September 9, 2018

A Game Played Between Our Ears


Shakespeare said, somewhere in there among the zillion good and incisive things he wrote that: “nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

It occurs to me upon reflection that a significant portion of our “troubles” as humans come not from actual events, but to our flawed reactions to them.

Sometimes, we suffer from the sheer power of our own imagination.

Think about it.

How many times have you gotten yourself angry about something that hadn’t even happened yet, but the very imagining of the unpleasant possibility had the power to make you miserable in advance! Chances are, despite the degree of your anger or fear, the imagined event never even materialized.

You can also think about the times at which you took offense at something somebody else did…. only to find out later that they either didn’t do (or say) what you thought they did…. or that they did, but you actually misconstrued their action. Despite being wrong…. despite the alleged offense being a figment of your imagination…. you suffered anyway.

Sound familiar?

It amazes me the way we can take an idea… a thought… something that is not a fact… and use it to torment ourselves. There’s an old line – supposedly spoken by Mark Twain that goes like this:

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of
them never happened.”

That sums it up for a lot of us. We have real troubles. And we have imaginary or self-inflicted ones. And the imaginary probably outweigh the real by a factor of 3 to 1.

What are the components of “happiness”? What is it that makes one person happy and content and another miserable?

If you’ve given this any real thought – including turning the micro-scope on yourself and analyzing your own experiences – you might have already come to the conclusion that it’s not a phenomenon built upon a platform of external circumstance.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of striving for some goal for years only to find the pleasure of achieving it fleeting…. or even empty. Or you’ve picked up the newspaper and read about someone who was “rich and famous” who’d just committed suicide and wondered why someone with “everything” would do such a thing.

It struck me long ago that happiness is something that happens between our ears. In other words, it’s not something that exists outside ourselves. It’s less our personal circumstances or the events happening around us that produce this desired emotional state, as it is the way we choose to react to those things.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a great book on this subject titled Flow. The book was written by a sociologist from MIT named Miyhali Csikszentmihali (I’m not kidding). His primary thesis is precisely the point made above: that happiness is something humans can teach themselves to manufacture:

“What I discovered was that happiness is not something that happens.
It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something
that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside
events, but rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a
condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately
by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be
able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of
us can come to being happy.”

Mr. C. (we’ll call him that from here on to save ink) went on to make a number of additional insightful points in his book, some of which are addressed below. But I think it’s worth sticking with this first idea for a while because it’s an elusive one. What he’s saying here is that:

1. Happiness is a state of mind….

2. It can exist regardless of external circumstances….

3. The ability to control one’s inner experience can be learned….

Mr. C. doesn’t claim that any of this is particularly easy. But I think the key point is that you can train yourself to be happier for more of the time by managing the real estate between your own ears more effectively.

Among other things, developing such a skill will require the ability to deny to the opinions of others the power to define one’s own personal reality. In a country as inundated as this one by an omnipresent popular media and entertainment nexus, this is no small task. It means remaining immune to the general outlook, the conventional wisdom, and the tidal surges of peer pressure. It also requires the ability to stay firmly in the saddle when external events and outcomes are not pleasant or in line with our plans and desires.

Mr. C. notes that: “pain and pleasure occur in consciousness and exist only there…. Each of us has the freedom to control our subjective reality.” He’s right of course.

Our happiness is built upon an internal foundation. That foundation – if faulty – can undermine the quality of our life. On the other hand, a little mental renovation can help create large and positive differences.