The horrifying truth about happiness

smiley face cartoonEver been wrong? I don’t mean “oops” wrong, but completely, horribly, soul scorchingly WRONG? If logic loops and paradoxes are sure signs of a stale paradigm, what happens when our current model for the understanding and pursuit of happiness stumbles headlong into both? Well, dear readers, as you’ll discover below, the answer is anything but pretty…

smiley face When you read any recent scientific article/paper/post about happiness, a common link shines through. Whether describing hedonistic (drugs, alcohol, the ingestion or wearing of whipped cream) or eudonic (volunteering, goal meeting, exercising talents) rewards, there’s always the same sentence squeezed in somewhere: “… causes certain chemicals to be released in the brain.” AHA! Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two and two together. The conclusion is obvious: happiness is a function of neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, etc.). So logically, everything we do, from pouring ourselves a glass of wine after work, gunning for that promotion, taking SSRIs for depression, getting a pineal gland buzz from meditation, to tying ourselves up in faux-fur, is done in dedicated service to that one magical organ – the brain – and its darling little chemical messengers.

Why do people ‘get off’ on different things? Depending on our genetics and environment, we learn to respond to (and thereby pursue) a unique set of glamours, insatiables, and be-all-end-alls. Innate personal activation energy thresholds and social/cultural vulnerabilities help determine whether we end up junkies, or well-coiffed queens of the PTA. Simple enough… or so it seemed until I, young, naive, and as intellectually masochistic as Newton probing behind his own eyeball, decided to test this theory on myself.

Logic loop: If happiness is a modulation of our neurotransmitter levels, and the brain is wired for efficiency, why are all these idiots jogging when they can be…

Within a surprisingly short amount of time I found myself too fat for anything but my Viking man’s track pants, lying spread-eagle with a bad back on a candy wrapper covered carpet, watching reality TV reruns while doped up on a nauseating (not to mention dangerous!) cocktail of alcohol, muscle relaxants, Gravol, painkillers, and – just for good measure – marijuana. Happy? Not so much. Solution? I figured all I had to do was switch my primary goal to longevity, rather than happiness, and train myself on a compatible new set of glamours and insatiables. Since I was already living in a Viable World without heroin (I had to draw the line somewhere!), couldn’t I just exclude my problem glamours from my viable world?

Paradox 1: If food is one of my insatiables, and there can be no viable world without food, how do I escape the efficiency logic loop that led directly to the track pants?

Paradox 2: In a world where there are people who fear public speaking more than death, how can a prefrontal cortex goal of longevity overcome eons of limbic evolution and enforce the pursuit of less than maximum-by-the-moment happiness?

What’s the horrifying truth about happiness? It’s that so many of us have gotten it all WRONG! Solution? Full mind/body/spirit paradigm change. F*ck neurotransmitters! Let’s explore how to live with the brain, not for the brain! Curious? Let me introduce you to systems theory’s naughty little kid sister: Pragmatic System State Theory.

Negotiate your humanity using a limbic mascot

fun vice cartoonWe all have a Mitch-the-insatiable-itch. Yours may have a different name, or set of genitalia, but we all need a way to negotiate with our brain’s limbic system – our emotional selves. Science has found that our prefrontal cortex, our ‘rational’ brain, is second in command to our limbic system. Our conscious selves are gatekeepers ever struggling to hold back the dopamine wielding forces of our emotionally charged motivations and temptations. Brain scans can reveal a decision up to 7 seconds before you consciously decide! Of course, this shouldn’t come as any surprise to those of us who have ever sat down, rolled up our sleeves, and inhaled an entire pizza. Either we were so wasted we’d already locked out our prefrontals, or we were actually able to rationalize this act of symphonic gluttony. Scary thought either way! And for those of us who have never adopted a rigid set of internal regulations (hello anyone creative, oh, and anyone madly in love), we so often sabotage ourselves by being able to effortlessly ‘rationalize’ the most absurd glamours, insatiables, and be-all-end-alls.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. When the Calgary Flames are down 5-1 in the third, and Harvey the Hound is still dancing manically in the stands, drumming up a rallying cry from the crowd… sometimes a mascot is our last best hope for survival. A limbic mascot is a visual thinking tool that can be used to help create a subtle separation, a space for negotiation, between our emotions and our intellectual reasoning. To ensure we stay faithful to our long term goals, we often (hourly unless you’re one of the lucky ones) need to challenge the urgency and importance of short term impulses that are demanding (and I do mean demanding) attention and satiation. A limbic mascot can serve as an entity of attribution that allows you to make these conscious intellectual challenges without directly attacking your ego.

