The Science of Happiness: Why complaining is literally killing you.

Sometimes in life, all the experience and knowledge simmering around in that ol’ 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-agey, mumbo-jumbo, doesn’t it? Well, bear with me, because I assure you the point here is to add some logical evidence to the ol’ 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. 

synapse

    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: y
      our 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.

       

      Okay, pull yourself together, cause we’re not done yet.

    2. Shortest Path Wins the Race. 
      Beyond the absolutely incredible fact that your brain is always doing this, consistently shifting and morphing with every thought, even more exciting is the fact that the synapses you’ve most strongly bonded together (by thinking about more frequently) come to represent your default personality: your intelligence, skills, aptitudes, and most easily accessible thoughts(which are more-or-less the source of your conversation skills).
      Let’s dig deeper into the logic behind that.
      Consider you have two pairs of people throwing a ball back and forth. One pair stands ten feet apart, the other at a distance of 100 feet. One partner from each team throws their ball to their respective partners at the exact same moment with the exact same speed. The first team that catches the ball gets to dictate your personal decision and mental state of mind.
      So w
      hich 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. maxresdefault
    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.
      It was simple, every time a moment came my way and brought with it a chance for reactive thought, my two choices were simple, regardless of the flavor you put on them: 
      Love or Fear; Acceptance or Regret; Drift or Desire; Optimism or Pessimism. 
      And now, my friends, we have our two pairs playing catch.
      Naturally, for my own well-being, I realized that all I wanted to do was move the pair of lovers closer together so they would always beat the fearful, pessimistic pair.
      And so I began to implement a practice into my life of loving everything that came my way, accepting it while relinquishing the need for control. The Buddhists say that the universe is suffering, and I believe this is because the universe is chaos, and thus by its very nature out of our control. When we try to force desires, we are bound to find innumerable occasions where the universe will not comply. And so I decided to stop desiring to the point of attachment. I started to practice the acceptance that Buddhists speak upon, to Drift in the Tao, to accept the natural flow with an optimistic love, to say to every moment that came my way, good or bad, “thank you for the experience and the lesson, and now bring on the next moment so I can give it the same love.” Over and over I did this, moving those synapses closer and closer together, to the point where any synapses in my brain associated with sadness, regret, pessimism, fear, desire, melancholy, depression, etc had a smaller and smaller chance of triggering before the synapses of love gave me my reaction, my thoughts, my personality. And so my default state become one of optimism and appreciation, and the illusory burdens I attached to this existence lessened.
      Now, as I pointed out, nature appreciates chaos, and our brain is no different. And so it’s important that I point out that this obviously is not a fool proof practice that will completely eradicate negativity from your consciousness; sometimes emotion weighs too heavy and sometimes the pair that catches the chemical charge will be the negative one; but, like any muscle, if you exercise those loving synapses enough, you will find yourself in possession of a new innate strength that will make the world shine more beautifully far more frequently. You will also find yourself being far more happy because of better health–which I’ll get to in just a moment, but hold on, because we’ve got one more point to discuss beforehand.desktop11
    4. Mirror-Neurons. 
      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 fairytale is the “right one.”
      That human failing aside, imagination lets us live in the past and in the future, and by escaping the present moment we can use our memories of the past to predict what will happen in the future; ie: I know from past experience that fire burns skin, so I know inside my minds-eye that if I stick my hand into a fire I will lose my flesh. This is so instinctual we don’t even recognize it’s constantly happening with every symbol that we’re perceiving in our day-to-day moments. But it is this ability that allows us to navigate the complexity of our society.
      Even more exciting is the fact that this skill also works with emotions, not just situations.
      The premise, again, is quite simple: When we see someone experiencing an emotion ( be it anger, sadness, happiness, etc), our brain “tries out” that same emotion to imagine what the other person is going through. And it does this by attempting to fire the same synapses in your own brain so that you can attempt to relate to the emotion you’re observing. This is basically empathy. It is how we get the mob mentality, where a calm person can suddenly find themselves picking up a pitchfork against a common enemy once they’re influenced by dozens of angry minds. It is our shared bliss at music festivals, or our solidarity in sadness during tragedies.

      But it is also your night at the bar with your friends who love love love to constantly bitch, whether it’s about their job, the man, the government, or about their other so-called friend’s short-comings, or whatever little thing they can pick apart in order to lift themselves up and give themselves some holier-than-thou sense of validation when you nod your head in acquiescence, agreeing like a robot afraid of free-thought : “Totally, man. It’s bullshit.” 

      But it’s not bullshit. It’s life, it’s chaos, and as you continually surround yourself with this attitude, you are continually trying out this attitude by firing the synapses in your brain. And as I explained above, every time you fire these synapses, you’re reshaping your brain. This is why it is so important to spend time with people who lift you up, because your friends are moving those fearful, cynical, pessimistic synapses closer together, making your default, short-path-personality as jaded and bitter as your peers. Want to be happy? Surround yourself with happy people who rewire your brain towards love, not towards fear of being invalidated.  [[EDIT 11/8/15 : I’m NOT saying don’t be there for friends who are having a hard time and need an ear or who need to work through a difficult situation. Nor am I saying you can’t be critical about the failings and injustices in the world. Positive change usually requires critical thought.]]
    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 psychologytoday 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 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. — psychologytoday

 

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, to 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 to 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 everyday, 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. 

If you’re looking for another way to empower your mind and make these decisions even more easily, I’d recommend: Avoid becoming a Sheep. Finding Purpose and Creating A Better World.

EDIT 12/10/15:  I’ve added a follow-up to this article to address some of the concerns mentioned by commenters. I hope you’ll find it worth your continued reading: Mindful (R)evolution: The Duty of the Privileged to Overcome Injustice.

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Born and raised in Cincinnati, OH, Steven Parton moved to Portland, OR after getting a degree in Computer Science. As well as programming software, apps, and websites, he is an avid writer of novels and short stories, which can be found through Curious Apes Publishing. Like most Portlanders, he also rides a bike and loves IPAs. He has recently published two short stories: GOLEM and Fire And Oil . His latest book can also be found at Amazon

108 COMMENTS

  1. Fascinating stuff. I have always loved neuroscience and quantum physics, and I dig your analogy of synapses as pairs of people throwing a ball back and forth. Absolutely true that thinking affects reality, and that the thinking of others can change you and vice versa. The universe is indeed chaotic.
    Funny thing is, reality has a way of imposing itself on your mind and your ways of perceiving as well; So if for example you come from a social class that has been exploited, marginalized, and discriminated against for generations, with institutionalized systems in place to ensure further exploitation and discrimination, then you and the people around you may certainly have valid complaints. And if you are surrounded by people that are in a shitty situation because they have been systematically abused by the system, and continue to suffer that abuse daily, then it stands to reason that your brain will start to wire itself accordingly. For some people a failed relationship or loss of a job could put their well-being and economic security at extreme risk. So the problem becomes one of not only changing your own mind, but actually changing real-world conditions. It’s fine to go with the flow when you have a boat to just float along on, but for those in danger of drowning in the current, just going with it is a different proposition entirely. For those not born into a life that allows them “to play blissfully in this cosmic playground where you get the godlike power of choice,” more concrete and pragmatic strategies are needed. Something to keep in mind in order to prevent an informative article from turning into a piece of inspiration-porn for the privileged:)

    • If Dr. Viktor Frankl can find meaning in life while at Auschwitz and attribute that to his survival, its hard to imagine any circumstances in which someone couldn’t. Wait, I just thought of one: If you Believe that you can’t.

      • Jay, I would guess that you don’t mean to imply that those Holocaust victims who didn’t find meaning in life or survive were struggling with a problem of belief. I’m unfamiliar with Dr. Frankl’s narrative, but I wonder if he also rejected the complainers around him…

        Steven, with respect to the comment below, if Holocaust victims fought with love, would “their oppressors who wield the injustices [have been] more willing hear the oppressed voices, because [they would have felt] respected (by the loving approach) and not attacked (by a fearful approach)?” Could various disenfranchised populations, occupied peoples, etc. really be those who should be responsible for fighting their oppressors in a loving way?

        I’m a little concerned with the conclusion of your intro. I don’t mean to dismiss your entire article; I understand that it may be a little overambitious–which makes contending with people who don’t enjoy the privilege of exercising their loving synapses a little more difficult. Still, when you indicate that you “found [yourself] resolute with rationale reasons for optimism and for removing from [your] life the people who liked to complain,” perhaps you’ve also removed friends who would challenge you critically, allowing yourself to more easily post this exclusionary article. Try engaging more with non-white males and people who don’t instinctively blame the treatment of women in other countries on religion while waxing Sam Harris racism.

