Tag Archives: happiness

“Hardwiring Happiness” by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

So the problem that I have with the majority of self-help books is that they have a great idea that can be covered in a well-fleshed-out article, but they stretch it out with redundant examples to fill up the requisite number of pages needed to publish a book. Hardwiring Happiness definitely falls into this category. It is essentially a handbook on how to reprogram the neural pathways in the brain to create a more positive default response to stimuli. It’s a great idea and something I feel many people can benefit from, especially in our toxic fear-based society. I would have just preferred the Reader’s Digest version.

Hanson’s concept of hardwiring happiness is based upon the science behind neuroplasticity.

All mental activity—sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes—is based on underlying neural activity. Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on the channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/neural activity—especially if it is conscious—will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like surging current reshaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain.

(p. 10)

Hanson’s approach is based on a four-step principle which forms the acronym HEAL:

  1. Have a positive experience.

  2. Enrich it.

  3. Absorb it.

  4. Link positive and negative material.

(p. 60)

This approach reminded me a lot of EMDR, a type of therapy used to deal with issues of trauma (I can attest to the efficacy of this treatment). Positive experiences are embedded in the memory and strengthened. These positive mental states are then used to weaken the negative states associated with the trauma. HEAL is similar to EMDR, but used to promote general well-being and not intended to self-treat in situations where a trained therapist is needed.

As Hanson empathizes in this book, it’s important to address the brain’s negativity bias, where importance is placed on the negative instead of the positive (how our brains evolved in order to survive during harder times). But as is pointed out in the book, prolonged focus on the negative has lasting repercussions.

But when unpleasant experiences become negative material stored in your brain, that’s not good. Negative material has negative consequences. It darkens your mood, increases anxiety and irritability, and gives you a background sense of falling short, of inadequacy. This material contains painful beliefs like “no one would want me.” The desires and inclinations in it take you to the bad places. It can numb and muzzle you. Or it can make you overreact to others, which can create vicious cycles of negativity between you and them. Negative material impacts your body, wears down long-term mental and physical health, and can potentially shorten your life span.

(p. 126)

In an age where news and social media provide a constant stream that feeds the brain’s negativity bias, Hanson’s book offers some practical ways to deal with this. While it could have been shorter, the book is still worth reading for the simple steps provided for improving your mental well-being.

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“Sonnet 30: When to the sessions of sweet silent thought” by William Shakespeare

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

This poem is one of the “fair youth” sonnets. It essentially contrasts the emotional states associated with focusing on the past as opposed to the present.

The beginning of the sonnet is filled with the alliterative “s” sound, emulating the sound of a sigh, which is actually mentioned in the third line. The speaker is lost in thought about the past, obsessed with wasted time, failed endeavors, and lost loves. There is also a sense of mortality, as the person remembers the deaths of his friends and presumably contemplates his own. The focus on the past becomes so intense, that he is actually renewing and reliving his pain and loss. This is something I feel we have all experienced, at least I know for sure that I have. In my quiet times, it is easy for me to replay old tapes of the past and imagine what might have been, to mourn missed opportunities and lost friendships. This is exactly the feeling that Shakespeare is conveying in this poem.

But the last couplet provides a stark contrast to the prevailing mood of the sonnet. Here his focus shifts from the past to his current relationship with the fair youth, and you get the sense that the speaker is immediately able to let go of the past and appreciate what is truly important: the connection with people here and now.

We have a very limited time in our lives, and to waste that precious time obsessing about the past is a tragedy. To quote Ram Dass, we need to “Be Here Now.” We cannot change the past, and the future is uncertain. All we have is this moment. Take advantage of it and enjoy your connection with your friends and loved ones.

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“Sonnet 29: When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” by William Shakespeare

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

As I read this sonnet this morning, I was reminded of a saying which I frequently tell myself: “Don’t compare your insides with another person’s outsides.” We all have a tendency to look at others and see those things that we feel we are lacking in our lives, and then amplify them to the point that we end up inflicting suffering on ourselves. It’s kind of an amazing human quality that we can look at almost any person and see something which we wish we had. But if we were to “switch lives” with that other person, we could not just cherry-pick the few wonderful things we desire—we would have to take the entire package. At this point, becoming that other person almost always loses its appeal.

