Events around the globe don’t seem to be pointing to a bright future. Besides polluting the environment, we seem bent on killing each other. Perhaps that’s why the number of articles about how to stay happy seems to be multiplying faster than rabbits in old Mr. McGregor’s garden. The basic assumption is that the brain is plastic and with a little training, we can teach ourselves to ignore reality and keep on smiling.
Rick Hanson, the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, is the latest author of a happiness book: Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence. Human brains, he begins, are hard-wired to be walk on the dark side and with good reason. In prehistoric times, forgetting you’d make a tasty treat for most of the planet’s creatures might prove fatal. But don’t despair. While negativity has a hold over us 5:1, meaning we need 5 positive experiences to neutralize a negative one, we can overcome this imbalance. (“Hardwire Yourself To Be Happy,” by Judy Jones, More July/August 2014, pg.94)
We begin by realizing the brain must be trained as if it were a muscle. According to Hanson, when we experience a happy incident, we must focus on the feeling for several seconds so that we absorb it. We must ask ourselves how the mood affects us? Does it remind us of another happy experience? By prolonging and enriching each event, we are “influencing brain neurons, encouraging them to link with other happy thoughts and experiences so that the brain begins to rewire itself.” What’s more, when a negative experience does occur, we can alter its impact by remembering a positive one of greater emotional content. Over time, if we practice faithfully, we diminish the room available for negative thoughts. (Ibid pg. 94.)
I admit, all this talk of happiness makes me wonder. Is it a proper goal? Would seeking awareness be a better one? Faced with global warming, for example, do I really want to tell myself, “Don’t worry, Be happy”? And what would become of serious literature if everyone followed Hanson’s advice? Arthur Miller wouldn’t be happy if his audiences laughed through Death of a Salesman.
Happiness is a relative emotion, too complicated and too nuanced, to leave to muscle exercises. I submit a couple of truisms to illustrate: 1) nothing teaches like failure; 2) a condition exists far worse than misery. Death.
(First published 8/6/14)