Who We Are As Brains Seeking Happiness- Part II

Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.
– Vikto Frankl
 Step aside from all thinking;
And there is nowhere you can’t go.
– Seng-ts’an

In this post I continue reflecting on our brain in two ways, both dealing with happiness. I already was aware that Daniel Pink (2006) comments on the importance of our right brain to happiness in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future, which I read for a class on facilitating adult education. Then one day recently, I was with a group of friends enjoying a backyard barbeque when one of the guests started talking about just having been at a presentation by Byron Katie (2002), the author of Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life.  I had read the book several years ago, and figuring this could not be coincidence, when we got home I pulled it off the shelf sure there would be something in it on Katie’s approach to happiness.

Katie is a proponent of what she calls, “The Work.”  It is a process for inquiring into how our thoughts (left brain) rob us of being fully in the now with complete acceptance of what is. She writes this about happiness: “What I love about The Work is that it allows you to go inside and find your own happiness, to experience what already exists within you, unchanging, immovable, ever-present, ever-waiting” (p. 1).

So, how do these authors help us use our brains to more effectively promote happiness? I will first go to Pink (2006), who suggests that in the 21st century we need to start “taking happiness seriously.”

How does happiness happen? If we were to believe the barrage of messages coming at us from the marketers, we might be convinced that happiness will come with what we own. I have heard, however, the stories of more than one corporate dropout who walked away from a salary more than adequate to purchase the best of just about anything in search of  happiness.  Apparently it doesn’t come with the ability to afford what the marketers would like us to want.

At the same time, Pink suggests that abundance actually promotes right-brain thinking. In other words, being able to have what we want means we want it not only to be functional, but also beautiful, emotionally appealing, and even meaningful. But, as Pink points out, it is not just that we want our toilet bowl brush to be colorful and appealing. We buy all those things the manufacturers and marketers push on us because what we really want is for our lives to be beautiful, emotionally fulfilling, and meaningful.

So when it comes to happiness, it’s pretty clear that Frankl is right – it “ensues.” It is not something we can buy, it comes as a result of something we do about who we are. In recent decades, some psychologists have focused their research on helping us figure this out. Working in the field known as “positive psychology,” these researchers stopped looking at what makes us abnormal and depressed, and started looking at what makes us feel satisfied and fulfilled.

Pink summarizes the research of the leading positive psychologist, Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman. Interestingly, Seligman suggests that our capacity for happiness is in some degree dependent on our biology. Some people’s genes make it possible for them to be happier more of the time than other people whose genes tend to keep them on the gloomy side of the scale. Nevertheless, Seligman offers the following as among the things that can contribute to our experience of happiness:

  • engaging in satisfying work;
  • avoiding negative events and emotions;
  • being married;
  • having a rich social network.

Pink notes that the things that apparently do not contribute to happiness include making more money, getting another college degree, or living in a pleasant climate.

The interesting connection between Seligman and Pink is that both of them claim that our most profound sense of happiness comes through a life filled with meaning.  Seligman breaks down the possibilities for how we might feel about our life into three categories. The first he calls “The Pleasant Life.” It is a life with plenty of opportunity for positive emotions, like laughter or other forms of momentary pleasure. The next type of life Seligman calls “The Good Life.” It is more satisfying than the first because in The Good Life you have managed to find a connection between what you are good at doing (your strengths) and a place to do it. In other words, you like your job because it offers plenty of opportunity for you to succeed and to feel that you have found your “calling.”

Beyond these two stages, posits Seligman, is an even better one in which what you are doing is connected with something meaningful for you.  “There’s a third form of happiness that is ineluctably pursued by humans, and that’s the pursuit of meaning…knowing what your highest strengths are and deploying them in the service of something larger than you are” (226)

According to scientists, it is within our left brain hemisphere that we hold the memories that give us a sense of self. It is our right brain hemisphere that is in charge of driving our need for meaning and somehow functions in a way that can contribute to a very real feeling of being connected to something larger than who we are.

Often, our brain is filled with messages that can keep us from feeling good about ourselves or connected with others. That is where “The Work” developed by Byron Katie comes in to play.

The work begins with a brief journaling exercise focused on judgmental thoughts. We focus on what we don’t like about our job, our friend, our parent, our spouse, our boss. A good place to start is just with anyone or anything who angers, saddens or disappoints you. Through a series of questions, Katie invites us to explore that situation more deeply, writing down why we feel that way (“I’m angry at my boss because….”), and writing down how we want the person to change or things in the situation to be different.

Then the work really begins with a reflection on four question on each of the judgments we have made:

1. Is it true?

2. Can you absolutely know that it is true? (what is the evidence? What are the facts?)

3. How do you react when you think that thought?

4. Who would you be without that thought?

As you can see from questions #3 and #4, The Work is about helping us recognize that our unhappiness is within us and our own thinking.

For more on The Work, visit Katie’s Web site: http://www.thework.com/index.php

Interestingly, the work that Pink suggests we do to get into our right brain and begin to experience a quieting of our left brain thoughts is to walk the labyrinth. He suggests that the popularity of this spiritual practice is on the rise these days as another sign of the coming age of right-brain cultural dominance (they are even appearing in medical centers). To find a labyrinth near you, visit the Web site of The Labyrinth Society at http://labyrinthsociety.org/

I hope you have a life filled with many happy moments!

Katie, B. (2002). Loving what is. New York, NY: Three Rivers.

Pink, D. (2006). A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. New York, NY: Riverhead.

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