Unlocking the Mysteries of Mood
by Stephen Braun
From the epilogue… The Science of Happiness grew out of my curiosity about the ways in which new drugs are changing the eternal pursuit of happiness. That curiosity was rooted in my own experiences with mood-altering drugs and with my own quest to obtain an optimal mood.
pg 31 But decades of accumulated research into the nature of happiness proves that, contrary to people’s gut instincts, happiness has little to do with money and other external factors. Instead, how happy people are seems to depend on something a good deal more mysterious an inner quality that allows people to experience happiness regardless of their external circumstances, as long as those circumstances are not completely corrosive or impoverished.
Scientists have found that the link between happiness and the things most people think bring happiness is stunningly weak, while the link between internal factors such as outlook, temperament, and personality are robust. This is a crucial insight. If happiness is a function of money and love and stress reduction and education, then the whole notion of using drugs to induce or enhance happiness would be a waste of time at best, and counterproductive at worst. But a huge amount of data demonstrate that external factors have a very limited impact on happiness.
pg 36 What does correlated with happiness are strong social connections, long-term loving relationships, a sense of optimism and openness to new experiences, the opportunity to pursue meaningful work, and spiritual belief or identification with an issue or idea larger than oneself.
pg 37 This is a specific case of a general pattern happiness arises from a continuous interaction between one’s environment (relationships, work, physical health, upbringing) and one’s temperament, the inborn tendency toward optimism or pessimism, cheerfulness or dourness, introversion or extroversion. Internal factors such as energy level, openness to new experiences, and emotional resilience can powerfully shape life events, including the quality and character of the relationships a person forms. It is not hyperbole to say that to a certain extent, people create their own environmental reality – and it is created in their own image.
pg 90 According to Gut, Nasse, and other proponents of Darwinian psychiatry, depressive moods are to our mental life what pain is to our physical life: potentially valuable signals that something is reducing our chances for survival, reproduction, and well-being. Most often, depressive moods are telling us that something is wrong with our intimate relationships, our life situation, or our efforts to achieve a goal.
In Gut’s view, depressed moods are most often telling us that we are experiencing an unconscious crisis, frustrations, breakdown, or problem that needs our attention. She emphasizes the unconscious nature of the problems because being aware of a loss or a crisis changes how they feel. Grief, for instance, is a negative, depression like emotion associated with the conscious loss of companionship, whether from a spouse, friend, relative, or pet. Sadness can result from other types of conscious loss, such as loss of money, prestige, social power, or health.
Depression, however, has a distinctive feel to it – a feel that is tinged with the frustration, perplexity, and fear that come from experiencing a powerful emotion without knowing fully why one is experiencing it.
pg 93 An equally valuable aspect of the depressed response is the forced dropping of the rose-coloured glasses worn by “normals”. As mentioned previously, a great deal of research has shown that depressed people have a more realistic view of themselves and their surroundings. They are better able to predict their performance relative to others, they better understand the limits of their control, they are more accurate at monitoring and assessing their own social behaviour, and they judge themselves equally responsible for previous successes and failures on a task rather than seeing themselves as more responsible for their successes than for their failures. The sometimes harsh reality revealed by depression may allow for a more accurate appraisal of a situation and lead to more successful outcome.
pg 147 The Zen answer to the question is not, as is sometimes believed, that moods should be “conquered” such that a person lives in an ever-present state of serenity, detachment, and calm. This answer, and the paradox behind it, are illustrated to a story from another Zen student, the writer Lawrence Shainberg. In his book Ambivalent Zen, Shainberg recalls sitting one time with his teacher, or Roshi, as he made green tea.
“So, Roshi, how are you today?” Shainberg said.
“Fine! Fine!” Roshi replied, as he did every time Shainberg asked him.
On this particular day Shainberg found this seemingly automatic reply irritating.
“Come one, Roshi,” Shainberg said. “You always say that. Nobody’s fine all the time. Don’t you ever have bad days?”
“Bad days?” the Roshi answered, “Sure! On bad days I fine. On good days I fine.”
The idea, of course, is that one can be “fine” all the time despite “bad days”. The trick is accepting the inevitability of “bad days” – which could be extended to the inevitability of negative mood states in general, including anger, anxiety, sadness, fear, and depressive moods – and not complicating matters by trying to deny, avoid, repress, or becoming attached to such moods. The optimal mood state, at least from this Zen perspective, is not uninterrupted bliss but a state in which a range of moods can be experienced with a minimum of needless pain and suffering.
Unlocking the Mysteries of Mood