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Building Joyful Circuits

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

Building Joyful Circuits

How your brain is wired for bliss.
Laurel  Mellin
Laurel Mellin More by this author
Jun 02, 2010 at 10:00 AM

When I get into my car in the morning, I put the key into the ignition and turn on the engine. At least that’s what I assume I do, since I end up driving to work. But I don’t do any of it consciously—it is so automatic that I don’t have to think about it. The information that lets me do this is stored in my emotional brain, the unconscious memory storehouse. In fact, most things are stored in our unconscious memory. When humans are faced with a stimulus, we draw upon these unconscious memories of past experiences to respond effectively. These responses are stored as wires. The normal stresses of the day—the coffee spilling, a deadline looming, or a craving for sweets—arouse wires, each of which channels chemicals and electricity along a specific pathway so that we respond the same way that we have in the past.

Those wires fall into two categories. Some of those wires are highly effective—just what you need. We call these joy circuits. The coffee spills, and you say, “ouch” and go about cleaning it up and feeling pretty good. You keep your cool and don’t let one spilled cup of coffee ruin your day. The other wires—the ones that are not effective—we call stress circuits. When they are triggered, that one spilled cup of coffee leads to a burning sense of resentment, having a chip on your shoulder during a meeting, soothing yourself with chocolates, and feeling bloated and grumpy.  That’s an ineffective wire, arousing unnecessary stress that is prolonged.

What’s causing most of your stress is that you have too many stress circuits and too few joy circuits. The strategy in emotional brain training (EBT) is to use powerful, practical tools to alter that wiring, breaking stress circuits and building joy circuits that move you through stress and make you feel great. EBT is a practice. These circuits break only over time, with repeated use of the tools. You are rewiring the emotional brain, the center not only of stress processing but also of emotions, intimacy, spirituality, and pleasure drives.

As the tools have their effect and more of the stress circuits fall away, joy circuits will take hold and allow you to gracefully and effectively process daily life. When that occurs, life changes in ways that are nothing less than revolutionary. Using the brain’s natural processes, you can rewire your emotional circuitry and make it easy to be in love with your life and to do what you came to earth to do. What could be better than that?

Often when people first learn about the method, they wonder about this “joy” word. In EBT, we use that word to indicate a brain state, but in actuality, the emotion of joy is just the tip of the iceberg, one sign that your physiology is balanced and your internal workings are at their best. You are present, balanced, and have positive emotions fueled by a sense of meaning in your life. When in joy, the stress response is quiet, the relaxation response is activated, and surges of feel-good chemicals course through the reward pathways in the brain. And this brain state is universal. Whether you are a new mother in Manhattan, a musician in Ghana, a brain surgeon in Des Moines, or a banker in Brazil, the physiology of that state is the same.

It turns out that the emotion that feels the best—joy—is also best for our health and the survival of the species. According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, joy is the signpost that we are in a state of optimal coordination and smooth running of the operations of life. Wear and tear is at a minimum, aging slows, and, in every possible way, people are at their best.

It’s important, however, to differentiate joy and happiness. It may sound like splitting hairs, but from a brain standpoint, they are extremely different. All moments of joy include an element of happiness. But not all moments of happiness include joy. Happiness often comes from drive reduction—avoidance of pain or the pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. The essence of joy, on the other hand, is spirit. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, wrote, “Do not look for rest in any pleasure, because you were not created for pleasure: you were created for joy. And if you do not know the difference between pleasure and joy you have not yet begun to live.” Joy is spiritual and far grittier than happiness, and far more robust.

Compare the pleasure of eating pizza to the joy of belly laughing with friends or surrendering to the sweetness of love. Joy is more complex. You are in rapture when seeing the face of your child, but sad that he or she is growing up and will ultimately leave you. You are in awe watching a blazing sunset, but know that soon night will fall and the color will vanish. In that moment of spiritual bliss, you can almost taste the other moments, those of feeling empty and lost. You write the most astonishing poem, definitely inspired, and then put down the pen and fear that you will never write another poem again. Unlike happiness, the underbelly of joy is pain, mirroring the wholeness of life, the interweaving of opposites, the unity of it all. In a way, that pain makes the moment even more riveting, and it intensifies and deepens your joy.

About Author
Laurel  Mellin
Laurel Mellin, author of the New York Times bestseller The Pathway, is an associate clinical professor of family and community medicine and pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. She directs the national researc Continue reading