How Might We Find Happiness?

Well, the official 100 days of THE weirdest summer ever have ended. Today is 9/11, a national pain that actually unified us in horror for moment in time. We are headed into fall with dire warnings about wave two of the pandemic.

Life is heavy right now. We feel the weight in our shoulders. Let’s admit it; the year 2020 has been relentless.

I found myself wanting to write about something happy today. The artificial connectedness offered by social media means we go all. day. long. We yearn for a break; yet, in this new pandemic world of social distancing and other restrictions, finding a break is challenging. Finding joy and happiness is challenging.

During the last six or so months, I have often tried to channel my Dad. After he retired, I would call each morning and ask: Dad, how are you? He always had the same response: My feet are on the ground; it’s a good day! Such a philosopher. If during a conversation I would whine about something small he would say: You know Sue, there are a lot of people in the ground at the local cemetery who would gladly switch places with you. He had a great perspective on life. He counted blessings.

Looking back, I think my Dad taught himself to see the positive; to look for the good because he had been given a second chance at life. When he was 26, he turned up the heat in the gas station he rented and the building exploded. He had enough presence of mind to jump out a window as it shattered around him. He always told us, had he not been wearing a leather bomber jacket, given to him by a friend, he would have never survived.

Front page Syracuse Newspaper, October 16,1952
My Dad wrapped in bandages.

Science tells us that evolutionary, our brains are wired to the negative. It’s part of the fight, flight or freeze response encoded in our sympathetic nervous system. That built-in, negative tracking radar keeps us safe. Some call it a gut-sense. Author Gavin de Becker calls it The Gift of Fear. If you want to learn about de Becker’s work, here’s an animated book summary.

Science also tells us we can manipulate that negative response so as to see the world in a more positive light.

Yoga practitioners will tell you one way to control the high alert of the sympathetic nervous system is to invoke the parasympathetic nervous system–the rest and digest system of the body. That can be done through meditation and breathing. Over the summer I have immersed myself in meditation because I am in the process of completing my 200 hours of training for a yoga instructor certification. I really wanted to know more about meditating.

Meditation didn’t come easily, but patience and perseverance have led to great results for me. I actually can sit in complete silence for a period of time and feel refreshed; calmed. I have mentally taken journeys, guided by my skilled instructor. I have a lot more to learn in this area, but I am seeing benefits. Funny, I dated a guy in Rochester when I was student teaching who would meditate in a tent in his living room. It seemed odd then. The wisdom of age is a beautiful gift sometimes.

But a more powerful rest response for me comes from using my breathing to elevate the parasympathetic nervous system. Think about your breath. It’s automatic; yet, you can control it, even to the point of holding it to do something like diving into a pool. The ability to control, or manipulate, the breath helps the parasympathetic nervous system do its job; it makes the body rest, even if it’s for just a moment.

Emma Seppala makes a most compelling case for the power of breathing in this TEDx Sacramento talk.

So, a potential path to finding happiness is a two-fold process. It involves a commitment to adjusting one’s mindset from the negative default position; and, learning how to beneficially breathe. Begin the journey with alternate nostril breathing. Dr. Sepalla will lead you.

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