In Part 1 of Unhappily Chasing Happiness, I discussed how the American prescription for happiness evolved. Now let’s turn our attention to how your brain functions within the American model for happiness and explore one method to change your mind to improve satisfaction with your life.
Assessments can help determine your current levels of authentic happiness, giving you a baseline from which to evaluate your progress. Additionally, in broader terms, testing defines the components of happiness that are more functional in the real world. I find the PERMA definition the most accessible.
The University of Pennsylvania offers free testing. After taking these assessments, mine were peer-reviewed, which provided more insight into how I perceived my happiness levels. I recommend discussing your results with a trusted, honest friend. Once you have gained clarity on your current happiness levels, the next step is to rewire incorrect belief systems, which will create positive behaviors and thought processes that increase well-being.
Effectiveness in rewiring requires recognition of cognitive processes affecting how you perceive the world. We will use Dr. Laurie Santos’ Annoying Feature model to explore mindsets that impact forward momentum to help you remain mindful when setting goals for your life. At the end of the blog, you will find a link to Dr. Santos’ rewirement app that I highly recommend to make achieving change in life more manageable.
Annoying Feature #1: Our minds’ strongest intuitions are often totally wrong.
Miswanting is the core of Annoying Feature #1 and correlates to the ill effects of the American culture’s definitions of happiness discussed in Part 1 of this blog. Miswanting is understood as “less to do with not getting what we want and more to do with not wanting what we like.” An additional effect of this Feature is that we tend to overestimate the duration and strength of emotional reactions to future events. The overestimation is more significant when contemplating negative consequences and subsequent negative emotional responses.
The way this Feature functions in our lives is illustrated in this study about people’s affective reactions in a grocery shopping experiment. All of the subjects were asked to write out a shopping list. One group of subjects were allowed to keep their shopping lists. Then shoppers were asked at random to eat a quarter-pound of blueberry muffins before they did their shopping.
Experimenters reviewed the receipts of subjects who had been deprived of their shopping lists and found that subjects who had eaten the blueberry muffins bought fewer unwanted items than those shoppers who had not been fed. However, regardless of muffin consumption, shoppers who had their lists did not buy more unwanted items.
The conclusion was that shoppers with a list (aka the theory of what I will want in the future) in hand could avoid affective reactions and successfully avoided miswanting. Establishing specific goals and writing them down can help you navigate the effects of Annoying Feature#1.
Annoying Feature #2: Our minds don’t think in terms of absolutes; our minds judge relative reference points.
A metadata study conducted using Olympic athletes who had won medals makes understanding this thought process easier. All of the research data is intriguing, but herein we will only discuss the cognitive function of counterfactual thinking and its relevance to Annoying Feature #2.
When you see the Olympic medalists standing on the platform accepting their medals, you may have thought that the bronze medalist would be the person who felt the loss much more than a silver medal winner. However, we judge our experiences by relative reference points, and the study found that the bronze medalist feels more satisfaction.
The cognitive process functions in this manner: A silver medalist will focus on the single person who performed better (the relative reference point), the gold medal winner, labeled as upward thinking. The bronze medalist’s thoughts focus on the people they outperformed (the relative reference point) and are therefore downward thinking. Essentially, the silver medalist believes they could have won the gold, and the bronze medalist understands that many others did not win a medal.
An internal dialogue you may relate to would go something like this; the silver medalist’s self-dialogue of “if only I had,” “I should have,” etc. While the bronze medalist will dialogue more along the lines of, “at least I won a medal.”
Annoying Feature #3: Our minds are built to get used to stuff.
“Adaptability is the simple secret of survival.” – Jessica Hagedorn points to adaptability as a fundamental function of our brain. Specifically, the amygdala mediates the brain’s need for homeostasis and mandate to survive. Your mind will adapt to both good and bad circumstances with equal efficiency.
Understanding this function in your life requires knowledge of your baseline happiness level. Events like falling in love, getting married, and a job promotion will increase happiness neurotransmitters . But once you have adapted to the situation, i.e., married for seven years, been at the new job for a few years, etc., your neurotransmitters will return to baseline levels. (This is also known as the hedonic treadmill .) The brain process is the same when experiencing adverse events and will adapt equally well to adverse situations, but the neurotransmitters function differently.
This topic has many complexities but remembering how your brain functions can help you make choices that provide a more extended benefit emotionally. For example, if you have something material that you really want and will have to sacrifice your time to accomplish the financial goal, contemplate how you will feel when you buy the item comparing that sensation to the feelings the thing might invoke after one year. Studies have proven that financial expenditures for experiential activities have a sustained emotional benefit, but that is for a later post.
Annoying Feature #4: We don’t realize that our minds are built to get used to stuff.
We now know that our minds will adapt to both positive and negative events equally well. Many people are aware of adapting to positive life impacts and will become less enthralled with things/people/situations that once brought great joy and satisfaction. Adapting to adverse events by normalizing the ill effects experienced happens because the psychological immune system is overridden by accepting the self-destructive assessment of experience as accurate.
The point of Feature #4 is to draw attention to our not realizing or remembering that we quickly adapt. If you choose to practice the rewiring exercises, the Setting Goals process recommends that you conduct active visualizations of both positive and negative outcomes for your goal scenarios.
A rewiring tool you can easily apply in your life is to challenge future life forecasting scenarios that appear fraught with negative consequences by imagining possible positive outcomes.
Spoiler alert: If you read my February Newsletter, then you are familiar with the GI Joe Fallacy, and knowing something does not make you immune to its effects.
Now that you understand how your brain functions proceeding to help it process information differently is a first step to creating a fulfilling robust life for yourself.
As I suggested at the beginning of this post, obtaining a baseline of your current emotional state can be of great benefit. This knowledge will help you as you progress through the rewirement exercises, but in the years to come, you can recognize the distance you’ve covered.
I encourage you to get the ReWi app because it is a marvelous tool to track and measure your progress. Dr. Laurie Santos created the app to track eight activities that promote well-being. They are sleep, exercise, meditation, goal setting, gratitude, kindness, social connection, and savoring.
Please feel free to email me with your success stories and celebrating your achievements.
Next Month: March Newsletter and Blog: Immune System Influences on Mental Health
Each of us has a physiological and psychological immune system that provides protection. The physiological immune system protects our health, and the psychological immune system protects our emotional well-being. Sustaining well-being requires that each of these immune systems is maintained to facilitate a more fulfilling life. The March Newsletter will cover effecting positive change in both systems and provide tools that will help you quickly make those changes. The March blog will focus on fun, laughing, and the healing effects of joy on our immune systems.