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5 Ways to Leverage the Power of Emotions
You’ll learn: Why and how we use The Scarcity Loop to escape negative emotions; five ways to learn from negative emotions and use them for something positive.
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I’m in Tennessee today to be on some Ramsey Network shows. Tune in!
My mother, the great badass Lynda Easter, recently finished my book, Scarcity Brain.
She soon after found herself in hospital, where she experienced the power of The Scarcity Loop. It revealed something about The Scarcity Loop we all should know.
Her experience can give us all lessons about dealing with life on life’s terms and living in the present tense.
A quick primer on the Scarcity Loop
It’s a three-part behavior loop that is unparalleled at capturing attention, holding it, and driving us into repeat behaviors. It’s in habit-forming apps, slot machines, online shopping, and more.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the Scarcity Loop, it’s a behavior loop I identified while researching my newest book, Scarcity Brain. You can think of it as the serial killer of moderation.
I discovered it when I went inside a casino laboratory in Las Vegas—a new, fully-working casino used entirely for research on human behavior. Think: the twilight zone of casinos.
The Scarcity Loop has three parts:
Opportunity: an opportunity to get something of value (money, entertainment, psychic relief, possessions, etc.)
Unpredictable rewards: You know you’ll get the thing of value, but you don’t know when or how valuable it’s going to be.
Quick repeatability: You can quickly repeat the behavior over and over.
There is nothing better at capturing human attention, holding it, and driving us to quickly repeat behaviors. It’s a fun escape in the short term—but it can often lead to long-term problems.
The Scarcity Loop boomed in slot machines in the 1980s. It led slot machine gambling to increase tenfold. It’s now inserted in all sorts of technologies and institutions that capture our time and attention. It’s in social media, dating apps, finance apps, our food system, the gig economy, our news ecosystem, and much more.
The loop has been perfected without regulation on our phones and online. Which brings us back to my mom.
The Scarcity Loop as an escape hatch
We often fall into The Scarcity Loop to escape negative emotions.
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago.
First: She’s OK. She was deemed “cancer-free” two years ago.
She now visits the Huntsman Cancer Center in Salt Lake City every handful of months for checkups.
She had a checkup last week. This experience is always quite stressful.
It’s nerve-racking because you’re waiting to hear whether you’re still cancer free or whether the cancer has returned.
It’s triggering because you’re sitting in a place where you got some of the worst news of your life and had to go through all sorts of heinous medical procedures.
A nurse took my mom from the waiting room to a testing room, where she sat in a hospital robe, waiting for the doctor.
The room was bare. There was no TV. No books or magazines.
So she did what any normal human does when sitting by themselves in 2023. She reached for her phone—and encountered a problem.
She’d left the phone in her car.
This led to a sinking feeling. “I had to sit there with my feelings,” she told me. “I was afraid. It wasn’t fun. I got a bit weepy.”
That’s when she “realized I was wanting to use my phone to suppress the negative emotions of being back in the hospital,” she said.
This type of phone use isn’t unique to my mom. Using a phone (or any other behavior that falls into The Scarcity Loop) to suppress negative emotions happens to us all.
The Scarcity Loop “works” because it’s so engaging—it’s a powerfully distracting game. But we can often use it unconsciously as an escape.
And this happens on all different scales. During big emotional events like hospital visits. But also the minute annoyances of life, like when we feel bored in a checkout line.
Why we use The Scarcity Loop to escape
Most phone pickups are driven by negative emotions.
Nir Eyal, in his book Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, explains that “external triggers,” like a pop-up notification, aren’t the main reason we check our phones.
Rather, most phone opens are driven by “internal triggers.” Eyal writes:
Emotions, particularly negative ones, are powerful internal triggers and greatly influence our daily routines. Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation.
He points to research suggesting that internal triggers power most phone pickups. Some suggest it’s 90 percent. Here’s how it works:
Cue: Negative emotion
Response: Open an app on the phone
Reward: Distraction from the negative emotion
Eyal points to other research suggesting that internet use and depression are positively correlated.
(FWIW, that result is probably a chicken/egg mix: Depressed people use the internet to relieve negative emotions, and the internet offers us all kinds of depressing information, possibly amplifying negative emotions over the long term.)
How to navigate emotions
These five tips will help you understand emotion and navigate it better.
I asked my mom what it was like to sit with her negative emotions. She said it wasn’t fun in the short term—”I definitely wanted my phone in that moment,” she said.
But—and this is the critical point—it was also enlightening.
“It made me realize I often suppress negative feelings many other times, in many other ways,” she said. “In another circumstance I might do something else, like eating.”
She continued: “So in the future, I might try to sit with negative feelings and try to understand why they’re coming up and see if my first impulse around them is good for me.”
