Down Dumbo


Emotions trump thinking

Stress chemicals trump happy hormones

Strengths trump weaknesses

From The Happy Map


I read this while lying on my back on a hot pad, my eyes swollen with pain and mind befogged. So how, I asked myself, do I feel happy?

Yes, feelings win every time. I learned long ago that arguing with pain doesn’t work. My elephant is slumped and morose; it doesn’t even want to think about happiness, rather sit in a bog of defeat. There’s no way my rider can take control.

The elephant and rider metaphor comes courtesy of Jonathan Haidt, rider being our logical, reasoning higher cortex; the elephant our ancient lower brain. Which is always on guard for danger, rather like our cat, Thea, who approaches everything with grave suspicion.

So my elephant will win. It doesn’t understand speech anyway, but it likes pictures, so what about a warm fuzzy visualization to calm it down. Just stopping the internal argument brings peace, imagining the caress of sunlight and affection almost makes it purr. Mixed metaphor – what do elephants do when they are happy?

Stress certainly stops everything in its tracks. ” Happiness?!” my amygdala scoffs as it girds its loins, routing power to my muscles, shutting off unnecessary frills like humour or digestion. It has an emergency hotline that overpowers the reasoning cortex.

With my amygdala full tilt, dashing through my brain, sirens blaring, what can I do? There’s a trick I learnt long ago, which I call putting off the point of panic. The idea is to buy time, so you can take action before panic/stress sets in.

First, don’t argue – acknowledge you have a problem. If you try and pretend you don’t, the amygdala will become frantic trying to get your attention.

Then, say firmly, “I won’t consider this an emergency until ……” And set a point. If, for example, I am due to catch a flight and have lost my car keys, it will definitely be a major hassle. So I set parameters: I won’t panic till I have looked in all my purses, down the back of the sofa etc. This buys me time and I can search methodically, rather than run about like a chicken with its head cut off.

Strengths trump weaknesses: whatever is happening, concentrate on what I can do well; delegate my inadequacies.

So how does that work with my pain today?

I savour the warmth of the hot pad, let it caress the poor suffering elephant. I smile.

Ignore the problems writing off this afternoon will cause. Shift them down the line: I won’t worry unless the pain spills into tomorrow as well.

Almost everything I need to do has become a weakness today. But I can lie and write on my iPad mini. You know, by the time I finished this, I am now happy and productive. The pain? Oh, yes it is there rumbling in the background, but it hasn’t defeated me.


More info:

The Happy Map: Your Roadmap to the Habit of Happiness by Hilary Stokes, PhD and Kim Ward. PhD

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt.

The elephant and the rider explained:

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.

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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