The Myth of “the Pursuit of Happiness”
“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.”
Doesn’t that sentiment still ring true today? Often we are so busy pursuing and working on the things that we expect will make us happy that we forget to be happy!
So how can I be happier when my goals are not yet met and things in my life are not exactly how I want them to be? How can I be happy in the midst of the inevitable stressors and negative experiences of life?
One clue comes from neuroscience. There’s a metaphor that Rick Hansen talks about in his book Hardwiring Happiness that is a useful way to think about it. Hansen says that our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences. Here’s how it works:
Because of the strong survival mechanism that is built in to your brain and body, the brain is highly sensitized to negative experiences. You need to notice and remember the threatening, painful, harmful, and damaging things that happen so that you can respond to them quickly, and safely, the next time something like that occurs. So negative experiences are like Velcro – we form a memory from that negative experience instantaneously. Negative experiences and the emotions that go with them stick!
Positive experiences and emotions tend to be like Teflon – they just slide on through. You experience momentary pleasantness but little trace of the experience is left behind in the brain. A memory of that positive experience is not created or stored unless you consciously make that happen. It turns out that it takes about 20 seconds of consciously experiencing something positive for a memory of it to be created and stored. Twenty seconds doesn’t sounds like much but think about it. When things are going well, when you are enjoying something, do you really stay with it for 20 seconds?
Because of this inherent negativity bias, the brain will always notice and remember the negative first unless we balance the equation with our willingness to notice, attend to, and fully experience the positive. Positive emotions have many healthy effects on the body and brain if we are willing to savor the positive in all of its forms.
To be happy means to notice and engage in the positive when it occurs! Be present enough to notice and then savor the positive through full attention and engagement. Practices like keeping a gratitude journal, a “have done” list (instead of just a “to do” list), or starting the dinner conversation with what went well today help us recognize and savor the positive. That is how we “pause…and just be happy”.
Happiness is not to be pursued. Happiness is to be lived!