Originally Published on FutureHealthexcerpted from The Happiness Response available for ebook download.
"The world we know is fabricated from our memories in an almost statistical way. " Karl Pribram, M.D.
It's not what happens, it's what you pay atention to and the way you interpret what happens that dictates your happiness response. Dark rain clouds mean happiness to a farmer whose fields are parched, but to the mother of the bride at a garden wedding they mean something quite different. One group of clouds: two opposite emotional interpretations.
You can't wait for positive experience opportunities to grab you. You have to seek them and make yourself as open to ready to see them as you possibly can.
Nothing you experience has any meaning until you filter it through your background, your memories, and your immediate needs. These become your touchstones of frames of reference that center your sensations and attitudes from moment to moment. Each person's memory store is vast, deep and constantly changing, like the ocean. And like the ocean's ever shifting surface, the most active, accessible part of our memory filters our raw sensory experience, only allowing us to become aware of a small part of our environment at any moment. Still water becomes stagnant. We have to keep making waves to keep our filters in motions, to stir up what's below and keep it vital. Why not even expect and help the best perceptual filter patterns to surface? Attitude and point of view are everything when it comes to creating meaning and memories, to seeing the best in each moment.
Bite into Life's Happiness Cookies
Billy, four, and Sarah, six, are elated about making cookies with Daddy as a surprise treat for Mommy when she gets home from shopping. A key turns in the door lock; they wait, with cute, icing-smudged smiles, eagerly anticipating Mommy's delight at their happy surprise. Dana, upset after getting stuck in traffic enroute, rushes in, and is greeted by the cookies and the kids' and Daddy's glowing faces. Then she sees the sticky hands, the messy mixing bowls, and the cluttered kitchen counter. ''Oh no!''she exclaims irritably.''What a disaster! Who made this mess?'' In a fury she starts cleaning up immediately.
Dana's reaction is understandable, but it costs her what could have been a very special moment. This is a situation she'll probably laugh about in a week, but she won't let herself experience the fun of the moment. Her hurry and irritability act as filters that darken her attitude instead brightening it so she can laugh and smile, hug her family and grab her opportunity to feel great. Opportunities to clean the house come far more often than chances to immerse yourself in joyful, gleeful family moments. Try to make the filters that color your experiences bright, optimistic and flexible.
When your filter gets locked into a negative attitude, cranky, irritable, disgusted or afraid, you develop an undesirable, rigid approach which cannot successfully respond to changes. Dana was stuck with a stagnant chunk of memory about her miserable ride home that became a negative filter. With the ability to make a slightly faster, more flexible filter change, Dana could have enjoyed a heartwarming moment and warm cookies with her loving family. Instead, she emotionally locked herself into an irritating hassle that pushed her loved ones away, reinforced and perpetuated her negative attitude. Faulty filters can make trouble in many other ways too.
At age 35, George started experiencing chest pains and other tell-tale signs of a heart attack. He rushed to the hospital. When the emergency room doctor greeted George, he asked, ''Who do you know who just had a heart attack?'' ''The minute the doctor asked that question, I felt okay.'' George remarked later. And tests proved he was fine. But George's 35-year-old friend, Jim, had recently suffered a major heart attack, and the emergency room doctor had recognized the signs of a sympathy syndrome. By filtering his symptoms through the memory of Jim's recent experience, George had convinced himself that he had been stricken in the same way.
Your Memory Runs Your Life
Your nervous system processes every experience that touches your senses before you ever realize it. Pre-conciously, before it reaches your awareness, the raw information is matched up with your memory patterns, filtered through your mood, then translated by your currently active drives and needs (food, rest, achievement, warmth, sex, etc.) Then you might become aware of it, or it might never come to your conscious attention.
Without that automatic filtering system which selectively links you to parts of your environment, you would be totally overwhelmed by information. It would be impossible to consciously, systematically sort through all the raw stimuli and information that reach your sensory organs each day, just as it would be impossible to go through life, learning how to walk and talk all over again on awakening every morning. Your memory helps you determine what to pay attention to. Recognizing faces is a simple way to distinguish friends from strangers without a thorough background check each time you encounter someone. You tell weeds from flowers that way too. But you can't afford the emotional investment it takes to look at every new face expecting to see Jack the Ripper, nor do you look at every plant expecting to see poison ivy or poison mushrooms. Past experience can set your filters up to see in either a positive, optimistic or negative, pessimistic light. Automatic filters are necessary, otherwise, your life would be bogged down in the need to resolve every minute doubt, prepare for every possible contingency. But maladaptive filters can make you miserable. Positive, automatic filter patterns will make you happier and help you to see the best in life.
For example: It helps to recognize subtle changes in the sound of your car's engine, but you don't stop every mile to check the slightest unfamiliar sound. You have a sense of what's dangerous. In the same way, it's good to be aware of weather warning signs so you can dress properly, but you don't always carry boots, an umbrella, and a heavy coat in case a cloud appears. Your judgement should tell you they are unlikely to be needed. It's even more difficult to interpret the subtleties of social interaction or self evaluation. there are no black or white, right answers. Overly negative interpretations can be burdensome, or worse, they can impose obsessive or self punitive over-reactions. When the guidelines and definitions aren't clear, you're more likely to make mistakes interpreting situations. You draw upon your recollections of past experiences every time you assess the meanings of complex or unclear situations. Even the unconscious effects of past experiences put a filter on your way of interpreting ambiguous moments. The richer your experiences and the clearer your recall of them, better you will be able to make quick judgments and interpretations that help you maintain a positive attitude.
Happy or sad, exciting or dull, challenging or defeating, you interpret every moment you spend in the world. And your world is what your mind says it is. Mood, energy level, attitude, and experience all exert powerful influences on your assessment of events. Your autobiographical memory defines who you are, maintains continuity, and determines how you perceive the world.
This memory of your life is ''the source of our sense of self: the feeling that over time we are the same person with the same abilities, values and personality,'' according to psychologist, David C. Rubin. Yet he has found that these autobiographical memories can be changed by viewing them through the light of later events. This can help your attitude and way of looking at the world if you load up your filters with positive memories, or hurt if you collect negatives.