Shakespeare realizes this and expresses it toward the end of the sonnet. Once he turns his focus away from others and looks within, he sees that he is blessed with a deep love. He is able to see that the king’s riches and the other writers’ successes come at a price, and that he would have to sacrifice the closeness and the connection he feels with his beloved. He is not willing to do that, and I can totally relate. While I would like to be financially comfortable, spend my time travelling the world, be successful playing music, the truth is, if it meant sacrificing the great things in my life, I could not do it. My relationships with my family and friends are way more important to me than all that external stuff.

Hopefully, this sonnet will help you appreciate the wonderful things in your life. Thanks for stopping by, and have a great day!

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How to Be Happy

behappy

I recently cashed in some frequent flier miles for some magazine subscriptions (use them or lose them). I ordered Wired and GQ was bundled with it. I really don’t care much about men’s fashion and the articles in GQ are mainly about things I couldn’t care less about, but then as I was flipping through an issue, I came upon an article about happiness which caught my eye.

Click here to read article online.

It was about a Buddhist monk who teaches the keys to happiness. In fact, the monk, Matthieu Ricard, even wrote a book called, appropriately, Happiness. Anyway, the article was written by a person who went to Nepal to meet Ricard and discover the secret to happiness.

“Happiness is a skill,” he wrote. “Skills must be learned.”

This kind of surprised me. I had always considered happiness to be a response to things internal or external, so the idea of happiness being a skill piqued my interest, because I can certainly learn new skills.

In the wake of recent events, I have made a commitment to try to turn off the external noise and focus on the positive. It seems that I am not the only person feeling this way right now.

…these past months had raised a bevy of stark questions about our own humanity. In Paris and Orlando, Nice and Istanbul, the center could not hold. We’d been tossed headlong into a new maelstrom of violence, both physical and verbal. I wanted to know: How could happiness flourish in a sucky world? And how could we find it again?

I have thought about this a lot recently, and as such, have limited my access to news, filtered certain people out of my social media feeds, and recommitted myself to regular meditation. Ricard affirms that this is the right way to improve my overall happiness.

“The search for happiness is not about looking at life through rose-colored glasses or blinding oneself to the pain and imperfections of the world…. It is the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred and obsession, that literally poison the mind.”

The author of the article cites some dismal statistics from the WHO:

The World Health Organization claimed that people in wealthy countries were more depressed, at eight times the rate, than counterparts in poorer ones. Living in affluence seemed to mean you never had enough. Professional status was one more ego-feed, and as useless as the number of likes garnered for posting a picture of your kid playing a piece of celery in the school play.

So does this mean our society is doomed, condemned to a permanent state of unhappiness? It seems that the answer is “No.”

But, I wanted to know, were we changeable, or doomed, in the end? Matthieu flashed a smiling impatience. Of course, we were changeable! We contained molecules of greatness, the possibility of enlightenment!

I am tired of feeling fearful, stressed out, anxious, and unhappy. This is not what life is about. And while I am not going to stick my head in the sand and ignore the world around me, I can make the conscious decision not to feed into the negativity that seems to flourish and instead spread some light and joy to those around me. Hopefully, that happiness will spread to others.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope your day is filled with happiness.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 9” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

As for holding to fullness,
Far better were it to stop in time!

Keep on beating and sharpening a sword,
And the edge cannot be preserved for long.

Fill your house with gold and jade,
And it can no longer be guarded.

Set store by your riches and honour,
And you will only reap a crop of calamities.

Here is the Way of Heaven:
When you have done your work, retire!

This is very practical advice for living life in the material world. We are spiritual beings having an earthly experience, and we must work and do certain things to take care of ourselves in this life. But what Lao Tzu is saying here is that we should not let our earthly desires dominate our lives. We all must work, and we all need a certain amount of wealth in order to survive, but the key to happiness and the “Way to Heaven” is to be content with just enough, and not to keep constantly striving for more. When we reach fullness, it is time to stop and rest. When a bird has finished building a nest, it does not keep building other ones. Likewise, when the bird has eaten enough, it stops eating. If it were to continue eating after it was full, it would no longer be able to fly.

