Happiness Part 3: How to Train the Elephant

In the last two blogs we have been looking at Happiness, trying to create a model for it and of course learning how to obtain an abundance of it in our lives. Research basically has shown us that:

“Happiness is both an action and a result. According to current research, happiness is made up of:

1. 50% genetics

2. 10 – 20% life circumstances, such as age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, income, health, occupation, and religious affiliation

3. The rest is how a person thinks and acts.”

Some researchers have created this into a formula:

H(appiness) = S(etpoint, genetics) + C(onditions) + V(oluntary activities)

It was shown that: The decisions a person makes on how to live their lives is the strongest factor in effecting their happiness.

In the last blog we used an example of a human being similar to a rider on the back of an elephant. Most of us put too much importance on the rider, but we are really made up of the elephant and the rider. Most pop psychology is focused on the rider, by guiding it into cognitive insights and reframing its thoughts. Yet once these insights are put into action they very rarely are still functioning 2 – 3 months later. You are often back doing the same things you where when you started. The thing is that the rider really can’t just change the direction the elephant is heading by pure will power. The rider just doesn’t have that authority. Lasting changes have to come from retraining the elephant.

The programs that seem to have lasting effects on a person’s happiness take the initial insight and involve the elephant long enough to retrain it. It has often been shown it takes at least 21 days to create a habit. This is why it often takes up to a month to head the elephant in the direction you want it headed. We will look at this in more detail later in our next blog.

The basic problem is the elephant in many people naturally tends toward worry and pessimism, not happiness. There are some very significant biological and even survival reasons behind this. Remember the elephant does not really have the sophisticated language and logic skills of the rider. It cannot string together rationalizations. Its basic function can be coined as a Like-O-Meter. It either ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’ something or ‘approaches’ or ‘withdraws’ from something. This comes from the evolution of the most primitive organisms. From go to stop, and eat or don’t eat; these binary functions guide most of the behavior of the elephant. If a monkey tastes some fruit the like-o-meter registers ‘I like it’; there is pleasure derived from the fruit so it eats on. If it tastes bitter, the flash of displeasure makes the monkey throw it away. There is no need to go into the long pros and cons of the reasoning system. Just like and dislike.

We have an ongoing like-o-meter also. These decisions are often made in microseconds, as several studies have shown. One such study had people focusing on a dot in the center of a computer screen, with a word flashing over the dot every few seconds. They had to decide if the word was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘dislikeable’ (death, tyranny, boredom). Quite straightforward, but unbeknownst to the participants the computer flashed another word for a few hundredths of a second before the word being rated. These instant flashed words were subliminal, (way below the observer level of awareness). The intuitive system (elephant) is so fast that it picked up the words without the rider even knowing it. This influenced the ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’, or the time it takes to make a decision on the word they were meant to evaluate. The thing is, we respond to the ‘negative’ words faster and for a longer period of time than the positive words. Why?

This insight has shown researchers we can by-pass the rider and talk directly to the elephant; and what was discovered was a bit disturbing to some. The elephant has all kinds of preprogramed biases that the rider might consider not to be politically correct. There is an interesting experiment you can take on www.projectimplicit.com. It can show you what your biases are for skin color, religion, sexual bias, etc. It does this by bypassing your conscious rider and asking the elephant. Yes, you can do it anonymous if you desire. You might be surprised at what you will find out.

Some of these underlying biases can have a strong influence on how we view the world around us. If we want to enjoy the world more, we need to know we usually can’t change the world, so we have to change ourselves; and that of course means retraining the elephant. The thing is for most people; the elephant often sees more bad things faster than it sees good things.

Now from a biological point of view this makes sense. All animals need to respond to threats faster than they need to respond to opportunities. If an animal misses the odd opportunity to feed, or mate, it is not that disastrous. There will most likely be more opportunities in the future. If they miss a threat, they are likely to become the food and it is game over, end of the line for those genes. These biases seem to be hard-wired into a stronger response to bad than good. Some of these biases can be trained out, while others cannot. Our responses to a threat and unpleasantness are faster and stronger than our response to opportunities and pleasure.

The reason why our ‘dislike’ or ‘withdrawal system’ is so quick and compelling is that it gets first crack at the incoming information. All neural impulses from the eyes and ears go first to the thalamus, a sort of central switching station for the brain. From here, the neural impulses are sent to their special sensory processing areas in the cortex. The impulses are then relayed to the frontal cortex, where they are integrated with higher mental processes and into our stream of consciousness (the rider). Lets say at the end of this process you recognize the hissing of a snake. You could signal your legs to run away (withdrawal) to protect yourself. Neural impulses travel about 30 meters per second, then there is the decision-making to conclude with a 1 – 2 second delay before you can decide to withdrawal. This delay can in some cases mean bad injury or even death. For this reason there is a shortcut. The amygdala sits right below the thalamus where it dips into the river of unprocessed information flowing through the thalamus. If it perceives a pattern of danger, it will trigger an immediate ‘fight-or-flight response’ before the higher centers even know what is going on. The elephant responds to threat way faster than the rider even knows there is a threat.

You have felt this happen in real life and moviemakers love to play this up especially in horror movies. The amygdala has already created a response in the first tenth of a second, clearly 10 to 20 times faster than the rider perceives it. This ‘red alert’ system has kept the elephant alive throughout the evolutionary process, for a long time. The thing is that the amygdala does not have a ‘green light’ alert system for happiness and pleasure. These decisions can wait a second or two. The rider can tell itself all it wants about not being afraid of snakes, but if the elephant has a fear of snakes, then it reacts every time unless it is trained out.

The amygdala doesn’t just reach down the brainstem to trigger a response to danger, but it reaches up to the frontal cortex to change our thinking. It shifts the whole brain into a withdrawal orientation. This can create an anxiety that raises filters to make you see the world as an aggressive place. The feeling of sadness blinds you to all the pleasures and opportunities. Or as Shakespeare’s Hamlet says, ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” We might want to add that negative emotions make negative thinking, which makes everything bad.

So at this point, what are the most effective ways to change ones affective style – to train the elephant – so we can move more into happiness? There are three methods that have been found by modern positive psychology researchers in Happiness: meditation, cognitive therapy and Prozac (and its SSRI cousins). From a herbalist point of view, I would like to add Flower Essences, and some of the Medicinal Mushrooms.

In our next blog we will look at these and the pros and cons of these techniques.