A Key to Happiness

In Science and Psychology on January 12, 2011 by ryepdx Tagged: , , ,

I hate the title of this blog, mostly because I think that nobody can tell another person how to be happy. At least, this is the case most of the time, it seems. As I hear Buddha once said:
“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

But at the same time I think there is advice that is useful, and I think I found some. In an article published by Psychology Today in November of last year, David Rock cites a paper by Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth which found “(i) that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and (ii) found that doing so typically makes them unhappy.”

Yes, I’m talking about those old injunctions to “worry not about what tomorrow may bring” and to “live for today.” Or, more accurately, to focus your attentions on the present when you find yourself buried in fruitless worry. (And let’s face it, most of our worries are fruitless.) Another article by David Rock discusses why this injunction works.

In the latter article he cites a paper by Norman Farb which found that there are two mental networks, or paths, by which we experience our surroundings. The first of these is called the narrative network. This network is self-referential. It is involved with planning, daydreaming, and general navel-gazing. This is the default network, the network which is active in the absence of effort on our part.

The second of these is called the direct experience network. When this network is active, not much rumination takes place. Instead we experience everything our senses are telling us directly, in real time, without first being filtered through the narrative network. When this network is active, our brains are able to notice and retain more details about our environment. People who regularly exercise this network are able to adapt more quickly to sudden changes in their environment and better able to pick up on subtle cues.

As mentioned in the first article by David, people who spend most of their time in the first network tend to be less happy than those who spend most of their time in the second network. That is, we tend to unhappy while in the first network and happy while in the second.

Fortunately, it turns out that these two networks are exclusive. They cannot both be active at the same time. On top of this, you can control which network you are in at any given moment. That is how the Buddhist principle of “mindfulness” works. That is why simply trying to be present in your surroundings can, in a pinch, do wonders for your mental and emotional health.

Of course, it can be difficult to notice what network you are in at any given moment. Those who make it a habit to notice this, though, such as those who meditate regularly, are better able to switch networks as they please. Note that it is the noticing which makes the difference: meditation is just a tool some people use. Others, like David Rock, simply take ten seconds out of the day every day to consciously switch to the direct experience network. Whatever works for you is fine; the important thing is to notice your mental state and exercise your control over it.

Again, I hate the title of this blog, but I honestly think it’s the best fit. The one thing I do like about it is the “A” in it. This is only a tool for finding fulfillment, not THE tool. Each of us will likely use many things and look down many paths, try many “keys” (so to speak), in order to find what works. There is no one, true, “one-size-fits-all” way. But, if the science is any indication, this will probably help most of you.


3 Responses to “A Key to Happiness”

  1. Strange that this very same issue has been plaguing me for years, and it has certainly made itself known more often in my 20-something years.

    I can’t express how glad I am that you posted this – thank you!

    • Glad that you found the post useful! Not the sort of thing you usually find here, but I figured you all might be getting tired of my “slice of life” posts. 😉

      Just remember what Mark Twain said: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Most of our worries these days do indeed prove to be fruitless; most of our “personal crises” tend to be overblown.

      Best of luck with those 20-something growing pains.

  2. The key to happiness is different for everyone. I am hoping in a few years i look back on my 20’s and realize that everything wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought it was!

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