Can’t we simply choose happiness? As a psychologist and psychotherapist, I’ve spent the last 30 years listening to people struggle with anxieties, depression, and loneliness, in search of ways to alleviate unhappiness. And as a professor, I’ve spent as many years researching ways to build resilience—hoping to find ways to prevent people from “succumbing” to unhappiness. The more I explore these issues, however, the more I’m convinced that Freud was on the right track. We are extraordinarily complex creatures who, by nature, are probably not headed toward tranquility or happiness. If we wish to build a happy life, we’ll have a darned hard fight on our hands.
Brain Research On Neurophysiology of Experiences
I keep returning to a delightful article by Hiss (2014) on the human brain published in the Reader’s Digest a couple of years ago. Hiss reviews fascinating research on the neurophysiology of such experiences as love, procrastination, reactions to criticism, and road rage, and the basis for many of our emotional struggles.
We like to think that our intellectual abilities accorded to us by the magnificent cortex provide us with the tools needed to control unpleasant emotions and primitive urges. But why, then, do we feel our blood pressure rise and rage take over when someone “waves” to us with a single finger from their car? What just happened?
As Hiss notes, the cortex is a relative newcomer to the brain party. It’s built on a more primitive mammalian, emotional part of the brain, which is built on an even more primitive reptilian part. How peaceful—or cooperative—a party should we expect?
Our Expectations On Handling Life And Emotions
She draws an analogy to a speed boat that’s been built on a row boat base. We expect to zip through life’s rough waters with ease—something our rickety base may not be able to manage. It’s amazing that our brains aren’t out of service more often!
So when I hear patients question what’s wrong with them that they can’t seem to manage their emotions or just “choose” to be happy, I remind them that they’re not a Golden Retriever. And some days, their lizard is active. Why can’t we simply choose happiness? Our brains may not be wired that way.
Mindfulness exercises may help. To learn more about mindfulness, see Mindfulness Training: Introduction and Mindfulness Training: Body Scan Meditation and Informal Mindfulness Practices.
Hiss, K. (Sept. 2014). The beautiful life of your brain. Reader’s Digest.
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