4 Fascinating Neurological Processes to Help Fulfill Dreams

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” ~ Carl Jung

It’s amazing to think that we all walk around with a brain, the control centre of our body; a soft, grey squidgy piece of matter protected by the cranial cavity inside our skull, possibly the most complex organism in the universe.

Cranium – Image by Gordon Johnson via Pixaby

The human brain contains one hundred billion neurons (nerve cells). Each neuron makes links with ten thousand other neurons to form an incredible three dimensional grid containing a thousand trillion connections – that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000 (a quadrillion).

If you struggle to get your head round that number try visualising each connection in this grid as a disc that’s one millimetre thick.  According to molecular biologist Nessa Carey, if you were to stack up the quadrillion discs on top of each other they would reach the sun (which is ninety-three million miles from the earth) and back, three times over!

Those incredible, powerful connections are all happening inside our heads…

My last post about brain power focused on neuroplasticity, as neuro science is a subject that fascinates me, and lately I’ve been reading Neurowisdom: The New Brain Science of Money, Happiness and Success by Mark Robert Waldman and Chris Manning, PhD.

I’ve learnt some fascinating facts already, but it’s putting those findings and aha moments into practice that counts.

That is a consistent lifelong activity!

“Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each person.”
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The authors wanted to define that ineffable quality that we all aspire to feel every day – happiness.

Measuring happiness…

According to data published by the National Opinion Research Center at Chicago University over nearly forty years (1972 – 2010) consisting of accumulated worldwide statistics – money predicts happiness.

Further research undertaken in 2012 by the Wharton School of Business took their findings even further, having found no evidence of a saturation point. In other words, the more income we make, the more happiness we will experience. But just as income appears to be the primary indicator of happiness, there are other important factors in the measurement of happiness.

But we have probably all read about miserable millionaires with dysfunctional lives in news stories and conversely know happy every day people who are content with their lot.

In 2015 the United Nations published the World Happiness Report, containing the six most powerful indicators for happiness, in descending order of importance. Interestingly, the report also found that those who make more money are happier, and those who are happier tend to live longer.

The World Happiness Report identified another major aspect of happiness: wellbeing. Wellbeing is defined as a life that is filled with enjoyment and feelings of safety, alongside the absence of anger, worry, sadness, depression, stress and pain.

In a 2015 issue of the Lancet it was reported that an ongoing sense of wellbeing lowers your risk of physical and emotional disease, tripling your survival rate and extending your life.

The Six Qualities of Happiness

  1. Spending Power (economic capital)
  2. Friends, family and community support (social capital)
  3. Healthy life expectancy
  4. Freedom to make decisions
  5. Financial generosity to others
  6. Absence of corruption in business and government (don’t get me started on this last one!!)

Whilst we still have significant challenges in Western societies (including a shared global pandemic at the moment), they pale in comparison to those caught up in cruel dictatorships and war ravaged regions, with limited opportunities of improving these six fundamental factors for happiness. The severe lack of these factors in certain parts of the world is driving mass migration.

Then there are the profound impacts that climate change could have for our species in all those areas.

It comes as no surprise that money is in the number one spot.

“Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”
~ Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The dark side of money

Money is neutral until it is used by a person. People used to bandy about the saying “money won’t make you happy” or as the bible warns: “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Money can be used for good, and just like another neutral object, a knife, it can be used to butter your toast or to harm another person.

Being obsessed with money is shown to increase greed, narcissism, feelings of entitlement, selfishness, risky behaviour and insensitivity towards others.

Research has shown that making money increases happiness, but using money wisely predicts long-term satisfaction.

Spending one’s hard-earned dosh on experiential purchases, such as holidays, cultural events, courses and lessons, hobbies and helping others, will make you happier than spending it purely on material objects.  That’s not to say those purchases won’t make you happy, but shared experiences with and for others can be more fulfilling.

“A wise man should have money in his head, but not in his heart.”
~ Jonathan Swift

Researchers reviewed 259 studies comparing money and happiness, and a clear pattern was revealed: the more people focused purely on materialistic wealth, the more dissatisfied they felt with their lives.

It was even noted that if others perceive you as being overtly selfish and greedy they will want you to fail, and may even go so far as to try and sabotage your success.

When people feel they have been unfairly treated, especially where money is concerned, they may take steps to punish the greedy individual, even if it means there is a personal cost in doing so. This reaction is known as Altruistic Punishment.

