The brain works on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. Happiness is no exception.
“I’ve forgotten how to be happy.”
She said it like it was meant to be a joke, but she wasn’t laughing. And it wasn’t really funny. It kind of gave me chills.
I kinda got the joke she was trying to make. “I’m so tough and hardened that I’ve forgotten how to be happy, even though happiness isn’t something you do, like driving a car, and is therefore not something that you can ‘forget’.”
Only thing was it kinda was like she had forgotten how to be happy. She had one of those mouths that seemed to have hardened into a frown. Like how some models have what they call “resting bitch face”. She had ‘resting general disaffection with life face.’
And she was very slow to crack a smile. In fact, the only time I remember her smiling or laughing, it was at the misfortune of others. If something went wrong for someone – or if something embarrassing happened to them – then it was like this wave of relief washed over her and she broke into laughter.
Actually it was more like a cackle.
And look, I don’t want to be mean. I know where her outlook came from. She hadn’t had the easiest life, and she’d never had a lot of self-confidence. So I can understand. I can empathise.
But it just struck me because I really think she had forgotten how to be happy. Happiness had become such an alien state of being to her, that she had lost the map to get back there.
And again, I think there’s this misperception about where emotions come from. We tend to think that our emotions are naturally set to neutral, and then we swing from happiness to sadness depending on what happens to us.
Like, you’re in a room having a rest. Your emotions are at neutral. Then someone comes in and gives you a foot rub for 5 minutes. You emotion-metre swings over to happiness. After they leave, and after a while, your emotions return to their neutral setting.
It’s like a pot of water. The water is at room temperature. Add heat and the water gets hot. And cold and the water gets colder. But take heat and cold away and the water naturally returns to room temperature.
This really isn’t the right way to think about it when it comes to happiness, and this framework gives away a lot of our power.
There is no neutral emotional state. Sure, there is something that is neither happy nor sad, but this isn’t like room-temperature. You don’t revert to it. It just happens to lie in the middle.
You’re natural tendency is just where you happen to spend the most time. We are creatures of habit. If you’re happy a lot, you tend to be happy. If you’re sad a lot you tend to be sad.
And what the whole theory of neuro-plasticity tells us is, that if you’re not using certain parts of your brain, those parts will be co-opted to serve other functions. It’s an efficiency thing.
So if you’re not using the part of the brain that is happiness, that part will be asked to chip in elsewhere – probably towards feeling more nuanced sadness if that’s where you spend all your time.
After a while, after your happiness cortex is subsumed by your sadness cortex (not actually things), it is actually very difficult to feel happiness at all.
You can, literally, forget how to be happy.
But if it is possible to forget, then it is also possible to remember.
And so at the risk of making every blog about radical self-reliance, there’s a lesson here.
Happiness is not a reaction to the outside world. Don’t think of it like that. Rather, think of it like a skill. It is something you do, like driving a car, and it is something you get better at with practice.
And if you’re serious about being happy, then put the time into it. Make space in your life and in your mind to feel happiness. Work on getting better at feeling happy. Come up with exercises for yourself to do. I don’t know, something like:
- List ten things that make you happy.
- What was the happiest moment in you life? What did it feel like?
- Who makes you happiest? What does it feel like to be with them?
- What are the physical sensations associated with happiness?
- Fake it. Let me know, non-verbally, that you’re the happiest person alive. What is you’re body doing? Give it permission to do more of that.
I’m sure I could come up with more but I don’t think I need to. You know yourself best. You know what will work for you.
Now I know this might all sound a little twee and silly. And it totally is. If I went back 20,000 years and told my ancestors cuddling with their family around a fire, eating mammoth steaks and singing songs, that they should practice being happy, they would think I was an idiot.
But the reality is that we live in an era where our problem-solving minds are constantly being challenged. We can end up stuck in problem-mode. And this crowds out the space for being happy.
So we can forget how to be happy, not because we spend all our time being sad, but simply because we spend all our time being busy.
(How do you look in that mirror?)
So we could all use some happiness training. I might open a dojo.
Whatever you want from life – whether it’s happiness, love, awe, gratitude, laughter, success, whatever – it’s yours for the taking.
You’ve only got to put in the time.
How great is that?
Now give me twenty happy push-ups.
What exercises would you bring to your happiness dojo?