The Science of Happiness: Why Complaining is Literally Killing You
Sometimes in life, all the experience and knowledge simmering around in our consciousness combines itself in a way that suddenly causes the cerebral clockwork to click into place, and in this fluid flow of thought we find an epiphany rising to the surface.
One such point for me came in my junior year at university. It changed the way I viewed the world forever as it catapulted me out of the last of my angsty, melancholic youth and onto a path of ever-increasing bliss. Sounds like I’m verging on feeding you some New Agey mumbo-jumbo, doesn’t it? Well, bear with me, because I assure you the point here is to add some logical evidence to the cliches, to give you what I would consider my Science of Happiness.
At the time of this personal discovery, I was pursuing a double major in computer science and psychology. Aside from these declared interests, I also had an affinity for Eastern philosophy and neuroscience. This led to a semester course load comprising two 300-level psychology courses, one 300-level philosophy course, and a graduatelevel artificial intelligence course for both biology and computer science majors. This amalgamation of studies quickly tore my brain into a dozen directions, and when I put the pieces back together, I found myself resolute with rational reasons for optimism and for removing from my life the people who liked to complain.
1. “Synapses that fire together wire together.”
This was the first phrase my AI professor told the classroom, and to this day it is still one of the most profound bits of logic I hold onto in order to dictate the decisions of my life. The principle is simple: Throughout your brain there is a collection of synapses separated by empty space called the synaptic cleft. Whenever you have a thought, one synapse shoots a chemical across the cleft to another synapse, thus building a bridge over which an electric signal can cross, carrying along its charge the relevant information you’re thinking about. It’s very similar to how nerves carry electricity from the sensation in your toe all the way up to your brain, where it’s actually “felt.”
Here’s the kicker: Every time this electrical charge is triggered, the synapses grow closer together (lowering the threshold for their action potential to be activated) in order to decrease the distance the electrical charge has to cross. This is a microcosmic example of adaptation. The brain is rewiring its own circuitry, physically changing itself to make it easier and more likely that the proper synapses will share the chemical link and thus spark together—in essence, making it easier for that same thought to trigger. Therefore, your first mystical scientific evidence: Your thoughts literally reshape your brain, and thus are actually changing a physical construct of reality. Let that sink in for a moment before you continue, because that’s a seriously profound logic-bomb right there.
2. Shortest Path Wins the Race
Beyond the absolutely incredible fact that your brain is consistently shifting and morphing with every thought, even more exciting is the fact that the synapses you’ve most strongly bonded together (by thinking about more frequently) come to represent your default personality: your intelligence, skills, aptitudes, and most easily accessible thoughts (which are more or less the source of your conversation skills).
Let’s dig deeper into the logic behind that. Consider two pairs of people throwing balls back and forth. One pair stands 10 feet apart, the other pair at a distance of 100 feet. One partner from each team throws their ball to their respective partners at the exact same moment with the exact same speed. The first team that catches the ball gets to dictate your personal decision and mental state of mind.
So which team will get the ball first? The basic laws of physics regarding distance, time, and velocity tell us that it will always be the pair standing 10 feet apart. Well, this is basically how your thoughts work. Through repetition of thought, you’ve brought the pair of synapses that represent your proclivities closer and closer together, and when the moment arises for you to form a thought (and thus throw our metaphorical ball of mental electrical energy), the thought that wins is the one that has less distance to travel, the one that will create a bridge between synapses fastest.
3. Acceptance vs. Regret, Drift vs. Desire, Love vs. Fear
In the time of my scholastic renaissance, this is where Eastern philosophy came in and handed me an idea of simplicity that I could use to strengthen my forming ideology. It was simple: Every time a moment came my way and brought with it a chance for reactive thought, I only had two choices, regardless of the flavor you put on them: love or fear; acceptance or regret; drift or desire; optimism or pessimism.
And now, my friends, we have our two pairs playing catch. Naturally, for my own well-being, I realized that all I wanted to do was move the pair of lovers closer together so they would always beat the fearful, pessimistic pair. And so I began to implement a practice into my life of loving everything that came my way, accepting it while relinquishing the need for control.