As a population we can punish unethical, polluting, greedy and poisoning corporations by not buying their products, lobbying for changes in the law, in the same way we can avoid voting for dishonest, unintegrous politicians (unless sucked in by their shallow charisma and empty promises).

The crucible of a happy, healthy, successful life therefore is mastering the balance between inner and outer wealth, as well as integrating material, social and personal desires.

I hear you – this is easier said than done!

Our brains are programmed to seek outer wealth, including any object or activity we perceive to be valuable. Inner wealth is rooted in the brain’s desire to experience pleasure, whether through social interaction or the involvement in any experience that provides greater meaning, purpose, satisfaction and a lasting sense of wellbeing.

The philosophers of ancient Greece discovered that there are two types of happiness: Hedonic and Eudaimonic. Both are necessary to wellbeing, but the latter is more conducive to long-term sustainable happiness.

Triumph of Bacchus by Michaelina wautier c. 1650

Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, an immediate fulfillment of a particular desire.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a distinguished professor of psychology had an erudite take on this form of happiness:

“Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth.  They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.”

On the other hand, the eudaimonic path cultivates enjoyment from daily activities:

“Without enjoyment, life can be endured, and it can even be pleasant. But it can be so only precariously, depending on luck and the cooperation of the external environment. To gain personal control over the quality of experience, however, one needs to learn how to build enjoyment into what happens day in, day out.” 

I feel the Baroque and contemporary paintings are brilliantly executed art depictions of Greek Mythology in relation to the subject matter. The link under Apollo and Dionysus highlights the artist’s concept.

Apollo and Dionysus by Leonid Ilyukhin

To better achieve these markers of happiness in our lives we need to master four neurological processes the authors cite as being the foundational pillars of inner and outer wealth – defined as the combination of money, happiness, success, and personal contentment.

The four pillars of wealth:

  1. Motivation
  2. Decision making
  3. Creativity
  4. Awareness

MOTIVATION

Desire – Curiosity – Pleasure

Motivation is the motive for action. A download of dopamine gives us the essential desire to seek out new goals and go about our business. Instinct and curiosity are the key elements of motivation.

Dopamine is a powerful neurochemical that stimulates pleasure and desire and is essential to mental health, the immune system and overall wellbeing. If the brain does not secrete enough dopamine the brain can become lethargic, and we can slip into depression, losing the drive to work towards meaningful rewards. This is a good reason to engage in new and interesting activities throughout your life.

Gut-Brain Axis

I’m not going to dwell on this as I will be writing future gut health posts, and I touched on the links between the bacteria living inside the gastrointestinal tract and mental health in a previous post. But suffice to say, if you want optimal brain function you need to look after your gut!

There are around 100 million neurons lining the gut, it has been termed the second brain. Various drug factories (aka trillions of bacteria) in your gut produce all kinds of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin, GABA and oxytocin to name a few. Communication between the gut brain (Enteric Nervous System) and the head brain (Central Nervous System) happens instantaneously via the Vagus Nerve.

It is a two way street, but majority of messages travel from the gut to the brain. This is the source of food cravings – pathogenic bacteria yelling at the brain that they need more sugar!

If your gut is out of balance it’s likely your hormones could be too, and this will hamper these neurological processes.

The M-Drive

The motivation-reward circuit is located in the Nucleus Accumbens, in part of the most ancient area of the brain, the Limbic system, responsible for sensory and emotional processing and midbrain activity. The authors refer to this circuit as the M-Drive.

When something emotionally excites you or captures your imagination, your brain is deciding whether to move towards the object of desire or away from any perceived threats. This motivational drive is fundamental to the survival of humans and every organism.

As I explain when I do my music education talks, learning an instrument and listening to music stimulates dopamine release. It’s a random fact I know, but so does yawning!

“I can give you high blood pressure just on the phone by criticizing you. On the other hand, I can send a tweet to somebody in China and give them a dopamine hit.”
~ Deepak Chopra

There is a flip side though; your brain can release too much dopamine when it perceives a highly rewarding activity or object, which can cause potentially destructive addictions.

Too much pleasure may override the brain’s ability to make sensible and wise decisions, encouraging risky behaviour.  Roll call adrenaline junkies. Everyone is different, and we each become aware through our thoughts and behaviour of what floats our boat in terms of activating our motivation-reward circuits.

What causes a conflagration of desire and pleasure that becomes overwhelming?

