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The Happiness Connection  

Your brain lies to you

Listening to my husband recount an experience we both shared, used to be like lighting the fuse on a stick of dynamite.

He would get all the details wrong until the memory was barely recognizable. Did I bite my tongue and keep my opinions to myself?

Of course not.

Naturally, he thought his memory was the accurate one and that mine was faulty. I’m sure our friends would shudder when we began to reminisce, knowing that there was a potential for fireworks.

Can you relate to this situation?

I have known for a long time that memories are unreliable. Every time you take one out, you change it and then file the new version.

What I didn’t discover until recently is that for streamlining purposes, memories are stored with only their key elements. It is as if the memory is reduced to a set of bullet points. The details take up too much room, so they are discarded.

Instead of sharing a minimalist version of memories, your brain fills in the missing details based on everything it knows about you. Your expectations, belief system, values, and emotional tendencies all help to embellish the bullet points.

When I listen to my husband telling his version of a memory, the details seem distorted because his brain made them up. In fairness, my version includes details that my brain created for the occasion, so I am unlikely to be any more accurate. I just think I am.

Retrieval and reconstruction happen so quickly, that you are probably unaware of the process. To you the memory was stored in its entirety and recalled with every minute detail.

Because no two people are the same, no two brains will add the same set of details even if the bullet points are identical.

This is important information, not only to help you accept that the person sharing the memory is not on the brink of brain failure, but also to help you. Don’t get sucked in to believing that your recollections are without fault.

If you become emotionally attached to your version of the tale, you may find yourself arguing over who’s recollection is the right one.

This is not a good situation for you or your memory.

Memories are porous. They are primed and ready to absorb any emotions that arise when they are being examined. This happens even if the memory and emotion are not related.

When I was 14, I ate a TV dinner and then developed unrelated stomach flu a few hours later. The food was fine, but I never ate another TV dinner after that. The memory of being so violently ill became linked with the specific food I had eaten.

This example shows how events and emotions get linked. With memories, the attachment of emotion may occur more slowly. You are probably not even aware it is happening.

Imagine you have a fight with your partner. In the heat of battle, he brings up a memory of something you did. Up until that point, you may have viewed the experience neutrally, or maybe even positively.

Retrieving the memory at the same time as you are experiencing negative emotion is like sprinkling negativity juice on a sponge. Regardless of whether it is justified or not, a little bit of the emotion of your argument will attach itself to the memory.

If the memory is consistently recalled when you are filled with negative emotion, it will soon be heavy with dark energy.

Remember, it is up to your brain to fill in the missing details. How you feel about a memory will affect the way your brain spins the story.

This is good news. If you can attach negative emotions to a memory that means you can also attach positive ones.

Be conscious of the memory you want to feel better about. Put yourself into a good frame of mind and then call it up. These feelings will attach themselves and begin to neutralize and eventually eradicate the unwanted ones.

You may need to do this more than once, depending on the intensity of the emotion already attached.

I was a very self-conscious teenager. I preferred to fly under the radar rather than put myself into the position of being judged and rejected.

One evening after the choir I was in had finished performing, a lady approached me. Without a word she reached for my skirt and zipped up the zipper.

I was mortified. Had I stood up in front of all those people with the zipper of my skirt undone?

Yes!

For years, I replayed the unfortunate event in my mind, dying of embarrassment each time. I was so ashamed that I kept the memory to myself and only replayed it in the privacy of my own head.

One night about 10 years later, I was at a dinner party when the conversation turned to embarrassing moments. I’m not sure if it was the wine or my increased confidence, but I shared my open zipper experience.

I am certain that the details my brain filled in for me were more dramatic and a tad over exaggerated from reality. The sharing of my tale resulted in a great deal of laughter, especially as it is an experience many people, especially men can relate to.

The memory took on a less black and devastating appearance. It became one of my favourite stories to share.

Knowing that your brain makes up the details in your memories is an empowering thought.

I no longer feel the need to correct my husband. I just smile to myself and privately enjoy all the wonderful details my brain has created for the memory. I am after all, a writer.



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You choose to suffer

“Only we humans worry about the future, regret the past, and blame ourselves for the present.

We get frustrated when we can’t have what we want, and disappointed when what we like ends. We suffer that we suffer.

We get upset about being in pain, angry about dying, sad about waking up sad yet another day. This kind of suffering – which encompasses most of our unhappiness and dissatisfaction – is constructed by the brain. It is made up.”
— Rick Hanson, Ph.D

This is an excerpt from the book Buddha’s Brain. It is one of those passages that comes along every once in awhile and refuses to be forgotten.

You suffer because your mind chooses to suffer.

Think about it for a minute. Re-read the excerpt again. Think some more.

My first reaction was disbelief. Why would the brain of a happiness maven choose to suffer? But when I considered that most suffering comes from worrying about the future and replaying negative events from the past, the truth became clear.

