Press "Enter" to skip to content

Why You Feel What You Feel

Translator: Queenie Lee Reviewer: Peter van de Ven

Good afternoon.

It’s a real pleasure to do another TED Talk.

And today I’m going to talk to you about you.

And share with you, hopefully,

an idea that’s really made a massive difference in my life

and hopefully could make a massive difference in your life too.

I’ve spent my life, really, studying human beings.

When I was a kid, I was the youngest of four,

so I spent a lot of time just watching my brothers and sisters

and seeing the mess and the challenge that they got into,

and trying to clock how I avoided that.

Then I had the great fortune of training as a physician,

and some of you may know

that medical training is the most incredible opportunity,

because you get up close and personal with human suffering

on every single level, on a daily basis.

I’ve been in a room where people have died right in front of me,

and it’s a really profound moment.

I’ve also been in a room where life has come into the world;

I’ve delivered a number of children, including three of my own four boys,

one of whom is at the back –

Hi, son.

(Laughter)

(Son from the audience) Hi, dad!

So medical training, a fantastic experience.

I became a researcher, initially an immunologist,

and studied right down to the nano detail

of how our white blood cells roll along the inside of our blood vessels

and with really clever adhesion molecules

stick and kind of squeeze out between the endothelia cells

and fight infection.

More recently as a neuroscientist. So right down at nano level.

And also at a much bigger scale.

I had the good fortune of working with CEOs and leaders around the world

in some of our biggest companies and multi-nationals,

looking at the hidden social dynamics and the networks that exist

that determine whether a company succeeds or fails.

As you heard,

I’ve worked with elite athletes, helping them to win gold medals.

I’ve read a lot, learned a lot.

And through all that time, one question kept bothering me,

sort of eating away at my brain.

And that question was:

if you could teach yourself, your children, or anybody one thing,

what would it be?

What would that one thing be?

You can only teach one thing

of all the things I’ve learned and understood,

and it’s that that I want to share with you today.

What is that one thing?

I can tell you it’s not “Eat an apple”; that’s not what it is.

We’re going to talk about that.

But before, I want to return, just, to really the story of you.

I don’t know whether you remember,

but there was a time before you knew you existed.

For some of you that was probably last Friday night, after a skinful.

(Laughter)

But as we all grow up, there’s a moment in our life –

and this is a really beautiful moment if you witness it –

where you can see, about one year old –

it might happen a bit sooner, a bit later, but roughly about one year old –

where a child realizes they exist as a physical entity.

It’s that moment where they look in the mirror, and they kind of go,

“Oh, that’s me!”

They move their hand and that hand moves,

and they realize that that’s them.

So they have a physical awareness, if you will.

But they haven’t yet developed an awareness of their emotional self,

which is why you get the terrible twos.

So when a two-year-old is hungry,

the world is hungry and why aren’t we eating?

So there’s that kind of intensity, that egocentricity in a two-year-old.

That’s where they kind of get to test the power.

So in the supermarket,

it’s “Mom, mom, that that, me, me, food, food, me, me, me, food,”

and they kind of bother you to a great extent.

And then again, it’s witnessable, this moment where they suddenly realize

that not only are they physically separate from you,

but their emotions are not your emotions.

You may have witnessed this

with a child walking down the aisle in the supermarket,

eyes, streaming red, bawling in frustration and rage

that they can’t get what they want,

and then looking at you completely baffled,

like: “Why aren’t you crying?”

“We’re hungry; we want those chocolates.”

(Laughter)

There’s that bafflement in their eyes,

that sort of thousand yard stare.

And that’s the emergence of the awareness of the emotional self,

separate from the parent or the caregiver.

So that’s a sort of second level up,

but it’s not until they get to three to six years old

that they get into the “conceptual self,”

and part of that emergence is a sense of identity.

So it’s what you would know as consciousness,

is they start to become aware –

not only that they’re physically, emotionally separate,

but they’ve got an identity.

And it blossoms between three and six years old.

One of the things that happens

in the emergence of conceptual self is language.

So language is essentially a concept: it’s a noise to represent something.

So the emergence of conceptual self happens,

and we start to label our universe –

you know, cat, dog, bat, ball, window, floor, and so on.

