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.



How to create a happiness state of mind

Image: Mind Mapping.

Welcome to part 2 of Your Brain and the Art of Happiness.

The main point of the Dalai Lama’s teachings as I understand it is that happiness is not a luxury – but is the purpose of our existence. Not only that – but there is a definite path leading toward it. The first step is to identify the factors that invariably lead to suffering and those that lead to happiness. Then we must begin to eliminate the ‘suffering–causing factors’ and cultivate the ‘happiness-causing ones.’  

Happiness has many levels 

In the Buddhist tradition there are four factors – wealth, worldly satisfaction, spirituality and enlightenment – which create the totality of an individual’s quest for happiness. Good health and a close circle of friends are also important but the door into all of these things is your state of mind. 

Create a happiness state-of-mind 

Your state of mind is not only necessary to create all the experiences in your life but also the filter through which you view them. Without a disciplined mind you are not really in control of what you are doing nor can you be independent of events. The real source of happiness is the control of your consciousness as observed in a calm mind or one engaged in meaningful work. These activities equate to happiness. 

Happiness – the basics 

A basic way to happiness is to cultivate affection and a sense of connection with other human beings. Even if you loose everything, you will have this. The Dali Lama often remarks that while he lost his country, he in a way gained the whole world. This is because he had the ability to bond with others quickly. Always look for what you have in common with others and you will never really be lonely. 

Decide what’s real 

No matter how powerful they may seem – negative emotions and states of mind have no foundation in reality. They are distortions stopping us from seeing things as they really are.  We have only to experience the shame and embarrassment after loosing our temper once to appreciate this. In contrast, when we experience positive emotions we get closer to the true nature of the universe and how we could be all the time.

The Empathic Brain

Empathy is a powerful interpersonal tool which is under-valued in our society.  Ineed it is a skill that is frequently underutilised. Perhaps this is in part due to the misconception that em-pathetic somehow implies pathetic? It is often confused with sympathetic, but while empathy denotes a deep emotional understanding of another’s feelings or problems, sympathy is more general and can apply to small annoyances or setbacks.

In Deep Brain Learning: Pathways to Potential with Challenging Youth, Brendtro, Mitchell, and McCall summarize empathy as follows:

Empathy is the foundation of moral development and pro-social behavior. The original word began in the German language as Einfuhlung which is literally translated as feeling into. Empathy taps the ability of mirror neurons to display in our own brain the emotions, thoughts, and motives of another. Empathy allows us to share anothers joy and pain and motivates care and concern.

Stephen Covey writes in his book, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’

Empathetic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with.  Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you are dealing with the reality inside the other person’s head.

Empathy allows us to not only  interact with each other effectively, but
also to predict the actions, intentions, and feelings of others. A useful trait indeed. But is empathy something that we can cultivate or is it more innate? Are we hard wired for empathy?

Despite the advances in our understanding of neuroplasticity, research on the empathic brain is still in its early stages. In recent years, the field of social neuroscience has begun to shed light on the neural underpinnings of empathy.

In an interesting review paper,”The Social Neuroscience of Empathy“, Tania Singer and Claus Lamm of the University of Zurich,  give an overview of this research, and provide recommendations for future research. If you are interested in learning more, you can download a pdf copy by clicking here.

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