Mitch-the-insatiable-itch is my limbic system middle-man. He’s ever-present in Blank Canvas Living’s sidebar, and he’s even snuck his way into one or two posts. The petulant little darling is all belly and cute pink package. Go ahead and read in a light dose of Freudian penis envy – but they really are such fun. He has a perpetual indignant frown and fingers for pointing at what he wants, but no real mouth. He leaves all the verbalization, rationalization, and justification to the prefrontal side of the equation. He’s a master of the ever-so-seductive myth of “this is the last time.” I love the little guy, even though his ear horns mean he’s rarely sitting on the angel side of my shoulder.

I’m so curious, dear readers, what would your limbic system mascot look like?

Viable Worlds Theory – Why philosophy is more than mental masturbation

socrates greek philosopher cartoonThe successful survival of our species has always depended on pattern prediction. We model our brains and our behaviours on the patterns we experience and adopt as truth. We then fit new information into these existing structures that dictate our interpretations and attentions. The following three basic patterns found throughout nature easily illustrate this precept:

1) Sequences – From ’rounding the bases’ while dating to predicting the sequence of seasons/weather for agriculture
2) Branched Hierarchies – From attention priority scales (eg: run from wasp – run screaming from bee) to societal/job roles
3) Networks – From understanding our interaction within ecosystems to Richard Branson’s business success

Countless patterns, many coded within our own bodies, can be translated from micro through to macro: torus energy fields, gravity, the golden mean, crystallography… etc. How many humans have devoted their lives to finding the ‘one governing pattern behind everything’? Although this one-ring-to-rule-them-all search is undoubtedly a noble, and most exquisitely human, cause (and who am I to say it can’t be done!), I propose we lay out on the grass with Socrates and take a bit of a breather.

Socrates had the balls to confess his truth, that “all I know is that I know nothing.” In his classical world, full of proportions and ethical theorizing, this was a tantalizingly provocative admission. But in our globalized, overly connected, overly rationalized, universe, we can’t all just wander around in loosely draped robes getting into philosophical debates with handsome younger, and powerful older, men – although I’ve pretty much just described my idea of heaven. We have to be a tad more, dare I say, pragmatic about things. Yes, James and Kierkegaard were on the right track, but I propose we push their philosophies even further…

The Viable Worlds Theory

First of all, we need the scientific method to adapt to the 21st century. It was all fine and good for the Enlightenment, and even for Kant’s obsessive categorizing. But truisms are so, like, pre-Edwardian. Wake up people! Even fashion’s gone individual! We need to drop the attention directing ‘hypothesis’, and demand ‘conclusion statements’ that include multiple interpretations of the data set. Let’s pass our results around to different faculties, post them on social media for public interpretation, and get correlation perspectives from a wide variety of personal paradigms.

But how do we function, let alone thrive, in a world of such unfathomable complexity? How can we have faith in faith when we accept the validity of all? Do we have to put ourselves through the strictest asceticism, like Gautama Buddha and Martin Luther, before we reach enlightenment? Or get all uppity like, and I type this with utmost respect, Muhammad and Confucius? Just relax, I’ve got good news for you. You’re already living in your own viable world.