We can spend our lives chasing after things that mean nothing in the end, but will that bring us happiness? I personally do not think so. I encourage you to pause, rest, and reflect on what is really important in your life. I suspect that it will not be material gains.

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“I Believe in Father Christmas” by Greg Lake

FatherChristmas

I awoke this morning to the sights and sounds of a thunderstorm here in the Appalachian Mountains. It dawned on me that it was Christmas Eve and that I generally like to read and write about something appropriate for the holiday. But with the stresses of my relatively new job and being engrossed in reading the very long and dense Infinite Jest, I failed to look for something to read that was seasonal. So I gave it a little thought and decided that I would read the lyrics to one of my favorite Christmas songs and analyze it as a poem.

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the Virgin’s birth
I remember one Christmas morning
A winter’s light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas tree smell
And their eyes full of tinsel and fire

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
’till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
And I looked at the sky with excited eyes
’till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish, pain, and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on Earth
Hallelujah, Noel, be it Heaven or Hell
The Christmas we get, we deserve

What I find most amazing about this poem (yes, I will refer to it as a poem instead of a song) is the expression of contradictory emotions. On one hand, there is disillusion and a touch of sadness, yet this is contrasted by feelings of hope and optimism at the possibility for happiness and spiritual joy. And it is done in such a way that I cannot say which side of the emotional spectrum is most strongly expressed. The result is that you connect to this poem based upon your own emotional state when you engage with it. So if you are feeling sad, you connect with the sadness but then get touched with a sense of hope. Conversely, if you are brimming with joy and happiness, you get that from the poem too, but tempered with the knowledge that there is still sadness in the world and that all things, even the joyous, will pass.

We have all heard the old cliché, that we create our own Heaven and Hell. I believe this, and I love the way it is expressed at the end of this poem. The choices we make and the thoughts that we choose to latch on to directly impact our feelings and the reality around us. If we choose the path of spirituality and happiness, then we deserve the blessings that accompany those conscious decisions and should celebrate those blessings. But if we choose to focus on the negative and the path of hate and fear, then we also deserve the life that we are burdened with and must accept responsibility for the reality which we helped create.

I wish all of you many blessings for the holidays and New Year, regardless of which holiday you observe or whether you observe a holiday at all. For myself, I am going to focus on my family and spreading more happiness, love, compassion, and understanding, because I think the world could use a little more of that right about now.

Cheers!

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Doctor Who – Eleventh Doctor: Issue 3

DoctorWho_03

This installment takes place in three time periods and deals with musical genius. While Alice is looking through her deceased mother’s record collection in 2014, she comments on two of her mom’s favorite artists: Robert Johnson and John Jones (who is a fictional representation of David Bowie, whose original name is David Jones). The Doctor then takes Alice back to 1962 to attend the first John Jones concert and then to 1931 to see Robert Johnson.

When Alice sees Jones perform, she is very disappointed that he has not yet embraced the glam-pop persona and is kind of dull on stage, or as she harshly states: “John Jones, it turns out, has no talent whatsoever!!” The Doctor then provides an astute observation regarding talent.

Now, now. If I’ve learnt one thing over 900 years, Alice, it’s that everyone has talent. Even if it’s sometimes… extremely well hidden.

As I thought about this, I had to accept the truth in the statement. All people have unique talents and sometimes it takes time for individuals to discover those talents and nurture them. And sadly, some talents are left undiscovered. I cannot help but wonder how many people, caught up in the craziness of daily life, neglect to search for and hone their particular abilities. I feel fortunate that I discovered my personal talents: playing music, reading, writing, running. These things have brought happiness to my life. I think that connecting with your unique talents provides a spiritual fulfillment that cannot be attained otherwise. I encourage everyone to find that special thing that you are passionate about and dedicate the time and effort to grow it.

The issue leaves off on a bit of a cliffhanger. Just like Robert Johnson, the Doctor was willing to “sell his soul” for something that he wanted more than anything. But after being freed from the spell, he cannot remember what it was that he desired so much that he was willing to sacrifice everything for it.

To be continued…

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