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Happiness by Choice

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

Happiness by Choice

When to rewire your emotional brain.
Laurel  Mellin
Laurel Mellin More by this author
Jun 28, 2010 at 10:00 AM

The human brain has an amazing capacity to create joy not by chance, but by choice. Everyone has the equipment to do this—and it is uniquely human. Unlike other animals, the human brain has multiple strong connections between areas of conscious thought and pleasure. The thinking brain—the seat of consciousness—is strongly linked to the emotional brain, where pleasure centers abound. You can learn to use your consciousness to send chemicals and electricity through those connections and create ripples of pleasure that you can feel in your body.

There are only two glitches. First, the message that arouses such pleasure cannot be about eating ice cream, sipping fine wine, or buying the latest shoes. It can’t be anything you acquire, ingest, or inject. Instead, that pleasure comes from the desire to be of service, to do good. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors survived based on their capacity to cooperate and share. As a result, this joy response evolved over the millennia to ensure the survival of the species. When you take action that favors the greater good, you are rewarded in the moment. A pulse of feel-good chemicals affixes to special receptors in the brain’s reward centers, and you experience a surge of peace, power, and pleasure in your body.

Second, the system of creating bliss on demand breaks down during stress. Stress hormones affect your motivations, because you are in survival mode. Forget about compassion. Instead, you focus on surviving the moment, doing whatever it takes. In that stressed state, your thinking brain is not functioning well. It is not thinking magnificent thoughts and fueling you with passion to be your most altruistic self. Your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are decidedly extreme, because even though you are not being chased by a hungry lion, your brain perceives that you are. Survival is the drive, and the chemical cascade is ensuring that you will do whatever you need to do to get what you want when you want it, without regard to how that affects others. That is the nature of the stress response. It is ego-based, extreme, and meant for episodic use to keep you alive in response to short-term stressors.

In effect, your physiology is organized around the dance of these two responses: stress and joy. You need both, as short-term survival is based on marshalling an effective stress response—in other words, creating a response to make you run away from the approaching lion. And long-term survival is predicated on your capacity to marshal an effective joy response. As the feel-good chemicals flow, you feel an abiding compassion for others that motivates cooperation and sharing, essential for enabling your tribe to thrive and not blowing up the planet. The problem is that the stress response is not only triggered by physical stress like the lion chasing us but also by metabolic and psychological stress. As a result, you see lions everywhere. The stress response ends up being recruited chronically, and can even cannibalize the joy response, as the brain cannot be in a state of joy and stress at the same time. One of the two swamps the other. This is why the relentless pursuit of natural joy may be the most effective defense against stress.

Stress is both a worldwide epidemic and a highly personal one. Most people are overloaded these days—depressed, anxious, and on edge, with the stress buzzer jammed on. The resulting chronic leakage of stress hormones—that drip, drip, drip—causes extremes of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. It can impact every organ system in potentially deleterious ways and is the root cause of 80 percent of the health problems and most human suffering. When you gain weight, you blame yourself for eating the extra ice cream or sitting on the couch, but it’s stress that fuels those tendencies. When you fall into depression, you imagine that it is some fault of your own; however, research points to the fundamental cause of depression as stress. When stress levels are over the top, you are apt to sprout many stress symptoms, each of which stresses you out and exacerbates the other symptoms more.

The current paradigm of health care looks at each of these problems as a distinct issue rather than a symptom of stress. Doctors treat each one with a different cluster of drugs, devices, or procedures. Though costly, this used to be your best option, but in the last decade the true nature of stress has been decoded, and the mysteries of the brain have become a lot less mysterious. The way has been cleared for a new paradigm to take hold: instead of treating the symptoms of stress we can treat the stress itself. We can address the root cause of many symptoms in one fell swoop.

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