Life holds many joys; the vigorous growth we’re seeing in gardens and fields; lambs gambolling on the moor; the love of families and friends. Even memories can bring us joy. Every day I look at the photograph of my wedding day – it’s in the bedroom, right in front of me as I drink my first cup of tea. It always lifts my spirits, not just as I remember the day itself, but because the picture reminds me how lucky I am to still be happily married to Daphne after more than forty years.
But life can also feel tough. There may be challenges at work, within the family, within society more broadly. Personally, I am deeply concerned about the political situation in Western democracies, where we seem to be increasingly polarised. We all have times when we feel sad; we all experience anger; we have all felt fear, or apprehension.
Now, here’s an interesting thing. Our brains process our feelings separately from our rational thought. Feelings come from our emotional brain, the amygdala, which is a very primitive part of the brain. When the emotional brain feels we are in a threatening situation it causes adrenalin to flood the body. This quickens the pulse rate dramatically and sharply raises levels of glucose in the blood. This is the “fight or fly” response, preparing us for combat, or for escape.
Once upon a time this was essential for our survival. In Western society that is no longer usually the case. In fact, repeated stimulation of the emotion of fear can lead to anxiety, where even ordinary daily life feels threatening. This can be sufficiently intense to disrupt our lives (been there, done that – it’s horrid).
Our brains process our feelings separately from our rational thought.
Our emotional brain has no way of knowing when it’s making the right response to a situation – it relies on our rational brain to tell it so. If our rational brain is consistently viewing a certain type of situation as a threat, then our emotional brain will believe it. So, for example, if we constantly worry about what’s going on in the world, our rational brain is sending the message, “I’m in a dangerous place. I’d better be on the alert.” Our emotional brain believes what the rational brain tells it, so that at the least sign of threat it goes, “AAAAGGGGHHHH!!! What’s that???”
The good thing is that our emotional brain also believes the rational brain if we consciously think positively about life. When, every night before bed, we write down three things that have gone well during the day, we are sending a powerful message to the emotional brain that life is good. When we count our blessings every morning, we are sending a message to the emotional brain that life is good. When I look at the photograph of my wedding day while drinking my first cup of tea of the day, I’m saying to my emotional brain, “Life is good. I’m happy.”
And when we do that consistently, day after day, the emotional brain gradually turns more to happiness, and less to vigilance. We become happier and more relaxed people.
And, while I don’t expect St Paul had this in mind when he gave the advice originally in his letter to the Philippians (Philippians 4:8), it certainly sums up well a good way of staying positive:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” (NIV translation)
I hope you found this interesting and helpful. It’s meant to encourage a more positive, and therefore happier approach to life in those who are basically well. If you are constantly apprehensive, depressed, or listless, to the extent that it affects how you live your life, I strongly advise you to seek professional help.