Infatuation and obsession are two powerful states that spring to mind.  But there are many others. The list of human foibles is rather a long one.

Image by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

We can get stuck in the dopamine loop before we even realise what has happened. I have experienced this on occasions, and eventually, through great effort, I’ve been able to shift myself away from a destructive cycle.

But it’s not easy, you have to have the will to do it once you become aware of what is happening in the M-Drive!

“Science has learned recently that contempt and indignation are addictive mental states. I mean physically and chemically addictive. Literally! People who are self-righteous a lot are apparently doping themselves rhythmically with auto-secreted surges of dopamine, endorphins and enkephalins. Didn’t you ever ask yourself why indignation feels so good?”
~ David Brin

Another perspective on the same subject from an advanced spiritual teacher:

“Everyone gets a secret pleasure from resentments, from being the martyr or the victim, and from feeling misunderstood, unappreciated, etc.[…]To undo the ego, one must be willing to abandon this payoff game, with its grandstanding of emotions and repetitive rehashing of data and stories to justify its positions.[…] When the ‘inner juice’ is abandoned, it is replaced by inner peace.”
~ Dr. David Hawkins, I: Reality and Subjectivity

This was also ancient knowledge:

“Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked.”
~ Patanjali (The Yoga Sutras)

Dopamine is potent, our job is to direct it into healthy pursuits – in other words being of service. Deeply held altruistic values and beliefs will stimulate more balanced desires.

According to Waldman and Manning whatever obstacles a person may be facing, the more optimistic they feel, the more motivated they will become. Apparently it is possible to sublimate our more pessimistic tendencies of cognitive awareness and literally build stronger neural circuits of optimism. Over 100 published studies exist showing that optimism is essential for physical and emotional health.

Even the anticipation of future rewards can stimulate dopamine, improve mood, motivation and decision-making. This is why pleasure/dream boards can keep our motivation going, which is the precursor for the next neurological process of decision-making.

DECISION-MAKING

Goals – Consciousness – Language

After being released from the Nucleus Accumbens dopamine travels to a newer part of the brain, the frontal lobe, giving us the ability to plan out strategies and activities to help us reach our goals. Here the brain helps us turn desire into action. This process may involve learning new skills, developing new habits, developing greater emotional intelligence, control and self-esteem.

Maybe this is why I find I’m more creative and productive immediately after a violin practise…

The frontal lobe helps us to consciously find ways to satiate the yearning and ambition ignited by desire. We begin to have ideas to solve problems or acquire something, and this helps us to make the decisions we need to act and work towards achieving our dreams.

This process involves habitual behaviour, the regulation of moods, and helps keep you focused on your desired outcome.

However, decision-making can be disrupted by stress, worry and doubt, so positive affirmations can help train our brain to stay focused, confident and optimistic, even when we experience setbacks.

The only time I delay making important decisions is when I’m upset, because I know that my executive function will be temporarily impaired by an emotional episode.  But in the longer term, not making a decision is a decision.

CREATIVITY

Imagination – Intuition – Daydreaming

I wrote a post a while back specifically about mind-wandering, a part of this crucial process on our journey to greater fulfilment. This unique state of consciousness, when the brain is in the default mode network helps to prevent mental exhaustion, by use of small scheduled time pockets to actively engage in daydreaming and the use of intuitive imagination to solve problems.

Imagination is so fundamental it led Einstein to declare that it was more important than intelligence!

“Do not let the memories of your past limit the potential of your future. There are no limits to what you can achieve on your journey through life, except in your mind.”
~ Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

Day dreaming has traditionally been frowned upon, and teachers may berate young students for zoning out when they should be focused. But this is a natural process and a helpful one in the right amounts, one that is essential for learning new information and revitalising the brain.

Deliberate mind-wandering is recommended to alleviate stress or if struggling with a difficult problem or emotional issue.

When we imagine a scenario, putting ourselves into another time, place or situation, we can use the subtle senses as part of this envisioning process. Unlike the physical senses, when the subtle senses are engaged in multi-directional thinking there are no limits. We can recall the sound of someone’s voice, the smell of roses, the taste of strawberries, the sound of the sea rolling rhythmically onto the beach, rain falling gently onto the window pane, a certain physical sensation; we can create an entire experience that hasn’t happened yet in intricate detail in our mind’s eye.

