Here are some common sayings you might have heard:
Follow your heart.
If it feels good, do it.
Your heart will tell you what to do.
Now, if you are like most people in the world, you can think of some situations in which following advice like this is a very bad idea. For instance, most of us have been in a work or life situation in which we were so angered by people’s behavior, we wanted to cuss them or say some very strong things that, at the very least, we would have later regretted, and, in some cases, may have gotten us fired.
And most of us know that part of becoming a mature person is doing things that you don’t want to do in the moment because doing so brings rewards in the future. The difficult patches we work through in parenting, teaching, grad school, jobs, relationships, and any kind of habitual sports, music, or artistic practice are a good example of this.
Sometimes being a mature adult requires us to do the opposite of following our heart.
Given these experiences that almost everyone has had, it would seem that advice like “Follow your heart” and the like is some of the worst advice in world. But I actually think that this advice is very good advice if viewed in the right context, and it points to a very important skill that everyone needs to learn—namely listening to your own intuition, which is (among other things) learning how to act wisely on the information your emotions give you.
I will explain why this is so.
What are Emotions?
When people tell us to listen to our heart or to do what feels good, etc., they are telling us, more or less, to pay attention to our emotions and to give them some (or a lot) of weight in our decision-making.
So, what exactly are our emotions? People define emotions in different ways, but for the sake of this post, I will define emotions as the spiritual feelings of pleasure and pain we experience in reaction to life situations. By spiritual, I mean that part of us that allows us to step back from our life and judge whether it is going well or poorly. It is the part where our imagination, hopes, wishes, dreams, and passion for things and people (among other things) reside.
Our emotions derive from our unique personality, life experiences, goals, moral commitments, unconscious reflections and drives, and the intersection of these things with our unique biology. And that is why people can experience the same event and have a very different emotional reaction to it. For example, some people love Christmas, and other people hate it or feel neutral about it. Some people may think a certain event they witness is horrible, while others are not very disturbed by it.
Emotions are very specific to an individual, and that is one reason why some people, like the philosopher Immanuel Kant, argues that emotions are not a suitable foundation for moral decision-making. They lack the universal applicability, Kant argues, that moral rules require.
Kant, in part, argues this against David Hume who is skeptical of the connection between reason and morality and argues that morality is a slave to passion. (You can read about this in Kant’s Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals and in Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles or Morals.)
David Hume went through some pretty cool fashion phases.
My goal of this post is not to explicate the moral theories of Hume and Kant (both of which are very interesting). I will say, though, that I happen to agree with Kant that 1) morality is not a slave to our passions, and 2) our passions are not a suitable sole guide for moral action.
But it is one thing to say that our emotions are not a suitable sole guide for our actions and quite another thing to say that we shouldn’t listen to or that we should ignore our emotions. Telling people they shouldn’t listen to or that they should ignore their emotions is bad advice. On the contrary, our emotions are an important guide and we should listen to them.
How do we reconcile these two ideas: namely, that emotions should not be our sole guide for decision-making but that, nevertheless, they play an important role in this process?
Let’s Look at Some Examples
Some examples might help to illuminate this apparent perplexity.
Example #1: Imagine that you are about to embark on a business venture with a friend. But just as you are about to do so, you develop a strong sense that something is wrong, and you feel that you shouldn’t go through with the deal. On paper the business plan looks good, but you feel strongly that something isn’t right. So, you pull out of the deal (it is perfectly legal to do so and doesn’t cost your friend anything). Later you find out that your friend was involved in financial impropriety and that by pulling out of the business deal, you dodged a bullet.
Example #2: Imagine that partway into your career, you realize that you feel miserable in your job, and you decide it is time to return to graduate school to fulfill a lifelong goal of pursuing your doctoral degree. There is nothing wrong (of course) with going back to school, but on paper it looks risky, and some of your friends think you have lost your mind. Nevertheless, you follow your heart and return to school, and it turns out to be one of the best decisions you have ever made, both personally and professionally.
Reflecting on these Examples
In both these instances, your heart was onto something before your brain was, and it was important for you to listen to your emotions. Your brain’s job is to work with facts, reasoning, and logic. It tends to deal with information that is clearly visible to the eye and mind.
