One of the tough things in writing about happiness and self-help is that they're both gigantic minefields of clichés. Put a smile on your face! Look on the bright side! Fake it till you make it! A tidy house is the sign of a tidy mind! Set it and forget it! Coffee, tea, or me! Girls just want to have fun! Whatever tickles your pickle!
One fresh angle would be to look at all the advice through the lens of psychology or even neuroscience. Because there does seem to be some headway--or claims of headway--in linking the old clichés with new research. Smiling, for example, seems to help release a calming bit of seratonin.
Or that's what they say. To be honest, I felt a little twitchy delving too far into neuroscience. For one, I don't have an especially scientific mind. I have a friend who's a biophysical chemist, and when she was awarded a young scientist award from the White House, I wrote a profile of her. She's one of the most fun people I know (and has a background that makes for a great profile) and it was all going swimmingly until I had to describe what she does for a living. I wound up begging her to talk to me as if I were a child.
For two, I just wasn't sure that all these quoted neuroscientific studies were actually the truth and I didn't want someone else's egg on my face. (Ewww.)
Last night I was reading a profile in The New Yorker by Larissa MacFarquhar of these married philosophers, Pat and Paul Churchland, who believe that the future of philosophy will pop up in neuroscience. According to MacFarquhar, the Churchland's ideas are pretty radical. They're discarding the idea that there's a difference between the mind and the brain. But they also say that what we know now about neuroscience is so tiny that even if someone from the future told us the secret of consciousness, we'd have no idea what to do with it.
Thankyouverymuch, Churchlands. They're talking about consciousness, but I'm hoping that what they say extends to happiness, optimism, and whatever unchangeable characteristics we have. We just don't have the full story right now.
For the record, people like the Churchlands seem to have a little more of the story than most of us. This is a quote from Pat Churchland, after a rough afternoon at work: "Paul, don't speak to me, my seratonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren't for my endogeneous opiates, I'd have driven the car into a tree on the way home. My dopamine levels need lifting. Pour me a Chardonnay, and I'll be down in a minute."
The Churchlands believe that, in the future, as we all learn what these words mean, everyone will start talking like this.
Well, I can believe that more than I can that, in the future, we'll all be wearing those glasses that change from light to dark in the sun.