Creativity is the journey from the formless to phenomena to form. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the world’s foremost researchers on creativity and optimal performance, found that creative people tend not to lose their sense of awe and wonder in the world, and are less likely to be trapped by repetitive daily routines. They maintain a childlike curiosity about everything, exploring various different avenues of interest not necessarily related to their core work.

His research suggests looking for things that are unusual or different, or seeing familiar things with a fresh perspective – in other words aim to be unquenchably curious and surprise yourself and others every day.

Divergent and convergent thinking

Csikszentmihalyi also recommends practising both divergent and convergent thinking. You may recognise divergent thinking from the term ‘thinking outside the box’.  This kind of thinking is considered open-ended, non-linear and irrational when seeking solutions to problems.

I imagine some people thought Wilbur and Orville Wright were off their trolleys in attempting to fly in a powered machine at the start of the 20th century, but now, a mere 117 years later we can fly around the world, exceed the speed of sound and travel into space!

We also need to become adept in convergent thinking, dealing with the minutiae of daily details and decisions, selecting one of just a few options or ideas.

I also explored the source of creativity in a previous post.

AWARENESS

Fairness – Empathy – Self-knowledge

The newest part of the brain, evolutionary speaking, is where awareness occurs. When we participate in self-reflection it stimulates circuits of empathy, compassion and self-love. This process helps us to develop more self-awareness, become more socially aware and more spiritually aware of our values, better equipping us to meet the needs of others as well as our own.

Image by Levi XU on Unsplash

In this way mutual trust and cooperation expand, work becomes more meaningful, purposeful and satisfying.

Awareness grows as we age, for the neural circuits involved in self and social awareness (the insula and anterior cingulate), don’t become fully functional until a person is well into their thirties.

This is why I try to have patience with my children, because they have less understanding of how their actions affect and influence others. Selfishness is the default position of a young person’s brain.

From childhood into early adulthood an individual has not yet developed the neurological capacity for empathy and moral reasoning, and are prone to taking greater risks and making mistakes. We all make mistakes, but with age and wisdom they will likely decrease. Mistakes are an essential feedback tool and not proof of failure.

One of the best ways I have found to enhance the conscious knowledge of my character, personality and everything else about me, as well as how my actions might influence others, is through meditation and honesty.

When we fully own the good, the bad and the ugly, nothing holds any power over us. We already know the worst, experiencing both the shadow and the light.

I have learnt to accept myself, flaws and all, with compassion. Patience isn’t a natural strength of mine, so I need to focus on practising it daily, with myself and my family!

Meditation, mindfulness and relaxation strengthens the areas of the brain concerned with confidence, optimism, emotional regulation, happiness, self-love and compassion for others.

There are varying levels of awareness: encompassing bodily sensations, positive and negative thoughts and feelings, awareness of old and new habits and behaviours, self-image and self-esteem, belief systems, purpose and values, awareness of other people’s thoughts and feelings, the social consequences of actions and awareness of awareness itself.

Heightened states of awareness facilitate ‘aha moments’, those sudden insights and ideas that can be applied into different aspects of your life.

The four pillars are interconnected, as when mindfulness/meditation increases awareness, so does motivation, hence you will make better decisions and your creativity will be unleashed. As the connectivity between the four pillars is strengthened a person will begin to take a greater interest in the welfare of others.

In NeuroWisdom they list the 23 traits of moral character (something we should look more closely for in politicians, business leaders, and across the social stratum).

Contemporary research in Positive Psychology identifies the following character traits as associated with happiness, wellbeing and success: compassion, kindness, fairness, open-mindedness, forgiveness, appreciation, gratitude, leadership, social sensitivity, social responsibility, bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality, creativity, curiosity, love of learning, wisdom, hope humour, humility, prudence and spirituality.

Not a bad list to aspire to…

“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds; your mind transcends limitations; your conscious expands in every direction; and you find yourself in a great, new and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
~ Patanjali

Shining a Spotlight on Your Awesome Character Strengths

“Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses.” ~ Marilyn Vos Savant

Apart from the curriculum subjects that children are taught in school, not enough help is given to them to find and focus on their character strengths. Those all important innate traits that they can use to their advantage in every area of their life ahead: work, relationships and hobbies/passions. As a mother this is something I feel passionately about.

My five 'core' character strengths.

My five ‘core’ character strengths.

I’m only just becoming conscious of my signature strengths at an age when possibly half my life is behind me. Still, better late than never!

