I am being asked to write more inspiration about mental fitness because it is sorely needed these days. Covid19 has caused a big wave of depression and anxiety, and in the US at least we have an opioid crisis called an epidemic. It is important to start by recommending that anyone with mental health problems see a healthcare professional, I am certainly not qualified to give therapeutic advice. But mental fitness techniques such as mindfulness and meditation can enhance professional therapy. And many of us who are clinically normal may still be happier. There was a famous quote from Freud that the goal of therapy is to heal our neuroses so that we can achieve “ordinary human misfortune”. dr. Martin Seligman joins this Ted talk, saying that psychotherapy has, throughout much of its history, aimed to “make 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 bestseller “10% Happier” by Dan Harris about how techniques like meditation and mindfulness helped him. It is very entertaining and inspiring, Dan has had a very interesting life including war correspondent in Iraq. But I couldn’t help but feel that he underestimated the benefits of mental fitness in the title. I don’t know if it would bother me if it just made me 10% happier. But here are the benefits he claims: “how I tamed the voice in my head, reduced stress without losing my sharpness, and found self-help that really works”. Mental fitness has helped me in a similar way, but I’d say it made me much more than 10% happier as a result. I tried 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 well, we are happy, when things are not going well, we are 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 major depressive phases. But for most people, the swings can still be quite big, like the difference between happy hour feeling Friday night and Monday morning.

One of the first things mental training can do is make us “more even”, so the happiness variation looks more like this:

This is better, but we can still be “down the drain” when things don’t go our way.

The next step is to raise our base of happiness so that it is always “above zero”, which is what I mean in the title by “happy default”:

Of course, major life events, such as being fired from work or the loss of a loved one, can still make us unhappy, even for those who are “mentally fit,” but everyday events such as getting stuck in traffic or the shopping cart with the bad wheel, or stock market status, are no longer enough to cause bad luck.

It wasn’t always like that for me. My happy to depressed swings used to be pretty big, like in the first picture. This was especially true when I was stressed about working for a startup. When I took meditation and mindfulness seriously, I had more “evenness of mind” like the second picture, but could still pass into being unhappy. I remember in those moments I didn’t always enjoy practicing mindfulness because in the present moment I would be “down” so it was unpleasant. Now I am almost always happy.

An important factor is calming the brain’s recently discovered default mode that chatters to us all day, not always friendly or positive. This is what Dan calls “taming the voice in our heads”. There is a great description of this voice in Michael Singer’s book The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself, where he compares the voice to an unruly roommate. When our chattering brain is quieter by default, we’re less reactive, we’re less likely to “fly off the handle,” and we’re able to see things in a better perspective. Another important reason is no longer seeking happiness in the wrong places, such as material pleasures. I’ve talked before about distinguishing between what leads to pleasure in the short term and true happiness in the long term. This is an important theme in all spiritual traditions. If this motivates you to get started, I’ll discuss some techniques here. I also recommend Rick Hanson’s book “Buddha’s Brain”. This shows the similarity between Buddhist understanding of self-transformation and recent findings in psychology and neuroscience, and teaches many useful techniques and guided meditations.

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Published by BionicOldGuy

I am a mechanical engineer born in 1953, Ph. D, Stanford, 1980. I have been in the mechanical CAE field for decades. I also have a lifelong interest in outdoor activities and fitness. I had both hips replaced and a heart valve replacement due to a genetic condition. This blog describes my adventures to stay active despite these bumps in the road. View all posts from BionicOldGuy

Published 28 March 202227 March 2022

This post Mental Fitness- Happy By Default – BionicOldGuy was original published at “https://bionicoldguy.home.blog/2022/03/28/mental-fitness-happy-by-default/”

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