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Mindful : June 2015
and felt it soak into my body. Still, I can’t help wondering about my default anxious self. How does “taking in the good” affect the old wiring and issues related to fear and safety? These issues, Hanson says, tend to be rooted in the more primitive parts of the brain—the subcortex and brain stem—areas that are more resistant to change than the left prefrontal cortex, which is associated with positive emo- tions and greater neuroplasticity. “It’s important to distinguish between real threats and false alarms,” suggests Ha nson. “Trust yourself to be aware of real threats, and you’ll be more com- fortable dismissing the false alarms. You need to recognize at the cognitive level and in the body that false alarms are delusional. Learn to calm your body and build up inner strengths, such as mindfulness, gratitude, and compassion.” Because our brains can only process a limited a mount of information at a ny one time, he says, the more we focus on positive experiences, the less room there is for the negative to take hold. Still, I’m slightly war y. Is all this emphasis on the positive like trying to put a giant Band-Aid over what is sad and painful and difficult in our lives? “I don’t believe in positive thinking. I believe in realistic thinking,” says Ha nson, who also teaches mindfulness meditation. “It’s important to see the whole mosaic of reality. The good tiles in the mosaic are the basis for growing resources inside myself to help deal with the bad tiles.” The exercises, then, a ren’t about suppressing or re-envisioning the negative; rather, they’re about strength- ening other modes of thinking a nd feeling. So: Be upset when you’re upset, sad when you’re sad, a ng ry when you’re angry. At the same time, intentionally cultivate inner resources that will not just help you cope, but will allow you to become more content with your life, regardless of changing circumstances. As if to underscore the point, during the course of my research for this story, I come across a paper titled “Emodi- versity and the Emotional Ecosystem,” whose lead authors are Jordi Quoidbach and June Gruber. Basically, using the biodiversity of ecosystems in the natural world as a model, they found in studies of more than 37,000 people the first evi- dence for the notion that emodiversity— the variety and abundance of emotions that we humans experience—might play a unique role in our well-being. The authors write, “A wide variety of emo- tions might be a sign of a self-aware and authentic life; such emotional self-awa re- ness a nd authenticity have been repeat- edly linked to health a nd well-being.” Not only does this finding make sense, it’s also the perfect corrective to the damaging cultural myth that plagued my parents and continues to cast a shadow over the lives of so many—na mely, that we should be happy and experience plea- sure most of the time, otherwise there’s something innately wrong with us. There is real happiness, to be sure. It just doesn’t look the way most of us have been conditioned to think, which is precisely what sages have been telling us for millenia. Epictetus put it this way: “ Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.” The Promise of Awe On Saturday evening at Esalen during The Science of Happiness weekend, clus- ters of participants gather on the wide stretch of lawn to take in the blazing sun- set that streaks across the sky. The fiery globe has just dipped into the Pacific, a sweet sight after a day of rain. There is silence all around as we feast our eyes on the technicolor sunset, the vastness of the ocean, the rocky cliffs that extend up and down the coast as far as the eye can see. And though this scene could not possibly have been programmed by the workshop’s leaders—nature doesn’t allow such planning—it’s the perfect lead-in to the evening ’s talk on awe. “Awe uniquely predicts happiness,” says Dacher Keltner, a psychology profes- sor at UC Berkeley and the faculty liaison to the Greater Good team. I am blown away by this news. After all, who doesn’t treasure experiences such as tonight’s sunset, in which our sense of being a small, separate self loosens and even tempora rily dissolves into the mystery and grandeur of the moment? Keltner is unreser vedly enthusiastic as he describes the latest resea rch on awe, which appears to give a major boost to the body’s immune system. A recent study conducted at UC Berkeley that Keltner coauthored found that the expe- rience of awe has been linked to lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, proteins that sig nal the immune system to work ha rder. And though cytokines play a key role in fighting infections, sus- tained high levels of these proteins are associated with disorders such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Alzhei- mer’s disease, a nd clinical depression. “The fact that awe promotes healthier levels of cytokines suggests anything we can do to foster it—a walk in nature or listening to great music or spending time around people who inspire us—has a direct effect upon our health and life expectancy,” Keltner explains. “ In the big sweepstakes of what makes us the most happy, awe may be the champion.” On that upbeat note, the program ends. I’m not at all surprised when, not long after, many of us head straight to the mineral baths—to soak in the warm waters and gaze at the glittering curtain of stars flung across the night sky. ● When our small, separate self loosens and we dissolve into what’s around us, that’s awe, the ultimate happiness strategy. 48 mindful June 2015 happiness