One of the wisest things I’ve ever said was in a group that I was leading about 45 years ago at the height of the Human Potential Movement. Most people in the group were in their 20s. I was in my 40s. The discussion that night had turned to happiness. What kind of work could they do that would make them happy? What partner could they find that would bring joy in their lives?
As I listened to their ideas, happiness seemed to be an elusive wisp, blowing in the wind, which everyone was chasing. In a flash it came to me and I heard myself saying, “We’re responsible for our own happiness. Happiness isn’t out there, its right here!” Even I was stunned by the truth of that statement, one I’ve never forgotten.
As I was thinking of writing this column I had to do some errands around town. As I passed by in my pickup, the people I saw on the sidewalks, or crossing the street, didn’t seem happy. At best some were determined or serious. No one was smiling or laughing. One person’s scrunched up face looked like she was having the worst day of her life. A beautiful spring day with some welcome sunshine and she carried a bag of groceries scowling.
Recently something happened that made me look at myself. A book lying on a table, belonging to a friend, caught my attention and made me remember what I had said so many decades ago. In a few days, I had a copy of my own and read the reason why we are mostly aware of the negative things that come our way in life and not the positive.
Briefly, we’re human. That means that we have learned to survive through the ages of evolution by being vigilant and fearful. When danger threatens or enemies approach we are endowed with a fight or flight response. Our brain is wired for survival so we have a hair trigger sense of danger, whether or not the threat is real. That’s 90 percent of who we are emotionally. Ten percent is for the positive emotions of love, enjoyment, and happiness.
The book, "Hardwiring Happiness," by neuroscientist Rick Hanson, Ph.D., instructs us that by just remembering happy times in our life, we can reinforce the neural pathways of happiness, and diminish the chokehold of our negative emotions. He recommends that we remember the happy times for just 20 seconds a day.
When I decided to give it a try, finding and holding onto a happy memory for 20 seconds wasn’t that easy. At first I had to dig through my own neural networks to discover one memory. But that memory led to others.
I remembered the time when I was 5 years old and my favorite aunt hugged me in her arms. I remembered surfing my first big wave, lying on the warm sand at the beach, picnics in the park with my kids, first loves, great sex, past and current friendships. Soon happy memories became part of my life, and within a few weeks I became aware that happiness was an everyday experience, and I was only half-way through Hardwiring Happiness.
Twenty seconds a day? You don’t have to buy the book. You are responsible for your own happiness. What can you lose, except the unwanted baggage of negative feelings that dog your life?
Bert Anderson is an assisting priest at Trinity Episcopal Church. He has written four plays since he retired in Ashland, including "Mister Brightside," "The Bonfire Nights," and "TRaNZ." He has recently published a book of memoirs, "Curious: A Life Sacred and Secular."