XIX. Finding Happiness
Everything can be used as an invitation to meditation. A smile, a face in the subway, the sight of a small flower growing in the crack of cement pavement, a fall of rich cloth in a shop window, the way the sun lights up flower pots on a windowsill. Be alert for any sign of beauty or grace. Offer up every joy, be awake at all moments, to “the news that is always arriving out of silence.” Slowly, you will become a master of your own bliss, a chemist of your own joy, with all sorts of remedies always at hand to elevate, cheer, illuminate, and inspire your every breath and movement. – Sogyal Rinpoche
Happiness. Isn’t that the ultimate goal, the underlying driving hope that propels us all forward through the unknown? Do we not wander the earth, risking all that we are and what we have become for the chance to experience a few fleeting moments of it? What is this elusive condition that pushes us toward our dreams and darkens our nightmares with its absence? Modern science and ancient wisdom have now come together to show us the clearest picture yet of just what happiness is and how we can find it in our lives. Want to know the secret to happiness? Here’s the good news: it’s not a secret, and you probably already know the answer. The downside? Like anything worth having in this life, you’ll have to work hard to get it.
First, why do we suffer or feel happy? You can thank your brain for that. The human brain evolved over millions of years, and to this day it still contains the more ancient parts that we share with our simpler cousins. In your head from the spinal cord forward and up you have a reptilian brain, a squirrel brain and a primate brain. You perceive the world with 2 different hemispheres. Your decisions are a mixture of the conscious and unconscious. All of these divisional compartments cooperate as well as conflict with each other to keep you alive.
For example, if you’re walking along a path and see a stick that resembles a snake, light bouncing off the stick enters your eyes and is processed as an image in the occipital cortex. This information is then sent to the ancient hippocampus, for evaluation as a threat or a reward, and also to the newly evolved pre-frontal cortex, where the information is given more sophisticated (but time-consuming) analysis. The hippocampus will find curvy shapes on its list of potential dangers and will trigger your amygdala to go off like an alarm, flooding your bloodstream with anxiety-producing hormones (which you experience as fear). Your fight-or-flight process causes you to jump back and perhaps yell (communicating danger to others). This incredible automatic process happens in less than a second. By this time, your pre-frontal cortex has fully analyzed the image of the object, searched your stored memories and determines that you are in no danger from the stick. Feel-good chemicals flood through your body, triggering relief.
Your brain is constantly scanning your environment for potential threats to avoid or rewards to pursue, keeping you alive. Your body is in a constant flux of neuro-chemical experiences. You even have a “second brain” of nerves and hormones in and around your stomach that regulates your mood (ever had a “gut-feeling” about something?). When you have a positive experience, like winning a game, accomplishing a goal, laughing with friends or having sex, your body produces feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. When you have a negative experience, like failing at a task, being made fun of, or stubbing your toe, your body produces norepinephrine, cortisol, or simply dramatically decreases feel-good chemicals. Your brain’s perception of the presence and absence of these chemicals combined with the electrical impulses of your thoughts produce the sensations of pleasure, pain and emotion.
Love is a particularly strong positive emotion that involves parts of the brain that process pleasure as well as parts that are associated with drug addiction. You are literally addicted to the chemical high you feel when you are with someone you love. Being separated from someone you love can cause horrible painful withdrawal symptoms. Evolution was amazingly effective when it came to getting us to want to form deep, lasting bonds for procreation and well-being.
Emotional conditions in any given moment are recorded along with basic information about what’s going on at the time to form memories. If you recall a stored memory later, your brain will recreate a rough simulation of the experience, including releasing the same chemicals that were present at the time. Your brain rates and records every experience as good, bad, or neutral. To help keep you alive, unfortunately, your brain has a bias toward the negative. Your brain will see curvy sticks as snakes most of the time to help you survive long enough to pass on your genetics. When recalling memories, it also accentuates negative experiences more than positive. As it turns out, however, most experiences are actually neutral to slightly positive rather than negative. Obsessing about the past with an extreme negative bias is called depression. Obsessing about the future with an extreme negative bias is called anxiety. Anxious and depressing thoughts arise because of the fact that you are a divided self, with many parts working for and against each other. Your brain, although it is an incredible and brilliant biological machine, actually works more like a committee than a single person when it comes to making decisions and recording memories, and it’s not always good at either.
Another source of suffering comes from the strategies that your brain has evolved to help you survive. Your brain incorrectly sees you as being separate from your body and separate from everything else in the Universe. It tries in vain to maintain stability in a Universe that is constantly changing. It causes you to spend all of your time chasing after rewards and avoiding threats. This is what the Buddha called craving, the origin of suffering. What’s more, most of this process of seeing the world and reacting to it happens on an unconscious level. Your conscious mind is like a rider sitting on top of the wild elephant that is your unconscious mind, trying to control where the both of you will go. This is why you can know that something is wrong but then do it anyway. In a struggle of wills, the elephant wins every time. A key to happiness is teaching the rider and the elephant how to work well together. How do we go about this? The key is knowing that you only have this moment to do anything.
