If you’ve taken an exercise class at your gym, the instructor most likely played upbeat, high energy music, not only because the tempo and rhythm suited the exercise combinations but also because the music was energizing. He or she selected music that would inspire you to exert yourself. A yoga instructor might use New Age music instead, to put you in a peaceful, contemplative state of mind conducive to stretching.
I’m not the first to note that music is pure emotion. It may give voice to emotions we’re already experiencing, but it can also induce new feelings within us. No doubt you have favorite songs that reliably stir up certain feelings whenever you hear them. Many people turn to music for emotional congruence: if they’re feeling blue because a relationship ended, they may listen to torch songs; if they’re happy, they may want to hear something joyful. But we can also use music in the exact opposite way — listen to something upbeat in order to cheer ourselves when we’re down.
We can use books and movies in these same ways, especially when it comes to old favorites. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I watch It’s a Wonderful Life almost every year at Christmas, and I still get weepy when the people of Bedford Falls file through George and Mary’s front door with cash to save him from the bank examiner. I like to feel moved and I watch the film in part because I look forward to that experience. I’ve read The Portrait of a Lady eight or nine times and I’m always devastated by the end. Part of my goal in rereading the novel is to revisit that pain.
In less obvious ways, we can “play” ourselves emotionally through internal dialogs and by running scenarios, using them as stimulants in just the same ways we might use music, books and movies. In a matter of minutes, I can work up a feeling of sadness if I dwell in a repetitive way on a good friend who died at the age of 45 with two small children. By dwelling on the details of my next vacation, imaging what adventures await me, I can stir up a feeling of excitement. Easiest of all for me is to work up indignation. I can get myself angry in seconds flat.
Finding Your Own Way:
Put together a playlist of five songs on your iPod, all of them concerned with loss and the unhappy end of love. Listen to them until you’re sad, then put together another list of five songs that usually lift your spirits. Recognize how easily you can manipulate yourself to feel particular ways. Then start to pay attention and see how you already play yourself, and how you’ve been doing it your whole life. Are you dwelling on that staff meeting where your boss treated you so badly, reviving and fueling the sense of hurt and outrage you felt at the time? Are you reliving again and again the moment when you found out some deeply upsetting news? Or maybe it’s that phone call you received, when you learned you’d finally achieved some goal you’d striven for over the years. For most of us, it’s a process of which we’re not aware, and over which we have no control; only by bringing it more vividly to consciousness can we exercise choice about what feelings we want to induce and indulge.