        Finally, consider the converse: what is “pointless” positivity? Complainers may make good points; you should listen to them again–it’ll diversify your neural connections 😉

        • I don’t think the intent was to suggest you should remove everyone from your life who disagrees with you, but rather to remove those individuals who persistent and pervasive negativity drag you down. People who see nothing but drawbacks and flaws to every plan, sinister ulterior motives or ignorant buffoonery in the actions or intentions of others, or who see failure as the only ultimate outcome in life contribute nothing and actively detract from any progress that might be made by others. Their is not a constructive form of criticism, but rather nihilism, and only serves to smother you and your ambitions. Better to leave them behind (and the article includes the worst offender: the voice of doubt in your own head), and allow yourself the chance to succeed and enjoy life by first believing that you can.

          I also believe “pointless positivity” rarely truly exists; your ultimate goals might be unattainable and your positive belief in your ability to achieve them unrealistic, but positivity is never pointless. It is only through striving to do the impossible that we gain new knowledge and achieve ever greater things. Complainers do not make good points; they only tell you their opinion on what they think your’e doing wrong, rather than offering suggestions for improvement. They’re there simply to tell you what cannot be done.

        • I highly recommend Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. He indeed does not dismiss or look down on those who got depressed, but simply presents the facts: those who found something – anything – to hold on to under those unimaginably barbaric circumstances stood a better chance of surviving. Those who had a life of the mind did much better than those who were merely physically fit. There is an extremely touching part where he talks about imagining his wife beside him in a way that was so real it was almost a hallucination (The Nazis had separated them.) Afterwards, he found out she had died in the camps but their love kept him alive.

        • ‘Another narcissistic approach of a guy that studied but doesn’t have what it takes to be original and create a bullshit theory. Sorry my friend but complaining is a part of life. And what you are doing in this article is complaining about the complainer. That makes you a complainer. So I guess I will go and read someone who is genuinely creative and not your narcissistic bullshit, doctor average.

          • Your immature and antagonistic response invalidates any point you may have been trying to make, Yan. Your need to give hate against someone who has only tried to give you love shows you need to address some shadow within yourself, because vulnerability or optimism should not be things that awaken so much hostility within you. I’m not claiming to be a doctor or trying to tell people not to be complain at all ( something that I point out several times), I’m simply sharing my perspective, which is all any of us can do.

      • Jay R., not really a equal comparison. Given average-to-good conditions, yes, most anyone can find the basis to form a psychological equilibrium by which to overcome a negative circumstance. Keep in mind, Dr. Frankl didn’t grow up in concentration camp conditions. He also had the benefit of psychiatric training to draw on as he went through the ordeal. But as Nathan DeCastro’s comment points out, there are those who are exploited, marginalized and discriminated against from day one, who grow up in a setting where economic/social stability is a “luxury” they are not afforded. For them, there’s a bit more to it.

      • Jay,
        He did find meaning by rejecting negative thoughts, in a sense. I remember one compelling story he told (read the book, he would do it much better) where he is in a concentration camp, and the guards had stripped the prisoners naked and were tormenting them. One of them saw that he was still wearing his wedding ring, and told him to take it off. He thought “this is the symbol of all of the love I have for my wife, I do not know where she is, I do not know if she will live through this, I do not know if I will live, I cannot give up this ring”, Then he realized that the ring had NOTHING to do with his love, or their partnership, or his memories, that they were HIS. Although the the guards wanted to show their power over him by taking away this symbol, it would not not touch his love for his wife, or his memories. Thus they did not have any power over how he felt, or what he thought, only over his physical self.

    • Well commented Nathan, for a happiness theory to find a place in reality it needs to be borne from experience and the purest understanding thereof, that being said the general concept is sound and I’m sure it will identify positively with his peers.

    • Perfectly stated that is a major problem with the world and people living in the more privileged societies suffer badly with apathy issues and concentrating on this “inspiration-porn,” can be a perfect out for people that choose feelings over important choices with little regard for who they are being.

    • I really dig your enthusiasm, Nate, but don’t you get tired of playing the victim and blaming all of the world’s injustices on the “system” or your version “reality”? In light of this article, consider the damage you have done to your mind by shackling your synaptic games of catch to a victim mentality. You’ve hardwired your mind to reflexively regurgitate the Marxist claptrap of your privileged undergraduate Professors: “my situation, and the situation of all those with whom I feign solidarity, is the result of institutionalized systems of racism, oppression, and generations of exploitation. I bear no blame for my situation, therefore, I can play no significant part in improving my own situation, or the situation of others. Reality did this to me.”
      Funny thing is, if we follow the logic of this article, then by programming ourselves to instinctively blame some distant oppressor rather than focusing on immediate problems and cultivating a positive attitude and unshakable resolve, we do great damage to ourselves and, more importantly, to those victims of society about whom you care so much. Placing blame will only take you so far. Something to keep in mind in order to prevent a potentially thoughtful individual from turning into another misguided, white-guilt addicted, social justice warrior.

  2. Well said, Nathan. And I think you make incredibly valid points, as I agree that certain privileges make this practice much easier to put into effect. However, knowing my audience are those using the internet to read articles, I have to assume a certain amount of privilege is already in place for those who have the free-time to explore self-growth via the internet.

    And while I obviously understand that this article isn’t addressing all the problems of the world ( as I hope you appreciate is likely beyond the ability and scope of any article ), I do think it can cast a ripple that I hope to add momentum to. Furthermore, (and perhaps this is just my optimism) I believe it actually IS possible that such practices as this can impact the systematic oppression and mental anguish put upon large swathes of our society. These words can be seeds in the minds of future leaders who(through their privilege perhaps) might eventually be the ones who implement policy, and if they can do it from a place of love, maybe they will start to change the system. Such ripples can empower minds to change the zeitgeist. It’s what we’re seeing now with our generation pushing out racism, sexism, homophobia, demonization of marijuana, etc– it’s a new generation of ideas replacing the old because they were exposed to ideas such as this.

    And I’m not saying don’t stand up against oppressive regimes, untrustworthy govts, or hate-filled cultural indoctrination. I truly and fully appreciate and promote free-thinkers questioning their govts, discussing issues of injustice, and putting into plan ways to “fight” back. But I do not think this has to be done in a way that is pointless negativity and complaining; and in the cases you mentioned, I don’t really think people are just complaining or being negative; they’re being critical, and that’s far different in its mental influence. And even if these oppressed people aren’t “privileged” in the way you’re inferring, I still think that they should fight with love rather than fear. I believe most people resonate and respect authenticity and passion when they interact with it, even if on the surface they seem cold and callous. And so if people in the systems of oppression see this, I believe they will be more willing to join in the cause for justice. No one want’s to be preached to (which I would say is the fear of being wrong on the part of the speaker), but if the oppressed fight with love, not only will their fight feel more honest and feel like a happier road for those individuals, but their oppressors who wield the injustices will be more willing hear the oppressed voices, because they’ll at least feel respected(by the loving approach) and not attacked(by a fearful approach).

    Sorry if that got a bit side-tracked and missed the point. Anyway, thank you so much for your thoughts, Nathan.

