Do Actions Follow Feelings or do Feelings Follow Actions?

I’ve just finished Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and must publicly thank my favorite sales trainer, Jeffrey Gitomer for the recommendation. I only wish I’d have read Dale Carnegie when I was younger. I attended a sales rally years ago with my former company where Jeffrey Gitomer stated that if you only read one sales book, to read that one.

gitomer

Jeffrey Gitomer and me

As I read more of Dale Carnegie’s books, I find that he frequently quotes Dr. William James, philosopher and psychologist. Mr. Carnegie cites one particular quote in “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” that has such positive implications:

William James said “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling seem to go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”

Dale Carnegie summarized James’ quote “In other words William James tells us that we cannot instantly change our emotions ‘just by making up our minds to’–but we can change our actions. And that when we change our actions we change our feelings.”

Although this may initially seem somewhat counter-intuitive, there is considerable wisdom lurking within the above statements by both men.  They’re not touting the popular “Change your thoughts change your reality” wisdom. What they are saying is that we can much more easily control our actions than our feelings.  By effecting our actions, even if simply going through the motions, we can practically conjure up the anticipated feeling.

To cite only a few examples of this I will reflect on my own experiences. I’ve been a runner for most of my life but it’s so easy to come up with excuses not to run. If I think about it too much, I’ll never run. But if I simply change into my running attire and lace up my shoes, I’m a lot more inclined to actually do it. Why? Because every time I go through those motions, my body remembers and responds. My desire to complete the task increases. I’m not sure how or why this metamorphosis takes place but it would seem that my mindset transitions as a result of my actions. Did my thoughts cause me to feel like running? No way. Did the action of suiting up? Maybe not directly, but as William James suggests, perhaps indirectly.

But this wisdom is not only limited to exercise, it can also be directed in other areas of life. Like helping one cope with depression and grief. Years ago I heard radio talk show therapist Dr. Laura Schlessinger counsel a caller who was having difficulty moving beyond the death of a loved one, Dr. Laura’s advice was to begin engaging in an activity focused on others by volunteering at a senior center or at a homeless shelter. Dr. Laura knew that if this woman went through the motions of a positive action focused on others, she would gradually immerse herself in the activity. Focusing on the activity would help remove the focus on herself and her own sadness. Notice Dr.Laura didn’t tell her to think happy thoughts so that she would feel better, but rather the exact reverse. If she engaged in the positive action, the desired mental state would follow.

When I wake up in the morning I have my coffee then shower. After completing those two tasks I’m much more enthusiastic about starting my day than when I was languishing in my bed.  This strategy even works when I’m in a bad mood. In an effort to bring myself out of the bad mood, I’ll intentionally go through the same motions I would normally undergo when I’m feeling happy. I’ll greet people with a friendly “Good morning,” I’ll smile when I don’t necessarily feel like doing so. This is not being insincere, it’s simply drawing on previous behaviors in an effort to conjure up an improved frame of mind. Then almost in response, my mood will have shifted.

I imagine there is a scientific explanation-perhaps it’s simply that our habits have trained our brains how to respond.  And I’m not suggesting this is a foolproof method for curing all of our woes. But it is a practical technique worthy of implementation.  Two great thinkers, Dr. William James and Dale Carnegie recognized that actions precede feelings many decades ago. I’m glad they did because in my experience, it’s a lot easier to modify our actions than it is to modify or change our thoughts.

Applying the Principles of Dale Carnegie to Help Maximize Problem-solving

I’ve heard about Dale Carnegie my whole life since my dad, a retired real estate broker, frequently referred to him. In “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” I was particularly struck by the simplicity of Chapter 5. It  deals with worrying about “problems.”  Dale Carnegie’s instructions for tackling problems are succinctly asked:

1)  What is the problem?

2) What is the cause of the problem?

3) What are the possible solutions to the problem?

4) What solution do you suggest?

Mr. Carnegie no doubt intended for this check-list to be used to help deal with worry and anxiety. But the more I thought about it, the more I discovered that this approach can also be preventatively applied before burdening others with so called “problems.” When bringing forth any kind of problem-either to my manager, to my spouse, to my children or my pastor; addressing these 4 questions ensures a more positive outcome.

If I were a manager, I think I would appreciate if an employee addressed these questions before coming to me with their issues. Why? Because simply identifying a problem is easy. To a manager, however, it can be perceived as complaining or worse “whining.” The employee who complains without offering  a solution, risks the possibility of becoming a reminder of the problem.  Who wants to be associated with what’s wrong with the company? But to identify a problem; explain what you believe to be its cause; identify some potential solutions and then to finally offer the best solution can actually help management solve the problem.

Additionally, the complaining-only approach risks that management will impose their own solution. Remember, it’s the job of managers to resolve problems in the workplace lest the problem interfere with productivity.  But management doesn’t always have the insight that an employee most affected by the problem has and to entrust them to operate with the necessary facts to come up with the best solution is risky.  Their “solution” could be as undesirable or worse than the problem.  An employee who offers suggestions to the problem, at minimum helps management come up with the best fix and can thereby can be seen as a problem solver.

This checklist to problem solving is useful in all areas of life.  To go through the effort of bringing forth a problem should always have a positive solution appended to it.   To do otherwise can be construed as complaining.