I listened to a great podcast the other day on TED Radio Hour called “Simply Happy” which got me thinking about the nature of happiness. The premise of the combined TED Talks was that happiness is actually not as complicated as we make it out to be and that the human brain is actually wired to be happy. Happiness in the human brain is kind of a homeostatic state; regardless of our varying moods, our minds eventually settle into happiness, or at least into contentment. The podcast referenced a study which showed that even people who suffered very traumatic experiences returned to their previous baseline state of happiness within 2-3 months. They started diving into why this is the case, and it all boils down to our brain’s ability to frame things in different lights. So when we experience negative things, our brains attempt to frame them in positive lights, or at least to not dwell on them. This is more a survival instinct than anything; our brain wants us to be happy and so it allows us to frame things in a perspective that allows us to be happy. So in part, your brain does the work for you in creating and returning to happiness. But we also are responsible for this process, and this is the part that really got me thinking about what we can do to affect our own happiness. Though I used to groan at the cliche of “you create your own happiness” as I get older I find myself buying into this theory more and more.
Part of the reason I am more convinced by the day that we can control and create our own happiness is because I have seen the ways that it has worked in my own life. After I graduated college I had, as most people do, a very rude awakening. I had to get a job and support myself. I had to enter the “real” world which seemed like an onslaught of responsibility, chores, and just generally things I didn’t want to do or deal with. And for a while there I was really in a slump. I felt drained by the responsibilities of adulthood and I couldn’t fathom how anyone could be happy while having to pay a utility bill. (I fully recognize now the extent of my privilege that this felt so inconceivable to me). I dragged myself to work and then home and then to work again. I dragged myself to the gym, and to clean the house and to go out and do fun things. I had this mentality of “everything is hard.” And then it became too much effort to keep up this charade of misery. I realized that I was the reason that I was unhappy, and that it had nothing to do with my environment or with external circumstances. It all came down to the way I was thinking about and framing my life. And it was actually really hard work to constantly think about things in such a negative light. Since that difficult year after college I have made a point to be very careful about how I think about things. If I find myself wandering through the darker corners of my mind, I pull myself back out. I don’t sit around thinking about mistakes I made in the past, and I don’t dwell on negative things that I can’t control. I’m not trying to make this sound easy, or like I have all the answers, because it’s not and I don’t. But I do think that learning to train your mind to think in certain ways can make a world of difference in your outlook on life and your day-to-day happiness. And I think that when you start learning to control your mind, you realize it’s not really an uphill battle. Your mind doesn’t actually want to think about your ex-boyfriend, or that time the other day when a stranger waved to someone behind you and you thought they were waving to you, so you waved, and then realized their wave wasn’t meant for you and you wanted to die a little. Our minds really don’t want to dwell on the negative things in our lives, we just force them to.
So though it makes me sound like a crazy hippie yogi, I’m going to say it: When you control your thoughts, you control your life.
Disclaimer: When I talk about happiness and our control over it, I recognize that for some people with clinical depression or other mental health issues, this is not the case. My theories on happiness only relate to people under relatively normal circumstances, without any kind of mental health issue.