    • I totally agree with you Nathan. For some in this world. Love is a luxury. Period. It shouldn’t be. But in a “chaotic” world it is. When people start talking about fighting oppression with love etc., I always go back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches just before he was killed. As well as W.E.B. Dubois book “The Soul’s of White Folks,” where he basically dictates his revelation about the mental illness and sickness that is racism and it’s spread across the globe. I always find it ironic that people who fall on the bottom totem pole of suffering feel free to dictate to those who have truly suffered in every way, shape or form how they should feel or correct their circumstances. I wonder how 400+ years of oppression, racism, sexism and abuse has “rewired,” the brains of millions of people in America and how simply loving all that abuse can turn that around. No one ever speaks to the actions of the oppressor, to the behavior of the abuser to the transformation of those who profit from said racism, abuse and oppression. It’s always the individual that must turn them self around and that’s what it’s all about.
      I wonder how the author would feel if he had a target on his back each time he left his lovely home in Portland OR. If he were talked down to, argued with, asked for his I.D., had criminal background checks run on him, accused of crimes he didn’t commit, daily or weekly or I’ll even give him monthly. How long would his love hold out?
      Look I’m all for neuroscience. I am fascinated by how the brain works. But I’m more fascinated with the brain of someone who lives with oppression on a daily basis but who DOESN’T walk into schools shooting everyone in sight. What goes on in the brain of someone who literally experiences violence, hate, oppression, rape, abuse, sexism, racism any -ism you name and yet doesn’t follow the pathology set up for them. How do they experience this negativity and yet they still go to school each day, grow up, get a job and love their family? That’s a brain I’m interested in. How does this brain work? Not so interested in a brain that has every privilege in the world handed to him because of a government-backed, systematic, institutionalized racist society has given him every opportunity to succeed. I mean what negative thoughts could this person be having? How could this person even be close to being upset?
      Oh I’m sure there are some negative thoughts. And I’m sure you have some things to complain about. We all do don’t we?
      But I’m seriously in awe that there aren’t more people dead in this country killed by rage. That’s a serious statement not a provocative one. I really want to understand the brain chemistry that allows this to occur.
      I suspect it’s because of the so-called “fictional stories,” otherwise known as religion the author points out with what I read as derision but probably was just unbelief. Religion, like science, has been the cause of many of violent ends. (I happen to think Science is a main religion as well.) However looking at the world today I think people should thank the God they don’t believe in exists because without it there would a whole lot more people in danger. Because only an unseen God, with unlimited amounts of love could wash away centuries of white oppression and allow people to love thy enemy. I can’t see another force doing that. Buddha sure didn’t. And if the Tibetian monks that are killing Muslims and Christians today are any indication then not sure we’re going to find the answer there. (There are extremes in any religion.)
      In any event, this obsessive quest for happiness Americans are so fond of being on tells me a lot about the culture and character of the society I live in. Life is suffering. But so is love. I don’t know who said we’re supposed to be happy. I don’t even know who said we’re actually supposed to live long. I don’t want to escape the feeling of fear, or anger, or sadness. It is these feelings, these emotions that allow me to discover exactly what joy and love is. Avoiding them seems like a false way to live, as false living in them all the time.
      As in the universe a healthy balance of love and suffering may be in order. Not sure what neuroscience says about that.
      Well, I’ve went on too long. Interesting read. Not convinced yet though. But then again I think happiness is an illusion.

      • Thank you for your thoughts, Ovetta. You’re not the only one who has expressed some version of this argument, and so I hope to address these points in an article within the next week or so.

        • Ovetta, I was taken by the pain in so much of what you wrote. There is so much I can agree with and other parts I need to contemplate from afar because my experience can never be your experience. The only request I have is that you consider a change in this sentence: However looking at the world today I think people should thank the God they don’t believe in exists because without it there would a whole lot more people in danger. Because only an unseen God, with unlimited amounts of love could wash away centuries of white oppression and allow people to love thy enemy. I can’t see another force doing that. The change (or changes) I ask you consider is shifting ‘white oppression’ to ‘human oppression’ – tribe on tribe violence has killed more in total numbers that just oppression by any one group and I believe ‘in group racism’ and harm is higher than ‘across group’ with the exception of when wars are waged and changing the word’ force’ to ‘power’. Steven thank you for putting together a great piece.

      • I don’t disagree that it is very hard to overcome the trauma of oppression or trauma of any sort, but I do want to say that being one who has survived many unspeakably violent acts and traumas, it is precisely the points the author is making that allowed me to reclaim authorship of my life. Haters will keep hating and keep smearing poo on the walls of humanity, but we lose everything if we do not exorcise what ugliness we have internalized from that about ourselves. The process of self identifying, self validating and self defining are long paths to walk when we have been forceably self alienated by various unjust forces at play in this world. If we can find what we need to make that journey, then we will no longer accept false stories projected onto us….we will understand it is the spiritual disease of the one who believes one must be smaller than him.

        Personally, I like to use the word contentedness instead of happiness. I feel content (even in challenging circumstances) when I act in alignment with my authenticity. Part of my path to exorcising abusers voice’s from my psyche was to decide that I would no longer allow them to steal my appreciation for beauty, love, kindness, tenderness, joy, intimacy and connection. They have won in every way if we allow them to permenantly steal authorship of our lives from us.

        • I wanted to piggy back on how the concepts in this article medicinally helped another person who has survived a history of buying into oppression, fear and intimidation. I read this article at a time when my psyche was trying to pull me down the drain again, and the words buoyantly brought me back to a place where I could see changes to make, and bam! I’m back! I’m good! Medicine….:)

      • Thank so much for this very thoughtful comment. I am 100% in agreement. Another part of not wanting to escape sadness, fear, and anger is that those are very often the feeling that drive people to actually DO SOMETHING about all of the oppression and racism and sexism, etc. in the world. I want to feel those things because it means I am in touch with real people.

  3. Great article – love how all the areas of study you engaged in congealed into information and meaning extrapolation and cross-over in a holistic fashion. Even those within the most heinous circumstances have been able to prove the truth of these scientific and programming indicators regarding attitude – it’s the one thing we can have a chance to control amidst so many that we can’t. we like to think we’re smart and we know what’s coming next – this gets us preparing for shit just because we weathered a shit storm. <3 Waiting for the shit does not assist. Flexing for the shit is good yet reaching toward the love, connection, allowance of "what is" works even better.

  4. Thanks for this! I read your article on a break from my often-soul-crushing job as a child therapist in communities of deep poverty. This very morning, I pondered the question of how brilliant souls like Mandela, Mother Theresa, and Dr. King managed to serve in the midst of constant suffering, and maintain an orientation of selfless love. I often find myself bitterly thinking in circles about the forces that cause suffering for the innocents I serve, and it truly harms me, and my ability to help them. Your insights will be in my invisible backpack of cognitive life-preservers from now on!

    • I feel ya. As mother of a child with raging isms. Days, nights, I can’t find the love, the kid, the wave, the shore. Swishing, wishing, wishing trying to not add to the tax and burden of rage, his, mine, ours. Thank you for all you do for others. At least you get to go home at night.:)

  5. Thanks for this! I read your article during a break from my often crushing job as a child therapist in communities of deep poverty. I was pondering just this morning the question of how great souls like Mandela and Mother Theresa managed to serve with love in the midst of suffering. I’ll admit that the suffering my little clients endure often leaves me spinning my mental hamster wheel in bitterness, despair, and even vengefulness. Your insights are so helpful in beginning to understand how resiliency is created! I’ll keep this in my invisible backpack of cognitive life-preservers.

  6. What an amazing article!!!

    It brings to mind a piece of advice I was given by a motivational speaker once. I know that’s probably a bad way to start any comment, but this advice was simultaneously profoundly simple and massively transformational for my experience of life. He was telling me to “just think more positive thoughts”, and I retorted “thanks for the prescription, Dr. Obvious, but until you have a “how to” to add to that, I am not interested!” (that was my super-positive nature coming through!) He responded by explaining a very simple concept… train your brain to ask positively framed questions.

    Basically, his premise was this… your brain can not leave an unanswered question. Whether you consciously continue to think about it or not, your brain will search for an answer until it arrives at one. That’s why you’ll recall the “name of the actor in that movie” four days after you’ve stopped thinking about it while you are the middle of something else.

    Anyway, drawing on that, when you ask your brain questions like “what’s the worst that can happen?” and “why does this stuff always have to happen to me?”, you’re brain will chew on it until it comes up with the answer, and it will plague you with the worst possible scenario or the reasons why you are the most logical target… after all, your brain is answering the question you asked.

    Now, if we train ourselves to disciplined in the questions we ask ourselves, and ensure they are framed positively (i.e. Why am I better equipped to handle this than other people may have been? What resources do I have at my disposal to manage this situation? What is the best outcome that may come from this? What am I most likely to learn?), our brains will rise equally to that challenge and give us an answer that not only makes us feel better, but often helps us to formulate an action plan.

    I saw this in action when I found out my son had a kidney issue when I had an ultrasound at 17 weeks pregnant. Devastated, I forced myself to go through my list of positive questions. Although I had no strong answers in the moment, when I was asked by a family member how I was doing a week later, my response was to say that I was in the best possible set of circumstances to deal with this – down the street from the best children’s hospital on the globe, with exemplary doctors, in a country with the best medical coverage possible (all it would cost for years of testing/treatments/surgeries was my parking!), where the issue was identified and treatment started before he was even born. And, with English as my first language, I was capable of advocating for what I need, and understanding what I was told. I found myself speaking the answers to all my positively-framed questions.

    “Thinking positively” didn’t change the fact that my son’s kidney wasn’t developing. But, it transformed my experience of it, and the mother that I have been able to be to him as a result.

