I just completed reading The Science of Happiness by Stefan Klein and first chapter into the book I decided that this needs to be stuff of common knowledge. We spend our whole lives seeking happiness. Almost everything we do is to attain a sense of satisfaction and joy. No one ever wants to be sad. Yet we put dismal amount of effort to actually be happy. We keep expecting good things to happen to us without realizing that “good” is objective and happiness is more a state-of-mind than a state-of-life.
This book puts forward the neuroscience behind many of our concepts about happiness, sadness, satisfaction, love and desire. Translating everything into layman language I am going to interpret some general concepts about happiness that many of you might already know to be too ingrained in our minds that we forget the logical background of these, taking them for granted and preventing ourselves to actually follow them in our daily lives.
We have a happiness system.
This means that happiness is not simply the absence of sadness, but it is something to be practiced despite the continuous struggles of life. Adult brain continues to change. Every time we gain new experiences, like reading a book, indulging in a hobby or going on a trip, new connections are forged in our network of nerve cells. What this implies is that no one is born a “Sunday’s child”, we can all learn to channel our energy. Connections in our brain determine how we feel and they are more easily formed in childhood. Genes too affect our ability to be happy, but only as much as destiny affects our life. WE CAN CHANGE IT.
Since environment shapes an organism, brain can reprogram itself.
In order to control our feelings, we must first be aware of them. We feel a lot of emotions without analyzing the why or how of it. It is same as saying you have to accept your weaknesses to conquer it. Emotions are unconscious and beyond our control, but feelings, the realization of these emotions, can well be manipulated. But manipulating the brain is quite a task. The “All Is Well” theory actually works, but it takes skill and continued monitoring of emotions to deceive the master. Human beings don’t understand reason, they understand feelings. How many times have you taken a decision impulsively somehow knowing it is harmful? It is thus important to know the root of all our feelings and then reason with ourselves.
Positive feelings can extinguish negative ones and vice-versa.
However, they sometimes occur together. In such times we have to choose which side we allow to take over.
The feedback system of pleasure and stress are connected. The expectation of pleasure can work in direct opposition to the things that are upsetting us. If you’re having a bad day at college, the pretext of going home and watching your favorite TV show can lighten up your mood. We can use this to our benefit in a lot of situations. Rewarding yourself with a cupcake after two hours of study can increase your productivity. Little joys that don’t usually matter a lot can still get the expectation system working and help ooze stress.
There are specific areas in the brain that control negative and positive emotions, thus reinforcing the idea that both can occur at the same time. When we control our negative feelings we increase the activity on the left side of our brain that is responsible for positive emotions. This sets a chain reaction in motion and we eventually learn to harbor positivity and shun negativity. Slowly, happiness can become a habit. But if we keep indulging in self-doubt and negativity, sadness can also become a habit.
Having focus can help us practice control over almost all our habits.
For example, if you have a bad direction sense, paying attention only to the routes instead of the song playing in your car or the argument breaking out next to it, will help you memorize the routes slowly but definitely.
Similarly, when we focus on pain, the changes in the cerebral cortex make us still more sensitive to suffering. The perception of pain is atleast partially learned.
Passions and Desires
In nature they are all good and we only have to avoid misuse and excess. That can happen only by becoming familiar. Animals experience emotions just like human beings but we have the added skill set required to resist our emotions and desires whether due to family pressure or just so that we can focus our time on our careers.
Human beings are never satisfied.
What we want only makes us more hungry. There is an expectation system mechanism which releases excitement at the sight of something we want. However when this process is repeated over a certain time span, the expectation system gets used to the object and we want more of it or something else apart from it. Stronger stimulation is then required to activate the expectation system. This explains the theory that happiness and satisfaction are two very different but correlated terms. It is possible to be happy yet unsatisfied and vice-versa.
“But when we are open to different pleasures instead of stronger ones, the sense of delight is restored, and when the contrast is well chosen, our enjoyment is even more intense than before.”
There is a Robinson Crusoe theory, wherein writing down the good and bad things in our life side by side makes us realize that it could have been worse, that it is better to hold on to what we have and try to be satisfied.
These are all concepts and techniques to tame the mind. However, happiness is different for all of us. Learning the science behind it can give us a better perspective but we still need to work towards it.
"There are 6 billion people on earth, and there are 6 billion paths to happiness"