In the wake of New Year’s Resolution season, some of us are taking a good hard look at what’s blocking our paths to happiness and health. There’s plenty: the world is full of distractions, struggle, and pain, plus we’re just so darn busy. Some of us are, of course, in survival mode—there certainly are people in the world who are dealing with the daily stress of finding enough food, shelter, and medicine to get through an average day. But if you are one of the lucky ones with a warm bed to and enough food to eat, why aren’t you happy?
In part, it’s what neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hansen calls the “negativity bias.” Our brains are hardwired to remember negative experiences so that we can avoid them. In a survival situation, it’s much more important to remember that the big animal with the orange stripes can kill you than the pretty flowers you saw this morning. As a result, in our daily lives, we tend to soak up the experiences that create fear, worry, and stress, and forget positive experiences.In yoga, we call this kind of habit a samskara. If you always walk the same path from the road to the river, the grass gets worn down. After a while, you might as well just take that path, since it’s the easiest to see and walk down.
Many mindfulness practices focus on positive thinking to help us feel happier. Hansen says that positive thinking is “wasted on the brain,” explaining that when we simply try to look for the good no matter what is happening, we are not taking the time to soak up happy experiences, nor are we dealing with legitimate negative issues that need to be addressed. “So it’s not just positive thinking that’s wasted on the brain,” he says, “it’s most positive experiences that are wasted on the brain.”
Think of an affirmation like Frank Costanza’s “Serenity now!” from the show Seinfeld. These can work, but only if you approach them from both a cognitive and a feeling state. If you yell, “Serenity now!” knowing that if you are saying it, it’s because you are angry, all your brain experiences is anger. If it really does feel good to say it, though, pause for 10 seconds, close your eyes, and feel serenity, now! You can point out other paths to the river all you want, but you have to actually walk down them, too.
There are so many lovely moments in a given day. If you are struggling with a breakup, for example, you may notice as you are walking after dark that the frost on the sidewalk has a beautiful diamondlike sheen. It’s not that the feelings of sadness and anger aren’t real, it’s just that the sidewalk is shimmering like diamonds. Pause to notice that you are experiencing beauty, and then soak up what beauty feels like.
Ultimately, of course, the warm fuzzies will pass, but so will the negative emotions about your breakup. All feelings are fleeting, but if you give yourself the opportunity to really have the ones that feel good, you’ll be more likely to experience them again in another context, on another day. The sad and angry path to the river will still be there, but as you keep practicing, you’ll develop a warm fuzzy path as well.