Your emotions, on the other hand, pick up on much more subtle things like tone of voice, drives, memories, subtle disparities between medium and message, symbols, and deep patterns that aren’t clearly visible your eye or mind.
For example, as you go through life, your emotions are strongly impacted by people’s behavior. The choices people make often affect you for good or ill. Because of this, your emotions hold the memory of behavior that, historically, has been harmful or helpful to you. Therefore, you may sometimes have a very strong emotional reaction to people’s behavior that in other people’s eyes seems relatively harmless.
In these situations, your emotions detect potential danger that your eyes or mind cannot see. You might be wrong in your assessment of the situation, but you may be right (and probably quite often are), and that is why it is important to pay attention to your emotions. As another example, your emotions may pick up on disparities between what someone is saying and what they mean, as communicated through their voice tone, eye contact, and body language. This information is really important, and you should pay attention to it.
An Important Question at this Point
It is easy to think of examples of the valuable information our emotions can give us. The important question at this point is whether our emotions ever lead us astray. What about the times our emotions tell us to cuss someone (and we do, and the results are catastrophic) or to quit our job (and it turns out in hindsight to be a reckless and impulsive decision)?
It seems that in situation like this, our emotions lead us astray. So how do we know when we should listen to our emotions and when we should not?
Emotions: What Do We Do with Them?
It is important to note at this point that our emotions don’t really tell us to do anything. Rather, our emotions convey a feeling of pleasure or pain in response to something.
For example, here are some feelings we might experience:
I am so angry.
I want to quit.
I hate this.
That person is beautiful.
This is a bad idea.
I want to eat pizza until I pass out into a pizza coma.
I feel free.
Once we register a particular feeling, we get to decide what to do about it. For example, if we feel angry about someone’s behavior, there are several different paths we can take:
We might decide we need to step away and focus on our breathing to calm down.
We might decide to call out a person’s bad behavior.
We might decide to remain quiet and take some time to reflect on why a person’s actions or words made us so angry.
We might decide to walk away.
We might decide to punch a wall.
We might decide to talk to the person.
We might decide to punch a person if we are defending our self or another person from physical harm.
We might decide to talk to a therapist about our feelings.
The point is that for any emotion we feel, there are several different paths we can take to act on that emotion, and we must decide on the right path to take.
But in deciding on the right action to take, we don’t ignore our emotions. Rather, we listen to them and use them to help us figure out the next right step to take.
How Do We Choose the Right Action?
There are probably many ways we can help our self choose the right action to take, but one way we can do it is to develop a moral code that helps us figure out how to act appropriately with the emotions we experience. (You can read more about moral and ethical codes here.)
There are a variety of moral codes a person could live by. Here is the one I try to live by: Do the loving thing for yourself and other people. The loving things is the action that encourages yourself and other people to flourish. So, whenever I have a powerful emotion, and I am not sure how to act on it, I try to do the loving thing for myself and other people.
The more I try to follow this rule, the more it shapes my thinking, my emotions, and my habits. Because of this, I now love to do the loving thing. Not always, but most of the time. Because of this, I often can follow my heart and do the thing that feels good to me because my heart usually tells me to do the loving thing, and the actions that feel the best to me are loving actions.
Moral codes are incredibly important because they give us a higher principle to aim for—one that brings good both to our self and others. If we don’t aim for a higher good, we are likely to act merely according to impulse, caprice, habit, custom, instinct, or in accordance with what only benefits our self.
And this is why emotion cannot be the sole guide for action. If we only act on our emotions, we are likely to act on our strongest emotions. Often, although not always, our strongest emotions direct us to do things that are destructive both to our self and other people. This helps no one in the long run. So, instead of acting this way, we need to act on our emotions in a way that aims for a higher good for both our self and other people.
Let’s Think about Practical Application
This brings me to some guidelines we can follow when we are listening to our heart and trying to figure out how to act on our emotions:
One: It is good to listen to our heart because it gives us important feedback about life and the various situations we encounter.
