“There is little doubt that Happiness circuits are highly suggestible, and that they are transformable through intention and effort. They are among the most plastic circuits in the brain.”
I was talking with a friend regarding his children the other day. He was lamenting the verity that they were unhappy and lacked motivation in every aspect of their lives. One, a daughter, had all but given up her life and had returned to their nest rarely choosing to leave her small bedroom.
When I say she had given up her life, I mean that she had given up almost all the good that had existed in it. She had received a good education and had excelled in her classes, she had great friends, upon graduation she received a good job and she also enjoyed good health. In fact, if one looked at her life from the outside, it was almost impossible to conclude anything except that she was the recipient of great happiness. But, a closer look would have revealed a different conclusion.
She is lacking, as so many of us are, life skills such as regulating negative emotions, cultivating positive ones, and building and maintaining healthy personal relationships . Such skills correlate more closely with happiness and life success than any standard measure of academic or financial performance. A person’s capacity to cooperate, ability to regulate personal emotions, and capacity to focus attention on such skills is far more important for life success than one’s IQ or grades. Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald calls these attributes, “qualities of mind.”
Sadly, I find these qualities to be missing in my own life from time to time. When this is the case I begin to feel lost, alone and hopeless. So, I have begun to wonder if critical traits such as compassion and empathy are trainable and if I could change my life through practice; if so, it would have transformative implications for how I prepare myself and my loved-ones for the long emotional road ahead.
In searching my mind for the answer, I was reminded of the story of Mingyur Rinpoche, the author of “The Joy of Living.” As a young child he was hardly happy. From the time he was seven or eight until he was thirteen, he experienced severe panic attacks, despite growing up in a loving family and nurturing spiritual community. He believes that if he had lived in a Western society, he probably would have been diagnosed with a childhood panic disorder.
An emotional shift for him came as a young teenager during a three-year meditation retreat. At first his panic got worse, and he found himself caught in one debilitating anxiety attack after another. He describes that first year on retreat as one of the worst of his life. He became so deeply unhappy, he says, that he “really decided to apply mediation training.” At one point he confronted his panic alone in his room for several days, using it as a support for his meditation. After an intensive period of applying what he had learned from his teachers, to relate to his powerful emotions not as his “enemy” or his “boss,” as he puts it, but as his friend, the panic was gone. Since that time, he has not experienced another attack.
His story has given me renewed hope; we can train ourselves to live happily by practicing life changing qualities of mind such as compassion, empathy, kindness, gratitude, and capacity for love. We can be happier and more successful by transforming ourselves through intention and effort; becoming increasingly aware that the cultivation of positive emotions is vital to draw a map of personal happiness free from suffering and the causes of suffering.