Bring optimism to the fore

Tags: Knowledge

We are unhappy because we spend most of our time, money and attention on activities that tax rather than soothe our minds

Bring optimism to the fore
It is easier to find out what causes unhappiness than what causes happiness. Nobel laureate and expert in behavioural economics and hedonic psychology, Daniel Kahneman, thinks we are unhappy because we spend most of our time, money and attention on activities that tax rather than soothe our minds. We are unhappy when we are overburdened by the choices that at are at our disposal and we don’t know what to do with them. In the midst of a ‘choice overload’ or ‘choice under load’ it is difficult to keep track of desires and expectations. We are unhappy when we can’t use what we have. We are unhappy when we use our capacity below our potential. Optimism, hope, trust, faith, and confidence give us happiness. The problem is, as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert points out, we vastly overestimate the hedonic consequences of any event. Optimism is good, over optimism is not. Hope is good, hype is not. Often both our happiness and unhappiness don’t follow any logic.

Can then there be a happy or an unhappy mind? Can we train our plastic brain to overcome negativity? Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author of the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, advocates training the brains to appreciate positive experiences when we have them. This can be done by focussing on them so that they can be installed in the brain. Hanson says repeated patterns of mental activity build neural structure. He says neural structures can be built by various mechanisms, such as sensitising existing synapses and building new synapses, bringing more blood to the regions.

The problem is with retaining the impact of positive experiences. Hanson says it is important to see the whole picture that includes negative, positive and neutral realities. The problem with us is that we don’t like to confront negative realities. It is also important to recognise the fact that our brains have negative bias. It evolved for survival. It evolved to face the threats of predators and natural hazards. Hanson’s advice to us is to repeatedly internalise the sense of safety, satisfaction, and connection. “By repeatedly internalising that self-sense, we essentially grow the neural substrates of experiencing that those needs are met, even as we deal with challenges, so that we become increasingly able to manage threats or losses or rejections without tipping into the red zone.”

So many types of reactions go on in our brain all the time. Trillions of messages are sent and received by the brain every day. There are ‘happy’ messages carried by ‘happy messengers’. There are ‘sad messengers’. Happy messengers don’t like to confront stresses for obvious reasons. Our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions all affect brain’s chemistry. Besides food relaxation and exercise affects our brain chemistry.

We are designed not for happiness but for our long term survival prospects. Both our positive and negative emotions have specific locations in the brain. Positive emotions are associated with the ‘centres of reward’ and negative emotions with the ‘centres of punishment’. Our ‘reward’ and ‘punishment’ centres are located in both our ‘old’ and ‘new’ brain, evolutionarily speaking.

Neocortex, the part of the new brain that is responsible for self-consciousness, plays an important role in the function of a happy mind as it is said to neutralise the impact of envy, one of the most potent causes of unhappiness. Fear and the subjective sense of uncertainty are perhaps some of the major causes of unhappiness. No wonder majority of our basic emotions are negative; out of the six basic emotions four (anger, fear, disgust, sadness) are negative, one (joy) is positive and one (surprise) is neutral. Though we are moulded by evolution not to be happy, what matters is that we love ‘the phantasm of happiness’. With this happy note, let me wish you all an eventful and successful 2014.

(The writer is a biotechnologist and ED, Birla Institute of Scientific Research, Jaipur)

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