It is easier to find out what causes unhappiness than what causes happiness. 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 are at our disposal, and we don’t know what to do with them. Amid ‘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 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 brains to overcome negativity? Rick Hanson 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 the neural structure. He says neural structures can be built by various mechanisms, such as sensitizing 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 recognize the fact that our brains have a 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 internalize the sense of safety, satisfaction, and connection. “By repeatedly internalizing 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 going 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 stress for obvious reasons. Our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions all affect the brain’s chemistry. Besides food, relaxation and exercise affect our brain chemistry. 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’ brains, evolutionarily speaking.
The neocortex, the part of the new brain that is responsible for self-consciousness, plays an important role in the function of a happy mind. It is said to neutralize 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 the 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. We may not be molded for happiness, but we love ‘the phantasm of happiness’.