We’re looking at this whole thing wrong.
It’s Wednesday morning. The slow and steady build-up of chimes releases from your iPhone on the opposite side of the room as you struggle to bring clarity to your vision. You roll out of bed in chagrin as you forcefully bulldoze your way to silence the alarm, making last weekend’s drunken slip-and-fall at the bar look both graceful and poised.
The week is already off to a rough start and your projections don’t anticipate a changing of the tides. It is at this point, you make the unconscious decision to shift into autopilot and attempt to suppress all emotions for the rest of the week.
A seemingly innocuous choice, you concede that while it’s probably not the most prudent selection for experiencing the final three days of the workweek, it’ll be fine as long as people stay out of your way.
As long as those pesky, reactive emotions aren’t triggered, you’ll make it to the gilded fringe known as the weekend.
It begs the question, however — the alarm, the preparation, the commute, the work, the sacrifice — what are you doing this all for? What’s the endgame?
The Desired Outcome
At the core of humanity, the most sensible and universal answer to that question is to be happy. Happiness, unfortunately for us, isn’t anything tangible we can latch onto. Happiness is an emotion, and it’s just as fleeting as all the others. It either occurs or it doesn’t. We think we have some control over it and while that’s true, it’s conditional. Understanding happiness is to understand all emotions.
Many will argue that their negative emotions produced via negative life events are what keep us from the onset of happiness. Moreover, most of us run from our negative emotions, suppress them, or lie to ourselves and others about their actual impact.
But negative emotions — or any emotion for that matter — aren’t just random, overly-sensitized respondents that array like soldiers whenever something issues an abrupt wake-up call.
Painfully misunderstood, your emotions are predictors and the basis for every experience, action, and understanding that occurs for us in life. That’s right — these annoying nuances we claim are responsible for all of our poor decisions are nothing more than little tarot card readings.
Not sold? Let’s consult a couple of experts.
Dr. Max Di Luca of the University of Birmingham School of Psychology investigates the mechanisms of human perception using psychophysical methods and computational modeling. He says of the brain’s ability to predict the future,
“Our brain relies on the past history to predict what will happen next. Any regularity we encounter can inform us on what should be happening because we project what we have learned from the past into the future.”
His colleague Dr. Darren Rhodes offers a similar take on our perception of time,
“We are not passive watchers. We use what we know about the world to inform us about when something is likely to happen. If our predictions are slightly wrong, we perceive the world somewhat in between expectation and reality. We hear, see and feel what we think we should be experiencing, not what is really happening out there.”
In layman’s terms, your brain doesn’t react to protect us but rather, predicts. It leverages past experiences and similar situations to create meaning from whatever’s happening in the forefront. It’s not trying to identify what the situation is as much as it’s figuring out what the situation is like. What you feel thereafter is indicative of the experience the brain is preparing for.
It seems like a good idea, but if you look closer it’s a bit primitive. After all, the brain was originally constructed to ward off saber-tooth tigers. Instances often repeated themselves to the nth degree. Nowadays, we’re a little more complicated — to denote all experiences as previous ones is a tad premature.
Nonetheless, the onset of happiness is very much a prediction, as well. It ensues when the horizon appears to be within our grasp, shining ever so brightly with clouds of faith and hope decorating the sky.
The double-edged sword of happiness, however, is aiming for it is actually incongruent with happiness itself. Happiness occurs when you’re present to or involved in something for its own sake rather than some superfluous purpose — even if that purpose is as noble as the desire to be happy.
Striving for happiness is actually full-on prediction mode. It establishes in a never-ending series of checkpoints that will continue moving the finish line backward until your final breaths. The harder we work, the more the expectation inflates.
So what the hell do we do? It sounds like a lose-lose(?)
On the contrary, the things that keep us from happiness — stress, anxiety, worry, fear — are as fabricated by the brain as happiness itself. All these emotions make up the universal set of signals each of us human beings is armed with to make better sense of life.
Killing yourself to alter your external circumstances to allow for happiness to emerge will be quite the empty moment should your target hinge on your joy.
When you’re finally able to interpret your emotions as your brain doing its best impression of a fortune teller, you’ll realize you don’t have to wait for your happiness. When you accept life’s simplicity and your place in it, getting out of your head and giving yourself to others as a result, elation is right around the corner.
We’ve made life wildly complicated by misinterpreting our emotions and fashioning extrinsic distractions to supplant them when all we’ve really needed this whole time is a passionate hobby, a few exciting plans, and good old-fashioned human relatedness.
If you go back to the Stone Age, 90% of everything was relevant. Nowadays, it’s essentially the opposite. Happiness today takes focus, understanding (both of what you know and what you don’t know) and an intense appreciation for everything around you.
Don’t be fooled by the guise of anxiety or the rackets of fear. Simply be compassionate about how your naive-beyond-its-years brain is doing its best to help you survive.
It knows your needs but it’s up to you to create your desires.
Be happy, and give up everything else.