The never ending cycle of seeking happiness and how to get out of it [Explained]
You might wish to escape unhappiness forever, but it’s helpful to know that unhappy chemicals are as essential to your survival as happy chemicals.
Your brain needs unhappy chemicals to call attention to threats and obstacles, just as happy chemicals call attention to opportunities.
You are designed to survive by seeking happy chemicals and avoiding unhappy chemicals. You are not designed for shortcuts that eliminate seeking and avoiding.
Let’s see how these shortcuts can cause a vicious cycle.
Your Brain’s Quest to Feel Good The quest for good feelings is nature’s survival engine. Animals seek food to relieve the bad feeling of hunger. They seek warmth to relieve the bad feeling of cold.
Happy chemicals start flowing before a mammal eats or warms up because the mammal brain turns them on as soon as it sees a way to meet a need.
The human brain does this with the added boost of a cortex that makes long chains of associations. We avoid hunger by planting food and avoid chill by stocking fuel.
We anticipate bad feelings to prevent them. But unhappy chemicals persist no matter how well you meet your needs because your survival is threatened as long as you’re alive.
A mammal risks getting eaten by a predator when it forages for food. It risks social conflict when it seeks a mate and genetic annihilation if it avoids that conflict entirely.
The mammal brain never stops scanning for potential threats. Your brain scans for social threats when you’re safe from physical threats.
Mammals survive because the bad feeling of cortisol alerts you in time to avoid potential threats. Cortisol communicates pain and the expectation of pain.
It motivates you to do whatever it takes to make the lousy feeling stop. When a lunching gazelle smells a lion, cortisol motivates it to run even though it would rather keep eating.
Gazelles survive because smelling a lion feels worse than hunger. Our ancestors survived because cortisol directed their attention to one threat after another.
Your Response to Cortisol Alarms When your cortisol surges, you respond by noticing what it’s paired with. It could be low blood sugar, the scent of danger, or social isolation.
Life experience builds myriad circuits that light up when your cortisol turns on. Some- times, the solution is obvious, like pulling your hand off a hot stove.
But often, you’re not sure what triggered the alarm. You don’t know how to stop it, yet it feels like something awful will happen if you don’t “do something” im- mediately.
For example, let’s say you have a bad feeling about your boss while sitting at your desk in your office. You want to make that feeling go away
because cortisol annoys you until you do something to make it stop.
But you’re not sure what started it or how you can relieve it. From life experience, you know that doughnuts make you feel good. Doughnuts trigger happy chemicals because fat and sugar are scarce.
The excellent feeling distracts you from the bad feeling, making it seem like the threat is gone for the moment you eat the doughnut.
Consciously, you know the doughnut hasn’t fixed your problems, but happy chemicals are molecules that pave a neural pathway. The next time you feel bad about your boss, electricity trickles to the thought of eating a doughnut.
If you eat one, you build the connection. You still know the doughnut doesn’t solve your problem and could make it worse. But going with the flow gives you a sense of safety for that moment.
When the “do something” feeling strikes, your brain builds the idea that eating a doughnut is doing something. Chemical Ups and Downs
It would be nice to stop cortisol with permanent solutions to every problem.
But that cannot happen because disappointment triggers cortisol too. When a lion loses sight of the gazelle she is stalking; her cortisol turns on. When a monkey can’t crack open the nut he is working on; his cortisol turns on.
Your cortisol helps you make course corrections on the path to meeting your needs. Cortisol alerts you when Plan A doesn’t work. When Plan A works, alas, the happy chemicals don’t last.
To get more, you have to do more. That is how a brain keeps prodding a body to do what it takes to keep its DNA alive. Happy chemicals get reabsorbed, and your awareness of survival threats resumes.
A “do something” feeling gets your attention when you’re not distracted by happy chemicals. As you look for ways to relieve it— fast—easy happy-chemical activators may tempt you. “Everything I like is illegal, immoral, or fattening.”
The old saying has some truth because everything that triggers fast, easy, happy chemicals has side effects. Good feelings were naturally selected because of their side effects.
Food evolved to feel good because that motivates a body to do what it takes to find nutrition. Sex evolved to feel good because that motivates a body to do what it takes to find a mate.
The side effects of food and sex were desirable in a world of scarcity. We did not evolve to get instant food and sex every moment. Seeking a constant high can lead to a vicious cycle.
Vicious cycles are everywhere:
•They might involve external things like alcohol, food, money, sex, and
•Or they might be internal thought habits, like getting angry, seeking
approval, escaping, thrill-seeking, and rescuing.
Each of these behaviours can make you feel good in a moment when you are feeling bad. That gives you an excellent sense of conquering a threat, so you repeat the behaviour.
Over time, a neural superhighway develops, and the behaviour seems to light up effortlessly. But side effects accumulate and trigger unhappy chemicals.
You’re even more motivated to trigger happy chemicals how you expect them to work. But it’s like driving with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake—the same behaviour triggering happiness and unhappiness.
How to Stop Vicious Cycles You can stop a vicious cycle instantly. Just resist that “do something” feeling and live with the cortisol. This is difficult to do because cortisol screams for your attention.
After all, it didn’t evolve for you to sit around and accept it. But you can build the skill of doing nothing during a cortisol alert, even as it begs you to make it go away by doing something.
Waiting gives your brain a chance to activate an alternative. A virtuous circle starts at that moment. Seizing the moment is easier if you have an alternative circuit ready. Your new circuit may feel awkward at first.
It lacks the zip of electricity you’ve relied on for the sense that you know what’s going on. Resisting an old circuit can make you feel like you’re threatening your survival when doing pre- precisely the opposite. The pain of resisting a habit eases once a new habit forms.
You can do that in forty-five days if you repeat a new thought or behaviour every day without fail. If you miss a day, start over with Day One.
The new choice will not make you happy on Day One and may not make you happy on Day Forty. Even on Day Forty-Five, it cannot trigger happy chemicals constantly. But it will invite enough electricity to free you from a vicious cycle.
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