As it turns out, we humans adapt pretty well to feeling awful or to living the less dire but equally joyless neutral and numb existence.
Kids, relationships, jobs, falling finances and health vie for every inch of our energy. For some, crippling pain or depression or anxiety or loneliness overshadows sensations of joy, stifling an existence that is designed for pleasure.
Soon the moments of joy we do notice become special occasion exceptions rather than our rule for living.
Embrace hedonistic happiness
And yet, as humans we’re designed to pulsate with pleasure, to feed our craving for self-gratification (hedonistic happiness) and to pursue a noble meaningful purpose that elevates our mind and opens our heart for the greater good (eudaimonic happiness).
And yet our happiness can be notoriously fed or doused by the company we keep.
Misery might love company but positivity is contagious and a habit like any other. If we align long enough to people who recite reasons why life is out to get them we reinforce a rut of joyless and pained living.
And while we don’t necessarily need to abandon every negative person in our lives (although a toxic relationship dump is a grand idea in some cases), we can become immune to their soul-sucking (however unintentional) vibe.
This emotional protection is, in a poetic sense, what Herman Melville in Moby Dick referred to as our “insular Tahiti,” a self-protected encapsulated practiced place of peace and joy we strive to live, despite external chaos.
Humans notice the negative: breaking patterns
All of us can unlearn parasitic patterns of negative thought that erode our well-being (thoughts that literally affect our health). I’m not suggesting daily pep talks or posting sticky note mantras on the fridge will radically change your well-being (although these can’t hurt), I’m suggesting making our thoughts and actions intentional, habitually feeling grateful and engaging in happiness-stoking activities that literally re-wire our brain from our human tendency towards the negative, to the positive.
Humans, explain evolutionary psychologists, have a natural negativity bias in order to survive earlier threats. When man spotted a lion (negative) he ignored the carrot (positive) because he knew the carrot wasn’t a threat and would likely be there tomorrow, but he might not there tomorrow if he ignored the lion.
We simply adapt to our day-to-day positive experiences (we wake up rested, the sunrise is stunning, we eat a nice breakfast, our child is dressed on time, our dog is loyally loving us, the traffic flows for a change, purple flowers cover the highway median, our headache is somehow gone).
We tend to notice the negative that interrupts the web of positive that makes up the majority of our day.
We can however re-wire our brain. Experts in the field of positive psychology often cite that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, engage in happiness activities (what you truly love) over and over and over and you re-program your brain towards a positivity bias, and you feel better.
We now know our noggin is far more pliable than we ever imagined.
No longer do we need to become our doctor’s diagnosis and we can bathe our mind and body in feel good, healing and calming chemicals by, for example, spending time with others, feeling genuinely grateful and showing empathy towards others.
Walk barefoot on the sands of a quiet beach at sunrise, sync with the ebb and flow of the ocean as you whisper thanks to a divine and you will simultaneously relax your mind, breathe in spirit and soak in the earth’s abundant healing electrons (called “grounding” with 15 years of evidence to back its benefits).
Intentional living means we focus on the many everyday moments that continue to go well.
We can tap the healing powers of our natural world to create emotional and physical well-being.
We can use what we now know of neuroscience to maximize our brain’s capacity for joy.
We can embrace the unseen forces in the universe for our own good and the good of others, call this force God, divine, or if you prefer, energy.
We can merge science, our natural world and spirit to elevate our mind and body to a place of intentional and habitual joy. This isn’t a prescription for nirvana or bliss, that ethereal place we imagine only for monks, it is a real-life prescription for better living, through better feeling.
Image credit: Maggie McCall