    Anyway – your article resonated with me and reminded me of this concept, so I thought I’d share. Thank you for your insightful position… I’ll be thinking about it for long a time to come 🙂

    • So, it’s about asking the positive questions!! What an ‘aha’ moment. Thank you Shannon. And thank you, Brain.

  7. Nothing that I haven’t heard in one way, shape or form before, but the way it was all put together was nothing short of brilliant. Thank you for all of this. Such an awesome introduction of this subject to people who’ve not yet experienced this kind of thinking yet and a wonderful reminder/refresher for those of us who love living in the joy of life!

    Keep up the great writing. You’re making a difference!

  8. Beautifully written and explained. I’ve been studying and researching about quantum mechanics in conjunction with Eastern spirituality and philosophy as well, drawing the lines to connect them as if they were fragmented pieces to a map we have lost over time and space that have always been there and are still around us everywhere. Quantum entanglement and love, flatland perspective being released by embracing the Tao and Vedic philosophy, thoughts shaping our realities and meditation..the union of modern science and ancient philosophies are on their way towards joining in the center of the gyre we are all spinning towards as we reach these epiphanies and practice them with more intent and purpose. Like spinning galaxies, we are disconnected on the outskirts of the spiral until momentum brings us closer into contact towards the centrifuge of ideas to unite everything once more, until it reaches a point of transcendence and rebirth at its center to scatter and start anew somewhere else in the universe. Thank you for writing this article. It encourages me to believe we are reaching a new age of enlightenment in history that has already happened before in ancient histories, but needs to wash over us and happen once more to bring forth a golden age where we relinquish fear and hate for love, selfish drives for balancing with the yin and yang of all existence, and harmonize back into place with the rest of the universe. Keep writing! You have brought me and many others goodness and positivity by sharing this light.

  9. This is fascinating, thank you for finally explaining it on paper and putting al the work into this amazing article. I am looking forward to following you and reading more!

  10. Interesting, and almost convincing, combo of science and mysticism. I’m curious as to what the author thinks of complainers who by their very nature have helped to move society forward, you can choose the big names (Malcolm X, Germaine Greer, etc) but there are lots of unknown ones as well – those that whinge and are oppositional about saving a park, getting a school built, feeding kids nutritious food, etc.

    We owe a debt (at least I believe so) to those that wouldn’t and don’t accept the status quo, that qurrell, that make others feel uncomfortable wth their disagreeable and challenging nature, that move something in us to awaken something in us that won’t allow ‘the universe’ to continue to wash over us as it has.

    • I think that people that don’t accept the status quo are not the complainers as referred to in the article. On the contrary, I think that the examples you give (known or unknown) are people that want to make a positive difference, and believe it is possible to make that difference. That’s something those bitching friends at the bar (or many commenters on news websites for that matter) don’t do, they rather blame someone than actually do something about it.

      Don’t confuse accepting what is, optimism or happiness with wanting the status quo and not having a strong drive to change things for the better. I believe the two go hand in hand.

  11. In defense of those people who “love to constantly bitch”, someone’s throwing the baby out with the bath water here. Avoiding any sort of ‘complaining’ leaves no scope for art and humor at all. One of the examples the writer gives of “negativity” is people complaining about bad music or movie plots. I’ve had some of my best laughs ever listening to someone complain; it’s the root of the best comedy in the world.

    For evidence, I submit the Roadrunner cartoons I found hilarious (when I was 6). The constant missadventures of Wile E. Coyote improved my life at that age; failure, frustration and ineptitude can be beautiful things.

    There’s a distinction between actual hate (like aggressive racism) and making fun of something, like me saying I hate dubstep: I enjoy hating it and making my friends laugh when we talk about it. There’s no victim here, unless you believe that badmouthing the abstract concept of a musical style is the same as kicking a kitten. Maybe this is why I find spiritual people incapable of producing or appreciating humor.

  12. Great article Steven!I think your article is the closest you can get to reality.I’m an engineer and by nature I question things like “The Secret” if you wish, but your article was put together in such a way that everything makes sense and on top of that its backed up scientifically.Great job mate!Keep up writing good articles!

    @Parker – You are also right my friend.I guess the REAL secret in life is to find the perfect balance between the two states of accepting life.But bare in mind there is a fine line between those two and the outcome is 100% different.There was a quote somewhere in “To Kill A Mocking Bird” by Harper where he was saying that “people are so preoccupied with whats going to happen next that they literally fail to live the present moment”

  13. Write on! I remember the first time I understood the dynamic of synapses, when studying molecular changes as a medical writer. If you look at drugs, the pathway is also clarified – cocaine, as one example, is so good at making synapses fire that our own brain “shuts down” its production, leading to an artificially-induced depression and a highly addictive dependence on more, more, more.

    I’ve been hearing and reading a lot lately about avoiding negative people, and it occurs to me that we can’t just ignore all the Sad Sacks in the world; we have to take some responsibility for helping them distract their negative thoughts and rewire their brains, too. I am a caregiver for two people with Alzheimer’s, and we have learned the value of distraction; when their brains loop into negative thinking, we are trained to distract with something positive and powerful. Perhaps we can do the same for our morose and melancholy colleagues, and in doing so, spread the compassion and love that Buddhism encourages and fosters.

    Thank you for this wonderfully-written exploration of how our thinking shapes our future. It’s awesome, isn’t it? I wonder what else lies uncovered and undiscovered in the realm of our gray matter… so exciting to see all the brain studies that have been undertaken.

  14. I really, really enjoyed reading your article Steven! Already as a child when i was sick, i noticed, the more i thought about that i’m going to be better, the quicker i was healthier again. And then later on in my life and even now, i seem to be happier than other people, because i choose to see the bright side and cultivate a positive state of mind. And now you have explained why exactly that has helped me to become a positive and smiling person 🙂 Thanks for that! That’s one of a few articles that i will save and also print out.

  15. This article reinforces the Bible, where the main commandment given to mankind is to love one another. It also says that bad association spoils useful habits so it’s easy to see why being around a complainer can bring you down. God gave us a choice as to whether or not we’ll follow his directions but due to imperfection we are drawn to negativity whether thoughts or people, but by prayer he helps us to redirect our thoughts to a more positive direction because as you say, you are what you think.

  16. Great Article – Thanks! Is it OK if I quote you on my website or use some of the images (love the monkey see/do one) as part of my own workshops and training?
    What I have discovered for me, is that my complaining pattern rather than only being a construct of my conscious thinking mind – is actually reflecting my underlying physiology. In complain mode I am in fight mode – not very effective, but I am not really engaging with the experience just mobilising – even just verbally – to fight and overcome it. I was always then taught to over-ride that by consciously choosing a different behaviour. In effect, I learnt to as like a ‘jesus person’ (as I was brought up catholic.) the only problem? – I wasn’t Jesus and I hated lots of people lots of the time! So what to do with that? Well, as I was trained to use my mind to consciously over-ride the body – I suppressed it. It became a pattern internalised not just psychologically, by physiologically in my body – the freeze or numbing response. It’s a normal healthy survival response in times of real threat, but not so useful in the long term when I don’t resolve the things I am complaining about. And I mean resolve them internally rather than just externally. So for me, having used David Berceli’s TRE tremoring for a number of years now (www.traumaprevention.com) i notice that I have another avenue available for me physiologically in these situations that normally I would complain about – not because I have to consciously choose it all the time (though that certainly helps) but that innately my organism just wants to engage with a situation rather than to complain about it because the tremoring has helped my physiology to become more calm and grounded. It’s an amazing internal shift – it means that not only can i consciously use my mind to become more calm and grounded, but that my body, indeed entire organism is moving that way all on it’s own as well! it means I can support the changes in my neurophysiology and literally notice my tendency to complain (which I had used to have heaps and heaps of) has organically shifted towards a tendency to engage and learn and grow through the experience. All without having to think it is up to me and my ego (conscious mind) to have to be the one to bring that about. TRE and tremoring has offered me another simple but profound way to compliment the top down, conscious mind directed movement to shift from complaining states to more engaged, calm, grounded and eventually, vital alive and blissful states as well. Thanks again for a great article.

  17. You’re absolutely right. Things aren’t good or bad, they just are. It’s up to each of us to decide how to feel about everything. There are certain things we’ve decided as a collective to describe as bad (war, famine, disease), but truly (and interestingly) you’ll find people at all points on the emotional spectrum in regards to these things. But it’s possible to live in a state that most people would describe as bad (i.e. impoverished or sick) and still answer, “Fine.” when asked, “How are you doing?”

