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“Our purpose in life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we simply desire contentment.” ~ Dalai Lama
Is happiness a mere option? Neuroscience says not. It’s better described as an inborn striving that is hardwired into our brains and shapes our behaviors from the cradle to the grave. Thanks to neuroscience and recent findings on the brain and relationships, we now know the brain has amazing capacities when it comes to consciousness, personal healing and change – all of which together amount to happiness. What have we learned?
1. We know that skills for healing and consciousness are inborn capacities, yet they must be learned and cultivated.
Up until now, our ideas about learning and change were fairly vague.
It was once thought that we were born with all the neurons we needed for a lifetime (neurons are brain cells that specialize in transmitting messages throughout the systems of the body). Additionally, the brain’s ability to change and heal itself, known as plasticity, was believed to be a process that was activated only to restore lost abilities, i.e., following a brain injury.
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself .” ~ LEO TOLSTOY
What we now know is truly amazing. As it turns out, the brain renews and reorganizes the basic structure of many neurons indefinitely, and generates new neurons in certain areas of the brain all the time (Damasio, 2010).
2. We have discovered that plasticity is a basic characteristic of all healthy brains.
These new findings have not only revolutionized science, even overturning ideas held for centuries, they’ve also given us new tools to know ourselves and methods to best use the life enriching assets we carry inside. Self-directed change is not only possible; it seems more to be Nature’s way of prompting us to access the power of our ability to make informed choices to create deep and lasting change — a potentially transforming prospect.
As for plasticity, it now established as a basic principle of all healthy brains throughout life. What this means in terms of healing from anxiety, depression, trauma or other emotional blocks is promising to say the least. According to renowned neuroscientist Rama, as he is affectionately called, the brain is capable of more and faster restructuring and reorganizing than was ever imagined (Ramachandran, 2011).
3. We’ve learned that fear is designed to be an asset; not a defect or weakness.
“It is the perpetual dread of fear, the fear of fear, that shapes the face of a brave man.” ~ GEORGES BERNANOS
The fear response, once dreaded as a defect or sign of weakness, is now considered by neuroscientists who study the brain’s ability to heal itself to be a key neural function. We now understand fear is not something to eliminate. It is rather designed to work with other processes to help heal past wounds, and in the course of doing so, develop and strengthen our capacity to regulate our emotions (Damasio, 2010).
In short, the ability to feel our fears (painful emotions in general, most of which are rooted in fear) is vital to our happiness. When activated, the fear response provides us with an opportunity to make sense of our past, to re-integrate old experiences with new understanding, to learn and to grow our wisdom.
Believe it or not, as adults we now need to realize that we are no longer vulnerable to emotional pain; instead, painful emotions are vital teachers, strength and confidence builders. Situations that trigger our stress response are opportunities to stretch our capacity to love our self and key others in our life.
These key teaching moments offer new possibilities for creating happiness, even as we amaze ourselves by discovering skills we did not know we have or were possible! Handling our fears is a learned ability that can lead to emotional mastery.
Your mind and body — you — are designed for happiness and fulfillment. You are designed to feel good about yourself, for good reason.