So the world starts to make sense and we start to be able to navigate.

Children between the age of three and six

learn about six new words every single day.

There’s phenomenal language acquisition going on.

But only from the fourth level,

which is called concrete consciousness,

they start to learn the rules that govern the concepts.

Then it all starts to make sense:

why is a dog a dog and a cat a cat?

Why is a mummy a mummy and daddy a daddy?

What’s the rule?

It’s in that between six and nine years old

that the fun starts to happen.

So if you speak to a seven-year-old,

you can start to have fun by playing against the rules –

you know, look at that cat going woof-woof?

No!

Cats go meow! They don’t go woof-woof.

And it makes them laugh because you’re playing against the rules.

There’s this whole rule emergence that occurs

in a child between six and nine.

And then that’s where most people

stay …

(Laughter)

Most of the people you’re going to meet, 20, 30, 40,

on the inside: nine!

(Laughter)

See it in accompanies all the time:

toys out of the pram, behaving like children.

It’s very common.

There is an attempt, usually in the early teenage years,

to get beyond that concrete self, to get beyond the rules,

which is why you get teenage conflict.

You’ll see it, and parents try to suppress this,

like it’s a bad thing.

It’s a developmental stage!

You shouldn’t be suppressing this stuff; they’re testing the rules.

So this battle ensues:

you told me to be home at ten, I want to be home at 11.

You told me to be honest; you’re not being honest,

and the fight breaks out.

And they have their whole turbulent teenage years.

Regardless of who wins that battle, whether it’s mom or dad or the child,

it bubbles along for a few years.

Now eventually, regardless of who wins the battle,

they leave home – hopefully.

(Laughter)

(Applause)

They go! Right?

But then a much bigger parent called society comes in

and imposes its rules.

So a lot of people go back into the concrete,

not like transferred but back in the concrete following a set of rules,

that we start to believe that we’ve got to get a degree,

we’ve got to get a job, a relationship, a car, a house,

we’ve got to get all these things to be a good corporate citizen.

So we start to follow the rules, and we enter a company,

and we start to work our way up the career ladder,

following the rules.

So a lot of people you’ll encounter are back in that concrete,

their life become stereotypical.

You’ll see people talk about this:

“That’s not how we do things at this company.

You’ll be the Chief Executive, I’ll be the Chief Financial Officer.

That’s how we do it around here.”

It’s a set of rules that we’re all following,

and we’re often not even aware of those rules.

And that will often happen for the rest of your life;

you don’t even realize you’re running the rules.

By the way, these rules weren’t given to you with your permission;

they were just imposed by parents or society.

We’re not even aware of it.

If you’re lucky, you have a crisis.

At some point in your life,

something terrible happens to get you to question the rules.

Now, most people this never happens to –

or if it does, it doesn’t cause them to question.

That might be the loss of a loved one,

the loss of a relationship or something terrible happens,

usually, most commonly, in midlife.

Then you enter the stage what we call “the disease of meaning,”

is it starts to occur to you

there’s something wrong with the picture of your life.

I’ve been following all these rules, and it hasn’t delivered.

I thought if I was a good corporate citizen,

and I got a good job, and a good house, and paid tax and all of that stuff,

I would be happy and blissful forever;

and I’m not.

That’s the disease of meaning, and that is real pain.

If that happens in a religious context, people call it purgatory.

I mean, literally, it’s hell on earth.

So people get into this state and often they lash out,

they become unpleasant and negative and so on,

because they’re basically in pain.

Now there are two strategies to that pain.

First strategy – much loved by students –

anaesthetic.

(Laughter)

Because if I can blot out the meaning of life,

that kind of existential question –

if I’m wasted on a Friday night,

I don’t have to think about what’s the meaning of all this.

It just goes away as a question.

So then some people do this every night, some people every weekend, getting wasted,

either through alcohol and drugs.

But the problem is when the hangover wears off,

the question returns; it’s still there.

You can’t answer it.

If you’re smart, you realize anesthetics won’t help you.

So you get into the second strategy, which is distraction.

There are lots of different types of distraction.

That distraction can simply be that you become a gym bunny.

