Sunday, 3 November 2013

Training the Brain for Happiness

As I outlined in my last post, I've recently been going through a bit of a rough patch emotionally. I've been working through it as best I can, and in the process, I've been learning a lot about cultivating resilience techniques - mindfulness, meditation, directed thinking... that sort of thing. Through reading, asking for advice from experts, and talking extensively to others in my social circle, I've been able to gradually shift my mindset from depression and anxiety to content and pride. In short, the difficulties I've been experiencing have really helped me grow and learn to cope with, and respond to, hardship as it arises.

However, something I've been noticing a lot in my research is how ubiquitous the problems I've been going through seem to be in modern society - especially among members of my cohort (the 20-somethings, particularly recent graduates). Anxiety, stress, and depression are widespread, and it isn't just the emotional and mental well-being of young people that is at risk - it's having physiological effects as well. Incidences of stress- and depression-related health problems are on the rise, and that fact has really been hitting home for me lately. Aside from personal experiences with health problems, I have a number of friends who've been affected too - one friend in particular has recently had to take a break from his doctoral studies on account of severe health issues arising from stress.

Is there something wrong with us? Did our generation miss out on crucial coping skills in our upbringing? Or is it the times? Certainly, our situation is difficult - economic downturn, environmental degradation, and social upheaval around the world all make our futures uncertain. To make matters worse, the generations above tend to compound the issue through their soul-grinding realism. This isn't to say that 20-somethings don't need a good dose of reality (because that's certainly part of the problem), but being told that "life sucks and then you die" really doesn't help to cultivate hope and happiness.

Perhaps the ultimate truth is that this is the part of our lives where we are supposed to feel this way - we are finding out who we are, where we're going, and how we'll get there. In short, this is exactly where we're supposed to be right now. Coming-of-age difficulties are part of life... they're just the parts that aren't discussed often. In talking to the "grown-ups", it's become clear to me that this part of life can be exceedingly rough. A part that people tend to ignore, overlook, or tint with nostalgia in their memories. We're young - we don't have the benefit of life experience (or even fully-developed brains) to be able to look at things and say "this is temporary... this too shall pass". Most of the older people I talk to laugh and say "You'll get over it... I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up."

Does that make it any easier to cope with? It didn't for me. I simply saw an uncaring, unsympathetic world, where I was being encouraged to "just grow up" and be a part of the majority. That just made me resentful, and made things even worse.

So what did help? Learning that I wasn't alone. Learning that everyone has suffered through feelings of fear, hopelessness, and uncertainty. Talking to people, getting them to really open up, I found that they could remember the pain of what they'd been through. They were sympathetic. They hoped that I could work through it soon, because knowing someone wrestling with their demons made them conscious of what they'd been through... and they all tried to help me, in their own ways.

Ultimately, I found myself feeling better by working at it, a little bit every day. Taking time out to tell myself how proud I was of my achievements... how happy I was with the good things in my life. I learned to practice gratitude on a daily basis. Changing my thought patterns, creating good habits, has been key to my recovery from suffering. This technique might not work for everyone... but I found myself realizing that this was something that was never taught to me. It's something that should be instinctive - waking up every morning and saying "I'm glad I'm here. I like being with myself, and I'm proud of what I've done. I'm grateful for this morning." Too many of us wake up and say "Another day stuck with this guy (or gal). This is going to be another difficult day. I wish I could get out of this... something out there had better make me happy today. I don't even want to get out of bed."

Self-worth and self-respect should be hardwired. They lead to happiness and love, and those are the fundamental human right. I really believe that, and it's what I've learned over the last few months. In sharing this message with you, I'd like to leave you with a few links - these are some videos about gratitude and "re-wiring" (if you will) ourselves for joy. These have helped me immensely, and I hope they can be of value to you or someone you know.

This video, presented on UpWorthy by SoulPancake, focuses on the "science of happiness". It shows an experiment, focusing on the role that a sense of gratitude plays in a self-motivated sense of happiness and contentment. The study found that subjects expressing gratitude to a person they appreciate quantifiably increased their sense of happiness. It's a beautiful video, and I encourage you to watch, share, and think about it.

This next one was a collaborative effort, sharing the magnificent film work of Louie Schwartzberg. The images, music, and narration combine so beautifully with a deeply insightful message, that I couldn't help but smile as I watched it. It helped me to cultivate a sense of appreciation and inspiration in my own life.

This last one is a media interview with neuropsychologist Rick Hanson. I only saw this one yesterday (my Mother, a big fan of his, sent it my way), but it shows an important perspective that resonates with me in my recent lessons - that "training the brain" for happiness is not only possible, but encouraged. It explains how the bad habits of negative thought are natural (and in fact, have developed through the course of human evolution), but can be overcome through careful use of focus and inner strength.

When things get dark, and it seems hopeless, you can still practice these ideas (and in fact, there is no better time to try it!). Even when the objects of your gratitude are far away (my family and my significant other are literally thousands of miles away from me in opposite directions) this can be tried out and put to great use. So, if you're struggling on your journey, I hope this helps. Remember - you're not alone, we want you to be happy, and you can always find something to be thankful for.

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