I don’t have to spend my time thinking about disastrous events that may never happen, or dwell on past experiences I can do nothing about. They are activities of choice, albeit not necessarily conscious choice.

I can’t count the number of times I have counselled my children to stop worrying about something that may never happen. It is good advice, but easier said than done, especially if you don’t notice you are doing it. Worrying is a natural behavior for many.

I’d like to make a distinction between worrying about something that has happened, versus something that might happen. One is the reality of the present, while the other is the unknown future.

When the recession of the 1980s hit, layoffs were common. I had just started my teaching career and knew I was at risk.

Worrying that I might get laid off, is suffering that I didn’t have to experience. Worrying about how I would pay my bills after the notice arrived was something my brain needed to work through.

Dealing with the present is necessary, worrying about the future is optional.

Why does your brain choose to make you suffer by running through possible negative scenarios that might never happen? This is an evolutionary survival strategy.

As your No. 1 drive is survival, the brain discovered it could gain an advantage by thinking about possible danger scenarios that might arise and then creating ways to deal with them. You would not only have thought of possible solutions if the situation ever arose, you would also have mentally practiced them.

Similarly, the human brain discovered it could reinforce already proven survival strategies, by replaying them over and over. This is the basis of why you dwell on negative events from the past.

You may not enjoy revisiting these experiences, but they are examples of survival techniques that worked. Replaying them is your mind’s way of reinforcing the learning so you can use the strategy again.

There may be no use crying over spilled milk, but your brain encourages you to do it anyway.

These evolutionary survival strategies often run in the background of your life in a similar way that your anti-virus software runs on your computer. Unless your attention is drawn to it, you may never know it exists.

The next time you find yourself worrying about the future or reliving painful experiences of the past, be aware of what is happening. Rather than telling yourself to stop being so silly and to get over it, show yourself compassion.

Compassion is defined by the Mirriam-Webster online dictionary as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”

When you are suffering, imagine you are helping a child and say something soothing:

  • “Whatever happens you will find a way to be happy.”
  • “You did the best you could.”

Physical actions strengthen feelings, so put your hand on your heart or your cheek while you speak to yourself. You don’t have to say the words aloud, saying them in your mind is just as effective.

Now that you know what your mind is up to, you can take steps to lessen the amount of suffering your brain wants you to experience.

If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.
— Lao Tzu



Light a candle on Monday

 

Homicide rate – 1.68 per 100,000

Deaths resulting from motor vehicle crashes – 5.2 per 100,000 

Suicide rate – 11.0

These are based on the most recent Canadian statistics I could find. They show the chance of dying from self- inflicted harm is more than twice as likely as death from a car accident.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about suicide. As a subject that continues to weave its way through the fabric of our society, it deserves to be revisited.

There are few people who have not been affected by suicide in one way or another.

When I was diagnosed with clinical depression almost 30 years ago and came home with a prescription for antidepressants, I was shocked by the response of my husband and his parents.

They did not share my relief at finding a reason for my feelings. Instead, they impressed upon me the importance of not telling anyone about the diagnosis and coming off the medication as soon as humanly possible.

“People will think you’re crazy!”

They weren’t being nasty or unfeeling, they were consumed by worry about the stigma surrounding mental health in England at that time.

Things have improved globally, but they are far from ideal. There continues to be a sense of shame surrounding both mental illness and suicide. Up until 1972, suicide was considered a criminal offence.

Imagine how that affected those who were saved and the families and friends of anyone linked to suicide.

What do you know about schizophrenia, multiple identity disorder, or agoraphobia?

It probably comes from movies and television shows where the characters have more exaggerated or dramatic behaviours than the disorders typically present themselves with.

This is not the place to go for increased knowledge.

The stigmas we hold are steeped in our culture. Historically, lunatic asylums were horrendous places. It was important to cover up any problems you or a loved one had to avoid being sent to the madhouse.

This encouraged mental illness to be hidden in the shadows.

Even further back in history, the explanations for behavior that didn’t fit with the norm revolved around witches, spirits, and demons. Unless you wanted to be burned at the stake or ostracized, you quickly learned to cover them up.

Mental illness was something to be feared and hidden. These deeply rooted beliefs are difficult to eradicate once they take hold. Old habits die hard.

I have a dislike for spiders and mice that dare to invite themselves into my house. I have nothing against them as a species, but they move quickly and I’m not sure where they are going to go next.

This unpredictability is difficult for me to deal with and causes me to avoid contact with them. I’m willing to bet if I got a mouse for a pet, I would soon stop being worried about one getting into my house.

I see mental illness as a similar situation for many people.

Feeling uncomfortable with the unknown is part of our makeup. Not knowing whether something unseen like the mind, will cause another person to do something you don’t know how to handle makes you want to avoid the experience.