Two: For every emotion we have, there are several paths we can take to act on the emotion. We need to act in a way that aims for a higher good, both for our self and other people.
Three: We do this by using a moral code to guide in us well as we act on our emotions.
Four: The more we live consistently by a moral code and shape our mind and heart accordingly, the more we naturally love and want to do the right thing. The more we love to do the right thing, the safer it is to follow our heart and to do what feels good.
Five: As we develop a habitual inclination to love the right thing, it is wise to periodically take inventory of our emotions, our actions, and our moral code to make sure they line up.
Six: If something feels good to you and it lines up with a good moral code, of course do it. It will likely help you flourish.
Why Is All of This Important?
It may seem like this post is much ado about nothing. Are our emotions really that important? Is it really that important to spend time considering how to act wisely on our emotions? After all, someone might argue, isn’t our culture a “feel good” culture? Don’t we already listen too much to our emotions?
I would suggest that learning to listen wisely to our emotions is extremely important for two reasons.
First, human beings tend towards two extremes: We either tend to repress our emotions or we tend to give into our strongest emotions impulsively with little regard to the consequences for our self and other people. Neither of these extremes is helpful. By repressing our emotions, we miss important information and we cut our self off from a big part of us–namely, our feelings. This is alienating, and it diminishes our life.
By impulsively giving into our strongest emotions without further thought, we often end up hurting people (including our self), and we develop the idea that our emotions cannot be trusted, This leads us to ignore or repress our emotions, and we run into the problems mentioned above.
Rather than repressing or giving in willy-nilly to our emotions, we need to practice listening to them and acting on them in accordance with a moral code. This enriches our life and helps us to express our self fully in a way that brings good to our self and others.
Protection Against Authoritarianism
But there’s another reason we need to learn to listen our feelings wisely: it helps us to fortify our self against domination. There are a lot of people in the world who would like to dominate and control us. These people might be friends, family members, partners, colleagues, political leaders, or religious leader who distort religious teachings. I will refer to people who want to dominate and control adults as authoritarians. (And by the way, many people who act in an authoritarian manner believe they have our best interests at heart. Others just like to be in control of everything.)
One of the most common ways authoritarians gain control over others is to convince them that they cannot trust themselves.* And one of the most common ways authoritarians convince people that they cannot trust themselves is to shame or belittle them for their feelings. If you convince someone that their feelings, which are their internal guide, are not to be trusted, then people start looking to an external guide. Authoritarians are only too happy to act as this external guide to people.**
People who tell you that you cannot trust your feelings usually either don’t understand how to work with feelings in a wise manner, or they are trying to pressure you to believe or do the things they want you to. People who truly want the best for you are always happy to listen to your concerns and dialogue with you in a mutually respectful manner.
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*In her article, “Feminist Transformations of Moral Theory”, philosopher Virginia Held argues that historically, emotions have been associated with the private, female domain of life. As such, they were often considered as wild, irrational, and dark forces more akin to nature, unsuitable for civilized, public spaces. You can read Held’s article here.
It was logical, civilized, and masculine thinking that was appropriate for public spaces. This was a common way of thinking for thousands of years, and ideas like this are common in many philosophical, literary, and legal writings, even up until the mid 20th century. The denigration of emotions is one way some people historically (and still today) subjugated women (and also men who were expressive emotionally).
**One of the most common things authoritarian leaders do is convince people that they alone have the answers to someone or a country’s problems. They also tend to treat people who disagree with them as disloyal, unpatriotic, or in cahoots with the enemy. Authoritarian leaders are not interested in listening to people’s feelings when those feelings contradict their plans. Such leaders need to maintain universal, external control over people in order to maintain their power. Thus, they do anything they can to whittle down the internal, private dimension of people–i.e. their emotions–which they cannot control.
 When plants flourish, they have all the nutrients they need to help them develop their full capacities. For plants, these capacities are growing, developing, blooming, and remaining hardy and strong. Human beings also have capacities. These are all the positive abilities people possess that allow them to build constructive relationships with other people—they are capacities for communication, care, reason, creativity, wisdom, and compassion, to name a few. People develop these capacities best when they are in an environment that shows them kindness, compassion, and respect.