In part 3 of these Happiness blogs, we saw some of the processes that modern Positive Psychology has found to increase Happiness. There are three things that have been shown to change the way the ‘Elephant’ relates to the ‘Rider’ (Happiness 1 – 3). They are meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac. We added in two therapies from a Herbalist’s point of view: Medicinal Mushrooms and Flower Essences.
Many religions and traditions throughout history have incorporated meditation into a person’s daily practice. I have used it as a fundamental part of my personal routine since I was 15 years old. There are many types of meditation, but at their core they strive to have a person focus attention in a non-analytical way. This is done either through sitting still, or some pre-prescribed form of exercise. Awareness is focused on breathing, or a word (mantra), image, or movement. This on the surface seems quite easy, but it often takes weeks, if not months, before a person can get into the ‘flow’ of the meditation. The goal is to change the automatic thought process, thereby taming (training) the elephant. The proof of the taming is the breaking of attachments. This brings us to one of the statement from the Dali Lama in our first blog on Happiness:
“I believe compassion to be one of the few things we can practice that will bring immediate and long-term happiness to our lives.”
For Buddhists, attachments are like a game of roulette in which someone else spins the wheel and the game is rigged: The more you play, the more you lose. The only way to win is to step away from the table. And the only way to step away, to make you not react to the ups and downs of life, is to meditate and tame the mind. Although you give up the pleasure of winning, you also give up the larger pain of losing.
Meditation tames and calms the elephant. Meditation done every day for several months can substantially reduces fearful, negative and grasping thoughts. This in turn improves the one’s affective style, or the way you approach life.
Buddha said: When a man knows the solitude of silence and feels the joy of quietness, he is then free from fear and sin.”
After a person has meditated regularly for several months it can be seen on brain scans, lighting up the same centre for happiness in the brain. It is sustainably increasing in brightness, and the more a person meditates it becomes easier to get into that state, because the elephant is trained.
Meditation has been traditionally an Eastern way of approaching this state of Happiness, but has now been employed by many in the West since the 60’s. During that same era, Aaron Beck started developing cognitive therapy. Beck was a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, who was trained in the Freudian psychoanalytical approach. He found that it was not as effective for his patients as he would like. So he took a new approach; instead of re-hashing old thoughts and behaviors from childhood, he got his patients to catch and challenge negative thoughts. This did not sit well with many of his Freudian colleagues who though he was treating symptoms instead of the real cause of the problem. But it didn’t take long before he could prove his form of cognitive therapy was very effective for treating depression, anxiety and many other problems.
As we saw in earlier blogs, the conscious mind (the rider) often uses reason not to find the truth, but to invent arguments to support our deep and intuitive beliefs (residing in the elephant). From depressed people Beck describes a ‘cognitive triad’.
- I’m no good
- My world is bleak
- My future is hopeless
A depressed person’s mind is automatically filled with thoughts supporting these dysfunctional beliefs, especially when things appear to be going wrong. These distorted thoughts are similar across patients. Beck called these cognitive processes ‘personalization’, ‘overgeneralization’, ‘magnification’ and ‘arbitrary inference’. These make a depressed person get caught in a feedback loop of distorted thoughts causing negative feelings, which of course distort thinking further. Beck’s break-through was to stop the cycle by changing the thoughts. The client is trained to catch their thoughts, write them down, name the distortion and find an alternative and more accurate way of thinking. Over a period of several weeks the client’s thoughts become more realistic and the feedback loops are broken. This will result in the cycles of anxiety or depression being significantly reduced.
This type of therapy works because it gets the rider (conscious mind) to train the elephant instead of trying to defeat it with logical arguments that the elephant can’t understand in the first place. At first of course the rider does not know that elephant is controlling him, that it is really the elephant’s fears and dislikes that are driving his conscious thoughts. The thing is that in cognitive therapy, homework needs to be done daily (like meditation) instead of just visiting a therapist’s office once a week. The elephant can only learn by daily practice that goes on for more than the 21 days, but often for several weeks and even months. The practice has to become a habit. With each reframing and each simple task of accomplishment, the client receives a little reward in the form of dopamine with its flash of relief and pleasure. It is like training an elephant by giving it a peanut each time it does the trick right. You cannot win a tug-of-war with an angry or fearful elephant, but you can gradually reshape the behavior creating the automatic thoughts and affective style.
Cognitive therapy has been shown to achieve results faster than most other psychological therapies, producing sustainable results even after the client stops the daily exercise once they have gone through the initial training stages. When done well, it has been shown to be as effective as drugs like Prozac for the treatment of depression. Besides, cognitive therapy does not have some of the side effects of Prozac, and it still works after the therapy, as the elephant has now been retrained. Prozac therapy only works while it is being taken, with the behaviours coming back after a month or so of stopping the drug.