Science backs her takeaway. After speaking to her, I analyzed research and past work I’ve done on the topic. Here are some pointers:
1. Listen to your emotions
“The reason we have emotions in the first place is because they serve critical functions that throughout history have assisted with our survival and reproduction.” Jessica Tracy, a professor of psychology and the director of the University of British Columbia’s Emotion & Self Lab, told me that as I was reporting Scarcity Brain.
Think of emotions as signals. They’re shouting something—and that something can often be informative.
Muting emotions immediately and often may lead you to miss what they’re trying to tell you. And that information may shift your thinking or lead you to take an action that enhances your life in the long term.
For example, the sadness of losing a loved one can lead to a greater appreciation for your relationship with the person—and allow you to savor your relationships with others. Anxiety around your health could lead you to change your habits in a way that allows you to live better.
2. Embrace the swings
One of my best friends, Nick Gordon, is a hell of a gambler. Loves the blackjack tables.
When he plays, he’s always shouting about “the swings.” That is to say, the ups and downs of his stack of chips.
Gambling swings are just like swings in our emotions: Sometimes we’re up, sometimes down. Financial swings are programmed mathematically into gambling—the game isn’t fun if we’re always winning or losing. (If we’re always getting a predictable reward for a behavior, it’s called a job. If we’re always losing, it sucks.)
Emotional swings, too, are programmed into life.
Like a run at the blackjack table, the downswings make the upswings more rewarding and exciting.
One of my favorite quotes in Scarcity Brain comes from Laura Zerra, who is the toughest person I’ve ever met and one of the coolest. Her experiences living off the grid, running the gamut of human experiences, taught her something wise about living:
I really just wanted to experience the entirety of the human condition. The ins and outs, ups and downs, goods and bads of it and just have a really rich experience of living. I didn’t think these human experiences would be all good. But I thought they’d all be important. They’d change my perspective.
3. Determine when a tool has become an escape hatch
The Scarcity Loop isn’t just in technology. It’s in all sorts of other nooks and crannies of everyday life, including our food system (read chapter 8 of Scarcity Brain to learn more).
I used to come home from work on Friday and be pulled to the pantry for my wife’s bulk-size bag of kettle corn or peanut M&Ms. And I’d eat way too much of it.
When I was working on my nutrition with Trevor Kashey—my most brilliant friend and star of chapter 14 of The Comfort Crisis—he had no advice, just a question: “What happens on Friday when you get home from work?”
“Well, I get home from work earlier … and I usually sit in the kitchen and send some final emails, and then I feel like the week is done, and …” Bingo. I was using food to reward myself and come down from stress.
Figuring out what happens just before you do an action you want to stop is critical. There’s an underlying trigger.
For my mom, fear and stress triggered her to reach for her phone. For me, stress triggered me to reach for junk food.
If you can understand, like Trevor said, “what happens just before,” you can begin to find a better way to manage. (P.S. Work with Trevor here.)
4. Urge surf or find a better escape
Once you understand some of the triggers that lead you do a behavior you may not want to, you can start to make changes.
According to the famed University of Washington researcher Alan Marlatt, one option is to “urge surf.” He explained it like this: “You can’t get rid of (cravings). They are going to happen. So you have to learn some sort of acceptance, a recognition of what’s going on, and a more mindful perspective. Then you can ride them out. You can let go without giving in.”
He often had his patients focus on their breathing when an urge popped up.
He’d tell them to “ride the ‘wave’ by using the breath as a kind of surfboard.” The more you surf the urges—that is, sit with the discomfort of wanting to do a thing but focus on your breathing instead—the less appealing that thing becomes over time.
Or you can find another way to deal with the internal trigger. In my case, Kashey recommended that I “find some ‘calorie negative’ ways of dealing with stress,” he said.
“Walking is my number one,” he said. “It relieves more stress and is health-promoting. It leads you to burn calories rather than onboard them. And it removes you from the situation and adds time for reflection, where you can realize that you weren’t really hungry.”
I started going for a walk when I got home on Friday, and my life improved.
5. Find a balance
I’m not saying we should never use the Scarcity Loop to escape. That would be silly.
But I do think we often unconsciously fall into it to find relief, as Eyal, Kashey, Marlatt, and many other thinkers have shown.
It’s more productive to use the scarcity loop “on purpose with purpose” (another Trevor Kashey phrase).
We need to understand where, why, and how we slip into the loop and the motives of the larger forces using it.
We often feel guilty for any and all behaviors we want to do less of. For example, eating junk food, surfing social media, binging Netflix, shopping online, etc.
A better method is to do them intentionally. No guilt involved. Simply set aside dedicated time or resources for the behavior. And when you do, enjoy the hell out of it. No shame. For example:
Scroll social media for specific time periods each day
Binge Netflix on certain weekends
Eat a bunch of Doritos every week or so
Go down internet rabbit holes
The point is to do the behaviors on your terms rather than letting underlying emotions drive you into them for reasons that give you short-term relief.
Have fun, don’t die, and thanks to my mom, the badass, for sharing her experience (being mom to a writer means any conversation can end up in a newsletter).
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