Let’s pump some iron.

Because when I’m feeling the burn, I don’t have to think about the question.

So I become “the body beautiful,” stuck at the gym the whole time,

getting the kick on the endorphins and so on.

But you realize that, actually, when you get away from the gym,

the question is there again.

So the gym doesn’t solve it.

So you might use a very common strategy:

sex …

Right?

Because while I am engaged in the intimacy of the sexual union,

I don’t have to think about the question, because I’m too busy doing this.

(Laughter)

But you may have noticed that when the act is over,

that bloody question comes back again.

So some people go even more nuts: I’ll have sex with two people,

(Laughter)

then a whole crowd –

desperately trying to get away from this question that’s bothering them:

the meaning of their life.

So if sex doesn’t work – and it doesn’t, ultimately –

then you get into materialism: shoes!

I’ll go and buy some shoes.

Or a car, or a house, or a yacht.

So we get into materialism,

or some people that we see, very common in industry, workaholism –

they become work-addicted.

Because while I am working that hard, having to do stuff,

I don’t have to think about the question.

None of that solves the problem.

Because we mistakenly believe

that the problem is out there and the solution is out there,

whereas the real problem is in here.

You cannot solve your sense of emptiness, or your unrest,

with an external solution outside of yourself.

So stop looking out there, you have to look in here,

and particularly to look at your own emotional experience.

Now, most people go through their life completely unaware of emotions,

particularly us fellows, right?

If somebody mentions the word “emotions,” we run for the hills!

Emotions are just energy in motion, they’re composite biological signals:

the signals made up of all the pounding heart rate,

the sweaty palms, the tension in the muscles

or whatever is going on biologically,

it’s stereotypical energetic patterns – energy in motion, they are e-motions.

Now, we all have emotions, every single second of every single day,

even us fellows.

Feelings, however, are something entirely different.

Feelings are the awareness in our mind of the energy.

So the energy is always there but we don’t necessarily feel it,

and that’s where we’re stuck –

is we haven’t really learned to understand our own emotional life.

So we go through our life

believing how we’re feeling on a moment by moment basis

is down to somebody else.

We actually say this:

“You annoyed me,” “You made me unhappy,”

“You did it to me,” and we point the finger at other people,

believing other people are the cause of our own unhappiness.

So newsflash:

nobody’s doing it to you.

Nobody’s making you feel these things.

I mean, what do you think that happens

when you get frustrated with somebody else?

Did they come up to you and inject you with frustration,

with the chemicals of frustration?

Did they create the electrical signals of frustration,

the pressure waves, the sound waves?

No. You did that.

You created that inside yourself in response to their poor behavior.

So, if you can accept that you’re doing it –

it’s not them, it’s you –

that simple truth takes you from what we call the victim position,

and it crosses the threshold to ownership.

That’s the most important transition you’ll ever make in your life.

So to help you navigate that,

first and foremost, you have to understand where am I in the universe of emotions.

If I asked you to write down your current emotions and gave you five minutes,

you’d have a list of things,

and then we said, OK, put your hands up who’s got how many,

and we did a test of how many you got,

the average in a room like this would be about ten or twelve.

There are 34,000 emotions that you can experience.

Most people go through life with ten or twelve.

And just to try to help you navigate, I’ll show you an app that we’ve built

to help people know where they are in the universe of emotions.

So we’ve plotted all these emotions on a map,

and this map shows you the axes.

So, to the top of the axis in the universe of emotions,

we’ve got the ones that are, sort of, more energy, if you like,

and to the bottom the ones that are more relaxed.

To the left the ones that are more positive

and to the right the ones that are more negative.

So you can see that we’ve plotted maybe the 20 commonest emotions there,

and as I’m talking to you, right now, you’re somewhere on this grid.

You’re somewhere in the universe experiencing one of these planets,

and we can bring in the next 100 emotions,

we can bring in the next 200 emotions, the next 1,000.

So we’ve built this app to try and crowd source with you all 34,000,

we’ve built it with just 2,000 as a starter.

And you can enter into one of the 64 galaxies that exist

and start to navigate round

and see where you are in relation to some of the other emotions,

because if you don’t know where you are, you’re lost.

