue, hands etc. Does that mean that these activities are not natural?

    Yes the question is whether that is what everybody wants? The answer would obviously be no since not too many people would not even be thinking about these aspects. But would it be something that people should look forward to achieving? I would say yes.

  6. :-)
    Looks like a storm of questions and as usual I have no answers.
    I am assuming you'd guess I didnt mean people should go back to being neanderthal.

    But emotions are sometimes more of a need than an impact of mental fluctuations. Having control over your emotions is of course what can be called progress. But to what extend? Does it mean never laughing when you feel happy or never frowning when you feel bad? Or does it go to controlling the extend of happiness or sadness or any feelings you allow yourself?

    A complete control somehow seems like a scary idea. Losing your human "weak" self and turning into powerful thinking machines. Well maybe its not a bad thing.

    Its just a little hard to throw away the ways you are used to living, and have come to terms with in what you call life. So pro'lly you are right and I am just prejudiced :-)

  7. Hmm, I happened to hear the same during a talk recently. That you should be passionate about what you do. And it made a lot of sense.
    Apparently these are two conflicting schools of thoughts here, one that says, you have to have emotions, because that's what make us human. And the other, that says, if you get too emotional, then you will be subject to it's extreme fluctuations.
    But, I feel there actually is just one school of thought here (again drawing inspiration from the Gita), which is, you should be emotional and passionate about the one thing which is rightfully under your control - your actions, your duty.
    But, at the same time, you should not be passionate or emotionally attached to the fruits of your actions, because they are not entirely yours.

  8. @Ms Cris

    To what extent? To the extent of controlling negative emotions and emotions that you think are not going to help you in your cause or in helping you achieve your goal. You don't have to rein in the positive emotions at all - i.e. unless if you feel like doing so.


    I did not say that we should not be passionate about what we do. Passion is a very positive emotion and we should use it to our benefit. We should also be able to back our passion with reason. Yes your conclusion aligns perfectly with mine :-)

  9. Gulp suddenly I feel immature in the midst of a pack of big thinkers and philosphers!

  10. Nithin, Quick, Hide - Ms Cris saw a pack of big thinkers and philosophers around here :-)

  11. Hi Anand,
    Thanks for dropping by my blog. This was a motivational post which inclined me to think and introspect myself!
    Thanks a lot for your kind words too :p
    I'll be visiting more often :D

  12. onnu podey...

    The basic reason behind human survival and reason for humans not to be animals is their desire to do things...

    Happiness is a relative term...
    Even if you happy society wont term you as a happy person. and you cant survive here with out satisfying society ....
    - Kidu...

  13. @Kidu,
    I beg to disagree here. One major differentiation between animals and humans is our ability to make rational decisions and that would sometime(I cannot say for sure as to how often) mean overcoming our desires.

    Now, regarding our personal happiness, why do you say that society has to define the meaning of it? Happiness is an internalized phenomenon, why should the society play a part in it?

  14. Anand? Who's Anand here? Oh....

  15. I mentioned your blog in mine!! :D

  16. hi, its good post, but mostly discussed by many people.Most of them says to control emotions.Some people mould to the crowd.Even in a discussion people grasp the feeling and express themselves.I thinks its better manage than controlling emotions.Karma -that maketh life.Whats the karma of a business man - to make profit.May be the profit is his goal.I think karma has its definition in different realms.Than happiness.. how hard we try , we cant make the world happy.Human beings are being discussing topics like this since ancient ages.. Is it possible to have emotion for a society ? Then money is a form of an accountable emotion. I donno ... :)

  17. @Haris - Yes you are correct. When I said control, I did not mean that you should turn off your emotional side. It is more like you should be in control over your emotions.