The best way to reduce the stigma of mental illness is to create more opportunities for people to get comfortable being around each other.

When my children were younger, they were cared for after school by a family that included a son with non-specific learning difficulties. The experience was a bonus with long-reaching effect.

They have first hand experience that taught them how to relate to and interact with someone who is different than themselves. This is the key to removing stigma.

Monday, Sept. 10, is World Suicide Prevention Day.

Victim Services and Okanagan Suicide Awareness Society are asking the public to show their support for every life that has been touched by suicide by lighting a candle and putting it near a window at 8 p.m.

I know I will be putting a light in every window that looks out onto the road. I hope you will join me and show everyone whose life has been changed by suicide that they are not alone.



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Living with the H word

I have spent many hours over the past week updating the content on my website and reorganizing the pages. This task forced me to re-examine who I am and what I do.

I have struggled since the beginning of my entrepreneurial career with talking about happiness in a business setting.

How do I get business conference managers to accept that happiness is an important business tool, not a fluffy extravagance?

My first strategy was to stop using the H-word. If happiness wasn’t serious enough, I’d find something that was.

I’m not the only person who has struggled with this problem. How do you get the world of science or business to take you seriously when you are talking about happiness?

In the early days of the positive psychology movement, Ed Diener, a faculty member at the University of Illinois, wanted to create a serious study of happiness, but he wanted to avoid the H-word.

He knew any study that had happiness in the title was likely to be dismissed as fluffy and insignificant. He got around this problem by using ‘subjective well-being’ instead of happiness.

This is the term that is still used today by positive psychologists. Levels of well being are assessed by asking participants to give a subjective assessment of how they feel at the beginning of the session and then again at the end.

Researchers have also moved into brain scans to show what areas are activated by certain stimuli like photos, words, and activities. As our understanding of the regions of the brain grows, so does the power of using scans as a measurement tool.

I tried to follow in the path of Ed Diener, but "Make well-being work for you" doesn’t have the same ring as "Make happiness work for you."

When I discovered that I couldn’t avoid using the H-word, I tried moving myself to a new audience. I loved preaching to the choir, but talking to enlightened female entrepreneurs wasn’t making the impact I wanted. It isn’t where my message is needed.

I find myself being drawn back to the corporate world to talk about well-being. I believe it is time to look at happiness as more than a feeling.

I expect that everyone reading this knows what it feels like to be happy. You have probably experienced many of the positive emotions that fall under the happiness umbrella:

  • joy
  • satisfaction
  • delight
  • contentment are all types of happiness.

They are emotions that you may enjoy experiencing, but when I talk about happiness I am referring to a way of life, not just a feeling.

Happy people have bad days, horrific circumstances, and disappointments, just like everyone else. It isn’t what happens to them that that marks them as happiness believers, it is how they deal with everything.

Practising happiness includes beliefs in personal development, a desire to help the world as well as yourself, mindfulness, and taking responsibility for your decisions, actions, and well-being.

If you want to be happier, you will find a way to adopt the philosophy. The bigger question for me to answer is not how to be happy, but why you should care about being happy, especially in your work life.

Evidence-based research has proven that people with a happiness philosophy:

  • are more successful
  • are better leaders
  • get promoted faster
  • have more friends
  • have stronger support networks
  • have better social lives.

They are also more creative, more resilient to challenge and change, live longer, and are more successful in job interviews.

The list of benefits that accompany a life of happiness is longer than that, but I think I’ve given you enough examples to catch your attention.

Happiness is not just a feeling, nor is it the cherry on the top of a business cake.

Happiness is a tool for business success. It is also a tool for personal success, but I’ll try not to get side-tracked. If you want to do better in your work environment, start by adopting a happiness philosophy.

Working on my website gave me the opportunity to re-ignite my passion to share a better way to succeed in business.

I’ve decided to re-establish my presence in the business world and to stop feeling self-conscious about using the H-word.

Happiness! Happiness! Happiness!

I feel better now.



More The Happiness Connection articles

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About the Author

Reen Rose is an experienced, informative, and engaging speaker, author, and educator. She has worked for over three decades in the world of education, teaching children and adults in Canada and England.

Research shows that happy people are better leaders, more successful, and healthier than their unhappy counterparts, and yet so many people still believe that happiness is a result of their circumstances.

Happiness is a choice. Reen’s presentations and workshops are designed to help you become robustly happy. This is her term for happiness that can withstand challenge and change.

Reen blends research-based expertise, storytelling, humour, and practical strategies to both inform and inspire. She is a Myers Briggs certified practitioner, a Microsoft Office certified trainer and a qualified and experienced teacher.

Email Reen at [email protected]

Check out her websites at www.ReenRose.com, or www.ModellingHappiness.com



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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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