We are all unique, and if you can celebrate your special gifts you will know how you can make the best of your life and contribute to those around you and the wider world.

Strength Cards - Creativity

So, just as Jesus commanded us to love thy neighbour, (and I’m not remotely putting myself in his saintly category), I would suggest that the commandment of Positive Psychology could be know thy strengths. After all, the ancient Greeks were onto something with the aphorism ‘Know Thyself’.

The difference between pleasure and gratification

I want to expand further from a previous post – Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness by exploring how being aware of our strengths and working on them can propel us forward to greater satisfaction and happiness.

Strength Cards - Spirituality

Physical and emotional pleasures are fleeting, and although enjoyable in the moment they tend to fade rapidly after the stimulus has ended.  Pleasures also lose their impact if experienced too often, as we inevitably become accustomed to them and habituation ensures that in the future we crave even bigger doses to get the same kick out of them. This is known as ‘The Hedonic Treadmill’.

I think my tendency to eat the whole bar of chocolate may be where the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ comes from!

The evanescent and ecstatic nature of the bodily and emotional pleasures is wonderful while it lasts but we can’t build a life around them.

In past times of depression I resorted to ‘retail therapy’ more than I should have, and whilst that new top looked great and gave me a momentary uplift, the negative effects on my bank balance and the prompt return of emptiness and despair left me feeling even worse in the long run.

To help us step off the treadmill it helps to separate the pleasures from the gratifications.

Ithaca by C.P. Cavafy narrated by Sean Connery sums up the pleasures:

I can appreciate the sensation of curling up on the sofa with a glass of wine, a bar of Galaxy chocolate and a  good book, or watching a romantic period drama in HD, having a massage, enjoying a tasty meal, having a relaxing soak, listening to music, wearing perfume etc.

But it’s a different, deeper kind of satisfaction I feel when I can entertain someone with my writing; or transform someone’s health with my nutraceutical business, go on a trek, dance a Zumba class, help my kids with their activities or play my violin.

Martin Seligman says of the distinction between the pleasures and gratifications:

“It is the total absorption, the suspension of consciousness, and the flow that the gratifications produce that defines liking these activities-not the presence of pleasure. Total immersion, in fact, blocks consciousness, and emotions are completely absent.

For Aristotle, distinct from the bodily pleasures, happiness (eudaimonia) is akin to grace in dancing. Grace is not an entity that accompanies the dance or that comes at the end of a dance; it is part and parcel of a dance well done. To talk about the “pleasure” of contemplation is only to say that contemplation is done for its own sake; it is not to refer to any emotion that accompanies contemplation. Eudaimonia, what I call gratification is part and parcel of right action. It cannot be derived from bodily pleasure, nor is it a state that can be chemically induced or attained by any shortcuts. It can only be had by activity consonant with noble purpose.”

Seligman’s formula for enduring happiness (not temporary bursts) is:

H = S + C + V

  • H – Happiness
  • S – Your set range (your genetic steersman & hedonic treadmill)
  • C – Circumstances of your life
  • V – Factors under your voluntary control (the most important aspect of the equation)

Strength and Virtue

quote-Marcus-Tullius-Cicero-glory-follows-virtue

A major study was undertaken by leaders in the field of Positive Psychology of a large range and number of religious and philosophic traditions to ascertain if there were any correlations and consensus of virtues between them. The results of the study were startling and illuminating. Six virtues emerged as being common to every major religion and tradition around the globe:

  • Wisdom and knowledge
  • Courage
  • Love and humanity
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Spirituality and transcendence

The perception and interpretation of these ubiquitous virtues varied between traditions, furthermore there were virtues found unique to each tradition.

Strength Cards - Appreciation of beauty

Knowing our personal strengths is the route to attaining these universal virtues. There is more than one way to reach these states and we are unique in our thoughts and character and the way we will attain them.

“Seek virtue rather than riches. You may be sure to acquire the first; but cannot promise for the latter. No one can rob you of the first without your consent; you may be deprived of the latter a hundred ways.” ~James Burgh, The Dignity of Human Nature: Book III. Of Virtue, 1754

For example one can embody the virtue of justice by acts of good citizenship, fairness, loyalty, teamwork and humane leadership. Each of these strengths is measurable and can be developed.

Strength Cards - Vitality

Strengths are not the same as talents. Valour, kindness and integrity cannot be compared to perfect pitch, facial beauty or being able to run at lightning speed.

The important thing to note is that a strength is valued in its own right.

