In honor of International Day of Happiness: Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Ever since brains have evolved enough to desire the abstract feeling of happiness, there’s been both a pursuit of that feeling, and the difficult task of defining exactly what it is. Happiness is known enough to those who feel it, but intangible enough to lack one concise, universal and objective definition.Scientists and psychologists have at least agreed upon its multifaceted and subjective nature, and have noted such words as “joy”, “fulfillment”, “well-being”, “contentment”, and “satisfaction” to be somewhat synonymous.One thing is for certain though, its pursuit is widespread. So, how does one find this state of being? Well, there is an entire field of psychology devoted to this answer, and it’s called, aptly, Positive Psychology. Trying to “Find Happiness” is a common theme in the work that I do, and I have discovered that there are two very surprising ways to help.
1. The most productive way to find happiness is…to stop looking for it!
The more we become obsessed with feeling a certain way, the more we put pressure upon ourselves. In other words, we start “shoulding” all over ourselves, which has proven an unhelpful way to think, i.e. “I know I SHOULD be happy right now, but…”
People who engage in “should” statements are more likely to actually feel anxious or depressed, because if we think we “should” feel a certain way, we often set ourselves up for expectations that sometimes we can’t meet. Why can’t we meet the expectation of “I should be happy”? Well, for one, emotions are transient, and as humans we have the capacity to feel a gamut of emotions.
What if we could allow happiness to find us, organically, without chasing it down, gasping and out of breath?
This brings me to my second seemingly counterintuitive way to find happiness:
2. Don’t discredit any emotion!
Yes, that’s right. By allowing oneself to validate all emotions that are felt, even sadness, one is more likely to feel greater well-being overall. You see, emotions are our compass, part of our life force, and though some emotions are more uncomfortable than others, the old adage of “what we resist, persists” rears its ugly proverbial head!
Resisting discomfort sets us up for perpetual discomfort. This is why mindfulness meditation is such a useful mechanism. While a nice byproduct of mindfulness practice can be relaxation, it is actually a tool used to help people expose themselves to all of their feelings, and with as little judgment as possible, truly embrace them.
One can argue that emotions are neither intrinsically “good or bad”, and to think of them in such dichotomous terms is to do ourselves a disservice. Emotions just are. In fact, every emotion tells us something about our inner experience that might be informing our outer experience. Even Rumi, the Sufi poet, waxed poetic in his ‘The Guest House’ way back in the 13th century about how we should treat every emotion as a visitor, without looking to get rid of any of them, but rather to understand their message and purpose.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi
What Rumi alluded to in his writing, was also recently confirmed by research that indicates that well-being is actually predicated on having a wider range of emotions! Yes, that’s correct, the more you can feel, in all of feeling’s iterations, the better off you are (read more: www.scientificamerican.com/article/negative-emotions-key-well-being/)
Live your best life: Mindfully control your brain’s reaction to stress
Did you know that the brain’s “stress center,” the amygdala, shrinks post mindfulness practice? In addition, the functional connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are weakened. This allows for less reactivity to life’s basic stresses, and paves the way for higher order brain functions to be strengthened (i.e. attention, concentration, etc.)
The impact that mindfulness exerts on our brain is borne from routine: a slow, steady, and consistent reckoning of our realities, and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgmental, and less reactive. Just as playing the piano over and over again over time strengthens and supports brain networks involved with playing music – mindfulness over time can make the brain, and thus, us, more efficient regulators, with a penchant for pausing to respond to external stimuli instead of mindlessly reacting.
The amazing thing about mindfulness is that you can apply it to any action you engage in on a daily basis; cooking, cleaning, walking to work, talking to a friend, driving – or even drawing or coloring!
Why coloring? Well, for one, we all need to embrace our inner child! As adults, we don’t do enough coloring, or any type of play for that matter. Did you know that play can help reduce stress? Also, believe it or not, coloring utilizes areas of the brain that enhance focus and concentration, and nurturing attention is one of the mechanisms by which mindfulness leads to well-being.
That is helpful, because when we are engaged “on purpose” in a particular task, by focusing on it instead of remaining on autopilot, then our negative and unhelpful thinking seems far away (i.e. isn’t on our minds!) Our minds literally can’t focus on both at the same time.
Yet, it should not be seen as just a distraction from really dealing with our “problems”. By engaging in this exercise, we can continue to deepen our ability to be mindful and train our mind to stay in the present moment rather than habitually straying into unhelpful thoughts about the past or future, to rather stay non-judgmentally present to our every sensation as it unfolds. In this way, we are better equipped to calmly approach our anxiety and parse out if it is a real or imagined stress.
How to practice mindful coloring:
Start with colored pencils, or crayons or any other drawing/coloring tool that feels right to you.
Take a moment to notice the feeling of these instruments in your hand. Their weight, texture, the engineering that went into their creation…
Then, listen to your gut, and start to color without too much thought about it. Don’t analyze your drawing, rather, just let what comes organically come. Try not to edit.
If you want, you can print multiple pages so you can do this over and over again.
See if you can focus also on the act of coloring itself as you are engaged in it. Here are some cues for you:
How does your hand move across the page? You might even want to spend some time following it.
How do the different strokes look? Notice the difference between using the sharp edge vs. the side of the pencil.
How do the different colors (if you are using multiple colors) add to the different parts of the image?
Notice, without judgment, as your drawing unfolds.
What does your unique brain look like?
In my ‘The Grand Conductor’ packet, we go through the biology of the brain, as well as the latest research on how to keep it in tip-top shape, but at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that we’re just brains studying brains. We’re limited in our understanding of the brain by the virtue of the very thing we’re using to study it!
In addition, just as every individual is unique, so is each brain different from the next, and, moreover, constantly changing as we age! So, let’s all open our minds (see what I did there?) and learn more about ours, and each other’s, unique brains.
Print out the brain image below and color it in however you please! Remember to try to practice staying mindful during the process. Let it reflect the latest brain science (learn more from the infographics at the bottom of this blog!) or let it reflect your own personal understanding of self. Whatever you decide – Let your mind soar! Keep in mind, it’s not about being an artist, in fact, no artistic skill is necessary. Just dive in and notice, again, without judgment, what the process is like for you. I’m going to do this as well, and share it on my social media pages, so stay tuned!
When you are finished, please, #ShareYourBrain on social media and tag @BrainCurves!
BRAIN EVOLUTION, ANATOMY & PHYSIOLOGY, AND WELLNESS INFOGRAPHICS