David James Olney
9 October, 2023
Establishing an action orientation is relatively simple, but not easy. Converting negative emotion into an impetus for constructive action is difficult until it becomes normal. Immaterial of the effort required to develop a positive action orientation, it is a boon for mental health and practical outcomes.
As I argued in my previous blog post, we all need to develop an action orientation, so that we are not overwhelmed by negative emotion and passivity, which will only result in a continuing deterioration in general mental health and practical outcomes across society.
Establishing an action orientation is the most reliable way to increase your chances of finishing what you start and becoming healthier. You can either keep on trying to come up with specific mechanisms to push you forward each time you want to achieve a goal, or you can establish an action orientation that will provide you with a way to move forward in every situation.
Through experience and a lot of reading, I have found that there are four fundamental ways to establish an action orientation, which you can implement in whatever order suits you, as long as you put all of them into practice.
To begin, let’s consider Marilee Adams work on changing how and why we ask questions. Adams has observed that people ask questions for two main reasons: to confirm what they believe (judger questions), or to learn something new (learner questions). In the case of negative emotions, if you ask a judger question about your negative emotional state, all you are going to do is confirm that you are, indeed, feeling bad. For example: I felt bad yesterday, and is there any reason why I should feel different today?
Too often, people use judger questions to validate that their negative emotional state is real. There is no doubt that negative emotions are real, as the feeling mind creates emotions to motivate us to constructive action. Validating our negative emotions should only be a first step, rather than an end in itself.
In contrast, a learner question primes you to gain insight into a broader situation that will increase your understanding and ability to act. For example: What aspect of this situation, or circumstances, motivated me to feel a negative emotion, and what can I do to change the situation, or circumstances, to ameliorate the negative emotion?
A judger question situates a negative emotion as a valid end point, while a learner question situates a negative emotion as a starting point for broader analysis and action. In order to develop an action orientation, you have to perceive negative emotions as starting points for asking questions and taking action, rather than perceiving them as the end point of circumstances that have gone wrong.
Instead of analysing how and why we ask questions, Sheheryar Banuri asks us to consider the impact of our decisions on our well-being. Banuri asks us to imagine a graph on which the horizontal axis represents frequency and the vertical axis represents impact. If we choose to eat junk-food for one day the frequency is low and the impact is low, but, if we choose to eat junk-food for 365 days in a row, the frequency is high and the impact is very high.
If we feel negative emotion and take no action for one day, then the impact is low, but, if we feel negative emotion and take no action for 365 days in a row, the impact will be immense. From Banuri’s perspective, every decision we make needs to be analysed in isolation, as well as being analysed as if it were our normal, everyday behaviour. Negative emotion is an inevitable part of life, but we should avoid letting negative emotion become the basis for long-term detrimental inaction.
Feeling bad for a few days in a row can provide us with the thinking time necessary to work out what needs to change and what we need to do, but only if we have acknowledged how bad the outcome will be if we continue doing nothing to change the circumstances that led us to feel bad in the first place. An action orientation is not necessarily going to get us up and moving straight away, but it will motivate us to ask learner questions, and to consider the consequences of repeating decisions day in and day out.
Developing an action orientation also depends on cultivating a sense of active optimism. In Everly, Strouse, and Strouse’s excellent book on resilience, they describe active optimism as being one of the critical characteristics required to promote and maintain well-being. According to their research, there are two kinds of optimists: passive optimists, who hope things will get better, and active optimists, who intend to make things better.
Over time, passive optimists lose their optimism, because they exist at the whim of the world, while active optimists maintain their optimism, because they have become accustomed to taking action to achieve positive outcomes. Optimism is critical to envisaging how situations can be improved, and active optimism is a vital aspect of embodying an action orientation day after day.
Asking learner questions, analysing the long-term consequences of decisions, and cultivating active optimism, all take time, energy, effort, and opportunity. You have to be willing to try, and willing to risk failing, to develop an action orientation. Unfortunately, as Haidt and Lukianoff argue in, The Coddling of the American Mind, progressively fewer people have the opportunity to take risks and experience small failures on the way to becoming competent adults.
Consequently, it is now unlikely that you can develop an action orientation by accident as a consequence of normal life. Instead, developing an action orientation is now a deliberate choice. In our passive world, in which risk and failure have become increasingly frightening, making the deliberate choice to do the beneficial thing is not easy. Meanwhile, doing the easy things (being passive and accepting negative emotion day after day) cannot lead to achievement and well-being. The decision to develop an action orientation is difficult, but better than the alternative.
If reading about developing an action orientation has made you angry, anxious, or depressed, please question what circumstances made it easier to feel bad than to empower yourself to achieve well-being. An action orientation used to be a normal state of being for most people, and it is completely within your power to spend most of your time responding positively to your experience of the world. Negative emotions are a part of life, and transcending the circumstances that motivate negative emotions is how you build a rewarding life.
Adams, Marilee G. (2016). Change Your Questions, Change Your Life (3rd Edition). Berrett-Koehler, Kindle Edition.
Banuri, Sheheryar (2023). The Decisive Mind: How to Make the Right Choice Every Time. Hodder & Stoughton, Audiobook Edition.
Everly Jr., George S. Strouse, and Douglas A. Strouse (2015). Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed. Gildan Media, Audiobook Edition.
Haidt, Jonathan and Greg Lukianoff (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Penguin, Kindle Edition.