Stumbling on Happiness- Start With Your Brain

I’m reading Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert (well, listening to it- I love Audible.com – great for commutes and car rides not taken up by podcasts).  It sounds like another pop psych book, but it’s really about one of my favorite topics- How the brain works.

The lump of matter between our ears can be compared to a computer, electrical wires, or many other things, but I see it as a starting point for understanding most everything about people.

The brain is not static, but changes over time.  As we grow, it grows, and different parts “come online” over time.  For example, all of the classic child developmental stages proposed by Piaget have been found to coincide with changes in brain structure and growth.  When you learn that the frontal lobes, responsible for things like higher order thinking, judgment, organization and the like don’t finish their large growth spurt until about age 22, it’s no wonder insurance companies don’t cut young people a break until they reach age 25.

Then take facts like developmental windows, where it’s easier to learn certain tasks like foreign languages when you’re young,  or how hard it is to unlearn things you never learned properly the first time- like those few multiplication facts that always tripped you up, or those words you always seem to misspells in an idiosyncratic way….You rapidly conclude there’s something to this wiring thing, and when you accidentally wire a defective pathway, it’s really hard to shut it down and rewire it to the right information.

The great thing about Stumbling On Happiness is its discussion of how bad we are at previewing what will make us happy.  There are all sorts of tricks our brains do to get us through the day; our adaptive, hard-wired responses to things that cause us always to assume we’ll be happy only if __________________ (fill in the blank).  We make a million dollars.  The person of our dreams loves us back.  Our children are budding geniuses.  We have a vacation home.  You name it.

However, you often find once you reach the end point or goal, the fun seems to have been in the striving and not in the end point itself. I’ve been struck at how many Oscar winners say it was a great moment, but the cache of the achievement wears off pretty quick- you get a couple of months of special attention, and then you were that guy we saw on TV again, nothing so extraordinary.

For kids with LD, many have quirky wiring.  Their brains may do some things very well, but other things are much slower and ponderous by comparison.  This means you can have incredibly smart and intuitive people who are great at coming up with new ideas, or linking ideas together, yet when it comes to making these great ideas concrete action steps, they are hopeless.  Other kids learn much better auditorily than visually, making audio books great for them, but written books painful.

Kids on the autism spectrum, for example, often have extreme sensitivities to touch, smell , sounds, and other external stimuli they can’t control.  There seems to be some indication that these kids don’t have their neuron highways trimmed down to high speed T1 lines, but maintain a series of highly connected back roads, meaning every stimulus lights up the whole brain, not just selected parts.  This overstimulus is often too much for them to process and bear, causing them to freak out.  Not unlike when I snap at my kids when both are vying for my attention while I’m also trying to make dinner and talk on the phone.  My system gets overloaded and I freak out, even if I don’t want to-my system simply breaks down over the stress and needs a reboot, so to speak.

I believe if we can understand how our brains work and process data, how we behave and act makes a heck of a lot more sense.  Then we can make more conscious decisions about what we really want to do, what will really make us happy – once we understand that happiness is not a set of external circumstances, but really about our perceptions and expectations.

Once we really understand happiness as a satisfaction of needs, maybe fewer people will expect other people to make us happy.  Instead, happiness can be achieved by taking control over ourselves and our choices, good and bad.  And frankly realizing I have control over my own happiness is a lot less frustrating than waiting for the happiness fairy to show up (rotten bastard never seems to come on time, does he?)  Or for that matter, expecting other people to do something to make me happy- they aren’t trained seals, after all- no one can make you happy.  Other people can bring joy into your life, share their ideas and opinions, share themselves in a multitude of ways – but in the end, they can;t make you ahppy or sad- that is a choice you make on your own.

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1 Comment

Filed under happiness

One response to “Stumbling on Happiness- Start With Your Brain

  1. I tried to trackback to you whit… what don’t I understand about trackbacks??? in any case…LOVED this post so much… I quoted it! love, k

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