appiness is here defined as a good attitude that tends to produce a good mood. Happiness is not about relationships, material acquisition, appearance, fitness, or anything external. Happiness is mental.
While happiness can be had under virtually any circumstances (I’m not sure it’s possible to be happy while being waterboarded, and I don’t wish to experiment), there are physical roadblocks that seem to make it more difficult, such as:
- Sleep deprivation
- Drug-induced hyperactivity (Caffeine)
This is not a complete list, just the roadblocks that immediately come to mind. But my omission of pain from the list is intentional. I believe it’s quite possible to suffer pain and still be happy.
None of these physical states bar happiness. But they are obstacles. They fiddle with your ability to experience emotions in normal ways.
Janet feels bad, and when asked why, she replies, “Because I don’t like my job, and I don’t have a nice enough car, and I’m not satisfied with my friendships.” Janet has not identified the cause of her depression correctly. Jobs and cars and friendships cannot make her feel bad. She feels bad because of her thinking about these things.
Alice feels bad, and when asked why, she replies, “Because I haven’t eaten solid food in four days and I’m starving.” Alice may actually have a point! It’s not the proper moment to recommend mindfulness; what she needs is food.
There’s a physiological explanation for this, of course. Scientists have been able to map neural pathways, and have demonstrated that as a person has experiences, the neo cortex, the part of the brain associated with cogitation, is accessed first, and then the parts of the brain associated with emotions. Thinking first, then feeling. Before emotion-chemicals are squirted into the blood stream, thoughts enter your consciousness – if only for a split second – and by intervening at that moment, you can exercise a general sort of control over your mood. However, there are certain cases when the neural pathways actually skip the neo cortex and go straight to the amygdale. For example, if you see and hear a charging, growling bear, you will likely experience a strong emotional response, regardless of the cognitions bouncing around your neo cortex.
And if the bear bites off your arm and you begin hemorrhaging, you will go into shock, and again, this will be regardless of your cognitions. If we think of mood not as a mental state, but as a physiological state (that is heavily influenced by one’s mental state), then it is obvious that an array of physiological forces can impact mood, including starvation, sleep deprivation, and shock. However, in everyday life it is the conscious mind that steers mood.
Fortunately, the physical roadblocks are fairly easy to overcome. Sleep right. Drink right. Eat right. Abstain from drugs.
It is my opinion that the first step in dealing with unhappiness is dealing with the physical aspects. Get those things in order today, start working on the mental aspects, and within a couple of days the feelings of happiness will start to show up.
And just as there are physical factors that might make the happiness mindset more difficult to enter or maintain, there are physical factors that might make it easier: namely, exercise.