My good friend Anke Exner who is a coach and mentor, helped me to ascertain my five character strengths that apply to me at the moment:

  • Creativity
  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence
  • Vitality (zest, passion & energy)
  • Spirituality (sense of purpose)
  • Perspective (wisdom)

The pictures I took detail the key elements of each strength. It’s not something you should have to think about too hard, it should feel authentic to you.

Strength Cards - Wisdom

I also took the comprehensive test on the Positive Psychology website to ascertain my 24 strengths. I strongly recommend you take half an hour out of your schedule to answer the questions in the VIA Strengths Survey and afterwards you will get detailed feedback based on your answers.

As a parent you naturally wish certain strengths for your new born offspring. I want my kids to be loving, brave, creative, integrous, kind, have a love of learning and be great leaders. You just wouldn’t say, ‘I want my child to have a job in middle management!’

As Public speaker and Personal Presence coach Sylvia Baldock states in her highly useful book – From Now to Wow in 30 Days:

“One of the keys to develop your ‘Personal Presence’ is to be really clear and assured in your own natural talents and abilities, knowing exactly where you add value and what is unique and special about you.”

Flow

One of Sylvia’s tips is to spend more time in ‘Flow’.

Sylvia Baldock - Flow

The concept of flow as it’s now understood and integrated into Psychology was first discovered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who travelled from Europe to America after the Second World War to study Psychology and Carl Jung’s writings. He wanted to discover scientifically the key to human beings at their best.

He explains it beautifully in this TED talk:

When does time stop for you? When do you find yourself doing exactly what you want to be doing and never wanting it to end?

It could be painting, sculpting, playing sports, making love, public speaking, playing an instrument, listening to a friend in need and so on.

I’m certainly in flow writing this post…

Cultivating our talents, strengths and virtues isn’t always an easy task, unlike experiencing the pleasures, but it’s essential to live a life of meaning.

“Happiness is a virtue, not its reward.” ~ Baruch Spinoza

An Epiphany in Gratitude

“When we are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want to share our good fortune even with strangers. When we are down, though, we become distrustful, turn inward, and focus defensively on our own needs. Looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness than of wellbeing.” ~ Martin E. P. Seligman ph.D. (Authentic Happiness)

This isn’t particularly easy for me to share, but I feel the lessons I learnt from my recent ‘mensis horribilis’ may be useful to some who are having a nasty time of things. The week leading up to Friday 13th was truly awful and stressful, I really had the kitchen sink thrown at me.

I won’t bore you with all the gory details, but suffice to say, pretty much every day I had a major challenge to deal with. On top of that I was tired, my kids were at each other’s throats and I had a constant ear ache that thankfully hasn’t developed any further. I felt like I had the world on my shoulders. I’d deal with one problem and then another arose more or less straight away, so I began reacting badly to my worsening circumstances.

Martin Seligman - positive psychology

I wasn’t flowing in and out of my emotions, I had become entrenched in my negative energy field. I certainly didn’t take my own advice from a previous post: Positive Psychology, the Science of Happiness.

Maybe if I’d been more positive I would have coped better with the events that presented themselves to me. I’m usually quite a positive and happy person, but somehow everything got on top of me and I was drowning in a sea of negativity. I was expecting the s**t to hit the fan, and it dutifully did! My pity party rapidly upgraded into a full-on woe-is-me rave…

However, after hearing about the barbaric and tragic murders in Paris something shifted in me. The terror of those affected must have been unimaginable. It has been incredibly distressing to watch the news over the last few days, but it helped put my life into perspective for me. There were many people suffering in much worse circumstances than me.

I said my prayers for the poor souls who were in pain, and thanked God for all that I had. Which, when I tallied it all up was quite considerable, despite the many setbacks of the preceding week. I had allowed myself to become pessimistic and because I was mired in that negative energy it magnified everything.

In a beautiful light bulb moment I started to feel grateful for all the good in my life, in light of the fact that so many just across the channel had needlessly lost their lives in a cowardly, heinous attack. Here one minute, gone the next.

My challenges haven’t disappeared, but the black cloud I borrowed from Eeyore has now left its temporary home above my head!

Everyone has bad events to deal with; it can’t all be plain sailing. It’s not what happens to you that matters, it’s what you do about it that does. It’s how you react to it.

happiness - steve maraboli

I admit, it’s harder to stay positive when you’re under an onslaught, but thankfully weeks like that are relatively rare.