    When we consider that, literally, everything is nothing (matter is 99.999999………% empty space and what’s left is energy), that everything we’re seeing is collapsed waves of light, and we’re all, individually and collectively, creating it moment to moment as we go, then we see that our thoughts are truly our reality. Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” The Buddhists say, “You are what you think having become what you thought.”

    When we add to this the idea that we’re eternal beings and this life is a blip in our infinite existence, that we’re here for experience and expansion, and that we’re fractals of all that is, then we can see life as a game, something to be enjoyed, no matter what circumstance one finds him-/herself in. With this kind of perspective it’s possible to look at any event or situation and realize it’s, ultimately, okay. That’s not to say, as a couple of the other comments read, that one should just sit back and let things that need to change just continue happening. If a person is moved to act then that’s just what he or she should do.

    Everything we experience we bring to ourselves simply for the experience – for the purpose of expansion. I know some people find the idea that we bring things our way really offensive. But consider that on a so called “higher” level we know we’re eternal, that everything is nothing, and that we are powerful creators with the knowledge of the universe within our reach. We don’t realize this, of course, because we think our tiny egoic minds are the end all, be all, of human existence. But when we can get our ego to step aside and out from between us and our greater mind, well, watch out. When you align with your true nature nothing looks negative.

  18. I think maybe you need to fire your editor, Stephen. Distracting to read such a long article with so many errors. Anyway, while I agree with a great many of your points here (I am Buddhist, and I am learning to live with what is, rather than struggle with it), I wish we could sit down together and chat a bit about this gem of a sentence: “But regardless of what it brings your way, your choice is simple: Love or Fear.” I suspect it and your article annoy me only because of the place I happen to be in at the moment but, as a writer, I know that one of the most important rules about writing is to consider your audience. So…here I am.

    See, for many people, the choice is never that simple. For some people reading this article, that will sound disregarding, like a bit of a “f*ck off” to them. I know, because I’ve read comments elsewhere that said just that. Let me give you a personal example. I have a history of depression, chronic, cyclical and major depression. Add to it, several medical issues. I have epilepsy, have had unrelated brain surgery, have PTSD, kidney disease, and a whole host of other stuff. I am very high functioning. I work full-time, write, and own my own home. But when I am engulfed in one of those depressive cycles, the likes of which I can’t begin to describe to someone who has never experienced them – I am *unable* to choose. Let me repeat that. I am *unable* to choose. The depression chooses for me. It changes the way I perceive things (and the way I am perceived, incidentally), the way I think, and how I behave.

    I have been actively practicing mindfulness for almost 2 years now. I can be mindful during depression, but what I’ve discovered is that it doesn’t benefit the really severe episodes. If anything, it makes them worse.

    And I agree that the small, isolated incidents of disappointment or unhappiness (even when they happen over and over) can be dealt with in the ways you describe above, I’d caution you to suggest that folks with overwhelming burdens just look to tomorrow because it will be a better day. For some, tomorrow will not be a better day. For some, there will be no tomorrow.

    By the way, not complaining. Just voicing an opinion. :p

  19. The Universe is not chaotic. On the contrary, it is ultra-rational. What you describe as chaotic acts are locally scoped and only seem like chaos since your viewpoint is acute. Each of those “chaotic” events have a cause and an effect that follows the cause. When you broaden your scope to the scale of the Universe, this easily becomes clear.

  20. Upon initial read, I began to blame myself for not being happy, for not COMPLETELY removing the constant complainers/nay-Sayers/pessimists from my sphere of friends and acquaintances. You see I have removed most of the external, negative influences or influencers. However, as an African American (AA) female who has a bit more privilege than the average AA female, I have been able to make those adjustments. But it is not easy to replace those friends with the more positive, spiritually (as it is defined or expressed by your article) evolved human influencers. Why? Although those spiritually evolved see the world through tainted glasses. They are tainted with their lived experiences and not mine. Thus, the peace-love-I-am-focusing-only-on-positivity non AA don’t fully accept me into their lives. So I end up living in isolation!

    If you have not lived the life of an extremely educated AA woman who is also the FIRST generation to NOT have been born in poverty, you cannot understand my situation nor why this is so difficult for me to fully accept!

    Everyone’s lived-experience is different. Something that you as a white male or female may perceive to be an excuse or complaint is truly a roadblock for others.

  21. I f-ing LOOOOOOVE this article! Simply yet profoundly combining science and spirituality in an informative and uplifting way. We need more like it!

  22. The often paraphrased quote, “Synapses that fire together wire together,” may have been quoted by your professor, however this should be attributed to Canadian Dr. Donald Hebb, who wrote, The Organization of Behaviour. In his book he wrote: “When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased.

  23. This is a reason why resolving things toward positive principle will bring happiness.

    btw, this writer needs to see that the plural of “buddhist” is “buddhists.” It pleases me that we distinguish between one or more.

    Beyond that I have many positive connections with this piece — Tao, an understanding of the nature of chaos, the author likes IPA, …

  24. Thanks for the article which made stimulating reading. May I recommend you read “Stepping out of self-deception” by Rodney Smith pub. Shambala Publications, Boston 2010. Apparently he’s also written “Lessons from the Dying”. His work extends. my understanding of the nature of mind, and the relationship between mind and the underlying universal reality. I think you’ll find your discoveries will fit the context he writes about and may be enriching for you. Best wishes, Errol

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    i am visiting this web site dailly and obtain good information from here all the time.

  26. I think your second major premise falls a bit short because your thoughts never necessarily dictate your actions unless you believe everything is predetermined. It would definitely encourage certain outcomes and from a statistical perspective, certain thoughts and actions would become more likely because their quicker frequency in occurrence. This is probably not your thesis, so you may have covered this point properly. I felt compelled to say something though, because the world would be heaps better if people are driven in their decisions by reasoning along these lines. Awesome stuff!

  27. La in shakartum la azi Dan nakum
    If you are grateful, I will give you more
    Al-Quran. Surah ibrahim. Verse 7.

  28. Love this article! I have, for as long as I can remember, looked for the silver lining in “bad” things that happen. Over the past decade, I’ve been able to turn to the positive more and more quickly that it’s now almost instantaneous; even when it’s not, I refuse to spend any of my creative thought processes “feeding the negative tiger.” My optimism and Pollyanna way of focusing on love instead of fear are two of the things I really like about myself. Often, I have told people that I’m “allergic to negativity”. Now I have scientific evidence that, really, I am… and so is everyone else!!

  29. Item #3 in your list of how complaining is literally killing us: you’ve presented several dichotomies that “play catch” with each other to explain how feelings can be emphasized in one way or another, presumably to make us happier faster, ie, Acceptance vs Regret, for example. It’s difficult for me to think of a situation in which I’ve experienced both that wasn’t far more complicated than a “this or that” choice. Yes, i can accept a situation and also regret it, and also enjoy it, and also learn from it, and also… Human feelings are shaded with so many complexities and exigencies and influenced by relationships and mood and hunger because we skipped breakfast and a thousand other things that a more accurate representation of “Acceptance vs Regret” might be “Acceptance + Joy vs Regret + realization of how I’ve harmed another person vs feeling I made the right choice + empathy for those on the other end of my decisions vs wishing I’d never been presented with this vs I hate being stuck in traffic…” etc.

    People who experience sudden, deep, soul-wrenching grief (and that’s all of us, eventually) can’t be logically expected to have the capacity to choose among their most positive feelings at a time when her/his belief in the continuity, the day-to-day-ness, of life has been irrevocably shattered. A person can only choose happiness, choose to “look on the good side of life”, when they know they can face the worst the world can offer and in spite of this will eventually have the courage to trust in life again.

  30. In 12-step programs, there’s a practice called “redirecting” – recognizing a thought that would lead the addict down an eventual or immediate path towards using, and consciously choosing to think about something else; look somewhere else; listen to something else in order to alter the thought pattern. It’s essentially a way to disrupt old synapse connections that the addict has developed over decades and teach the brain to respond differently to what we call “triggers”. It can be very effective in the short term, and the hope is that by repeating the practice, the addict will become better able to deal with internal and external influences over time. It’s hard, often painful work. The struggle here is that most addicts have suffered from childhood abuse and/or trauma, which seriously alters brain function in ways we still don’t fully understand. Is it possible that some can never fully rewire? Has permanent damage been done? I don’t know, but the rate of relapse in all addictions is high, which would suggest that maybe it has.

    Others have commented about the effects of institutionalized racism, oppression and mental illness on positive thinking and brain chemistry. Those factors tend to start affecting us in childhood too, so who’s to say we can really change our brains if they’ve already been hard wired from childhood? Can we? Are we forever hard wired when such profound experiences touch us while our brains are still forming?