Of course there are many other forms of therapies that will fit specific people better than cognitive therapy, but it has shown a great track record.
Prozac is a member of a class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (or SSRIs). There are several others, such as Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, Lexapro and others. I am going to only use the name Prozac for simplicity, but I really mean all of the SSRI cousins. Probably the first thing we should state is that even though Prozac has been used since 1974, they still don’t know how it works! As the class indicates, it appears to affect the serotonin uptake at selective synapses. It results in increased serotonin within days, but the action takes at least 4 - 6 weeks (and sometimes longer) to be noticed by the consumer. Even though it is not known how it works, it can be used affectively in a variety of mental issues including depression, anxiety, panic attacks, social phobias, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, some eating disorders and some forms of obsessive compulsive disorder.
Prozac is controversial for several reasons. Some feel it is a short cut and it often changes the consumer’s personality dramatically (not always to the better). As a Herbalist I don’t really like the use of it, but have to concede this group has often saved the lives of many of my patients. I have seen significant improvement of many clients, so I would have to say I have a love/hate relationship with the SSRI. We suggest it should only be used for as short of a period as possible, with other strategies to replace its use. It can often do what no talk therapy can do, changing the person in as little as 5 weeks. What I object to is ‘cosmetic psychopharmacology’ where people take it just to have an upbeat personality. Often this will backfire somewhere down the line. If a person can take the time to do other work to train the elephant while on the SSRI, this is best.
Bottom line is, the SSRIs do not train the elephant, as evidenced by the fact that the person is back to the same place 5 weeks after stopping them. This usually means taking another form of the SSRI until they are all used up. These drugs appear to cage the elephant and make it so they cannot communicate with the rider, thus the rider appears to be in control until the drug does not work anymore. Often I have had patients state that it makes them feel they are cut off from the old self or even their spirit while on the SSRI, but at least they can function inside society. I feel that these ‘easy fixes’ are overprescribed.
Anyone who is familiar with my lectures or who has followed these blog for a while knows this is one of my favorite areas. Several of the medicinal mushrooms work on ‘calming down the rider’, but my favorite for this is certainly Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum). One of my beloved by-lines for Reishi is, “To protect an academic from their own brain”. Reishi is great for reducing circular arguments, getting a person out of the head (the rider) and into their body (elephant). It can be very specific for this, as it helps move a person’s center of gravity from the ‘head’ to the ‘heart’. I realize these are metaphors for moving from the linear logical world, into the non-linear emotional world, but the side effect is to make both the rider and the elephant become much more calm. It has often been said that Reishi is like an additional ½ hours worth of meditation a day.
Yes it works on the immune system, cardiovascular system, the liver and several other part of our body, as listed in other of my blogs, but ultimately its calming effect is its basic function. This effect helps the rider and the elephant create a flow, dance, or synchronized Tai Chi. This form of calming also is quite sustainable. It is nowhere as fast and as dramatic as the SSRIs, but retrains the elephant similar to meditation. The medicinal mushrooms in general, Reishi specifically, help a person ground, helping them keep their feet on the planet, instead of up in the clouds.
This too is an area of strong interest for me, being the subject of my last book, Flower Essence: Emotional Alchemy and Spiritual Evolution. Flower essences work on the much more subtle level of vibrational medicine. I have talked about them more extensively in other blogs. They work directly on the non-linear realms, communicating directly with the elephant. They can help train the elephant, but this time on very specific issues. You can use prepared formulas for depression, focus, SAD, anxiety, ADD, Insomnia, children’s anxieties, sensitivity and shielding, self esteem or addictions, but many create a specific customized formula. Often a person does both, because you can use up to five formulas at a time. By creating a custom formula, you determine the right flower essences to hone in on the issues that need to be trained in your elephant. One of the easiest ways to do this is by filling in a flower essence questionnaire, as found here. We usually use a specific formula for about a month or two, repeating the questionnaire each month to see if you need to change the blend. Through this method we can slowly change the way the elephant relates to the world, thus increasing our Happiness Levels. Often we keep one of the prepared formulas going at the same time. Each formula should be taken at least 5 – 15 minutes apart.
Again the function of flower essences is quite sustainable, as it retrains the elephant and as a bonus has no side effects. Consistency is important here; they need to be done 1 – 4 times daily (more if needed) for at least a month. Their action is quite fast, making dramatic changes in a person’s emotions within minutes. Increasing the amount of flower essence taken at each dosage does not increase their effectiveness, taking them more often does.
In this blog we have reviewed five different techniques to work on increasing a person’s Happiness Levels. In the next blog on Happiness we will conclude this area and look at the underlying phenomena that connects these techniques together. By seeing this, we will be able to get a better handle on how to create and sustain more Happiness in our lives.