When I reflect on my life, I realise there is a simple pattern. There is a constant cycle between positive and negative periods in life. An ebb and flow which persists for periods of time, rather than single moments.
It’s easy to say this is simply the pattern of life. That good times come around and the bad times fade. That we just need to wait and persist through the bad times and a positive change will inevitably come. But this idea lends itself to determinism, that we are just subject to fate and have little influence over our lives.
I know from my own life that if I just let fate guide me, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Now it’s incorrect to suggest we have absolute control over our lives. We don’t. We are highly influenced by our environments and events that occur constantly around us.
But it’s equally incorrect to suggest the opposite extreme that we have no control, no influence at all. The cycle between positive and negative is what interests me the most. Why do we seem to fluctuate so much? How much influence do we really have and is that influence what leads to this cycle of behaviour?
We seem to process information in two distinct ways, heuristic, and systematic processing.
Systematic processing is much more time consuming, it is a careful consideration, working through all the components and aspects. Typically systematic processing will lead to a more complete or accurate decision but is cognitively demanding.
Essentially, a heuristic is a set of rules that allow us to process information efficiently. It may not be 100% accurate or completely rational, however, it will be sufficient for the majority of the time.
Heuristics are important for daily functioning. If you had to analyze the structure of a chair before sitting down you wouldn’t get anywhere very quickly in life. The cognitive demand is also a problem as it is exhausting to constantly think deeply about every aspect of our lives.
Heuristics, however, do have some significant problems when they are overused or the rules are not well developed. Stereotypes are a type of heuristic that can lead to a negative bias unless the rules are very well developed. We also have to be prepared to let go and not rely on them when confronted with conflicting evidence.
There are many different, context-specific reasons why we use one processing system over the other. Our emotions are one influencing factor. For example, if we are in a positive, more secure emotional state, we will rely on heuristic processing. Conversely, while in a negative emotional state, we rely on systematic processing.
I wrote recently about the evolution of depression which discussed rumination as an adaptation. The relationship between a negative emotional state and reliance on systematic processing is likely related. This demonstrates the reinforcing nature between the relationship of our emotions and cognitive processes.
How we perceive the world around us and ourselves can influence our behaviour. There are conscious decisions based on our perceptions of the world but this can extend into our unconscious decisions and actions as well.
An individual who perceives their choices with their diet to directly impact their health is more likely to seek healthy food. This persists at both a conscious and unconscious level. We may not be aware of our biases and changes to behaviour that come from our perceptions.
Clearly, these types of choices can influence our physiology. Diet clearly plays a significant role in our physical health, beyond just weight management. Nutrition is extremely important for supporting immune function, energy levels, sleep and much more.
All of these, in turn, influence our emotional state. We’ve all experienced periods when we didn’t get enough sleep or are feeling tired or hungry which has caused a negative mood.
This takes us back in a full circle. We started with emotions and how they influence thought processes. Our thoughts alter our perception of the world which in turn influences our behaviour. Our behaviour alters our physiology which affects our emotional state.
Of course, we have only discussed this in one direction. The reality is that all the components of our lives influence one another. They relate and interact in many different subtle, and not so subtle ways. This is also the foundation of the cognitive model which developed cognitive behavioural therapy.
The cognitive model states that our thoughts, emotions, behaviour, and physiology all interact with one another, and this forms our general state of being.
The aim of cognitive behavioural therapy is to influence one or more of these areas to change the whole person. Someone with depression will be challenged in how they think about things. They might be given tasks to influence their behaviour. These are easier to influence consciously compared to emotions and physiology but will carry over to those areas naturally.
This model can also help us answer those original questions. Why do we fluctuate between positive and negative periods in life, why does our live flow in this constant cycle?
These systems outlined by the cognitive model feed into one another and tend to self-reinforce the overall state we experience. We build positive momentum or spiral into negative depression. These states are fueled by this interconnected, self-reinforcing internal system.
In other words, if the general state is positively or negatively inclined, our internal systems around emotion, cognition, behviour, and physiology will all reinforce that state so that it will grow exponentially.
However, we do not live isolated from the world around us. Each of our systems is heavily influenced by external factors. Social interactions, sickness, economic factors, they all interact with the four components of the cognitive model.
External influences can be dramatic, such as a traumatic event, or more commonly subtle and constant. Small changes over time etch their way into our overall state of being. Of course, our internal systems start to reinforce those changes which can quickly shift them into a dramatic change.
If we ignore our own mental health, ignore our physical and emotional wellbeing, then we are essentially giving ourselves up to the whims of the environment around us. We are giving ourselves up to fate.
It may be that the environment is positive, reinforcing good things and driving us to success. It could be very negative, pulling us down and making it hard to do anything. Generally, there will be a balance but this will fluctuate, there will be good and bad periods.
Small, positive changes will be upregulated, they will self-reinforce. If you make small changes today, keep consistent, keep active, then there’s no end to where it might take you. Don’t be a victim to the world around you, don’t let the fate of your environment dictate your future. The world will change around you and you will change because of it whether you want to or not.
So take control, take action and create the change that you want to happen.
Chaiken, S. (1980). Heuristic versus systematic information processing and the use of source versus message cues in persuasion. Journal of personality and social psychology, 39(5), 752.
Hertel, G., Neuhof, J., Theuer, T., & Kerr, N. L. (2000). Mood effects on cooperation in small groups: Does positive mood simply lead to more cooperation?. Cognition & emotion, 14(4), 441-472.
Wurm, S., Warner, L. M., Ziegelmann, J. P., Wolff, J. K., & Schüz, B. (2013). How do negative self-perceptions of aging become a self-fulfilling prophecy?. Psychology and Aging, 28(4), 1088.