    I think it’d be a great follow up to talk about infants and children’s brains, involuntary synaptic connections, and how it might be possible for humans who have been exposed to lifelong suffering to still alter those connections and improve their approaches to handling chaos.

  31. Very lovely article. Haunting too. I come from a family (well, especially a parent) heavily into complaining as a daily activity and unfortunately, I think some osmosis has happened: I have a knack for it too. Sheesh. I think I also might be lately hardwired into some depression/anxiety, but the happy science behind this article removes some of the powerlessness I feel when I ‘notice’ it. It’s there, but the connectivity can be overcome. I recall reading about depressed brains looking ‘watery’, so deep and easy are the channels between the bad thoughts. (Is this hokum or real, btw??)

    Anyway, my point is: this article’s goooood, and it gives me hope. I too can re-channel, I too can be empathetic without turning into a moping sponge absorber. And I can avoid experiencing the world with complain-o-vision. It’s good to watch for, these complaining tendencies. It’s empathetic to listen to people, of course. And the closer the relationship, well…how do you cut the ties, when someone launches into a tirade, especially if they’re blood? No, it isn’t that simple, but the awareness helps.

    I think the news is an act of electronic complaining. I don’t even watch anymore, though the internet fills me in just as efficiently. Here’s the world, dying by the hour. Take it in.

    Finally: rather than get into an oppression Olympics convo, I’ll say this in response to the comments above on race, religion, gender, and ‘loving they enemy’: through the radical act standing up for yourself – which could be speaking up, pushing back, with or without violence, or choosing love as a base point – action trumps complaining. Love is one tool to fight back against tyrants…but so is wit or brawn. I think the author was comparing complaining to wheel spinning. Perhaps.

  32. Thanks for this article, it is endearing. At first glance I took a defensive stance towards adjusting your own thoughts by preventing negative confrontations. After reading most of the article I’d be in agreement with the majority of the article. Being surrounded by negativity, will induce stress and simply wouldn’t be healthy…. however, with the countless problems individuals face from day to day, a great deal of these situations are unavoidable. This is why I think that people who have a sense of humor towards difficult or adverse situations, are best off by taking a short cut and avoiding these situations before they begin.

    Whoa, especially with all the flack people get on the Internet, over skepticism, broken telephones and blame or hating is as rampant as the Plague was during its peak. We need to adjust to these issues, simple mediation on the Net isn’t enough on Forums like these. Simply put making an Association called Hating the Haters won’t help anybody either, different approaches to such issues will only be resolved with different approaches.

  33. Interesting article. How would be the best way to deal with these thoughts then, when they do come to mind, and you want to avoid thinking about them, but the ironic process theory kinda’ makes it tough. The whole don’t think of a pink elephant, kind of thing.

  34. Said 3000 years ago by King Solomon: Proverbs 17:22 A cheerful heart is good medicine,
    but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

  35. Excellent article. Although you mention eastern religions, I would argue that Christianity has always had the key to the science of happiness. Repetition of hopeful and loving prayers to a loving, merciful God cause those pathways in the brain to be trained to have hope in the midst of challenges, to have mercy in the face of hatred and to continue to love one another no matter what. Just sayin’

  36. Here is the thing, we can all find ample reasons in our day-to-day lives to justify being unhappy and complaint. Yes multitudes of people from all over the world have what nearly everyone would agree are just reasons to be even enraged and unrelenting in their complaints.

    However, what purpose does it serve to allow ourselves to spiral into these death patterns? Are not our emotional and mental states our greatest resources? Are we not capable of much more when we demand the right states from ourselves?

    I have experienced significant tragedies in my Life and have seen and been subjected to great injustices. I know they exist. I know that there are people who feel trapped in them every day. I also know that I truly believe that with the right mindset, persistence, and absolute faith; all things are possible. This has been shown throughout history time and time again.

    Amazing article!!

  37. You’re right about everything except step 4: We do not experience the same emotions as those around us. Empathy is a different emotion to negativity or pessimism. You say yourself that the world is chaotic, but we must learn to accept it in order to remain happy. The same is true of the people around us. In the same way we don’t need to run away from the world, you shouldn’t be running away from the people around you.

    One caveat: I’m not talking about an abusive relationship, or some other serious issue. Finding your own strength to deal with people like that may well require some time away from them… but you will never be able to filter every person out of your life. Eventually you will need to learn to accept and tolerate everything — like you do with the world itself.

  38. Not sure if my last comment got lost. To sum it up: You’re wrong about 4. Empathy does not mean feeling anger when someone else feels angry. Or negative when someone else feels negative. Empathy is its own emotion and is rooted in compassion. Also, you cannot run away from people anymore than you can run away from the world: We must accept the world, and we must accept people (although I’m not saying you should continue living with someone who abuses you — I’m talking generally; we can’t filter everyone and must learn to tolerate and accept).

  39. I liked the main intent “science of happiness”. Appreciate your inputs about how to train your thoughts to direct towards Love instead Fear. To know about a technique to make it a habit will be great

  40. Author Steven Parton,

    Amazing article. Incredible insights. Perfectly stating what I’ve been working on personally and professing for years.

    The only eye soar is the 2nd paragraph of #4, your unnecessary surety of us being ancestors of primates and the ridicule of people of faith that follows. Clearly you have strong beliefs on that topic, as you are well entitled, but what does it have to do with the content? It seems like you have a chip on your shoulder.

    The ideas here apply to religious and secular people alike. Can you tell me why that paragraph was necessary? And if you agree that is was not, you’d be wise to eliminate to avoid insulting and marginalizing people of faith, which will surely limit the reception of this important message. I hope this critique is well received. Considering the message, I’d be confused if it wasn’t :-).

    p.s., I’m the farthest thing from a “PC” guy, but it just seems totally unnecessary and a huge hindrance to the power of this message.

    -Sammy

    • Your point is incredibly valid, Sammy. I suppose the original intent of that paragraph was to showcase the immense power of the stories we tell ourselves, to give an example where an external aspect of reality can be internalized in a way that not only alters your own life, but the lives of those around you. By perceiving man as a creation versus an evolution, the minds of billions have been altered, and they’ve altered the landscape and zeitgeist of our species because of that. In the same way, one can use that same power of the mind to perceive a “failing” as a blessing/lesson, and find love rather than fear.

      Yes, it is my subjective opinion–and therefore perhaps better left out–but I find our species’ belief in religion to be one of fear, not love. And therefore, in line with the subject of the article, I must be honest with my thoughts toward it. I think religion is stupefying and killing our species, so if I’m using logic to explain happiness, I must stand behind my integrity and continue to use logic in regards to religion. And religion, to me, isn’t logical. I’m all for spirituality, but religion, in my opinion, is a box for people who are afraid to love the chaos. This article is about loving the chaos.

      And so I’m sorry to offend, but the best gift I think we can give each other is our honesty. And for those people out there who are growing up in a religious community like I did, and feel the inherent wrongness with it like I did, I want them to know there are those out there who say: “Yes, you can be happy without your religion. It’s simply a choice.”

  41. Lovely article, Steven. I just posted it on the FB page of the fringe New Age cult I belong to. Or at least that’s how some people would describe it. Awkwardly named M.I.T.T., it’s one of the many offspring of Lifespring, which in turn is based on a combination of existentialism, stoicism, and some mid-century psych experiments. Kinda like this: if est was the Taliban of Transformation, this is the Sufi version.

    Your conclusions are congruent with much of the philosophical thought espoused by M.I.T.T. I sometimes get frustrated by the fact that even though the practices may well be valid and empowering – and I think most of them are – the justifications could use some scientific grounding. Furthermore, there are legacy ideas that are just plain wrong. A little bit of empiricism could go a long way toward cleaning up its act. This is a good example of the kind of real science it could use. Nonetheless, just like the Frankl book I endorsed elsewhere, I think most people benefit by this training, which is, in essence, much of what you’ve described in your article.

