Reaching for Joy

Reading Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil, chosen not because of “happiness” in its title, but because he is always worth reading.

He feels that the key to mental equilibrium is contentment, quoting Chinese philosopher Lao Tze “one who contains content, remains content.”

That is really interesting because we tend to have a personal happiness set point, rather like a weight one. People who have had life-changing injuries, like paraplegia, within three months are back to their normal emotional set point, though you would think they would be plunged into unremitting depression. Also identical twins raised apart have a similar happiness set point, independent of their adoptive families. (More info) When I was pregnant, my one wish for my baby was that she would inherit my mother’s mother’s positivity, not my other grandmother’s apathy and negativity.

But one can change one’s set point. In Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Sharon Begley explains that we can change our brains – they are not set in stone, quietly running downhill from our twenties. For years, stroke patients weren’t given long term therapy as it was believed that the brain couldn’t rewire. But, of course, it can and today people are making amazing comebacks after brain injury.

So surely we can reset our happiness set point. According to Martin Seligman and Andrew Weil, we can. I have found that, as I have said on May 8 (Good Moves) just walking and behaving as if I feel no pain has a profound, deep effect on my general feeling of well being. Also catching and stopping myself ruminating on what’s wrong, prevents a downward spiral. And, of course, once you are in a depressed frame of mind, it is very difficult to access positive memories.

A friend who called me today, answering my question “How are you?” with a glum description. I realized that she always starts from the negative, which gave me a glimpse into her self-talk. How heavy and dreary and so hard to recover from.

According to Andrew Weil, who although he is meant to be writing on happiness, seems to be concentrating on depression, psychiatrists today do not make allowance for depressing life events, except bereavement, when you are allowed two months unhappiness.

How extraordinary! We are creatures formed by sun and shadow, learning from and enriched by life. We can’t be fully human if we live in unthinking happiness 24/7. Years ago, one of my English students stayed after class, pouring out his story of depression. His doctor had been trying a variety of drugs with no effect. As his misery flowed, it was obvious that anyone in his situation would be miserable.

“No wonder you are depressed,” I said robustly. “Anyone would be. Your life is depressing! Do something to change it.” Which actually was possible, not easy, but doable once he saw that his circumstances were the problem. Not some flaw in him because he couldn’t accept, deep within him, what was happening to him. He was entitled to better, not to be “fixed.”

Some interesting sites:



About UntraveledRoads

Fascinated by life, looking for answers to chronic pain and finding unexpected gifts. Interested in people, ideas, healing and humour. I am very happily married with three children and a kitten. As English born immigrants to Canada, we have family spread overseas, a daughter in South Africa and one in England. We also run a charity in South Africa to educate black, rural South African Women. Our first girl from a rural township has just graduated as an accountant from Johannesburg University and got a good job in a bank.
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