Can you choose to be happy?
Now that’s an interesting question.I’ve written quite extensively about happiness in one form or another over the years.And now it looks as if research is confirming what I’ve been saying in my talks and blog posts: yes, you can choose to be happy. I think we can all agree that happiness is an extremely complicated thing and that many people define happiness in many ways. Before we plunge into the concept of happiness, we need to look at our emotions. OK, I’m not a neurobiologist, but I’m going to try to explain what’s going on in our brains and how choice can affect this.
The reptilian brain
Our emotions have developed tremendously since we first relied solely on the reptilian brain hundreds of millions of years ago. The reptilian brain handles memories that have been programmed by genetics. For example, you don’t have to learn the fight or flight response when you’re attacked, nor do you need to learn to find something to eat when you’re hungry. And what about the urge to have sex and reproduce? All these things are automatic and programmed in the reptilian brain. Mind you, some people appear to be still relying solely on that part of the brain today. Anyway, these memories are deeply embedded in our brains.
The frontal cortex
At roughly four million years old, the frontal cortex is the “baby” in our brain. This is where we find purpose, creativity and self-awareness, and it’s basically where we live today. It houses our short-term memory. Our first short-term memories were based on the roots of two basic emotions – fear and desire. So, fear consisted of our first memory of pain and anticipation of future pain. Desire, on the other hand, is our first memory of pleasure and reward and anticipation of that in the future, according to Harvard neurobiologist Rudolf Tanzi. Put simply, it’s remembering what was bad and being afraid we’ll experience it again in the future or remembering what was good seeking that again. This is where we live today, but it’s more complicated now because we must deal with new emotions, such as greed, resentment and jealousy. And here’s where choice comes into play.
Trying to keep tabs on everything that’s going on is difficult. There are two ways we can do this. We can retreat to the reptilian brain – run away or fight, go find something to eat or go have sex with somebody. And yes, as I mentioned earlier, some people still live there today. Or we can live in the frontal cortex and search for identity, purpose, meaning and self-awareness. Another way to see this is that the old brain represented selfishness and the young brain self-awareness. You get to choose between the two. Do you choose to be self-aware or allow yourself to react instinctively and do whatever you want whenever you want? And guess what? You must make that choice every day.
Fear and desire scale
To be happy, you need to know where you lie on the fear and desire scale. It’s there that you’ll find the roots of your emotions. Rudolf Tanzi says “there’s a constant battle between the older parts of the brain, the veterans in the locker room, 400 million years of experience and the rookie, the frontal cortex trying to say hey, wait a minute, you have meaning, purpose, identity, creativity, you know, social bonding. Well, think about what happens in the locker room, right. The veterans basically kick around the rookies. If you want the rookie to have a spot on the field, you must be the coach. You’ve got to put him in the game.” This is what I call feeding the courage dog or, in this instance, the happiness dog.
People just want to be happy
If you ask people pretty much anywhere what they really want in life, the majority will say they want to be happy. They want other things, too, of course, such as good health, successful careers, money, or a family. And most people assume that achieving these things will make them happy. But will they? Well, if you define happiness as having these, then yes. But there are many other definitions available. Again, there’s a choice to be made. And you have more power than you might imagine to increase your own happiness and well-being. Research has suggested that about 40% of what affects your happiness is what you choose to think and feel. In other words, your own thoughts and behavior. “You’re happy if you think you’re happy,” according to writer and researcher Gretchen Rubin. I say, “You are what you believe you are.” So, why not choose to believe you’re happy?