Monday, January 4, 2016

No Complaints

Suffice to say, the holidays were very nice (witness the extended blog absence).

I now have a full three weeks entirely to myself until classes start, and I intend to stick to my New Year's Resolution for this year which was--and is--to write more and/or to get back to writing on a more regular basis and schedule.  Because although 2015 was in many ways quite wonderful, that was definitely something that fell by the wayside (again, witness the dearth of blog posts for the year).

As I've been thinking about writing and the need to write, I stumbled upon Steven Parton's November 1, 2015 post, "The Science of Happiness: Why Complaining is Literally Killing You."

Parton's argument is based on a compelling mix of neuroscience and Buddhist philosophy.  When we complain--or think negatively about anyone (or everyone)--our brain fires an electrical charge across a pair of synapses and, as a result, the synapses draw nearer to one another.  Having "fired together," they are now "wired together," and the thought becomes that much quicker to formulate and that much easier to have.

If the thought is a negative one, then we are--without realizing it--making it that much easier and more efficient for our brains to formulate negative thoughts.  As Parton points out, "the synapses you’ve most strongly bonded together (by thinking about more frequently) come to represent your default personality: your intelligence, skills, aptitudes, and most easily accessible thoughts (which are more-or-less the source of your conversation skills)."

If those synaptic bonds are forged by thoughts of sadness, anger, fear or negativity, then these thoughts will slowly but surely come to dominate your personality.  And although as human beings living very uncertain lives on a very uncertain planet, we can't help but feel negative emotions, we can, however, remain aware that, when we do, we're hard-wiring our brain at the same time.

And we're not alone in this project: the company that we keep also helps to determine the ways in which we think and respond to the world.  Again, as Parton observes,
When we see someone experiencing an emotion (be it anger, sadness, happiness, etc), our brain “tries out” that same emotion to imagine what the other person is going through. And it does this by attempting to fire the same synapses in your own brain so that you can attempt to relate to the emotion you’re observing.
We neurologically mimic the emotions that we see in those around us.  And so, as Parton points out, if we spend too many nights out with "friends who love love love to constantly bitch, whether it’s about their job, the man, the government, or about their other so-called friend’s short-comings, or whatever little thing they can pick apart in order to lift themselves up and give themselves some holier-than-thou sense of validation," our brains will neurologically mimic their constant bitching, momentarily making their gripes our own and hard-wiring our brains. 

Now, don't get me wrong: no one is saying that the good-natured gripe doesn't have a place in the universe or that you shouldn't object to the things in life that are unfair or unwelcome. 

The point is, gripes and complaints shouldn't have pride of place in your own personal universe, if you want to be happy and healthy.

And although some might argue that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, I can't say that I've seen that strategy work long-term.  In my own experience, people quickly grow tired of those who accentuate the negative and often go out of their way to (quietly, unobtrusively) ignore or avoid the chronic complainers of the world.

Because although some like the occasional dose of snark, no one really enjoys being fed a steady diet of sarcasm with no relieving doses of optimism.  Snark and sarcasm aren't really humor; they're cynicism.  And yes, sometimes the cynic can make us laugh. 

More often, though, the people in our lives who make us laugh are the ones who see the good in the bad and who work to help raise our spirits, instead of meeting us at our own temporarily depressed level and reminding us that they too have it bad.  

In the end, complaining is a choice and one that we would do well to make deliberately and consciously.  If venting our grievances is a way of letting off steam so that we can "get over it" and move forward in our lives or if it is designed to alert ourselves--and relevant others--of potential room for improvement (in the form of constructive criticism), then by all means, take a minute and hold forth.

But remember that, during that minute, you're also shaping your brain, as well as the minds of others.  So try to make it a purposeful and deliberate use of your time, designed to renew, repair and uplift your own sensibilities, to move you to a better frame of mind by bringing the synapses of better thought patterns that much closer together.     

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."