I am prompted to write more inspiration about mental fitness because it is sorely needed these days. Covid19 has caused a large surge in depression and anxiety, and in the US at least we have an opioid crisis that has been called an epidemic. It is important to start by recommending that anyone with mental health issues see a healthcare professional, I am certainly not competent to give therapeutic advice. But mental fitness techniques like mindfulness and meditation can augment professional therapy. And many of those of us that are clinically normal can still stand to be happier. There was a famous quote from Freud that the purpose of therapy is to cure our neuroses so that we can achieve “ordinary human unhappiness”. Dr. Martin Seligman concurs in this Ted talk, saying that for much of its history psychotherapy has had the aim of making “miserable people less miserable”. Fortunately, there is now a field of positive psychology founded by Dr. Seligman. But just as it takes motivation to get off the couch and out the door to work on physical fitness, mental fitness requires the motivation for concerted effort.
There is a bestselling book “10% Happier” by Dan Harris about how he was helped by techniques like meditation and mindfulness. It’s highly entertaining and inspiring, Dan has had a very interesting life including being a war correspondent in Iraq. But I couldn’t help but feel he undersold the benefits of mental fitness in the title. I don’t know that I’d bother if it was only going to make me 10% happier. But here are the benefits he claims: “how I tamed the voice in my head, reduced stress without losing my edge, and found self-help that actually works”. Mental fitness has helped me in a similar way, but I’d say it has thereby made me a lot more than 10% happier. I was trying to put a number on it (twice as happy, three times?) and realized that the main result is that I am happy by default. Let me explain.
For most of us, happiness varies over time, like this:
When things are going our way, we’re happy, when they’re not, we’re depressed. The term “mood swings” describes this well. For people with bipolar disorder, the swings are more dramatic, resulting in alternations of manic phases and severely depressed phases. But for most people, the swings can still be pretty large, like the difference between the feeling at happy hour Friday night compared to Monday morning.
One of the first things mental training can do is make us more “even-keeled”, so the happiness variation looks more like this:
This is better, but we can still get “down in the dumps” when things are not going our way.
The next step is to raise our baseline of happiness so it is always “above zero”, which is what I mean in the title by “happy by default”:
Of course, even for the “mentally fit”, major life events like getting laid off from work or the loss of a loved one can still make us unhappy, but day to day occurrences like getting stuck in traffic or getting the shopping cart with the bad wheel, or the status of the stock market, are no longer enough to cause unhappiness.
It was not always this way for me. My happy-to-depressed swings used to be pretty large, like the first picture. This was especially true when I was stressed-out working for a startup. Then after I got serious about meditation and mindfulness I had more “evenness of mind” like the second picture, but could still cross over into unhappiness. I remember at those times I didn’t always like practicing mindfulness, because I’d be “down” in the present moment so it was unpleasant. Now I’m pretty much always happy.
A major factor is calming the recently-discovered default mode of the brain that is chattering away at us all day, and not always kindly or positively. This is what Dan calls “taming the voice in our heads”. There is a great description of this voice in the book The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael Singer, where he compares the voice to an unruly roommate. When our chattering brain is quieter by default we are less reactive, less likely to “fly off the handle”, and able to see things in better perspective. Another main reason is no longer looking for happiness in the wrong places, like material pleasures. I talked previously about discerning the difference between what leads to short-term pleasure and long-term, genuine happiness. This is a major theme in all spiritual traditions. If this motivates you to get started, I talk about some techniques here. I also recommend the book “Buddha’s Brain” by Rick Hanson. This shows the agreement between Buddhist insight into self-transformation and recent findings in psychology and neuroscience, and teaches a lot of useful techniques and guided meditations.