  42. This is marvelous. Smart and wise and accessible and moving.
    I found myself quite choked up at the last couple of paragraphs.
    Great job Steve. Thank you

  43. I really liked this article and I think it came to me in a moment when I desperately need a reminder of the physical and real consequences of pessimistic/sad thoughts. However, I would really like the author (or anyone who reads this) to help me with my current situation, to try to adapt the message of this article to what I’m going through right now.
    My grandmother had a cerebrovascular accident (CVA) in January. The day I saw her after the accident while she was still at the ICU has been the worse day of my life. We thought she has going to die but she didn’t and instead she was left with her right hemisphere paralized and aphasia (inability to speak, read, write or understand speech). 11 months have passed and the only ability she has regained is walking with a cane. However she can’t move her right arm nor stand or sit by herself so she needs help for doing any activity (eating, going to the bathroom, going to bed, etc). She didn’t regain her ability to communicate, she can’t speak, write or read and it is not always clear if she understands what is being told to her. At this point doctors say she won’t regain those abilities, how she is now she will be the rest of her life.
    Now, there are lots of positive lessons I can learns from what happened. This has taught me that life can really change in a second so you should try to do what you like, and love what you do, and take the oportunities because tomorrow may be late. The way my grandfather is always taking care of grandma has taught me about REAL love and what it means. I can go on with the list of positive lessons…however the one thought I can’t get off my mind is that now my grandma doesn’t have the option of learning from this and moving on. She is stuck being a minor part of what she used to be, doctors say no matter how much therapy she receives she won’t get better, she can’t learn and move on. And that is what me keeps up at night, what turns me into a bitter person, because no matter how much important lessons everybody can get from these, my grandma will still be stuck. That great power of choice that is mentioned in the article, she doesn’t have it anymore, she can’t choose anything about her life, she can’t move on, she can’t even decide things about her attitude (we think the accident may have also changed basic thing about her personality), she can’t communicate to express what she wants, she is stuck and she can be like that for years.
    So…that’s the story. How I am supposed to just accept, learn the lesson, avoid negativity, and go on, when my grandma can’t?

  44. I have a question, as I really don’t understand this element of how the brain works: Is it really true that some synapses can represent a positive thought/pathway and others can represent a negative thought/pathway? Can you provide some evidence of this? I really don’t understand this but it seems like it is taking the function of synapses a bit too far.

    • Hey there, Bon.
      I would say nothing is inherently good or bad; those are man-made concepts that don’t exist in the nature of the brain as any true dichotomy. However, stress and joy, fight or flight–these ARE mechanisms built into our biological forms via emotion and perception, mechanisms that can flush the body with adrenaline or melatonin or dopamine, etc that can have either very positive or negative effects. For example, if you allow yourself to constantly stress, then youre constantly releasing cortisol, which will have very negative impacts. On the flip side, if you live in appreciation and joy, you’re forming pathways that trigger more oxytocin, which will give you more euphoric feelings, which I would say is a positive thing.

      So really, it strengthening the pathways to engage with the neurotransmitters which will bathe you in the chemical bath of joy more than in the hormonal bath of sorrow and sadness.

  45. Very interesting insight. I would only say that I never understood why one emotion is valued more than another. Positivity and negativity are the dual sides of a Mobius strip; the inhale and exhale of breath.

  46. Mind blowing stuff, and yet experientially familiar. Over the years I have noticed how my self-talk and other-talk (that is, what I say to myself and what I say to the environment) greatly influences my mood, attitude and consequential behavior. We author our realities to a great extent. Thanks for sharing a scientific perspective to a daily challenge. Johnpaul

  47. I appreciate the science of the brains response , some of which I have heard before and for your information your suggestions are very Biblical . This is not new. I practice this everyday. No wonder some of those who have responded refer to many of great faith.

  48. This is fantastic, I wish you would make it into a video, I would love to share this on youtube. Please do it will be a big hit : )

  49. This way of thinking has worked for me my whole life. I was sexually abused as a child and as I zoned out and imagined ‘my happy place’ and how it would end, it ended in the way I had imagined. I forgave my abuser when I was 18 and never looked back. I imagined my life as an illustrator from childhood, and now I am an illustrator. I wanted to travel the world and live in the USA and it happened. I always wanted lots of dogs when I was very young, my best friend and I had imaginary packs of dogs that were always with us as we played. Now I have 5 rescue dogs. I lived on a sail boat in Seattle after watching ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ it wasn’t a conscious decision it just seemed to happen! I pinned a map of Bhutan on the ceiling of that boat and imagined myself living there, I looked at it every night and dreamt of it. Then I got a call from the UNDP offering me a place in Bhutan for 2 years teaching the two brothers that designed the stamps. I had imagined having a baby out there and my daughter was the first western girl to be born in Bhutan. I have never been a wealthy person or come from a wealthy family, all these opportunities just seemed to happen… like little miracles… but after reading this I realise they came from within me. There are many more things I could describe but these are just the things that spring to mind at this moment. I give to charity all the time, it drives my husband nuts, I organise a lot of charity events and have raised over £50,000 since 2013 when I first started and it takes nothing from me but gives me back so much. I often work for free for organizations that are doing good, or go over and above when it comes to work… and it always comes back to me. It is amazing. To love and to be kind is the key to life, not just my life but really to all the lives you can possibly touch. : )

    • Thank you for sharing this, Lizzy. It’s incredibly inspiring to see you come through so much and maintain the willpower and fight and love to manifest the life you wanted.

  50. Well, some really great thoughts here that help me. But i am going to point a few things out.

    Unpredictible storms and chaotic events only seem that way because you lack enough information (data, sensory imput, or a genetic flaw in your brain (such as a missing section) or a sensory organ(eyes missing from sockets, etc), or some fundamental damage to the nerves carrying that information(sensory distortion). The interesting thing is that you can learn to compensate for any of these and gain full access to the data, perhaps even better access than others that are more sterotyprically ‘whole.’ All thanks to these same mirror neurons and the ability to microevolve(adapt) on demand with some effort.) to predict, anticipate, or default response against. I am sure you’ve noticed all animals become aware of incoming events at least several days before they happen what would be considered locally, humans being animals are aware as well just ignoring/not paying attention to the data(snesory imput) presented to them. There really isn’t any ‘chaos’ per se (though its more that neither order and chaos do not exist) but every event is a cosequence of an action(s), and so these long complex (yet simple) action-consequence chains occur, some immutable, some mutable, there is hints of this complexity in chaos theory(but again, chaos and order don’t exist per se).

    The second thing I’d like to point out, is these so called negative friends influencing you. Firstly, because of our mirror neurons YOU can influence THEM, by being that positive uplifting person, shut down their complaining and straighten them out, make them think critically and uplift and support them like you want these ‘other uplifting people’ to do FOR YOU. I mean if they are a bad influence, then burning the bridges by being authentic and uplifting to them can only do ‘good.’ I say this because: you are going to/planning to leave them anyway(lose them), so why not try and be a positive/uplifting influence? Being uplifting MIGHT CHANGE THEM and do for them what you are seeking to surround yourself with (and have done for/to you), or it might cause the loss of them. Just leaving causes the loss without question and deals far more damage to both you and them (in the action-cosequence change), its also an affront to what you yourself are seeking out from others, you want them to do these great things and be a positive influence on you but you yourself are unwilling to be this influence on those already around you in turn. It perpetuates an unhealthy cycle and has some serious flaws in logic, reasoning, critical thinking, AND irrationality(that is, the action of leaving without first trying lacks love entirely, both for yourself and those around you, and the cosequence chains are much more dire).

    I am being serious here as the arguments you’ve made, some of them lack love and the very things celebrated in the article as well, it is important to make sure you have access to this information and the objective observations of a third party (because: again see the action-cosequence thing).

    P.S. While I do hope you the writer of this article reads this, this information is for you the individual reading this.

  51. If someone is complaining – even frivolously – it indicates they are probably unhappy, though – crucially – the sources of their unhappiness may be other than the literal object of their complaint. Shouldn’t the response be to discover these sources? Instructing us to avoid negative nellies is like instructing a doctor to avoid patients with contagious diseases. We need to be doing the exact opposite!

    Yes, attendance to negative emotion can do psychic damage to the attendant. But the long-term harm accomplished by sweeping these emotional expressions under the rug is much greater.

    • My quick answer is Drift represents non-attachment, where as Desire represents attachment. I’m not saying don’t have things you don’t desire, but do not become so attached to those things that you lose the ability to drift, and therefore create regret/resentment/etc within yourself.

