I’m not sure that there’s anything more universal for humanity than the desire for happiness. Everybody wants to understand it, everybody wants to achieve it and yet many of us struggle with finding it, some of us even going our entire lives without ever knowing a true sense of it. While it would be naïve to remove genetic predispositions and life circumstances entirely from the equation of our happiness, these very real things aside, it does seem possible that there’s a tangible way to work towards a more perpetual state of happiness. I think we just might be able to grow it.
Humans have a natural affinity for being negative; let’s just get that out of the way now. Part of this is because a more cautionary approach to life can protect us. Another part of it is that negative memories carry more emotional weight for us than positive memories – and emotional memory is something that really builds a home inside of us and stays there – and negative memories tend to wear off more slowly than positive ones. The hemisphere of the brain that processes negative information and emotions is actually different from the hemisphere that processes positive information and emotions; our brains just work such that they attach more thinking – and therefore stronger words and more rumination – to negative information, keeping it closer to us and more readily accessible than positive information.
Think of it this way: if you’ve ever received feedback from a teacher on an essay, sat through an annual evaluation at work or, hell, even been dumped in a relationship, what did you come away from it remembering most? Most likely it was that one thing, among a list of things you did well, that you need to work to fix or change. Most likely it was the negative stuff.
It takes six positive thoughts to equalize one negative. What this means is that each time you make a self-deprecating joke or think something bad about yourself, you’ll need six positive affirmations to simply negate your one so seemingly small statement, to merely get back to a place of neutrality. What this means is that we seem to need to learn how to handle ourselves more kindly and compassionately if we want to be able to learn and understand and really live true happiness.
Think of a typical day for you. What do the little voices inside your head say when you look in a mirror? – do they tell you that you’re too fat or that you have terrible hair? What do the little voices inside your head say when you make a mistake? – do they tell you that you yourself are bad for having made that error? I know that some days I might not even think one good thing about myself, or when I do, it’s shrouded in surprise, because it came out of a place of wanting to criticize or critique. It’s in those moments that we need to smack ourselves awake and start to push back against the always-present pull of our default.
Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, has a neurologically based theory about learning which I think can be applied to the idea of our happiness. Coyle suggests that by repetitive, mindful practice of a certain task or hobby, we can make the corresponding information in our minds stronger and more accessible, thereby “growing” our talent, rejecting the idea that “genius” is purely and solely innate. How he suggests we grow our talent has to do with something called myelin.
Myelin can be thought of as a protective shell – it wraps itself around the neurons that transmit our thoughts, protecting the information we take in and helping us to store it. It’s myelin that’s responsible for the strengthening of a particular message; the more you access a certain piece of information – which is to say, the more you think about it or “use” it – the more you strengthen the myelin around that information and therefore the message itself.
But what if this theory could extend beyond talent and learning and be applied to the notion of our happiness? What might happen if we spent our time strengthening positive messages about ourselves and the world around us rather than strengthening those negative ones? What if we rejected the idea that happiness is purely and solely innate – that some people can have it and others just can’t? What if we started to work towards our happiness?
Everyone’s familiar with the feeling of a downward spiral. You think one bad thought, and then you think one more, and eventually you find yourself in such a dark hole that maybe you’re not sure you’ll ever climb out of it. You’ve thought yourself into the unhappiest of places – and it makes sense, given just how much you’ve unintentionally bolstered those negative thoughts. What’s happened is that you’ve strengthened the myelin around that painful information and thus have given it more weight.
There is the flip side of things though – that we have the ability to strengthen positive messages, the opportunity every day to do the opposite of what’s instinctive to us. No matter what you’re going through, no matter the chemistry of your brain, no matter how tangled and heavy all the wires of your painful memories piled from the past, you have the opportunity to make a conscious choice to work every day at changing your default.
In knowing that your brain is pulling you in one direction, you have the choice to work to push it in the other, to downright change the wiring of your mind by choosing what kind of thoughts you give strength to.
On some particularly difficult days – and they will happen – the pull will whisper in the most falsely consoling of voices, “Aren’t you tired of all the trying?” and the push will melt a little bit and say, “Well, you know, maybe I will just lie down for a second,” and that’s when it’s the hardest – and most important – to push. That’s when it’s most crucial to remember that only the push is what’s righteous, that the pull will tempt you all the way down to the most unbearable of feelings and try to keep you there. It’ll be taxing, the work of pushing, and it should be taxing. Life – your happiness – is a challenge that is worth it.