Emotions are habits – so pick up a good one

Part 3 of Your Brain and the Art of Happiness

All emotions if practised regularly grow in size. The Dalai Lama continually suggests that we cultivate the positive and like any good habit – you start off small but the end benefits are great. A positive state of mind is not only good for you but it also benefits everyone you come into contact with. 

Practise makes perfect 

No matter how difficult it is you must reduce your negative states of mind and increase your positive ones. The Dali Lama suggests that the occurrence of wholesome actions as against unwholesome actions is not a matter of morality or religion. It is the difference between happiness and unhappiness. Through self-training you can develop a good heart that lessens the chances that you will act in an unproductive way. 

The nature of happiness 

Don’t confuse happiness with pleasure. Pleasure is of the senses and seems like happiness but lacks meaning. Happiness in contrast rests on meaning and is often felt despite negative external conditions. It is stable and persistent. While pleasures are a bonus in live – happiness is a must! 

Happiness is not an overnight success 

Happiness is something to be developed over time. Make a decision to apply the same effort and determination that you might devote to worldly success to studying and practicing happiness. Systematic seeking after the causes and ways of happiness can be one of life’s most important decisions – like deciding to get married or embarking on a career. The alternative is drifting in an out of happiness by chance, vulnerable to unexpected attacks of unhappiness.

 The ups and downs of happiness

 The student of happiness will experience ups and downs but will be better equipped to get back to a positive state more quickly. Over time you must try to cancel out negative emotions particularly anger and hatred and replace them with tolerance and patience. The Dali Lama’s approach of cancelling out negative thoughts with positive ones has been validated by the rise of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which gets people to replace distorted modes of thinking such as ‘my life is a mess’ with more accurate ones such as ‘this part of my life is not good but a lot else is.’

 The nature of individual unhappiness

 The Dalai Lama admits that people are complex but that the western way is always to find the causes of things which he suggests can lead to a kind of agony if we don’t find an answer. We will not necessarily understand why life plays out the way it does within the scope of our lifetime. This view partly comes from his belief in reincarnation and karma but can be appreciated separately to Buddhist doctrine.

How does this philosophy fit with findings from neuroscience?

So  how does this philosophy fit with findings from neuroscience – the scientific study of the brain? I suggest that it is precisely because we may not understand everything about our existence – it is all the more important to be good to other beings and to leave the world a slightly better place. With this simple command we can unite science with humanity and know we can’t go wrong.



Set your Brain to Meditate: Part 2

Image: Photostock

The Buddhist understanding holds that meditation is a mindful state that leads to ‘right action’. When combined with mindfulness it has the same effect not just for the health of the individual but also for greater society.

Our tendency to look at the negatives, to put outcomes ahead of actually doing things and by making faulty comparisons with others can leave us like feeling like robots at the mercy of daily events. In essence mindfulness is about preserving our individuality – through openness to the new, reclassifying the meaning of our knowledge and experience and by an ability to see our daily actions in a bigger consciously chosen perspective.

When good categories turn bad

Rather than always look at things afresh and anew – we create categories – and let things ‘fall into them’. We do this for the sake of convenience. These categorisations can be small such as defining a flower as a rose, a person as a boss – or a wider categorization – such as a religion or a political system. These categories help to give us psychological certainty and save us from the effort of constantly challenging our own beliefs. In this way we define animals as ‘livestock’ or ‘pets’ so that we can feel OK eating one and loving the other.

Shhhh….there’s a secret to being a genius

Mindlessness is when we accept these categories without really thinking about them. In contrast, mindfulness is about questioning old categories and creating new ones. In fact ‘genius’ has been described as perceiving things afresh, in a non habitual way.

Let me leave you with a quote from Marcel Proust’s great novel In Search of Lost Time Past to illustrate what I mean and check back in later this week for Part 3 of this meditation series.

We commonly live with a self reduced to its bare minimum; most of our faculties lie dormant, relying on habit; and habit knows how to manage without them.

Read the first part of this series here