The Buddhists say that the universe is fundamentally suffering, and I believe this is because the universe appears chaotic, and thus by its very nature out of our control. When we try to force desires, we are bound to find innumerable occasions where the universe will not comply.
And so I decided to stop desiring to the point of attachment. I started to practice the acceptance that Buddhists so often speak upon, to drift in the Tao, to accept the natural flow of the universe with an optimistic love, to say to every moment that came my way, good or bad, “Thank you for the experience and the lesson, and now bring on the next moment so I can give it the same love.” Over and over I did this, moving those synapses closer and closer together, to the point where any synapses in my brain associated with sadness, regret, pessimism, fear, desire, melancholy, or depression had a smaller and smaller chance compared to the synapses of love. My reactions, my thoughts, my personality—and therefore my default state—became one of optimism and appreciation, and the illusory burdens I attached to this existence lessened. (Note: This doesn’t mean we have to be emotionless. It just means that we can view our emotions more objectively, rather than letting them carry us into a downward spiral.)
Like any muscle, if you exercise those loving synapses enough, you will find yourself in possession of a new innate strength that will make the world shine more beautifully far more frequently.
4. Mirror Neurons
If your mind wasn’t already blown when you learned you could alter reality with your thoughts, you may want to get ready for it—because guess what? It’s not just your thoughts that can alter your brain and shift those synapses. The thoughts of those around you can do it as well.
The premise, again, is quite simple: When we see someone experiencing an emotion (be it anger, sadness, happiness, etc.), our brain “tries out” that same emotion to imagine what the other person is going through. And it does this by attempting to fire the same synapses in your own brain so that you can attempt to relate to the emotion you’re observing. This is basically empathy. It’s how we get the mob mentality, how a calm person can suddenly find themselves picking up a pitchfork against a common enemy once they’re influenced by dozens of angry minds. It’s our shared bliss at music festivals or our solidarity in sadness during tragedies.
But it’s also your night at the bar with your friends who just love love love to constantly complain, whether it’s about their job, the Man, the government, or about their other so-called friends’ shortcomings; whatever little thing they can pick apart in order to lift themselves up and give themselves some holier-than-thou sense of validation. You may nod your head in acquiescence, “Totally, man. It’s B.S.”
But it’s not. It’s life, and as you continually surround yourself with this attitude, you are continually mirroring the negativity by unconsciously firing the synapses in your own brain. And as I explained above, every time you fire these synapses, you’re reshaping your brain— making it easier for your own pair of angry, bitter, resentful, depressed, and fearful synapses to beat out your loving, happy, and hopeful ones.
This is why it is so important to spend time with people who lift you up, because your friends who complain are moving those fearful, cynical, pessimistic synapses closer together, making your default, short-path-personality as jaded and bitter as theirs. Want to be happy? Surround yourself with happy people who rewire your brain towards love.
(Note: I’m not saying don’t be there for friends who are having a hard time and need an ear, or who need to work through a difficult situation. Nor am I saying you can’t be critical about the failings and injustices in the world.)
5. Stress Will Kill You
You see, the thing about all this negativity is it all causes stress. When your brain is firing off these synapses of anger, you’re weakening your immune system. You’re raising your blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and a plethora of other ailments. As Christopher Bergland pointed out in Psychology Today in January 2013:
The stress hormone, cortisol, is public health enemy number one. Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels: interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease… The list goes on and on. Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy. This week, two separate studies were published in Science linking elevated cortisol levels as a potential trigger for mental illness and decreased resilience — especially in adolescence. Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism.
Bottom line? The universe is chaotic, from unpreventable superstorms of wind and rain to unpredictable car accidents and the capricious whims of our peers, whose attitude has the ability to affect or even hurt others. And every moment holds the potential to bring you any shade along the gradient of spirit-soaring bliss to soul-crushing grief.
But regardless of what it brings your way, your choice is love or fear. And yes, I understand it’s hard to find happiness on those nights when you feel like you’re all alone in the world, when a loved one passes, when you fail that test or get fired from that job. But when these moments come, you do not have to live in regret, or give them constant negative attention and allow them to reshape your brain toward bitterness or cynicism. For then you’ll miss the very fact that you’re alive with the godlike power of choice to play blissfully in this cosmic playground.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #59.
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