Sunday, August 4, 2013

Uncovering Happiness

The pursuit of happiness is something we like to think of as constitutionally guaranteed in this country. We have the right to pursue happiness, whatever that might be for us, as long as we don't run afoul of the law. Like many people, I used to think happiness was some elusive state, difficult if not impossible to achieve. One who is unhappy must do something, go somewhere, change somehow in order to be happy. If only I could figure out what that something was, I could be happy.

Lately, however, I've been thinking that happiness is not something "out there," in the future or in another place, a state that I have to get to. Rather, I've come to believe that happiness is a quality I already possess, something that exists within me and need only be uncovered, drawn out, revealed.

My brain chemistry works to muffle happiness, to hide its existence, to prevent me from experiencing it. Why is it doing this? I suppose it's trying to protect me from what it mistakenly believes are mortal threats to my physical body. Happiness is, after all, a state of relaxation. To feel happy is to experience a time away from vigilance, to dwell in a place where peace and cooperation, creativity and curiosity hold sway.  If one is afraid for one's life, one cannot afford to relax, to be curious, friendly, open, joyous, inventive--that is, happy. One must concentrate on surviving.

Hyperalert people whose brains make them believe they are in danger cannot afford to relax vigilance.  They must stay alert to attacks from the outside world where predators lurk, where hunger and hurt await. Unfortunately, the source of the threat they feel is the brain itself, causing pain in the name of survival.

The hyperalert brain is creating a kind of autoimmune disorder, you might say. Autoimmune disorders occur when the body mistakenly believes its own tissues are a threat; it treats its internal tissues like external invaders. In much the same way, when the brain produces fear-inducing chemicals, the mind does not recognize the threat as internal and therefore harmless; instead it immediately looks outside the body for the cause of the fear, for the invader; and when it finds something, it responds by fighting the perceived threat or fleeing from it. The mind's response is like the body's response: it acts to protect the organism.

What does the mind do? It prompts the body to attack, perhaps, through yelling or hitting. Or it prompts the body to flee through literal or figurative running: taking to one's bed and refusing to get up and go to work, for instance, or escaping via a tried-and-true route, such as changing jobs or drinking alcohol or gambling.

Though it may seem such actions are intended to remove obstacles to happiness ("If I could only find a job I like"; "If I can just get enough money to pay my bills"), they are in effect creating those obstacles by perpetuating readiness for a threat that doesn't exist.  It's as if the person is patrolling through a war zone, anxiously alert for the hidden mine that will take his legs or even his life. "Be alert or be inert," as soldiers say. But that kind of vigilance takes its toll, even when the threat is real. At least a real war will end at some point and if he survives, the soldier will be safe. When the war is brain-created, there's no actual reason for vigilance and thus no hope of safety--no hope for a future happiness.

So, what to do? Look for the happiness that is hiding behind the artificial cloud the brain creates. Dispel the cloud, and reveal the sunshine behind it. Simple--but, of course, not easy.

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