I Dream Of Smiling

Appreciating Life In Turbulent Times

It may be hard to see a silver lining in a cloud for two reasons. Either the sky is too dark for your vision to see the bright border and you miss it or your mind is trained to focus on the darkness. We live in a world where the latter is more likely. In fact, even if the sky is clear, we think there are clouds forming. In an age where almost 90% of news or media you consume is negative, it is easy to forget to appreciate the finer things in life like the ocean that ceaselessly soothes your mind or the children that are oblivious of negativity and filled with hope.This short article reminds readers that happiness is a choice and that it is important to not forget to look at the beauty around you when every bit of sensory input (mostly through media) is amplifying the darkness.

Why Now?

This is a story about a conversation I had with a close friend two years ago who said “don’t watch the news unless it’s about your neighborhood burning”. She said one of the secrets to her healthy lifestyle is not watching news. I smiled courteously and replied it would be almost impossible for me to do so. I am a cog in the wheels of a knowledge economy and by extension, knowledge is my stock in trade.

Fast forward to yesterday. I was having dinner with a group of friends and all I could hear about was how the world was becoming an increasingly inhuman place. It might sound like a familiar conversation to many and that’s because it is. It’s not difficult to remember the last time you, your family and/or your friends were discussing natural disasters, political events, terror strikes, financial crises, accidents and countless other anecdotes reminiscent of turbulent times. However, when was the last time you remember uninhibited laughter or tasting the great flavor in your food, appreciating the fall color on tree leaves or smelling the fresh air? More importantly, when was the last time you felt completely alive and filled with positivity??

Today morning, I felt an overwhelming urge to write and to remind everyone of the power of positive thinking to inspire action to focus on the positive and encourage others to think about solutions to problems and not just problems in isolation. There are enough naysayers and critics in the world but rarely people who engage in constructive dialog.

Remember, social connection is the greatest predictor of happiness and happiness is a great predictor of life expectancy. By association — a smile, a thank you or a good deed can result in giving someone a new lease of life. While genes and environment are variables we have no control over, we can certainly choose our reactions to things. Let’s choose wisely.

An Epidemic of Sadness

The human race has succeeded at reaching a new nadir in happiness. What was once a medical condition for some is now a contagion that has spread across the globe. As per Healthline.com, approximately 350 million people (5% of the world’s population) suffers from clinical depression. If you want a more visual look at what the world is experiencing today, take a look at the atlas of clinical depression

Washington Post

There are good reasons for the epidemic to spread. The human brain is made up of the Amygdala (the animal brain) which is responsible for emotional responses and aggressive behavior and the Neocortex which is responsible for logical reasoning:

mybrainnotes.com

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman looked at a number of biases that keep us from being happy. We have a negativity bias, which is the tendency to give far more importance to negative details than positive ones and the confirmation bias, which is our tendency to selectively look at information or see information that confirms our preexisting notions, which is fine except that our preexisting notions are typically negative and therefore, we’re reconfirming our negative expectations.

What this means is that the more we read, hear or see a negative event happening, the more our Amygdala is likely to respond with the perception that the negative event will result in an extremely bad outcome for us triggering our ‘fight or flight response’. The more we read about accidents, the more we feel we are likely to be in one even though there is a small probability of that happening. Then, just like second hand smoke, we pass it on to people around us.

Choose To Be Happy

Shawn Achor, founder of GoodThink, author of The Happiness Advantage and distinguished professor at Harvard says “what your brain attends to becomes your reality”. I have personally attended his talk. My key takeaway from his talk was: don’t forget common sense and the power of positive thinking to alter life. Based on Shawn’s research, the best way to change your reality is to first realize that there are multiple realities from which you could choose.

GoodThink has a great article on “The Science of Changing People” which I would encourage everyone to read.

Yoga and meditation have been indispensable to my life.

Shawn further opines:

We think If I just find that great job, or win that next promotion, lose those ten pounds, or (fill in the blank), then happiness will follow.” But Shawn’s extensive research and other recent discoveries in the field of positive psychology have shown that this formula is completely backward: Happiness fuels success, not the other way around. When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work.

This isn’t just an empty mantra. This discovery has been borne out repeatedly by rigorous research in psychology and neuroscience, management studies, and the bottom lines of organizations around the world.”

Especially in an AI enabled world, negativity can affect social connection. This becomes increasingly important as technology shapes human interaction particularly through social media and increasing connectivity with a plethora digital extensions possibly culminating with a chip in our brain. I must confess I am a slave to social media and have been trying hard to balance my intake of negative press.

Don ’t tell anyone to dream about being a doctor, engineer or a billionaire. I am not saying it’s bad. What I am saying is that there is something better and more inspirational. The reason happiness is not perceived to be so aspirational is because we have been trained to associate success with everything besides happiness i.e. we have trained our minds to speak only one language. The language of money. Money is just a means to an end. Don’t make it the purpose of your life. I am guilty of doing so and had the unfortunate experience of being greeted by unhappiness at the door. It’s simply not worth it.

So, the next time people ask you what your definition of success is. Ask them to search for happiness and dream about smiling. That’s what I try to do everyday now — I dream of smiling everyday.

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba

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