If you’re like me (and I realize that I actually wish most people aren’t – there’s always the individualist that wants to be special), you will have noticed that there are more self-help books than anyone would wish to see. One of the trends in self-help books is promoting positive thinking, starting – in my awareness – from Dr. Eric Berne’s I’m Ok, You’re Ok book-turned-series. I have no beef with the idea itself – that purposefully focusing on positive things benefits you – it is the “magic wand” way that you’re supposed to wield this “positive thinking”. At times it takes on an almost comical form, when you’re told that you can use stuff like that in a purely selfish way.
Nevertheless, it’s been known for some time that the presence of certain chemicals (neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, and many others) in the brain effect our mood, but later studies have shown that certain activities (exercise, for example) or “states” (such as experiencing sexual arousal or even simply being happy or sad) actually change the chemical cocktail swirling around and in our brain. Meditation (or prayer) can elevate serotonin levels. Concentrating on things that make you happy for a time will boost serotonin levels, too.
In an article published by APA (APA Monitor online October 1999), Tufts University psychologist Klaus Miczek describes how fighting (that is, letting your aggressive impulse drive you) caused changes to tested mice’s and rats’ brain chemistry and gene expression. Our genes don’t change, that is true, but our conditions has a big effect on gene expression – in other words, which genes are active in our cells.
It was long ago that “Type A” personality was linked to higher occurrence of cardiac arrest (a finding that is a bit more complex than thought for some time). People, who describe themselves as “generally happy” have a lower risk for cancer. Information like this has been trickling up the news vine for some time, but we haven’t really known the whys and hows. We still don’t fully understand, because the whole endocrine system is so interdependent that one frequently runs into a chicken-or-egg-first dilemma. Studying the feedback loop can be tricky, and mostly studies have been conducted from the pharmacological point – finding out if we can influence behavior/mood disorders through chemical manipulation. Only lately have serious attempts been made to study how the feedback works the other way around.
But I am getting carried away with this neurochemistry thing…
Years ago Elder Packer said something about us not being able to prevent birds flying over our heads – things come to mind uninvited even when we try to “let virtue garnish our thoughts” – but we can stop them from nesting on us. I have known some people, who have been a little paranoid about things popping up in their thoughts – up to the point when they have constantly felt guilty about their “impure” thoughts.
Here we come to one of the things about human existence, that is sometimes hard: We are, in fact, constantly bombarded by invitations to follow different paths. As father Lehi told his son, Jacob, it is necessary for us to grow by making choices – and we could not choose – or, as he says, “act for [ourselves]” – if we didn’t have alternatives. That is why it is necessary that we are prompted by different forces (see 2.Ne 2:16). And let’s not forget that our brain receives much more information than we ever are consciously aware of, and while processing it, things boil up to our conscious mind when we least expect them to.
Thing is, that as long as we are healthy, we decide what we spend our time thinking about. We can acknowledge that thought that prompts us to go some other direction and decide that we won’t be following that one. And what I mean is, we do not pretend they don’t exist. If we try to do that, we will find ourselves up against the wall sooner or later. The idea is to be realistic enough to acknowledge things that are not as well as we’d like them to be, and at the same time optimistic about things. Sure, life is hard and in the end you’ll die. But dwelling on that thought all the time won’t make us happy.
See the things that are making you happy. Then find the things you figure you can change in order for you to be happier. Then dwell on those things for a while and let them encourage you to face the things that are wrong, that you don’t think you can change. Secular people meditate without an expressly spiritual goal, but people of faith can include a prayerful attitude. Some questions we can think of: What is it that God would want for me? How can I be happy and make someone else happy, too? What are the things that are most important for me to learn, and how to go about learning them? What am I willing to do to make the good things happen?
And if it is hard to stay optimistic, think about this: Our Savior in his mortal life was optimistic. He did not close his eyes to things that were wrong, in fact he worked hard to change some things. But in the end he gave everything he had for the most optimistic idea ever: That we would repent and accept him as our Savior, in so doing letting him make something of us. He is optimistic about us.
All 930 words here just to say, “don’t lose hope”. What a waste of space…