A Life of Character

(Today’s blog was originally posted on January 23, 2017.)

Have you ever thought about how your feelings have such a powerful impact on your life and the decisions you make. We seem to be a culture that is into good feelings and we have elevated the pursuit of good feelings into a philosophy of life.

What amazes me is how adults can easily be guided by their feelings in making decisions, and in the process make poor choices. It seems that the quest for pleasurable feelings takes priority over sound decision-making that will positively impact our lives in the future.

As one keen observer has noted, people of this world are like children in their approach to life. If you were to offer a child a piece of cake or a $10,000 Treasury bond, he will almost always choose the cake. Children invariably choose immediate gratification without giving consideration to future consequences. They do not understand the value and significance of delayed gratification, yet many adults today seem to be no different. They almost always choose temporary, feel-good pleasures over that which has lasting value.

Our great pursuit of good feelings explains why modern people struggle so much to establish good habits, yet at the same time have difficulty breaking their bad habits.

Dr. Tom Morris shares some helpful insights into this quandary. Good habits usually result from thoughtful, rational decision-making plus personal discipline and repetition. When establishing a new habit, getting started is generally the hardest part. For example, we might start a new exercise and diet routine because we observe our bodies slowly deteriorating or we know of people our age who’ve suffered heart attacks. We calculate a shortfall in our retirement needs and tighten our budgets so we can direct more financial resources to our retirement accounts. As we implement these necessary changes over time, they become permanent habits in our lives, and ultimately will lead to our future well-being.

Bad habits, on the other hand, are usually not the result of logical thought or careful deliberation. Frequently, they are a result of pleasurable sensations that make us feel good. And if it results in making us feel better, then we are prone to doing it again and again. Repetition sets in and behold – a new habit has formed.

In this day and time, good feelings often have far greater power over our ability to reason. Once established, these bad habits are much more difficult to break because they are rooted in the strength of personal feelings and pleasurable sensations.

I remember talking with my son Dixon during his freshman year in college about decisions and making wise choices. I shared with him these profound words from Dr. Dallas Willard:

In a situation such as today, where people constantly have – or think they have – to decide what to do, they will almost invariably be governed by feelings. Often they cannot distinguish between their feelings and their will, and in their confusion they also quite commonly take feelings to be reasons. And they will in general lack any significant degree of self-control. This will turn their life into a mere drift through the days and years, which addictive behavior promises to allow them to endure.

Self-control is the steady capacity to direct yourself to accomplish what you have chosen or decided to do and be, even though you “don’t feel like it.” Self-control means that you, with steady hand, do what you don’t want to do (or what you want not to) when that is needed and do not do what you want to do (what you “feel like” doing) when that is needed. In people without rock-solid character, feeling is a deadly enemy of self-control and will always subvert it. The mongoose of a disciplined will under God and good is the only match for the cobra of feeling.

I believe that the great mistake of modern people is to confuse feeling good with happiness. There seems to be an over-emphasis on a life of good feelings, whatever the cost, instead of seeking to live wisely. Where does this lead? As a noted therapist observed: “We are seeing a life of character abandoned for the pursuit of self-gratification. The result is a life full of thrills and good feelings, but eventually it is accompanied by a host of destructive consequences. Yet people will continue to make that trade-off and then will complain bitterly about the price they have to pay.”

Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.


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