Now, you’d never get control of your own state,

and it’s really important for your health, for your well-being, for your success,

whatever you’re doing,

whether you’re a sportsperson or a business leader,

that you can start to control your own emotional state

of what’s going on for you.

If you don’t know where you are,

how can you possibly control any of this stuff?

The answer is you can’t.

So the start of the journey is even knowing which planet are you on.

This is designed to help you, and you can see in the top corner there,

it shows you roughly where you are in the universe, at any point in time.

Now, we can zoom in into one of these 64 galaxies

and look at a specific solar system.

So, where do we go into? Maybe, Sociable.

We can see.

So let’s zoom in to the solar system of Sociable

and start to see what planets are around you.

If you want to move from Sociable to something else

and then gradually navigate yourself to a different part of the universe,

you can see where you are.

Most importantly, you can track where you are,

so you can enter some notes.

You visit the planet of, I don’t know, Popular.

I felt popular today.

People came up and gave me various messages, and I felt popular.

And you could enter how popular you felt or you didn’t feel

and actually keep an audit trail,

and you can socialize this with your mates.

You can either share it on Facebook or tweet it or Gmail it

and see, well, who else is in the solar system of Sociable

or even on the planet Popular – who else is out there.

And I can track,

as it does with these audit trails, of where I’ve been.

So this is your start point, starting to get a grip

of do you even know which planet you’re on,

which are the nearest planets and how you can start to move around,

start to get some navigational capability within that universe.

So the first thing is you’ve got to learn navigational potential,

and this is designed to help you build your emotional repertoire.

So you’re not just stuck with twelve emotions,

or in some people frankly:

two!

I feel “yuck” or “OK,” the only two motions they’ve got.

So you’ve got to build a repertoire,

and what you discover as you start to build a repertoire,

some emotions are better antidotes than others.

So you can start to navigate around.

The second maneuver,

once you’ve started to navigate around the universe,

is really, once you get to a more constructive planet,

there’s no right and wrong, but is this emotion really serving you?

When you get to a more constructive planet,

can you stay there?

And that really requires you to do a separate maneuver,

it’s called Mastery,

where you actually take the emotion which is subject to you –

it’s a subjective experience, below the level of your real awareness,

you’re sort of subject to it, i.e. it’s got you.

So if you’ve got anger, if anger is going through your system,

if you’re on the planet of Anger,

it’s got you.

You haven’t got it; it’s got you.

The way to get control over it is to objectify it.

Like, “Oh, it is anger.”

So you take it out as a subjective experience,

and you objectify it.

And if you can objectify it, you can get a grip of it.

If you can do that with your positive emotions,

then you can move yourself over to the positive side of the universe

and stay there.

So you really don’t have to feel anything you do not want to feel.

Misery is optional, you don’t have to feel that.

But if you haven’t got control,

then who has?

And the answer is usually somebody outside of you.

So I’d really encourage you,

if you want to transform your life forever –

because, ultimately, emotions will predict your health,

they’ll predict your performance, your wellbeing, your sense of fulfillment,

they’ll determine your ability to make effective decisions,

emotions drive all of that, your motivation and so on.

If you don’t know about them and have control over them,

it’s a little bit of a lottery as life.

So if you go away after today, and ask yourself one question:

what planet am I on?

And what planet would I like to be on?

And start to work to be on the planet that you want to be on

rather than wherever life has pushed you.

Imagine a world where all of us

could be on the planet we wanted to be on,

or navigate around that kind of solar system

or the galaxies that we wanted to experience.

Imagine a world

where, when you go to the bar to chat up that attractive person at the bar,

you didn’t need four pints of Dutch courage

before you could go there.

Imagine you could just do that yourself.

Imagine a world

where you didn’t need to feel anxious going into an exam or a job interview,

where you didn’t need to feel terrified coming on stage.

Imagine a world where your children, on the receiving end of bullying,

didn’t feel terrified or bullied.

If you could control your emotions, you can change your life completely.

So I’d really encourage you

to start wondering about what planet you’re on

and start putting yourself in the universe,

in that part of the universe where you really want to live your life.

Thank you very much.

(Applause)

English