Have you ever tried to tell yourself to “just relax” and “enjoy” an unexpected traffic-filled commute that is sure to make you late? You keep telling yourself there is nothing you can do so “let go” and “be Zen” about it, only to feel your hands gripping the steering wheel and your eyes rolling out of frustration at the car that jetted into your lane.
You sarcastically think to yourself, “as if they were really going to get there that much faster.” Then you remember to be positive. Back and forth your mind goes like a high-speed ping-pong match. On one side you have frustration-filled thoughts; on the other you have Pollyanna-positive thoughts.
It is commonly believed that you should be able to think your way out of negative feelings. This is not how the brain is wired. Once you are frustrated or stressed, you can’t effectively tell yourself not to be so. This belief has caused a society where people would rather think than feel, be in their heads instead of their hearts or talk rather than tune in and listen. This won’t lead to lasting happiness. Not only that, happiness is not a thought. It is an experiential state of mind and body that includes habits of thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Typically the most important yet most avoided step in lasting happiness is emotional intelligence. Most people would rather get a root canal than deal with their feelings. Feeling is perceived as a personal weakness. People may believe feelings would somehow sink them into a black hole, never to return to land of the happy living. This avoidance poses a problem.
According to the American Psychological Association, 75 percent of people report experiencing unhealthy stress, and 22 percent report extreme stress. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame report the average person experiences the fight, flight, or freeze response 50 to 200 times per day. Rather than avoiding stress and negative feelings, we need to practice more effective ways of dealing with our feelings beyond just changing our thoughts.
Let’s look at a few brain science findings that encourage us to rethink our strategy for experiencing lasting happiness:
- Your brain is wired such that your emotional brain can act independently of your thinking brain, but the reverse is not true. Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, describes chronic stress and the subsequent feelings of loss of control as a “neural hijacking” in which the emotional brain takes over. In other words, you can’t just think your way through your feelings.
- The emotional brain operates twice as fast as the thinking brain. Your thinking brain is simply outmatched.
- Stress decreases your ability to focus and sustain positive thoughts. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for focus. Due to the release of stress hormones, the emotional brain takes precedence and the prefrontal cortex becomes less active. This happens when you are distracted and find it difficult to concentrate. Interestingly, studies show that the average American is distracted 47 percent of the time and that at these times they are not as happy as when they are present.
- Once activated, the stress center of the brain can get stuck in an unending ping-pong match. For example, you might feel worried about finances while telling yourself to think confidently. Once the stress response has been triggered, it can’t be turned off solely at the level of thought.
De-stress to Rewire Your Brain
Approaches designed to rationally think past stressful feelings are not always effective. The prefrontal cortex does not have enough neural strength to simply override stressful feelings with happy thoughts. However, in a matter of minutes you can diffuse the stress response. Approaches that decrease stress and increase feelings of calm activate the power of your prefrontal cortex to focus on being happy.
According to Richard Hanson, neuroscientist and author of The Buddha’s Brain, engaging regularly in relaxing activities can wire your brain for calm. Hanson notes that people who routinely relax have “improved expression of genes that calm down stress reactions, making them more resilient.” The options available for us to accomplish this are abundant in our society. Examples include meditation, yoga, nature walks, breathing practices, energy psychology, somatic practices and a host of other mind-body approaches.
American Psychological Association. (2011). Stress in America: The impact of stress. Mind/body Health: For a healthy mind and body, talk to a psychologist. Retrieved from http://www.StressinAmerica.org
University of Notre Dame. (2008). About stress. University Counseling Center. Retrieved from http://ucc.nd.edu/self-help/stress-management/about-stress/
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.
LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Scicurious. (2012, December 5). Stressed out and not thinking straight? Blame dopamine release in your prefrontal cortex. Retrieved from http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/scicurious-brain/stressed-out-and-not-thinking-straight/
Killingsworth, M. and Gilbert, D. (2010). A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science, November 2010, 932.
Perry, B. (2008). Memories of fear: How the brain stores and retrieves physiologic states, feelings, behaviors and thoughts from traumatic events. Academic version of chapter originally appearing in J. Goodwin & R. Attias (Eds.), Splintered reflections: Images of the body in trauma, (1999). New York: Basic Books.
Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Nature walk photo available from Shutterstock