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How consistency can make you happier.

How consistency can make you happier.

For years, I’ve watched movies (and streaming series) for their psychological value. It is well known that most of us love protagonists who demonstrate good character and find ourselves rooting for the “good guys” to win in the end. But lately, I’ve been fascinated with the observation that we can also get addicted to characters that are scary or evil and despite the bad feelings they engender in us, we can’t seem to stop watching. Are we hoping that things turn out OK in the end? Or is it something else that keeps us watching the numerous dark shows that are so popular in today’s media-filled world?

I have a theory that the part of our brain that studies frightening things is the part that gets addicted and watches horrible things unfold with a specific motive in mind. Maybe our minds are creatively designed to help us be alert to danger and therefore searches for the worst stimuli just in case it happens to us or someone we love? It is well known in modern psychology that our brains have a “negativity bias” that seeks out and attends to signs of danger and the media knows this about us. It explains why I love shark week and can often be found studying shark behavior or rescue survival stories at sea. After all, my husband and I are sailors and take our boat to the islands every other year and it’s given me time to think about what could happen to us. For example, I know how to identify different kinds of sharks, how they behave, when they might strike and which ones are likely to do so. I also know how to modify my own behavior to react to sharks if they get interested. Since I’ve actually found myself snorkeling yards away from a bull shark recently, it makes sense that I’d want to be prepared! 

But here’s the rub. If I spend countless hours pondering about what MIGHT happen in the future, which can turn into obsessive worrying, I could end up making my mind quite unhappy and burn negative neural pathways in my brain networks while I’m at it. After watching a movie about a couple lost at sea on a sailboat recently, I literally spent hours in bed that week thinking about all the things I would have done differently, what safety items we need to buy for the boat to prevent certain mishaps and even wandering off to a plethora of other crazy things we know can happen at sea. The trouble is, most of the things we imagine might happen, never really happen. As such, I’m forced to admit that I’ve spent countless hours perseverating about things that are actually very rare occurrences. And making my own internal unhappiness in the present moment as a result. 

To be fair, there are certainly some good things that come out of this practice too, so I’m not minimizing it entirely. Some of the time I’ve spent studying potential dangers could actually save our lives if something does happen. But I’d be wise to look at the odds first. For example, people who fear flying are completely missing the data that would help them understand that flying is much safer than getting in our car and driving to the grocery store. Those odds can be helpful in determining what’s worth researching more, right? 

Another past time of the wandering mind is that it often likes to replay the past. There are two sides to this coin as well. If we spend hours and hours in regret about the past, feeling shame about mistakes, thinking about how we envy others who have done what we haven’t or wishing our life circumstances had started out better, then we’ve lost a lot of the time we might have invested in changing what we can do something about - right now. While it can be quite beneficial to learn how to process old suppressed emotions that are stuck in our psyche, simply ruminating about them can make our current mind very unhappy. In fact, fears that become obsessive can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that almost guarantees our failure in the present moment. Consistently negative thinking is likely to produce consistently negative results. 

Many modern-day mindfulness experts tell us that focusing our thoughts and mind in the present moment is the path to happiness and fulfillment. Meditation and mindfulness practices are designed to train the mind to be still. Be alert to the present and increase well being. It turns out that modern science is validating this theory too. Harvard psychologists, Matthew Killingworth and Daniel Gilbert have reported in their research that subjects spend 47% of their time pondering things that are not happening in the immediate moment and that most of this time is reported as unhappy. Wow. Our day-dreaming isn’t as much about what might make us happy, it’s actually about what isn’t making us happy! It’s more often about what we don’t have.  I’ve often thought that regrets about the past and fretting about the future seem to dominate a lot of our default rumination time, so this syncs with what I’ve observed in myself too. 

Ancient wisdom practices center around training our wandering minds (sometimes called our monkey-mind) by focusing on bringing our attention back to the present moment. Our minds like to wander and most of that time is spent randomly thinking about the past or imagining the future. The problem is that much of that time is about regrets, concerns, sadness, worry, anger, frustration and other things stimulated by fear. Just like our antagonist characters in movies and shows, those that perpetrate evil always seem to represent the worst traits in us because they are internally dominated by fear (to an extreme). They take out those fears on those characters who seem to have what they do not. Beauty, power, status, prestige, social popularity, attention, safety, love, fame, or money. The point I’m trying to make is that if much of our time is spent thinking about the past and the future, this unfocused investment of time may be the culprit that triggers the worst traits in us. After all, we cannot do much to alter the past or change the future if we are just thinking. What truly drives our happiness (and self-respect) is being immersed in doing something of value right now, in the present moment. The only thing we have some consistent control over is what we choose to do right now, in this moment. 

The Default Network in our wandering brain is not a bad thing, don’t get me wrong. This meandering of thought is where our creative insights originate. Like everything else, however, it could be important to notice and train the mind to reduce certain kinds of default thinking that are fear-based. That’s where consistent self-awareness comes in. If we notice ourselves spending too much time in unhappy thoughts about the past or future, we can consistently and gently bring ourselves back to right now. Or if we are taking in too much negative media, maybe we can be alert enough to just stop and move on to something more productive. That may be the most important brain training of all. Notice the productivity or counter-productivity of our ruminations and day-dreaming, then gently bring the mind back into focus in the moment. Then ask - what can I do in this moment to produce something good? Even that small change, consistently applied, can dramatically change your relationship with yourself - and thus the world. Smile while you shift gears, and that will make you happier too.