Stimulus Belief Response (or How to Be Happy at a Funeral)

We’re upset when someone we love dies. Why?

I wrote the following in preparation for a speech I gave on the usefulness of choosing beliefs. This is philosophical approach I subscribe to because I find it useful and I’ve often been surprised with how violently people respond when I put it into action! I’m not endorsing being happy all the time (though that is an option). I think we get to decide all the time how we want to feel.

While you read this consider: how would your peers respond if you weren’t upset at a funeral?

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

This quote is from Viktor Frankl, a medical doctor and psychiatrist who survived the holocaust by keeping his spirits up. He regularly gave speeches in front of imaginary audiences as a way to validate his own importance!

 

What is a stimulus?  A stimulus is anything, in our environment, internal, external, person, place, thing that we are aware of, react to, interact with.  Our response: how we respond to that stimulus.

 

I find it useful to believe that in between a stimulus and our response there is a space, and in that space is a belief.  We form beliefs and change beliefs all the time.  Raise your hand if you have believed in an imaginary figure?  In Santa Claus, in elves, in fairies, in the Easter Bunny?  How many of you believe in those today?  Everyone here has believed in an imaginary figure and nearly everyone no longer does.  We change our beliefs!  Where do they exist?  If you cut me open you don’t find beliefs floating around inside of me!  Beliefs are make-believe anyway.

If I come up to a beautifully dressed woman and say “you are a terrible dresser” she might take offense!  If I come up to a man who appears to have brown hair and say “I can’t stand your bright pink hair,” is he more likely to be confused or angry?  What determines these responses?

 

I think that it is a belief that they hold about themselves.  This woman might be dressing up because she cares about her appearance.  She comes to a speaking club and want to look good?  She is perhaps believing that it is important that she looks good.  So if I say that she has bad taste, and she reacts, she is reacting to her own beliefs about her appearance.  However, he believes with some certainty that he doesn’t have pink hair.  There’s nothing in my statement of pink hair that lands on him.  He doesn’t judge himself as a pink-haired individual.

 

If we lived in a stimulus – response world everyone would react to the same stimulus in exactly the same way.  If I tell everyone in the room that “I love you!” everyone would experience the same feelings and respond in the same way.  My experience is that if I tell two people the same thing I am more than likely going to get two very different responses.

 

We make up beliefs moment, by moment by moment.  The job of the brain is to make sense of our environment, to make sense of the world that we live in.  We do that through the creation – moment by moment – of beliefs.  And these made-up beliefs affect every aspect of what we perceive and what we respond to.  And this is great news!  This means that we are not bound to our responses.  We are not determined – fatalistically – to respond forever in the same way.  We have seen that we have all changed beliefs at some point in our lives.  Given different information, different evidence we change beliefs all the time!

 

Feeling whatever we experience: responding with anger, with sadness, with frustration, with joy.  These are choices based on how we view the world.  Based on specific belief.  “Santa Claus isn’t real?”  “You are very poor dresser.”  “I love you!”  How we respond is based on the beliefs we hold.  By examining our beliefs we can change our responses and change our life!

 

Viktor Frankl celebrated the space between stimulus and response.  I find it useful to identify that space as a belief.  Frankl survived the holocaust by internally validating himself, by making believe that he was talking in front of imaginary audiences of thousands.  He survived to go on to do so!  Frankl survived the holocaust by creating inside himself a feeling of importance. How might we examine our beliefs, change them – if we want to – and thereby fundamentally change our responses, and improve our lives?