Neuroscientists and others who study the issue tell us that people have a “set point” for happiness, a default mode to which we revert after any foray into escstasy or depression. They also tell us, however, that there is much we can do to improve on our day-to-day feeling of well being, if only we apply ourselves. The old nature-nurture debate has an answer: both are true. Our job is to focus on the part we can influence: nurture. So how do we nurture a happier brain?
If we consider that our brains are roughly the same as they were 50,000 years ago, we can envision many life and death moments at that time in human history where attending to every threat, responding to every slight, provided us with a comparative advantage over our peers. If someone chucked a spear at you on a given day, you either addressed the situation, then and there, or tomorrow, he might take you out, and your family as well. In modern culture, most of the slights we suffer lack that life-and-death dimension. But, possessed of the same neuronal tool set, we frequently respond with the tenacity born of a will to survive. Life is much less violent, and insults are much less inimical to our well being, but our brains don’t realize it.
So what do we do? The guy who cuts us off in traffic will likely never be seen again, but that is not how we feel about it when it happens. A derogatory remark at a cocktail party, or a family gathering, poses even less of a threat. Yet we often find ourselves ruminating over idle comments delivered by people who have long forgotten whatever they said to set our brains in motion. They may have forgotten about it, but why can’t we?
If we recognize that our brains are simply pursuing an algorithm that worked 50,000 years ago, but which bears little relation to our current problem, we may begin to acquire the power to override our biology. People may cheat us, but do we really need to go out and seek retribution? Perhaps, instead of tracking down the miscreants of our lives, we can find a way to cheat our own biology, and let it go.
If we make a list of those things in life that have elevated us in the past, those things we treasure, the things for which we are grateful, perhaps we can resort to this list at those times we have the blues, to talk ourselves out of our low mood. The trick is to govern emotion with reason. Neuroscience tells us that emotion, including the feeling of knowing, came first, and our capacity for reason, second. In fact, we are told, if it were not for the unjustified feeling of knowing, rational thought would never have happened. We seem to require some sort of emotional impetus to engage in reason. If reason itself depends upon pure emotion for its existence, it should come as no surprise that reason governs our emotional life so incompletely. But the possibility of rational governance may distinguish us as a species. Knowing that it is at least possible that we could think ourselves out of a grey mood may give us hope.
Enter cognitive behavioral therapy, and, perhaps, meditation. A persistent voice in our brain tells us there is no hope, things will end badly, and the like. We can engage this voice by counterexamples from our history, or we can train our mind to be passive and open, rather than reactive, to that voice. Neuroplasticity certainly suggests that such avenues of relief may exist. Our brains appear to constantly change themselves. The question remains: to what degree may we influence this recursion?
Who is happier? The ruminating man of wealth and reknown, or the peaceful hovel dweller? Can they ever be the same person?