How to get happy?

I’ve been seriously busy managing young children and a major life crisis, the full catastrophe living as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it. I was also listening to a talk on Mindfulness and Beyond Mindfulness with Dr Rick Hanson and others and felt nudged into writing this article.

One of the key elements of Dr Hanson’s speech was the negativity bias.

Back in the wilds when we were on survival, it made evolutionary sense to pay more attention to what was wrong than what was right. Paying attention to the negative meant survival, the bliss bunnies amongst us became lunch.

And so, the negativity bias passed itself along in our Genes and here we are twenty thousand years later running the same software.

Many of us have enough food, shelter, clean drinking water and good friends, and yet so many are miserable with our lot. Struggling for more and complaining relentlessly about what’s wrong is the mark of the modern world. This is the negativity bias or ‘Velcro for the negative’ as Dr Hanson calls it.

Emotionally charged negative experiences fire up our amygdala and cause the release of the stress mediating hormone cortisol. Cortisol in excess kills neurons and prevents synaptic change and reduces the size of the thalamus. This means the communicative flow in the brain is reduced, creative change is difficult to implement and we often have issues with memory.

The reduced thalamus also leads to reduction in control of top down regulation from the thinking part of us over the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus controls all our glands and the stress mechanisms of the body. More cortisol is now generated with ease which causes more toxic effects in the brain. Our system is now sensitised for negativity and we are in a vicious cycle.

This increasing amygdala sensitisation leads to embedding the installation of these negativity filters, leading us relentlessly from state to trait, from tendency into habit.

This palaeolithic artefact with its unhealthy side effects that makes us poor at conscious learning and focus as well as leading to a host of immune problems and other disorders.

Here is one evolutionary exit route, we can move from stress as a creator of disorder to stress as a friend. Dr Kelly McGonigal suggests making stress a friend and states that it is our belief about stress being toxic that gives it its destructive power. If we honestly believe we can handle it, we will. As we handle it we get more oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter which moves us to seek contact with other humans, share our trouble and find love. So stress honoured brings us together. Stress battled with, draws us apart and into personal crisis, illness and death.

In my book, Engaged Yoga, I write about the evolutionary necessity of community, never more relevant in neoconservative Britain where those (the Old Etonians) who preach austerity don’t know what on earth it means, the communities of those that do, need to pull together to thrive in the face of such policies. When we handle life stress in a satisfactory way we fire up dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter, and so what doesn’t kill us literally makes us stronger.

However, there is also the Teflon effect. Here positive emotional experiences hit the non-stick of the neurons, they are less well attended to by the brain and drop through the neuro-filters of our experience and get lost amongst the sticky negative events which get velcro’d into our emotionally driven memory.

Why would we lose precious moments of beauty, love and power as they slip out of our memory circuits?

Because in palaeolithic times that sort of circuitry didn’t help us make it to adulthood. Positive and beneficial states just wash through our brain because they don’t fire up the amygdala.

So are we doomed to focus in increasingly sensitive spirals of negativity?

No! We have another out, another exit strategy from our ancestral neurological patterns.

What is this evolutionary strategy?

It’s the power of awareness as cultivated in the practice of yoga and meditation.

The power of awareness and its qualities of attention and intention get us out of the pickle of the negativity spiral.

Cultivated in disciplined practices of meditation, mindfulness and other key awareness practices such as intelligent somatic yoga we can use attention and choose to give prominence to daily, mundane moments of ordinary beneficial experience, the smell of a flower, the smile of a child, the hug of our partner. Through behaving like this we are choosing to move out of palaeolithic brain entrainment into an evolutionary strategy of contemporary living.

What does disciplined mean?

More next time…

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