To be more precise, the act of freeing oneself is a skill. One can learn it. Does it take the now-proverbial 10,000 hours of practice? Maybe. But if you work at it every day (which can also mean play with it), it shouldn’t be that intimidating. Really it’s just mindfulness with a direction, with an intention of experiencing freedom.
Basically, I’m talking freedom from oppressive aspects of the self — at any given moment it might be any one of Freud’s trio: the ego, the superego or the id. But those are somewhat abstract and now slightly antiquated terms. Neuroscientists would rather talk about the nonconscious functioning of the brain – the cognitive processing that occurs automatically and without awareness and which is often what makes our decisions in the dark.
I believe the biggest release we all look for, beyond bubble dreams of weightlessly floating along rainbow rivers, is freedom from negativity and fear. Those nonconscious responses are often appropriate; analyzing threats to one’s safety is a primary and automatic brain activity. But, being survival oriented, our mammalian brain has developed an inherent negativity bias and interprets many phenomena as dangerous when they are not – an automatic move which, more often than not, curtails expansion and growth.
So then, on the question of shifting negativity to positivity (which is more a freedom to), is there a switch inside of us by which we can flip modes, from unhappy to happy? Of course ‘happy’ is a loaded word, and actually not that precise; how about content, at peace, creatively engaged or sensing the good, rightness and fullness of all things? Sure, life isn’t always hunky-dory. People hurt each other, cities crumble, idiots ascend to office. But take a few steps to the side and see the scene from a different angle. Open a door and let in a little more light and you’ll catch a glimpse of sun falling on a cheek, or maybe a blossom falling from a tree. Maybe you’ll smile and someone will smile back. You’ll feel a little surge of elation and a flood of gratitude for such simple things.
Gratitude is the 21st century move of choice when it comes to achieving a state of positivity. Some say it can be as simple as putting a smile on your face, which then bounces back to your brain as actual pleasure. Neuroscientists have developed online exercises to help you shift thoughts from negative to positive. Others say that listening to one’s brain chatter and labeling one’s feelings can help one gain perspective and achieve greater positivity. However you get there, my belief is that we do have a choice, so why walk around like a big old cloud when you could be a ray of light?
The question becomes — are you a victim of your circumstances or an agent of your own destiny? If the former, by whom have you been designated as such, other than by the absurd echoes of dismal memories of significant others who really knew nothing about either themselves or you? Are you really willing to cede them control over your life?
No. So let’s agree that we can be agents of our own destiny. Which then entails practicing agent-hood and undertaking to create our happy place ourselves. The Greeks had a much cooler approach to happiness – the concept of Eudaemonia, human flourishing.
By the way, it turns out that one of the rewards of exercising our freedom, of choosing to focus on the positive aspects of one’s life, of choosing to be grateful, actually increases the brain’s production of serotonin (the amino acid considered to be a natural mood stabilizer); it also boosts neuron density in your lateral prefrontal cortex, which coordinates our two forms of attention: that which is stimulus-driven or autonomous, and that which is selective and goal-directed. This increased density then impacts emotional intelligence as the neurons become more efficient; it subsequently takes less effort to be grateful, and you will then find yourself more often in a lighter, happier mood.
Can we see this as flexing a muscle, the happiness muscle?
I just recently watched this short video ‘Can You Choose to Be Happy?’ in which Rudolph Tanzi, Harvard Professor of Neurobiology, refers to the way epigenetics can liberate us from what were earlier considered permanent genetic responses. Very cool video.
I don’t know about you, but I find myself to be an idiosyncratic assemblage of virtues and drives with a name by which I am known and a duty to create the job description of my life. Up to me to fill this sack of skin with meaning, totally up to me. And I want that meaning to be about happiness, whatever that means, or about flourishing, or about overcoming self-doubt and lightening myself, adding light to my body. We live in a vast cosmos, why need we be so chained to earthly gravity? I’m sure future visitors from other solar systems will marvel at how literal we were. So I say – put some jet-packs on those silly heavy souls.
Here is a delightful quote from Salvador Dali about this:
“Every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí?”