Some of us are born smiling; most of us have to work at it. This may take learning some new techniques and unlearning some old mental habits—but the joyful news from the frontiers of science and psychology is that mood is malleable and happiness is yours for the choosing.
Being happy, said Collette, is one way of being wise. And yet, in the hundred years since Freud helped erase the prospect of happiness from our Western horizon—famously declaring that the most we could hope for was the transformation of hysterical misery into common unhappiness—many of us have been brainwashed into concluding that happiness is somehow beyond our reach, a naive conjecture, a windmill to tilt toward but truly an impossible dream.
It turns out that Freud was wrong. Recent breakthroughs in psychology, neurology, and chemistry—supported by Eastern practices such as meditation
—have revealed that happiness is attainable. No longer psychology's doomed neurotics, we know now that the brain can change. Scientists call this discovery neuroplasticity, a revolutionary idea that has helped to promote—along with the positive psychology movement—a burgeoning science of happiness.
Just a decade ago, Daniel Goleman
, PhD, writes in Destructive Emotions
, when "the dogma in neuroscience was that the brain...was unchanged by life experiences," scientific research focused mainly on negative emotional states. The recent shift in emphasis from "what goes wrong with us...to what goes right"—Goleman's words—has brought happiness to the cultural table at last. We want to know how happiness works. We also want to know how it eludes us.
Why does happiness seem so out of reach sometimes, like grabbing at water, futile, absurd? Given the inalienable, constitutional right to pursue our own happiness, we wonder where we're supposed to pursue it, and what, precisely, we have a right to. When does my happiness become your pain? Is happiness a fate or a choice, and what makes us happy, if we're honest? Finally, in a world with so much upheaval, uncertainty, struggle, and injustice, how can we be deeply happy? What definition of happiness is large enough to contain all that?
"It's possible, even in the midst of hardship, to experience simple pleasures"