Mum and I went to Oxford on Friday, I needed to do a bit of research for my next novel, plus it meant we could have some precious mother/daughter time, as mum now lives near the ‘city of dreaming spires’.

We spent a good hour and a half in Oxford Crown Court, mainly in courtroom two. After seeing a complainant be cross-examined in the witness box by a seemingly kind and softly spoken barrister who mercilessly went in for the kill at the end of her questions, I was grateful not to be in her shoes. I’m not permitted by law to reveal any details about what I heard.

Oxford Crown Court

Oxford Crown Court

Whilst I had sympathy for the person in the witness box, I was learning about the workings of a case. That defence barrister certainly operated like an iron fist cloaked in a velvet glove.

After hearing charges against another man for unmentionable crimes, I began to see that there is so much evil and drama going on in other people’s lives, that mine seemed relatively happy in comparison.

Passing Christ Church Cathedral en-route to the Crown Court

Passing Christ Church Cathedral en-route to the Crown Court

I almost decided not to go as we had a deluge of torrential rain that morning, but by the time we exited the court house at the lower end of St. Aldates the sun had come out and blue sky illuminated the city.  The heavy grey clouds that blanketed the sky earlier had completely evaporated. Mum and I had a short stroll around Christ Church before we had to get the bus back to the park and ride. It was a happy and productive day and I felt myself brightening up.

On our way back from Christ Church Meadow

On our way back from Christ Church Meadow

I stopped listening to the chimp on my shoulder and started making the case for all the success and good things I’ve done. This what Martin Seligman refers to as disputation. What I had perceived as a permanent failure was just a temporary setback. Having the setbacks all at once was probably a consequence of a deeper, more pervasive dissatisfaction with myself.

A cherished friend introduced me to Martin Seligman’s ground break book, Authentic Happiness, which is an invaluable companion right now! I took Martin Seligman’s Gratitude Test, and whilst the results weren’t bad, they weren’t particularly great. It’s obviously something I need to work on.

Gratitude - Steve Maraboli

Here’s the link to the Gratitude Survey, I recommend you give it a try!

The Authentic Happiness website has some great resources and further tests that you can complete anonymously to help further research into positive psychology.

Looking back, I can see that even in the midst of challenges there were some beneficial events unfolding and people helping me. I won’t mention them by name, but in my heart I am truly grateful to them!

forgiveness - steve maraboli

This is an easy to follow presentation about optimism and gratitude based on the positive psychology work of Martin Seligman:

I’ve seen the video before of Joshua Bell playing his Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius in the Washington Subway experiment and feel it’s very relevant to show, (as it’s mentioned in the video above), to demonstrate how sometimes people don’t appreciate the beauty all around them in their lives:

Since my recent epiphany my energy levels are on their way back up, and I feel grateful for so many things: family and friends (both in my physical space and online), having a roof over my head, transport, food in the cupboards, healthy, happy children, a new book to write, my violin and music, a new direction with my health and an opportunity to top up flagging finances, plus many more blessings that I have taken for granted.

My wish for the future (stealing a phrase spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address), is that you, me and humanity can be happy, grateful and content despite the everyday threats and challenges we face, by being true to the better angels of our nature.

Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness

“Happiness is an intentional creation of the Self universe: I am happy. Of course, the self can believe in all sorts of appropriate reasons for making itself happy or unhappy, but the bottom line is that the Self decided.” ~ Harry Palmer

Close your eyes. Imagine, for a moment, what your ideal life would look like. You are living that life. How does that make you feel? What sensations does your body experience?

beautiful Pacific-beach,-sunset

We all have dreams that we want to manifest in our lives, otherwise breathing would feel like a rather pointless activity. Our innate creativity and thirst for adventure makes life interesting and fun.

You may have everything you want and desire and are now seeking to help others. Either way, those plans bring us happiness. The fact that we might not have those desired outcomes in our lives as yet can be uncomfortable, and that in itself can drive us on. We discover why we are here, what our talents are, and where we can use them, in other words: finding our place in the world.

I love the Vedanta wisdom on the science of happiness. Swami Sarvapriyananda talks about pleasure, engagement, meaning and the Atman (sat-chit-ananda):

No doubt you have heard the saying, “It’s not the destination that matters but the journey.” It’s who we become as the result of our travels that’s the real reward. Sure, we have successes along the way, as well as setbacks and challenges; nothing is ever handed to us on a plate. Problems, failure and suffering are all the training ground of the soul.

