Your perception about whether you are thriving in life or just surviving seems to be more about how you feel than the actual evidence of a good life.
Over the years I’ve had some wealthy clients who really do seem to have it all. They can go anywhere, do anything at any time, can buy what they want and have what they want and yet there’s still an emotional hole. One such client told me he felt cheated of the emotional payoff.
He’d believed in the idea that when you worked hard for the career, got the house, the cars, found the partner and acquired the freedom to choose, you will wake up one day, happy ever after. He had spent 15 years “going through hell” in relentless pursuit of all the trappings that would assuredly deliver the endless happiness only to find that the treasure box was empty.
Most of us know deep down that these things are fool’s gold and yet we still have an urge to pursue ‘that thing’ that will ultimately ‘turn on’ the happiness we’ve been waiting for. Do we expect that once we have ‘it’, we can keep it on the shelf and dip into it anytime we wish (as with our other possessions)? Is this the human programming of the age of acquisition?
We’ve all spent a lifetime on the receiving end of the slick marketing that (ultimately) promises happiness so is it any wonder that we are so entranced by the idea that all the good feelings we could ever want to feel are neatly wrapped in one product or another? Yet the joy of acquirement is often short lived. How often have you indulged in a spot of ‘retail therapy’ only to find that the thing you bought is still sitting in its bag weeks later?
So, what is this happiness thing; this Holy Grail that has now become the subject of so many books and workshops and self-help merchandise? As many of us wake up to the truth that ‘stuff’ doesn’t automatically make you happy, it seems that happiness itself is being pedalled as the product.
If you can’t really buy lasting happiness how is that state of ultimate contentment reached? How do we make our way to the emotional stronghold wherein we find ourselves heartily able to go through life’s up and downs without becoming overwhelmed by anxiety, depression, excessive stress or any of the other modern plagues that therapists like me are working with on a daily basis?
It is now a generally accepted principle in psychology that in order for a person to truly flourish, they must be getting a number of important physical and emotional needs met.
The experience of happiness is a bit like a rainbow. The rainbow only exists because of the colours. Happiness is made up of the colours of other important emotional experiences like satisfaction, fulfilment, connection, autonomy, competence, acceptance and respect, clarity, feeling purposeful, engaged and free, to name a few. Enduring happiness is the reward of those experiences and for the most part, the colours of those emotions must be earned not bought, in order to be truly fulfilling.
Basically, your emotions are a simple guidance system. When the body-mind organism sends you emotions or feelings that are considered negative, it is trying to tell you that you are not getting your needs met in some important area. When you get a positive emotional response to an action or an event, you are being encouraged by your ‘self’. (So that I don’t digress, if you want to know more about this click the link at the bottom of this article).
So why didn’t my hard-working wealthy client get the happiness reward that he worked for? Possibly because he spent the whole 15 years dragging himself through every day, resenting the effort he was making. The experience was not satisfying or fulfilling and when you spend 15 years programming your emotions for negativity, the happiness wiring is likely to wither.
So, happiness is cultivated by stretching yourself and by getting your emotional needs met.
• What do you do with the good feelings when you get them?
• How can you hold onto them?
• How can you learn to turn them on when you need them?
The answer to the first question is that for the most part, we are likely to take good feelings for granted. Why would we do that?! In his book Hardwiring Happiness, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson explains that we have evolved with a drive to get our basic needs met (shelter, food & sex) and also to stay away from pain (injury & death). Both drives are important but there’s a vital difference. Avoiding pain or death is more urgent than eating. “Consequently the brain evolved a built in negativity bias…. Your brain has hair-trigger readiness to go negative to help you survive.” The brain doesn’t need to pay so much attention to good feelings because they indicate that you are safe and getting your needs met. Negative feelings are much more important and, as we have seen with the news obsession over recent events across the pond, fear grabs the attention more than hope. Wounds and deficits dictate the terms of your life, not the pleasures and the victories.
No wonder happiness is so elusive! But wait, all is not lost…. We have the missing ingredient! There is a way to hardwire your brain for the real gold of positive emotional experience and to learn to ‘turn it on’ more easily
The simple answer is that you need to actively, purposely and consciously engage your intention and your attention on good things when they happen. This is exactly what you do when you are learning anything; you consciously absorb and commit to memory (so you know that you can do it!). Which brings me back to my opening question – how will you notice that you are feeling happy?
One of the excellent things about being human is that we have a conscious mind. The new science of well-being uses the principles of neuroscience to help us to learn the art of cultivating and harvesting happiness. When you understand the simplest hardwiring of the brain then you can see the map. In the words of Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb “neurons that fire together wire together”.
We already know that your body-mind has a drive to hardwire the negative emotional experiences without you having to consciously do that. You’ll know when an experience or an emotion is being wired because you will feel as though you are stuck in it and it’s hard not to focus on it.
Now, supposing you were to develop the practice of hardwiring any or all of your positive experiences by locking them into an attentive focus for a while. What difference would it make to your life if you became good at mindfully programming your emotional experiences? More on this in future messages but in the meantime, if you can’t wait to find out more, I recommend the books listed below – and you can also find their authors on TED talks.
This is just a start and is addressing current experience. Some people have unhelpful past or future focus that can also be helped in this way, though it’s best to start at the beginning when you are learning a new skill.
Hypnosis or trance is a great resource for helping you to become more readily wired for joy.