  52. This is an interesting and fascinating article. I think what you express in it has the potential to help many people understand and cope with how they feel and respond to those feelings. One note, when I came to the following part of your article:
    “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 fairytale is the “right one.”
    That human failing aside,…”
    I, myself, am not a religious person. I am a gay man who was raised Baptist my parents who were raised Catholic and Protestant and in college studied several religions either through Humanities or History courses I took (I found comfort in the teachings of Buddhism at a very dark period of my life). Again, while I am not a religious person this portion of the article gave me pause and rubbed me a bit wrong.
    As an experiment, I shared your article with nearly a dozen family members and friends, some who are religious and some who are not, and did not mention this portion of the article to them. I simply said that this article expressed some fascinating ideas. With each person I shared this with, regardless of there beliefs, they all stopped at the above mentioned part. Some chuckled, others rolled their eyes and a few actually stopped reading the article all together at that point.
    I’m not writing this to say either way whether you should phrase it that way or not, I just wanted to say that a lot of people, good people, use their beliefs and religion not only as a positive light in their lives but also as a way to express good will and peace to others.
    When you interject your own thoughts of religion into an article that (I assume) you wrote in order to educate and help people and those thoughts call other’s beliefs into question as “fairytales,” which “team will get the ball first?”
    Just a thought, but thoroughly enjoyed the article. Simply fascinating stuff.

    • Thank you for your well articulated response, Jeremy. This line has definitely been a snag for many; I’ve considered removing it, but I feel some lack of integrity if I do so. I can admit it was a bias statement I could have done without, but it does represent my thoughts, and I do not feel I do anyone any good by censoring myself. Also, I truly believe most religions have obviously fictional stories that are the results of imagination, and the fact that entire nations have killed for these stories does showcase well how powerful imagination is–which was the goal of that paragraph.

      Also, as you can probably see, eastern philosophies have done me a lot of good as well, but I don’t think any ideology should be wholly absolved without questioning, and so I still belief religions are an unnecessary attachment I’d like to see our species move away from because they ask you to accept a box. Be spiritual by all means, love Jesus even, but in my opinion attachment to religion creates unnecessary barriers between people. When we allow these religions to be the meaning of existence to people, then they feel automatically at odds with anyone who has a different meaning of existence(ie: a different religion). And thus these two people are now at odds, because each think they KNOW the answer and feel insecure when posed with the potential of being wrong about existence and the meaning of their life. But if they were simply more open-minded, spiritual people who THINK that they an IDEA about existence, they can have a conversation that will enable mutual growth rather than being enemies who must defend what they KNOW. Lastly, I do not deny the good religious people have done ( raised in Ohio in a very large, religious family, I understand where you’re coming from ), yet I also think you can be just as good without them.

      Thanks again, Jeremy.

  53. Good article for debate! Just some “little” yet profound distinctions need, in my opinion to be made:
    The opposite of LOVE is HATE
    The opposite of FEAR is COURAGE
    THEREFORE, Love is the antidote to hate, not fear, and Courage is the antidote to Fear.

  54. Wonderful article. Thank you, Steven! I shared it on facebook, printed it, and talked about it with friends, many of which, like myself have meditated for decades. It’s so refreshing reading scientific proof of what we’ve been feeling intuitively for decades! I am starting a blog of my own next month and would be honored, if, down the line, you were to post this, or any other relevant post on my blog. Thank you in advance! ~ Ulrike

  55. The universe only appears to be chaotic to the human mind. These techniques can at any moment be transcended when one makes a conscious surrender to the suchness of this moment. That’s why animals and plants can exist in harmony without ever having to think about how they should be reacting in any given situation. Perhaps it’s the human mind that’s chaotic, that’s why we have 30 types of toilet paper to choose from when the truth is, we wouldn’t even need any if we had truly healthy stools. ;p

  56. Fascinating article. My only contribution is based on the observation of many people in the Positive Thinking “New Thought” movement. I have observed that the directive of positive thinking can be so pervasive that people with extremely negative, or even “normal” negative situations tend to simply REPRESS their natural reactions. Instead of building a “positive brain”, they on the conscious level repeat their positive affirmations and visualizations. Meanwhile their unconscious (Jung’s Shadow) keeps fililng up with more and more unprocessed material. Therefore, one unintended side effect of positive thinking can be a great deal of denial of the fear, rage, loneliness and other negative feelings that are trying to tell you something about yourself.

    I personally always focused on a positive attitude most of my life, even while reading and hearing myself (as a gay man) constantly used as a political football by religion, politicians and the police. I read about gay men being beaten up and killed, fired, disowned, etc. I would not allow myself to feel my own natural sadness and anger at this treatment.

    Then in 2010, all hell broke loose. I was 58 years old. I began to develop an irrational anxiety that intensified. I fell deeper and deeper into clinical depression. I felt that I had lost control of my own thoughts. My thoughts took on a demonic personality of their own.

    I received help from a brilliant psychiatrist over the next 3 years. Our major task together was to UNCOVER all the REAL issues in my life that needed to be freed from my ironclad dungeon of positivity. Together over 4 years we brought to the surface all the important issues of my life that I had repressed with my conscious mind focused on what I now call “Bliss Ninny” positivity.

    IN conclusion, it is healthy to find a positive angle to every situation. But if taken too far, you can be merely lying to yourself, denying the reality of issues that must be dealt with rather than repressed under a relentless campaign to bludgeon yourself with positivity.

    • Thank you for your vulnerable and well-stated thoughts, Will. I agree that there is a serious epidemic of repression spreading through the positivity circles, and that’s the last thing I want to perpetuate. My goal with this article is not to silence emotion, but rather to not let ourselves become victimized by it. We can feel it without giving ourselves over to it. I hope you’ll consider reading the follow-up article that I think address some of your concerns. And I also hope by people choosing love over fear, and rewiring their brain in that way, that we can avoid using people like political footballs, and therefore by and large shift to a species that judges so little that people have far fewer reasons to repress in the first place. Thanks again, Will.

  57. Dear Steven,

    Thank you for this interesting article. I think that part of the problem in terms of the downward spiral of negativity is definitely modern life and modern living. I am in a very stressful job and I work with colleagues who also feel the pressure on a daily basis. Unfortunately, one way to cope is to share negative thoughts and feelings about our work and the difficult people we deal with each day. In this case, commiseration equates to camaraderie.

    I think the challenge would be to make the time to find what makes you tick and to do the things you enjoy – especially since one spends such a large portion of the day at work. Choosing love over fear can be difficult as fear is very often a default setting for many people. I am not sure when the world turned into such an oppressive and sometimes frightening place. Perhaps it has always been like this but social media now allows us to see every horrible thing imaginable, worldwide, with algorithms by services such as Facebook which ensure that we see the same terrible things far too often.

    I am a bitcher and a moaner – I thought by nature, but I will try to be more positive and to surround myself with more positive things. I guess it starts with one day at a time. One needs to break the habit of being negative.

    Thank you for a great article. I look forward to the follow-up.

  58. Hi Steven,
    What a great article! This just confirms what I’ve been figuring out for myself the last couple of years in a very great and scientific way!
    I have two questions though, sorry if they sound a bit dumb, they are genuine questions:
    1. You mention that the “growing closer” of the synapses is some sort of “mini evolution” in our brain. Does that mean bitchy moany people are more likely to have more negative thinking children too? Or does the preset constellation of our genes override these mini-changes?
    And if it does have an impact on the next generation, how could we know that it is inherited from birth rather than just “learnt” after birth due to exposure to a “moany” parent? (I hope you understand what I mean 😀 )
    2. You say what sets us apart from other animals is our ability to “live”in the past and present and I agree with that. Yet, the example that you give about not touching fire because it’s hot is something that I would have thought many if not most animals are able to learn? Or am I wrong? At least most mammals?
    Furthermore I do agree with almost everything that you say apart from one thing. The universe might be chaotic but from all I’ve learned everything “swings” with a certain vibe in the universe. When you send out negative “vibes” that swing on a different frequency than positive ones, you attract the same vibes back to you, because it’s a bit like magnets. I don’t say you can blame everything on these vibes but in my experience it is very often the case that things that happen are less arbitrary than we think and are the “response” to vibes that have been sent out by someone. (Gosh that sounded far more hippy-airy-fairy then I intended, but it’s true! 😉 )
    The author Lynn Grabhorn has written some really interesting books about this matter.

    I wish you all the best and keep up the good work xxx
    M.

  59. I find the ecstatic poets help to keep me afloat, like Hafiz: (From The Subject Tonight Is Love)

    A Suspended Blue Ocean

    The sky

    Is a suspended blue ocean.

    The stars are the fish

    That swim.

    The planets are the white whales

    I sometimes hitch a ride on,

    And the sun and all light

    Have forever fused themselves

    Into my heart and upon

    My skin.

    There is only one rule

    On this Wild Playground,

    For every sign Hafiz has ever seen

    Reads the same.

    They all say,

    “Have fun, my dear; my dear, have fun,

    In the Beloved’s Divine

    Game,

    O, in the Beloved’s

    Wonderful

    Game.”

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