Scientists have determined that the psychological moment of “now” lasts about 3 seconds, or about the length of one breath. That’s all you have to work with. The past is gone, the future isn’t yet here. Each new moment of now gives you a chance to make things right. You have the power to choose. Every moment is a gift. In each new breath you are literally a different person physically–your brain has physically changed; many of your body’s cells have died and others have been born. Here’s the catch: you can start anew in every moment of now, but you have to work with the conditions that the past versions of you left behind. Consequently, what you do in this moment will affect the experiences of the future versions of you yet to come. Therefore, forgive your past selves for their mistakes, and honor them by learning from their suffering and striving to do better. Also be good to your future selves. They’re counting on you. You have to be your own best friend. Be kind to yourself. If you can’t do that, at least be in your own corner.
So how do we get through the next 3 seconds? That’s really what life as a human being is all about. Here’s a few proven techniques to help cultivate happiness in the moment of now:
– Address your basic hierarchy of needs. At a minimum, you need food, water, shelter, personal space, sleep, sex and companionship.
– Money helps, but only to the extent that you have the freedom to address your basic needs and wants without worry. Research shows that beyond that, happiness levels off or even decreases with increasing wealth.
– Factors in your living and working environment such as scenery, noise, crime, length of commute, neighbors, co-workers, family and friends contribute greatly to your happiness or suffering. The amount of control and influence you have in life also affects your happiness. Work to change what you can and accept what you can’t.
– Since your breath is so tied to the moment of now, regulating it can make huge changes in your physical experience. In fact, most people tend to hold their breath or breathe very shallow in a stressful moment. This reduces the amount of oxygen getting to your brain, making things worse. When you’re stressed, take a few deep breaths. Seriously. It works.
– It’s amazing how much of a stressful experience really comes down to tightness in certain muscle groups (preparation for fight-or flight). Learn basic relaxation techniques to direct your body to calm down. I process stress in my shoulders, stomach and thighs. I find that relaxing these muscles while breathing deeply greatly improves my mood.
– What you put into your body and how you take care of your body directly affect your level of happiness in a HUGE way. Eat healthy. Exercise. Seriously. It works. No getting around this one, folks.
–Smile, even when you don’t feel like it. It sends signals to your brain that actually improve your mood.
–Remember that your brain naturally has a negative bias. Accurately assess each moment, and accentuate the positive when it occurs. Try to see the beauty and wonder in every moment. Keep in mind that most experiences are positive or at least neutral.
– When there’s no getting around the negativity of a particular moment, recall memories of people you love and who love you. Bring to mind times that you were awesome and on your game to aid you in a present moment of fear, and recall happy memories to comfort you in times of sadness. This automatically releases chemicals associated with these memories that will make you feel better and more confident.
– Meditate for at least 10 minutes every day to promote mindfulness. Simply sit quietly, being aware of your breath and watching the river of your thoughts go by without being attached to them. When you get caught up in a thought wormhole, gently bring your awareness back to your breathing and watching your thoughts impartially.
– Training your mind in this way will allow you to react to the present moment in all situations with calmness. You will increasingly be able to interpret each moment more realistically as opposed to overreacting emotionally. You will be able to distance yourself from pain and embrace pleasure without craving after it.
– Learn as much as you can about yourself and the Universe around you. This will give you greater confidence and understanding to better handle any situation that arises.
– Be compassionate with yourself and others. Make sure to schedule time every day to do things that you enjoy doing to increase your happiness. Also seek opportunities to help someone else increase their happiness. Guess what? Acting compassionately in this way increases the amount of happiness that you both experience.
– Basically be awesome at everything you do. The more you work to improve your skills and your reactions to situations, the more happiness you will experience in the present moment.
Cultivating happiness in the present moment of now takes a lot of work, but it is totally worth the effort. If you do the things that I have described, I promise that you will begin to find more happiness. That’s just how it works. The Buddhists have known this for thousands of years, and modern science has officially confirmed how this process works physically in the brain. For further reading, I highly recommend Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson and The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, two incredibly informative books that I borrowed heavily from for this post.
But getting through the next three seconds is just the beginning. Real lasting happiness is developed when you maintain and carry that personal happiness forth into the world through your interactions with others. It all depends on what you choose to contribute with your life. More on that in the next post. For now, you have 3 seconds.
How will you choose to spend them?