Sunday, February 23, 2014

Fear, trust, and happiness

I am something of a sucker for new books dealing with happiness and inner peace, especially when they present the findings of neuroscientists about how the brain works.

And so I had to bring home from the library "Hardwiring Happiness" by Rick Hanson, who says that we must learn to take in the good things around us because we are hardwired to recall what is dangerous: evolution apparently turned the brain into "Velcro for the negative but Teflon for the positive."  So it is easier to mull and review past and present hurt feelings while letting positive, even joyful, experiences pass us by.

Hanson presumably shows (I have only skimmed the opening so far) that we can change the brain itself by positive thinking: sound familiar?

Another book I glanced at is "The Truth about Trust" by David DeSteno, another psychologist headed for the best-seller list. He focuses on a topic little studied: the fact that a great deal of our mental energies are expended in determining who and what to trust. The mind, he says, is constantly trying to figure out how reliable other people are as well as the need to be trustworthy. Much of this is unconscious, such as the daily encounter with uncertainty and risk-taking, so essential to any creative process.

DeSteno does not seem to emphasize fear, yet the way trust relates to our relationship with ourselves brings up the topic of anxiety, in particular a revealing article in The New Yorker by Louis Menand: "The Prisoner of Stress" (What does anxiety mean?).  The article is essentially a review of the book by Scott Stossel, My Age of Anxiety, which I read and commented on earlier.

Menand's take on the complexities of crippling fear is that it is an illness without a cure, not a problem to solve despite the years and years of time and money Stossel and people like him have spent on various psychological approaches and medications.  Why some people seem to be fearless and others panic remains a mystery.

Are people who can speak easily in public born lucky?  Consider the comforting (to anxious people like me) reality of those celebrities who have been tormented by social anxiety, from Charles Darwin to Laurence Olivier and Hugh Grant; the latter two, like Barbra Streisand, seem to have experienced stage fright after they became stars, that is, when they were aware of being judged by a critical public whose image of them was different from the very human reality.

The more talented and creative we are, the more anxious?  Perhaps.  We can imagine the worst with a vivid intensity that paralyzes us.

Basketball legend Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics vomited before every game. So, apparently, did the brilliant and handsome operatic tenor Franco Corelli.  One might think these accomplished, brilliant performers would have nothing to fear, but reason and fear have little to do with each other.

However beneficial anxiety may be, like primal fear as a means of self-protection, it can wreak havoc on the mind and body, as Stossel indicates. How it works remains unclear.

Many things can help, but we are left in the end to deal with the mystery of the mind and of the panic button in the brain that registers alarm, requiring us, day by day, to counteract this as best we can with memories and experiences of beauty, love, and happiness.

And so the struggle with the mystery of who we are goes on.

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