That elusive quality called ‘happiness’ is simply a state of being, a choice to think and act a certain way. We don’t get pulled down into our story, we somehow transcend it and use the hidden treasures from our life experience and transpose that into wisdom, love and compassion.

A fascinating talk by Harvard Professor Dan Gilbert about stumbling upon happiness:

Many people believe that when they are ‘successful’ then they will be happy. Sadly, many find they climb the ladder of success only to find that it was leaning against the wrong wall. Happiness in who you are and what you do in the present moment is vital to achieve whatever success means to you. Be it financial, good health, a happy family, giving back to society, peace of mind.

Quotes-On-Happiness

Acceptance of what is, whilst doing your best to steer your life where you want it to go seems to me to be the only way to live. Otherwise you are delaying life. If you are not happy with less, you certainly won’t be happy with more – not in the long run.

Delayed gratification isn’t a philosophy to aspire to when it applies to your happiness.

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahr is teaching Positive Psychology at Harvard University. There has been much research conducted into the physiological effects of living a happy life, concluding you are more likely to live longer and have better health, therefore leading a better quality of life.

Five ways to become happier today, by author and psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar:

I’ve come to the conclusion that happiness is an inner decision we make on a daily basis, regardless of outer circumstances. In fact, if anything, outer circumstances tend to reflect what’s going on in our internal representations and how we manifest our attitudes and beliefs.

Happiness-Quotes-32

When the going gets tough it’s hard not to slip into the ‘saboteur’ or ‘victim’ archetypes and therefore compound our misery. But once we have been there and got that T-Shirt, we develop an emotional awareness and tend not to fall into the same trap once a life lesson has been truly learnt.

“Each moment you are happy is a gift to the rest of the world.”  ~ Harry Palmer

I love that quote. Because when you are happy you are like a pebble breaking the surface of a limpid lake: your happiness causes waves to ripple outward in the form of a kind word or deed, thus your positive energy is transferred incrementally to your fellow human beings and the world.

There are days we choose not to be happy, after all, we are human. That’s okay; just don’t stay in that energy field very long. If your happiness always depends on outer circumstances then there will always be something to protect or lose, events that will happen that are out of your control.

happiness-quote

The only true thing we have control over is our mental outlook – our thoughts. And when life throws you a curve ball the challenge is not to get pulled down into the curve and out of our essential nature into judgement, hate, depression, blame and guilt.

“To a far great extent than common knowledge would lead anyone to believe, people’s happiness, health and success are not determined by the thoughts, ideas, and imaginings they have of themselves, but are determined by the ability to change these things. “ ~ Harry Palmer

Working on ourselves is probably the most important task we can ever undertake. This is not a selfish activity, because as we become happier and more fulfilled so we can help others to do the same.

Quotes-On-Happiness-And-Love

Our deepest fears are invisibility, being worthless, lack of importance, not being good enough, and annihilation. It helps to remember that the definition of fear is: False Evidence Appearing Real.

YOU MATTER.

This universal truth is demonstrated so artfully in Frank Capra’s 1946 classic movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart playing the despairing small-town businessman George Bailey, (in my humble opinion, the role he was born to play).

It’s Christmas Eve and George is on the brink of suicide, when he is visited by his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, who shows him what the world would have been like if he had never been born.  This film is one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made, and was voted the most inspiring film of all time by the American Film Institute in 2006. This scene says it all. I’d like to be your Clarence, just for today!

One life touches many:

Just by being yourself, doing what makes you happy (as long as it’s not hurting others) and following your heart you can make a difference in the world.

“There was a time, a certain number of years ago, when a tiny blob of gelatin began to pulse with hidden potential. It was barely more than a speck of matter, about the thickness of a dollar bill, at the very threshold of human sight: any smaller and it would have been invisible to the naked eye.

Tough tiny, this insignificant little dot of matter (you could have fit about twenty of them on the head of a pin) contained chemical instructions that, if printed out, would have filled more than 500,000 pages; in fact, it was among the most organized, complex structures in the universe. Over the next nine months of slight edge compounding, this little blob of gelatin would blossom into about thirty trillion cells before being born into the open air…and letting out a wail as it took its first breath.

It would become you.”

~ Jeff Olson (The Slight Edge).

Until the next time, I wish you happiness and joy!