Thursday, July 21, 2011


 “Our purpose in life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment.”  ~ Dalai Lama

As I have been contemplating the concept of happiness, I came across a wonderful article in a psych newsletter called, "Three Neuroscience Findings on Happiness – Is It an Option?"

Here’s the kicker:  Our brains are designed (hard-wired) for happiness.  It’s not just a choice!  Doesn’t that just fly in the face of what you’ve read and heard about happiness?  “You just have to make up your mind to be happy…etc.”  Ugh.

This new understanding of the plasticity of the brain is almost incomprehensible.  The implications are “mind-blowing”.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.)  It sounds like a very positive discovery that will help millions of people understand that happiness is an important goal in life and within their grasp.  It is a matter of knowing how to use our emotions to promote happiness that support and repair the neural connections in our brains.

One breakthrough finding in this research is that the brain has a high degree of plasticity.  Not only can it repair what was broken, but it can also increase abilities not previously existent!  Now that is amazing.  Knowing these facts engenders the questions:  How can this be accomplished?  By what process?

According to this recent discovery in psychology research, we need fear in order to reach happiness.  (??!)  Fear, apparently, is key to working with other negative emotions, to make sense of our past and our present and ultimately help us heal!  Without fear and negative emotions, we are not able to reach the happiness we desire.  (Sounds like a refiner’s fire to me…  Or the old saying, "You can't know happiness without knowing unhappiness.")

However, as with most breakthroughs, there is usually a downside:  this ability for creating plasticity only works for the healthy brain.  What about damaged brains?  There have been cases where people have regained a certain portion of their previous abilities.  And that is encouraging.  But they cannot create new functions in their brains.

What about others who suffer from serious mental disorders?  Well, we know one thing for sure, that the longer you suffer from anxiety and depression, the more your brain is damaged.  That is why it is so crucial, so helpful to diagnose and treat people when they are young—or as soon as possible.  Research has shown that, while neural connections can be, or at least try to regenerate in the brain (as with other neurological degenerative disorders such as MS), when it comes to major depression, when neurons are damaged, they do not seem to replicate or repair at all.  (Against Depression, Dr. Peter Kramer)  And THAT’s depressing.

Most people don’t seem to realize, not even many people in the profession of counseling and psychology, that major depression (clinical depression) is a progressive neurological disorder.  What makes it better?  Nothing that we know of.  However, the right medications and nutrition/exercise can at least ARREST or slow down the progression of neural destruction in the part of the brain that affects depression.  Yet, if you’re majorly depressed, the chances of being motivated to do more than pop some pills is low to nil for most people.  While depressives' abilities vary, they are often shunned, feared, and judged—and those very things, by the way, can create stress in the depressed person, often exacerbating their depression.  Being in society can become a vicious cycle under those conditions.

When it comes to using our fears to find happiness, which suggests at least a few trials running the gamut of negative emotions, we are subjecting ourselves to stress.  According to Dr. Kramer (and a ton of research), one of the most damaging things to the depressed brain is stress.  Therefore, people with clinical depression need to stay away from stress.  Mmmmm….imagine a life like that.  Is it reasonable to expect that we will never again feel stress?  And when depressives take steps to avoid stress, they are, again, often judged.

We know so little about mental illness, it is a “plastic” ;0) science.  Nevertheless, lately there do seem to be many breakthroughs in understanding that mental illness is really the outward display of inward anguish in great part caused by a physical dysfunction.  Therefore, these two aspects, the mental and physical, are often interconnected and must be considered when treating major depression and other serious mental illnesses.

Ever heard of anyone cured of bi-polar disorder?  Or personality disorders?  When it comes to other disorders like panic, anxiety, or depressive disorders, ever wonder why some people get better and some don’t?  It is very tempting to put the blame on either the therapist and/or the client.  Easy to judge.  However, if you can conceive of damaged brains or damaged genes, the blame needs placement elsewhere.

I think the discovery of how plastic our brains are and how plasticity works will open the doors to many wonderful new therapies and concepts.  I feel compelled to add, however, that progress on new discoveries is usually slowed down by ignorance, suspicion, disbelief, and difficulty changing the old ways of doing things in the mental health field.  This is especially true when working in a mental health community center or a similar type of organization.  It takes time to revamp the minds and the policy and procedures that are the product of “groupthink”.  In addition, most every organization gets tangled up in the business/money aspect that further complicates progress.

These reasons are why, personally, if I were younger, if I could ever work again, I would try my best to avoid working with a mental health organization.  (It goes against my nature, I think.)  Yes, there are downsides and difficulties to becoming an independent, but if a therapist is energetic, loves their field, has a supportive network, and is hungry for knowledge, they will be more likely to try hard to keep up with the newest discoveries and continually read and research, ultimately benefiting clients.  Those endeavors are urged upon all who enter the field of doing therapy (though, at my Alma mater, not nearly enough), but, as with many idealistic requests, it simply is not practical in most cases.  Therapists working in CMHC (community mental health centers) are usually salaried, overworked, and underpaid.  In many cases, therapists end up acting as social workers.  Finally, like teachers (with few exceptions) the good ones usually move on to better paying and rewarding work.

We now know that we are wired to want happiness and continually search for it.  I think that effectively discredits any philosophies and religions that have tried to deny man’s need for happiness as something to overcome, trade-off, and/or look forward to in the next life.  At any rate, research has shown that happy people are more productive and positive for the world.  The rest sounds like fairy tales to me.

A final thought:  Research has also shown that people who are mildly depressed (some would call them cynical) have greater abilities to see life’s realities and are useful in putting on the brakes to avoid disasters, among other things.  I guess the world needs all kinds.

So, what is real happiness?  What does it feel like?  And if we don’t have it, what are the repercussions?  Seeds of that discussion have already been planted in another post:  THE NATURE OF HAPPINESS.  See you there!


ladivamusika said...

The brain and mental illness has always been interesting to me. After a traumatic experience I suffered from PTSD and had periods where I couldn't leave the house. I never had issues before and I don't have issues then. It was always interesting to me that obviously my brain was damaged and it affected my behavior. Just so interesting...especially because it certainly drastically changed my personality. Still to this day. I don't suffer from PTSD or anxiety, but I know I'm not the same person as I was before. The brain is such an interesting organ.

I think more people would be able to reach their potential happiness if they changed their definition of happiness. That really seems to be the issue, in my experience anyway.

PSACHNO said...

I totally agree! Thanks for your post. PTSD does change a person. Like every experience, you are never quite the same, but if handled well you grow and become stronger. I am glad to hear that you came through that difficult time intact!

PSACHNO said...

You commented that most people would be happier if they changed their definition of happiness. That's pretty general...can you expand on that? Are you referring to "reframing?" Are their any limits to changing definitions? Are you saying that happiness is different to different people; or do you think that humans have some aspects in common?