ON BEING ONE … AND OF TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR HAPPINESS (PART IV)

happiness

In Part I, we reviewed how feeling in control has a direct correlation to both emotional and physical health. We also reviewed how being over-controlling lowers both your happiness level and the happiness level of those around you. In Part II, we explored why taking personal responsibility for your happiness mitigates the tendency to be over-controlling and, hence, increases your level of happiness. In Part III, we explored why trusting others is important to your happiness level. In Part IV, we explore how the practice of “mindfulness” can help create happiness.

According to numerous studies, much of our “unhappiness” seems to be caused by the fact that we tend to ignore our own source of wisdom and happiness. These same studies conclude that the “key” to happiness is “mindfulness.” But what exactly is “mindfulness”? In simple terms, mindfulness is ignoring external events, the past and/or the future. In other words, mindfulness is being in the moment. However, because our minds evolved to constantly be “thinking”, most of us find ignoring our external environment and not thinking about the past or positing about the future extremely difficult. What’s more, usually, “thinking” means we are constantly building “what if” stories. Because we needed to constantly be on our guard during our evolution as a species, our mind (sometimes called the “monkey mind”) has a built-in fear bias which is constantly looking for danger, most of them perceived rather than real. Hence, we are almost constantly, and most often unconsciously, building negative stories around perceived events. Perhaps these two New Yorker cartoons can best illustrate mindfulness by depicting “unmindfulness.”

Unmindfulness                                Mindfulness

You might be surprised to learn that studies show that, on average, our minds wander almost 50% of the time.

But how do we learn to be mindful, that is to be present in whatever it is we are doing or situation in which we are involved? Well, not surprisingly, it is easiest to be mindful when we are experiencing positive events and hardest when we are feeling stressed out. Both events produce a series of hormones which then control our mood and it takes time for the body to flush these out and for the mind to become “mindful.” Hence, whether you are experiencing positive or negative feelings, you “ruminate”, that is you start to build on those feelings and construct scenarios based on these. The more you focus on those feelings, the more they grow (i.e., you create what you focus on) perpetuating the cascade of hormones and keeping you out of mindfulness. This situation is a consequence of judging events and your feelings about the events as either “good” or “bad.” So the way to be mindful is to be observant rather than judgmental. That is, observe the situation and your feelings without assigning a “good” or “bad” label to them.

Which brings us to the difference between being “uninterested” (i.e., bored) and “disinterested” (i.e., unbiased, neutral). Being disinterested is like being a cow in a pasture watching the cars zoom by while munching on hay (unless you part of Big Food, but that’s another issue). The cow sees events around it, in other words external to it, and appears for all intents and purposes, to be bored.[1] It is then wiser to be the proverbial fly on the wall. In this case, “the wall” is the inside of your head and the fly is merely observing without judging the events that are happening at the present moment. However, the fly is not “bored” as it buzzes around inside the head. It is interested in the events or thoughts, but remains disinterested in that it does not judge the events or thoughts, it merely observes them.

As a fly on the wall (i.e., as you observe the thoughts and emotions they trigger inside your head), you are aware of the goals, actions, thoughts and emotions that you are experiencing. Let’s call these “GATEs”. The GATEs are constantly spinning around in your “monkey mind” as you constantly judge whether something is “good” or “bad.” These judgments, in turn, create a cascade of hormones which themselves create judgement, and on and on the GATEs spin. However, as a disinterested observer, you are noting but not commenting or judging. As you do so, you’ll begin to notice that all the gears inside your head that active those GATEs begin to slow down.

Gears in head

As the gears slow down, you will begin to feel less stress and be able to notice when and which emotion or goal triggered a particular thought. This is known as “response flexibility.” As a result, you’ll be able to choose your reaction to events. That is, mindfulness helps you respond to life events with emotional intelligence.

Which brings us back to the subject of happiness. Interestingly, studies have shown that we are born with a “happiness set point.” This means that, regardless, of what happens to you, you tend to hold the same “happiness” (or “unhappiness”) level. For example, studies show that people who win the lottery experience a boost of happiness but return to their “happiness set point” within a year. Similarly, people involved in accidents that leave them para- or even quadriplegic, experience a significant drop in happiness level, but return to their “happiness set point” within one year. Good news for those who are born with a high “happiness set point”, but what about those born with low “happiness set point”? Well, it turns out that meditation can modify the brain (known as neural plasticity) and increase grey matter density in areas associated with learning, self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and compassion.

One way to achieve mindfulness is through meditation. Some people believe that meditation is a way to shut all thoughts out of one’s mind. But that is impossible as long as the brain is active. Meditation, rather, teaches one to let go of the thoughts that enter one’s mind and not construct a story around the feelings attached to that thought. One way to do this (and there are many ways to practice meditation) is to concentrate on your breath. So, it turns out that practicing happiness by quieting the mind through meditation (i.e., mindfulness) teaches us to be happy (i.e., what we practice becomes stronger). Studies have shown other, and significant, benefits of meditation such as slower aging and improved heart health.

So, as many sages have told us throughout the ages, it turns out that the source of happiness is actually within us and sitting in quiet contemplation of your own breath is one way to achieve happiness.

happiness is an inside job

Let me end with a Ted Talk by Mr. Matt Killingworth about staying in the moment:

https://www.ted.com/talks/matt_killingsworth_want_to_be_happier_stay_in_the_moment?language=en, as well as a quote from Allan Wallace, a well-known mindfulness expert and author of the “The Attention Revolution” who said: “Happiness is the default state of mind.

In Part V (the last in this series), we will dispel certain myths about meditation and explore different ways to meditate.

Until then, mindfully and happily yours,

signature

[1]       For the record, cows are intelligent animals and we simply do not know whether they are “disinterested”. However, they appear to be and so I use them as an example.