The Science of Happiness: Why complaining is literally killing you.
By Steven Parton, From CuriousApes.com
Sometimes in life, all the experience and knowledge simmering around in that old consciousness of ours 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-age, mumbo-jumbo, doesn’t it? Well, bear with me, because I assure you the point here is to add some logical evidence to the old 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 interest, I also had an affinity for (Eastern) Philosophy and Neuroscience. This led to semester course load comprising of two 300-level psychology courses, one 300-level philosophy course, and a graduate-level 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 electric 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 in order to decrease the distance the electrical charge has to cross. This is a microcosmic example of evolution, 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 the thought to trigger. Therefore, your first mystical scientific evidence: your thoughts reshape your brain and thus are 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.
Your thoughts reshape your brain and thus are changing a physical construct of reality.
2. Shortest Path Wins the Race.
So which team will get the ball first? Basic physics of distance, time, 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 electric 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 a sort of Occam’s Razor of simplicity that I could use to strengthen my forming ideology.
So if your mind hadn’t already exploded 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.
If there’s any ability that truly separates us from our primate ancestors, it’s that of imagination. It’s the root of all art and architecture, of the (fictional) stories that formed religions that now control the lives of billions—even to the point of war over which fairy tale is the “right one.”
5. Stress will kill you.
You see, the thing about all this negativity, of regretting, of attachment to desires, of pointless complaining about impermanent things that will always continue to pass in an existence where time moves forward—the thing 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 and diabetes, and a plethora of other negative ailments–as psychology today points out below.
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 the 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. — psychology today and if you need more evidence for the damaging effects of stress, there are innumerable more studies that show the negative impacts of pessimism, bitterness, and regret on your health. Here’s one from the MayoClinic and another from APA.
The bottom line is this:
The universe is chaotic, from unpreventable superstorms of wind and rain, too unpredictable car accidents or to the capricious whims of our peers whose personal truths even have the ability to emotionally damage or physically hurt others. And every moment holds the potential to bring you any one of these things, any shade along the gradient of spirit-soaring bliss and soul-crushing grief.
But regardless of what it brings your way, your choice is simple: 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 of them, you don’t have to give them constant negative attention and allow them to reshape your brain to the point that you become a bitter, jaded, cynical old curmudgeon that no longer notices that the very fact that they’re alive means they get to play blissfully in this cosmic playground where you get the godlike power of choice.
What you can do is say; “Yes, this sucks. But what’s the lesson? What can I take away from this to make me a better person? How can I take strength from this and use it to bring me closer to happiness in my next moment?” You see, a failed relationship or a bad day doesn’t have to be a pinion to your wings, it can be an updraft that showcases to you what things you like and don’t like, it can show you the red flags so that you can avoid them. If there was a personality your ex-partner had that drove you insane, then you now have the gift of knowing you don’t want to waste your time with another partner who acts the same way.
If you are mindful of the lessons of the failures, there is no reason that you can’t make the default of every day better than the one before it. Do something new every day, learn its lesson, choose love over fear, and make every day better than the last. The more you do this, the more you will see and appreciate the beauty of this existence, and the happier you’ll be.