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Happiness is a Skill Set

Everyone is seeking happiness in some form. It seems to pass us by too often, or slips away at a time we believed we were so well prepared for its arrival. As it turn out, happiness is not just a state of mind that descends on us when good things are happening. In order to sustain the feelings of being uplifted, light-hearted, joyous and free, we have to acquire the skills that allow us to make those good experiences linger. If we don’t approach this as a practice we need to cultivate, we will be left wanting. You see, human beings are encoded to skew toward the negative due to negative-positive-asymmetry, otherwise known as the negativity bias. We survived as a species because our ancestors saw the worst thing first and then fought, ran, or froze. We are living in times when we are generally much safer than people were thousands and thousands of years ago. While these may seem like very unsettled times, we are much safer today than we were thousands of years ago. Nonetheless, we too often act as if we are under attack, whether or not it’s true. It is good to be aware of our surroundings and see any possible dangers. We need to be alert and conscientious so we can be safe. But it is not good at all to feel so anxious and afraid that we have constant stress hormones coursing through our bodies.

Just knowing we should allow ourselves to feel safer than our ancestors did 10,000 years ago doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy thing to accomplish. As a species we are Velcro for the negative, and we are also Teflon for the positive. Generally by the end of the day, the good things that happen tend to wash away much more quickly than the negative. We tend to hang onto traumatic things that happened to us throughout our lives unless we make a consistent effort to process those things. Added to this is the natural way the brain is wired to daydream, to mind wander. This type of thought originates in the default mode network in the middle of our brain. We are hardwired to drift in thought when we are not engaging in tasks, creating, or planning. When we daydream about the past and about the future, we are generally thinking about ourselves in relation to those things. People who daydream are often more anxious and more depressed. What neuroscience has shown is that they are generally worrying or regretting. Couple that tendency with the negativity bias and they can see how we could end up not being so happy. But there’s very good news. We can change that because the brain has plasticity. That means the brain can change when we work to change it.

So, it makes sense that we need to acquire the skills to be happy. We can develop a two pronged plan to be able to develop the skill of being happy. 1. We need to learn how to pay attention in the present moment. We need to teach our mind to not daydream or wander. Research shows unequivocally that when people focus their minds in the present moment in an alert, non-judgemental, and relaxed state, they are happier than those people who engage in mind wandering. 2. We need to learn to see the good things around us, and as we feel appreciation and joy. We also need to sustain that positive emotion. As counter-intuitive as this is going to sound, we need to learn to tolerate the experience of joy for longer periods of time. We are encoded to only take it in for a little bit, and then to let it go pretty quickly. In fact, in order to sustain an experience of something we love, like a beautiful sunset, watching your child, laughter, or tasting chocolate, you have to pay attention to being with that experience for a few moments. Really pay attention for a bit. Your mind will drift away, then focus back, over and over. If you think about when a musician strikes the string of an instrument in a certain way there is a lingering sound until it slowly recedes. That is called “sustain”. I play tamboura and crystal bowls. They both have really beautiful sustain. That is, the sound lingers for quite some time after the instrument is struck. We all need to practice making our “music” last, sustaining the experiences of all the positive things of life. When we develop the ability to pay attention to pleasure and joy, right here and now, we no longer have to chase the quick hits we might get from shopping, alcohol, social media posting, mind altering drugs, and compulsive sexual behavior. We will be able to feel an increased sense of well-being from the things around us that we enjoy. This savoring takes practice. We need to realize our brain will develop muscle memory when we do something repetitively, like playing scales on a guitar, shooting hoops and dribbling, or swinging a golf club. If our brain couldn’t learn a new skill, no one would be able to develop any muscle memory. However, we have an inaccurate belief about happiness. It might be a spontaneous response, but it doesn't stay in our memory naturally. What comes naturally is seeing danger first and remembering it so we can stay safe, and forgetting positive experiences quickly. Mind wandering also comes naturally.

Paying attention to one thing has to be practiced. Focusing on pleasure and good things does have to be practiced. Increasing your ability to look for, and experience, positive things are skill sets needed to develop the state of happiness. It will become a habit to savor positive things around you when you learn to practice. Try it. You’ll like it.


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