Whether you define your core as your pineal gland, your sub or straight-up conscious mind, or the surface of your skin, your individual viable world (your personal paradigm) extends outwards through (as many as you believe exist) dimensions from this point all the way to the edge of the universe – wherever you understand that edge to be. This is your reality, and all your patterns, values, and decisions will be guided by this framework. As unromantic as it may sound, every human is essentially living in their own world. I believe we have an intuitive sense of this principle – just look at the language we use: “living in his own little world”, “welcome to my world”, “it was like stepping into another world.” I’m not going to go all Chomsky on you and insist that language is in itself a philosophical proof, but the lingo is undoubtedly interesting.

Just as so many genes in your DNA can be switched on or off, so to can you negotiate with your viable world. The success of any system, from skin cell to Wall Street, is directly proportional to its ability to regenerate, adapt, and accommodate. These three factors are your go-to checklist for evaluating the personalization of your own viable world. Slow healing/regeneration = change your diet. New boss at work = adapt your priority scale. Just married a writer = accommodate or die. Let’s not forget that we are a social and inherently ambitious species. By comparing our world with the worlds (as expressed and experienced) around us, we can alter our own to best serve our purposes and fulfill the full potential of our preciously unique genetic code.

People who are depressed live in a bleak, unforgiving world because their internal landscape has become bleak and unforgiving. People suffering from cleanliness OCD are, quite literally, living in a world with more germs than the rest of us. All the sufferer’s interpretations, actions, and attentions are in response to this paradigm. Psychopaths think we’re weak, inferior, and sacrificial – of course they do! In their world, wouldn’t you?

What about faith? In my world, my faith is the only truth, stretching from my core out to the edges of my universe. Interacting with people in parallel worlds of faith is a spiritual joy. Other faiths? Other worlds. All viable. All valid. I dare you to have the kind of balls that Socrates dared to parade through the streets of Athens. I dare you to really think about what the viable worlds theory could mean for our global economy/society.

Instead of asking yourself, “What kind of person do I want to be.”

Dare to ask, “What kind of world do I want to live in?”

Whatever you are doing at this exact moment is exactly what you want to be doing

office cartoonI know you don’t believe me, especially if you’re tied to a computer when it’s a cartoon beautiful day outside or you’re just about to do the dishes. But think about it. Your brain is an incredibly efficient piece of equipment. Its network of neural linkages is structured according to genetics and interwoven according to experience. You think you have to go to work. You think you have to do the dishes. But if you didn’t want to, you wouldn’t do it. Plain and simple.

Our rational mind, our prefrontal cortex, is essentially in service to our limbic system. This reptilian, emotional center is the influencing force on the parameters of our logic and ensuing rational arguments. Brain scans show that a decision can be predicted up to 7 full seconds before our conscious minds become aware of the outcome. Consciousness is the gatekeeper, and final reasoning checkpoint before we act. Self is the entire system acting together.

Your alarm goes off… “Oh gawd I don’t want to go to work!” So why do you get up? You want to maintain and support your social relationships. You want to get your paycheck so you can keep your house and enjoy the security and pride of ownership. You want to keep your car so you have the freedom of travel and mobility (I happen to be a renter who takes the bus… sigh, but the same theory holds).

Addiction and trauma can skew the system, and if you find yourself saying “I don’t want to be doing this but I can’t stop,” what you can do is stop kidding yourself. If your dopamine/reward system is getting-off on a behaviour, well, that’s the very definition of ‘want’. OCD is another example. If your limbic fear control is overreacting, it will, ever so desperately, ‘want’ relief. Own that want. I know the word gets a bad rap in our culture, but there should be no shame in admitting the truth when it can give you the power you need to start making real changes in your life.

Admitting that your adopted value system and priority scale dictate your decisions, and not some external taskmaster forcing you to keep plodding away on some determinist treadmill, will help put your world back into your hands. Changing the language that traps us in our logic loops is the first step in the challenging process of changing those worlds.