Surprise makes us –er. Happi-er, sad-er, angri-er, funni-er, everything-er. How much –er? Neuroscientist Dr. Wolfram Schultz discovered that surprise intensifies our emotions by about 400%. So unexpected good news (like a promotion) makes us 400% giddier than that same event had it been anticipated. And unexpected bad news (like getting dumped) makes us 400% gloomier than it would have had you seen it coming.
This intensifying power of surprise means that after the recent election, many of us are feeling 400% something-er than usual. And that’s tough to handle – especially when there are different, seemingly incompatible –ers bubbling up all at once.
So what should we do with all these post-election –ers? Here are three ways you can use the “feels” for good:
- Ask questions.
Researchers have found that the more surprising an event is, the more we feel the urge to talk about it. This finding explains why so many of us are wearing our opinions on our sleeves these days. We are craving conversation, but most of us quickly succumb to the lure of trying to prove we are right (which usually backfires).
Instead of joining the conversational equivalent of a 10-car pileup, soup up your dialogue engine with a shiny new set of questions. For example:
“What are your thoughts on it?”
“How did you come to feel that way?”
“What’s important to you about that?”
“Can you say more about it?”
Ask a genuine question, then be quiet long enough to let a decent answer come into the world. Asking without listening is like playing tennis without a tennis ball. It can be downright painful to hear a perspective you dislike, especially when it comes out of a face you love. But when we don’t listen, we don’t learn. And when we stop learning, we stop growing.
Make sure you also take the time to direct your questions inward. There is no better time to learn about ourselves than in the wake of the unexpected. Surprise is like a flashlight directed at the murky attics of our minds, revealing beliefs, values, and expectations we didn’t even know we had. For example, you might ask yourself:
What emotions have I been feeling lately and why?
What have I assumed and taken for granted?
Whose opinions have I overlooked?
What do I value, believe in, and care about deeply?
Once you’ve asked, listened and asked some more, move on to point #2.
- Embrace ambiguity.
Asking questions is hard. An even harder challenge is to avoid getting obsessed with the answers. Instead, let yourself sit with ambiguity.
At its core, surprise is a schema discrepancy. It’s a slap in the face of our assumptions. The way most of us recover from the sting is by making sense of the world again. We erase all the bewildering squiggles caused by surprise and draw sharp lines to frame our new world view. We paint over the confusion, doubt, and ambiguity with fresh new opinions. Here are a few that I’ve heard lately: “Americans aren’t ready for a female president.” “Americans are out of touch with reality.” “People are naïve.” “People are just stupid.”
Coming to a conclusion about why things are the way they are is comforting. It helps us sleep at night (even if we get nightmares). It’s also a dangerous cop out. The quicker we come to a conclusion, the fewer opportunities we have to consider different perspectives. If you let ambiguity dwell in your mind, you will invite in empathy and wisdom. So the next time you are tempted to explain something away, say: “I’m not sure. I wonder…” instead.
- Take action.
So far, I’ve suggested a lot of patient contemplation, but there is another opportunity that surprise plops into our laps. Emotions have evolved to keep us in motion. Feeling something makes us want to do something. Maybe you’re usually too busy, too tired, or too shy to be an activist. The beauty of the –er that surprise triggers is that it unlocks an untapped source of energy within us. Use it before it fades into the new normal of your life. Keep in mind that our thirst for doing is too easily quenched by social media. This week, instead of getting full on Facebook, take physical action that aligns with your values.
Ask yourself how you can help make the world just a little better than you found it. What are your opportunities to volunteer, donate, learn, educate others, join a community, start a group, launch a business, write, perform, or inspire? Once you notice the spark of an idea (even if it’s just out of the corner of your eye), take one small step toward making it a reality. You may even end up surprising yourself.
By Tania Luna (co-author of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected and partner at LifeLabsLearning.com)