Throughout your brain there is a collection of synapses separated by empty space called the synaptic cleft. Whenever you have a thought, one synapse shoots a chemical across the cleft to another synapse, thus building a bridge over which an electric signal can cross, carrying along its charge the relevant information you’re thinking about. It’s very similar to how nerves carry electric signals from a sensation in your toe all the way up to your brain where it’s actually “felt”.
Here’s the magic of it: Every time this electrical charge is triggered, the synapses grow closer together in order to decrease the distance the electrical charge has to cross. This is a microcosmic example of evolution, of adaptation. The brain is rewiring its own circuitry, physically changing itself, to make it easier and more likely that the proper synapses will share the chemical link and thus spark together – in essence, making it easier for the thought to trigger. Therefore, our thoughts reshape our brain, and thus are changing a physical construct of reality.
Beyond the absolutely incredible fact that your brain is always doing this, consistently shifting and morphing with every thought, even more exciting is the fact that the synapses you’ve most strongly bonded together (by thinking about more frequently) come to represent your default personality: your intelligence, skills, aptitudes, and most easily accessible thoughts (which are the source of conversation skills).
It’s important that one recognize that this obviously is not a fool proof practice that will completely eradicate negativity from our consciousness; sometimes emotion weighs too heavily and sometimes the chemical charge you catch will be the negative one; but, like any muscle, if you exercise those loving synapses enough, you will find yourself in possession of a new innate strength that will make the world shine more beautifully far more frequently. You will also find yourself being far more happy because of better health too.
If there’s any ability that truly separates us from our primate ancestors, it’s that of imagination. Imagination lets us live in the past and in the future, and by escaping the present moment we can use our memories of the past to predict what will happen in the future; this is so instinctual we don’t even recognize it’s constantly happening with every symbol that we’re perceiving in our day-to-day moments. But it is this ability that allows us to navigate the complexity of our world. Even more exciting is the fact that this skill also works with emotions, not just situations.
When we see someone experiencing an emotion (be it anger, sadness, happiness, etc), our brain “tries out” that same emotion to imagine what the other person is going through. And it does this by attempting to fire the same synapses in your own brain so that you can attempt to relate to the emotion you’re observing. This is empathy. It is our shared bliss at music festivals as well as our solidarity in sadness during tragedies. It is also how we get mob mentality, where a calm person can suddenly find himself picking up a gun against a common enemy once he is influenced by dozens of angry minds.
Buddhists say that the universe is suffering, most likely because the universe is in chaos, and thus by its very nature out of our control. When we try to force desires, we are bound to find innumerable occasions where the universe will not comply. The trick, they say, is to stop desiring to the point of attachment. Begin the practice of acceptance of which Buddhists speak, Drifting in the Tao, accepting the natural flow with an optimistic attitude of love, saying to every moment that comes your way, good or bad, “thank you for the experience and the lesson, and now bring on the next moment so I can give it the same love.”
Do this over and over, moving those synapses closer and closer together to the point where any synapses in the brain associated with sadness, regret, pessimism, fear, desire, melancholy, and depression have a smaller and smaller chance of triggering before the synapses of love form your reaction, your thoughts, your personality. Your default state thus becomes one of optimism and appreciation, and the illusory burdens you attach to this existence are lessened.
It’s not just your thoughts that can alter your brain and shift those synapses; the thoughts of those around you can do it as well. It is very important to spend time with people who lift you up, because the wrong friends may be moving those fearful, cynical, pessimistic synapses closer together, making your default, short-path-personality as jaded and bitter as your peers. Want to be happy? Surround yourself with happy people who help rewire your brain towards love, not towards fear of being invalidated.
The thing about negativity, of regretting, of attachment to desires, of pointless complaining about impermanent things that will always continue to pass in an existence where time moves forward is that it all causes stress. When your brain is firing off these synapses of anger, you’re weakening your immune system; you’re raising your blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes, and a plethora of other negative ailments.
The universe is chaotic, from unpreventable super storms of wind and rain, to unpredictable car accidents, to the capricious whims of our peers whose personal truths have the ability to emotionally damage or physically hurt others. Any moment holds the potential to bring you any one of these things, any shade along the gradient of spirit-soaring bliss to soul-crushing grief.
Our choice is simple: Love or Fear. It may be hard to find happiness at those times when you feel like you’re all alone in the world, when a loved one passes, when you fail that test, or get fired from that job; but when these moments come, you do not have to live in regret of them, you don’t have to give them constant negative attention and allow them to reshape your brain to the point that you become a bitter, jaded, cynical old curmudgeon that no longer notices that the very fact that they’re alive means they get to play blissfully in this cosmic playground where you get the godlike power of choice.
What you can do is say; “Yes, this sucks. But what’s the lesson? What can I take away from this to make me a better person? How can I take strength from this and use it to bring me closer to happiness in my next moment?” You see, a failed relationship or a bad day doesn’t have to bring you down; it can be an updraft that showcases to you the things you like and don’t like; it can show you the red flags so that you can avoid them next time. If there was a personality trait that your ex-partner had that absolutely drove you insane, then you now have the gift of knowing you don’t want to waste your time with another partner who acts the same way.
If you are mindful of the lessons of your shortcomings, there is no reason that you can’t make the default of every day better than the one before it. Do something new everyday, learn its lesson, choose love over fear, and make every day better than the last. The more you do this, the more you will see and appreciate the beauty of this existence, and the happier you’ll be.
Adapted from Steven Parton, “The Science of Happiness: Why complaining is literally killing you”