It’s easy to be frightened, to feel cynical, to judge and criticize, to feel envy or jealousy, and to generally drop into a place of contention without even noticing. Our culture gives us nonstop messages of needing things to be other. It keeps us seeking the next best thing, rarely supporting the value of stopping and enjoying what is already here right now, as it is.
Rick Hansen, the neuropsychologist and author of The Buddha’s Brain, and Hardwiring Happiness, teaches that the brain has a natural negativity bias. It’s like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. Our basic survival instinct recognizes and hooks into danger much more quickly than it recognizes and hooks into peace, joy, love and the general sense that things are actually alright. But we can change this because the brain is very flexible.
The Buddha said “what one frequently thinks and ponders upon will become the inclination of the mind.” For me, I know that if I keep playing the worn out tape of an old painful relationship, what happened, what didn’t happen, I’ll get stuck in the sticky gooey rut of the story. I’ll likely become sad or resentful, angry or hurt all over again. The repetitive thoughts themselves will strengthen the imprint of the memory in my brain making the difficult feelings easy to access, easy feel, cloud my mind and lead nowhere good. I’ve heard it said that repetitive thoughts are a dead end, and it doesn’t take much rumination to know this is true. When I can recognize those dead-end thought loops, I can more easily stop the habitual thought pattern, recognize it for what it is, and avoid replaying the old hurt.
The bright shining spot here is that the same is true for good memories, good thoughts, and positive experiences; those that nurture and support our well-being and bring happiness. They, too, imprint in the memory. When we deliberately look for the good, take in and recognize joy, happiness, love, a sense of things being alright, we direct the mind towards well-being. When we intentionally take the time to let in it and soak it up, we reinforce the neural pathways in the brain that support our sense of happiness.
As these new habit patterns take root and grow, we have greater and easier access to our own innate capacity to feel joy. Our happiness grows. And as our own happiness grows, it becomes easier and easier to feel joy for someone else’s good fortune, too. This is appreciative joy; the completely natural expression of the open, available and unobstructed heart.
And here’s a little advice from The Dalai Lama…
“It is important to understand how much your own happiness is linked to that of others. There is no individual happiness totally independent of others….If we derive happiness from the happiness of others, we have at least six billion more opportunities to be happy.”